Heroism

Heroes shouldn’t have happy personal lives. They are committed to being that person and committed to defending others at the sacrifice of their own personal interests.

-DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio, at the At the DC Nation panel at the Baltimore Comic-Con in 2013

John Stepp counters:
While there is some merit to the idea that heroism requires self-sacrifice, I think DC Comics (and other storytellers) takes it to destructive extremes. A character struggling to help or protect others must have some good in his/her life, or else suffer moral and psychological decay. And if superhero comics insist that doing the right thing requires that you be miserable all the time, doesn’t that instruct young readers that villainy is the only sane way to go?

I’ve never been a huge fan of DC comics, so I can’t comment on how accurate John’s statement is as it pertains to them. But this made me think of two larger questions, the first of which is, what, exactly is a hero? For me, I think the best words to describe heroism belong to Frodo, who said

It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.

Which naturally goes back to the idea of sacrifice. It’s not necessary to sacrifice your life in order to be a hero, though. A lot of heroes would really rather not die if they didn’t have to, and I personally think there’s something wrong with someone who intends to die in order to complete a task, the death part being more important than the task itself. And lots of people sacrifice themselves in many ways: giving freely of their time and skill to help others, they certainly aren’t thinking about losing their lives in the process. Most of us are heroes in that regard. So you could also define heroism in terms of selflessness, as we might identify selfishness as evil, despite the teachings of Ms. Rand and her supporters, who seem to believe selfishness is a form of heroism all its own. I don’t happen to agree of course, but there you are.

But let’s talk about superheroes in particular, since that’s what began the subject in the first place. Most superheroes are vigilantes, they place themselves beyond the law to prevent evil (or their definition of it) in small ways and large, and their motivations for doing so aren’t always the same. Some, like Superman and Captain America, ally themselves and even become part of the legitimate authorities, others, like Batman and Spiderman, choose to work primarily apart from the law, and in Batman’s case one of the things he fights against is corruption within the police department. Superman and Captain America are driven by loyalty, loyalty to Earth in Superman’s case, loyalty to the U.S. in Captain America’s. Spiderman is driven by guilt, because he refused to act to stop a criminal who eventually murders his Uncle Ben. Batman is driven by a desire that no child should have happen to them what happened to him. Then there are the X-Men, driven by a desire to prove people’s prejudices wrong, that despite their physical differences they are still, at their core, as human as the rest of us. Actually my favorite superhero origin story is Dr. Strange, who was a gifted but selfish surgeon whose hands were damaged and he was seeking magical ways of restoring them when he came upon the Ancient One and was moved to become his disciple and follow in his footsteps.

The second question is the one John alluded to: is it necessary to be miserable all the time in order to be a hero? To, me, I say no, but I don’t necessarily think that being miserable equates with villainy either. I honestly can’t think of very many heroes I would consider to be miserable, I think Batman probably is, but I always kinda felt Batman, at least the darker side that we’ve seen more presently, is really kinda crazy, in the same way Joker is crazy, but not just quite. Spiderman, whose fame came chiefly because Peter Parker had human problems most of us can identify with (which is why he became my favorite superhero), certainly has had dark moments but overall I think he’s happy, and there was a time in the 80’s where he was very self-confident and happy, and I think when he was able to share his secret (and his life) with Mary Jane he was certainly happy. I never thought of Superman as a character, he seems to me to be more of an idealization of a principle, like John Galt to Objectivists.

In the real world, some people seem to define heroism as putting up with a lot of crap on a daily basis because you need to keep your job. It’s the kind of work ethic we often admire but frankly I think people who see that kind of misery as a constant in their lives and not just something they’re puting up with until things improve aren’t exactly heroes. And I see all too many people who, when confronted with someone who is happy with their work, makes decent money and has a secure retirement awaiting them, think How can I bring them down to my level? rather than How can I be happy like them?. That’s neither courage not heroism if you ask me, that’s just nuts.

Superhero comics have changed a lot over the years, I’ll leave the question of whether they’re better or worse now than they were, say, fifty years ago, either to someone else or as the subject of another column. Probably the former. But if John is right and comics are implying the heroism requires constant misery, then there’s something wrong with the comics industry. We can be heroic and still be happy, actually I think being happy is an ideal we should strive for. Just a thought.

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