I do believe in -isms

I signed a contract today to have a short story published as a standalone electronic unit. This is my first foray into that particular distribution model, so I’m really intrigued to see how it all goes. Many more details and reflections about the story will come as it gets closer to release, but for now the only hint I will offer is this: it’s an original superhero story, another first for me in terms of semi-pro publishing, which is nothing short of remarkable considering the sheer percentage of my life for which I’ve been obsessed with superheroes and comic books. Somewhere north of 90%, at least.

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Since I’m not going to talk much more about the story itself here, I thought I’d take the opportunity to dissect a couple of questions of terminology. What exactly is a superhero? What, for that matter, is a hero?

Let’s start with the second part first. It’s a little easier to get a handle on the concept of heroism because it’s a real thing in the real world; superheroes are idealized fictional constructs, but there are living, breathing heroes all around us. And yet attempting to define heroism can be surprisingly controversial! Still, semantic arguments that reveal more about the arguer’s worldview than the objective truth aside, the basic nature of heroism is fairly simple and straightforward. A hero risks or sacrifices some aspect of himself or herself for the benefit of someone else.

Note there’s nothing in there about nobility or respectability, and whether or not we should all aspire to living that way. Of course people, myself included, tend in casual conversation to use hero and idol interchangeably sometimes. If you look up to someone, and want to be like them, you call them a personal hero. And that could very well include someone who is perfectly described by my definition above. But it could also include someone who has accomplished something you want to accomplish. A kid playing guitar could point to Jimi Hendrix as a hero, or I could say Stephen King is mine, but that’s a bit outside of what we’re talking about here.

It may be a fair question to ask how much a person has to risk and how much they have to help someone before they can rightfully be called a hero. When we say that soldiers or police officers or firefighters are the real heroes, we’re acknowledging that getting shot at or running into a burning building unquestionably puts their physical safety, and quite possibly their very life, on the line. Nobody can give more than that. And by and large those same people are doing what they do in order to save someone else from an untimely demise. Very little gets as much instant, unchallenged respect as saving lives.

So is anyone who makes a different kind of sacrifice or takes a different kind of risk and in the process helps people in less dramatic ways therefore not a true hero? Does heroism encompass a very small subset within larger realms of role models and humanitarians? And does labeling anyone other than those who stare death in the eye without blinking as a hero somehow diminish the importance or the due respect of the bravest among us?

I would humbly offer a firm no to the lattermost question. Praise and appreciation are not zero-sum games. Reasonable people can disagree about where exactly to draw the line around worthy heroes and what constitutes a legitimate hazard and/or a worthwhile benefit. I have a fairly expansive sense of heroism myself, with room for both men and women in uniform as well as, for example, transgender sports celebrities who sacrifice privacy and risk being scorned and reviled in order to offer comfort to others struggling with their own identities. You are of course free to say that one is more heroic than the other, and I won’t argue with you. You are similarly free to say social standing, perception and identity issues aren’t that important, or don’t matter and don’t count, but there we would disagree. If you do strongly feel that way, I would be willing to bet that you are some combination of cishet, white, and male, and every aspect of your identity is so rock-solidly default normal that you have little to no experience standing up against people with the clout to make you feel inferior and invisible. But be that as it may.

Incidentally, this brings up your free bit of fiction writing advice for the post: if you think of the protagonist of a story as the hero, especially if you want your audience to think of him or her that way, then the character has to risk something over the course of the story. There’s really no way around that. The protagonist should be trying to accomplish something, and there have to be negative consequences to the possibility of failure. There may also be negative consequences to success! A story where there’s nothing to worry about – physically, mentally, emotionally, socially – tends to be a fairly inert story.

Assuming you’re still with me … with that reasonably workable definition of hero, how can it be a component of the superhero? Whether it’s thanks to skin (alien or mutant or secondary armor) that shrugs off exploding warheads or speed (freak accident side-effect or the pinnacle of human training) that allows for dodging bullets, superheroes aren’t known for taking their lives in their own hands. The character tropes are inextricable from the native medium of ongoing monthly adventures that never end – they can’t die and they can’t lose, so how can they be seen as risking anything?

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There are other eternal arguments about the parameters of superheroism, of course, the ones that probe the necessity, or lack thereof, of concepts like secret identities, costumes, code names, special powers and abilities, and so forth, and aim for an up-or-down vote on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Luke Skywalker or Nick Fury as superheroes. I think that those inquiries focus on the super- half, but I’m much more drawn to settling the -hero question.

Here’s how I settle it, my personal definition of superhero: a character who could do anything he or she wants, but who chooses a dedication to helping other people. Any fictional creation who meets those criteria is a superhero full-stop, as far as I’m concerned. I love the motifs of masks and capes and hidden headquarters and all the rest, but I recognize that they’re just color-coordinated trappings. I further believe that there’s something really key in that “anything he or she wants” element, in addressing whether or not a superhero requires superpowers. They don’t, I maintain, but they need to have a superabundance of life options, whether that’s because their godlike power puts global domination firmly in the doable column, or just because they are so wealthy or good-looking or smart or all of the above that the world is their proverbial oyster.

So technically superheroes do make sacrifices in the sense of giving up the easy life of luxury that is among their viable choices; however, far more importantly, they do what they do for the benefit of others. That’s what saving the day is all about, that’s what truth, justice and the American way or with great power comes great responsibility is supposed to stand for. Not personal advancement and achievement, but service. Altruism. Being other-oriented rather than self-obsessed. And when I look at it that way, there isn’t much daylight between hero and superhero at all.

And there you have it, my hot take on heroes and superheroes (and a whole lot of my life philosophy and personal politics in the bargain). Of course I make allowances for nuance and exceptions and all kinds of complications that keep things interesting, but that’s the core idea. As far as whether or not I was successful in pulling that off in my own fiction, I suppose I’ll have to leave the judgment call to you.

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One thought on “I do believe in -isms

  1. As I read this I found myself in complete agreement, and I felt like a hero. But I’m not a hero, so there must be something more to the definition. I think one other essential ingredient would be fame, or at least recognition by many others. When I tell people at age sixteen I saved two kids from drowning, no one treats me like a hero. If I could tell them I got a medal for it, I think that might be different. If the camp director hadn’t wanted to avoid panic by not having it get out that the girls were in danger due to staff negligence, I think I would have been a recognized hero at least in one time and place.
    And cultural context is important too. I belong to a profession that sacrifices their youth health to save lives, but most people think we’re already rewarded enough and seem to undervalue our contributions, resisting any data to the contrary. If I as an FP or geriatrician give up huge chunks of spare time to do my job better with obvious good result, it is very likely to be taken for granted. You need to fit society’s notion of who they expect a hero to be, and the act should be something already considered heroic as well. It also should be very public and if benefitting only one person, that person needs to be representative of many. In essence, the hero doesn’t make the story, the story makes the hero.

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