So What Makes a “Superhero”?

Whether you love, loathe, or are somewhere in between in regards to the DCNU, you have to grant it’s generated a lot of discussion. Some people can’t seem to say enough good things about it, others seem to think it should be cast into the fiery abyss and never be spoken of again. But the varying viewpoints have led to a lot of exchanges, many of them including some variant of the phrase “well, that’s not X character, that’s not how they are,” or a more general debate on heroes conceptually.

One of the things this has done in my case is make me think about what I consider to be hero, and what I want from my superheroes. Which, in turn, gives rise to this piece you’re reading. These are my reflections about what I like and don’t like from my heroes, from the perspective of someone who has been collecting comics since long before there was a Crisis on Infinite Earths, or anyone had heard of such characters as Gambit, Cable, Cannonball, and the like.

I like having fully developed characters, and, to me, that means they spend some time out of the costumes. Some people think secret identities are old fashioned, replica vacheron constantin watches I really like them. I’ll compare two fairly well known, somewhat similar characters on this front: Batman and Captain America.

Batman is, of course, millionaire Bruce Wayne. Wayne gets involved in a lot of stories with a lot of hooks for writers to use. He’s rich, so he can be the target of kidnappers or blackmailers. One of his many companies produces high tech gadgets, which both aid the Batman in his mission and can become the target themselves of various criminals, spies, and the like. The huge parties that the upper crust end up at provide lots of story fodder, from villains attacking to hints of corruption, to a chance to get a feel for some new stranger in town who moves in such high circles and is somehow involved in one of Batman’s cases. There’s also the chance for stories more about Bruce than Batman, using his money to do something good, or highlighting some aspect of Bruce’s character. And there’s always the story about protecting the secret identity, tricking someone who thinks they know, and similar stories.

Captain America is, pretty much, Captain America. Yes, his name is Steve Rogers, but Steve rarely does much when you think about it. They’ve had various attempts at a “life” for him, but none of them stick. About every time you see him, he’s in costume, maybe with his mask pushed back. He’s either on a mission, training himself and/or other Avengers, or working for the government and/or SHIELD. While all of those have some potential in them, I’ve just always liked the double life of a hero. Of these two, I’ve always preferred Batman: not that I find Cap less heroic in any way, or a more original character, I just think he lacks something by not having an “off stage presence” as it were. Now, before folks leap to the wrong conclusion, I do like Cap, and I think his recent movie was quite possibly the best hero movie I’ve ever seen.

One interesting, if rare, type outside this is the character that actually has a life without a secret ID. The few examples of this that come to mind: She-Hulk, the Secret Six, and the Suicide Squad. She-Hulk doesn’t really have a secret identiy per se, but the better writers, notably Peter David, have let her have a career, a love life, and some stories that didn’t revolve around super-heroics. Gail Simone’s Secret Six were arguably lacking secret identities, but the characters certainly had lives. They went on dates, they worried about each other in their own twisted ways, and looked out for each other as best they could. And John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad was fleshed out with support staff that interacted with the people, not the villains. Father Richard Cramer, for example, became such a fully realized character that he not only survived the usually high death toll of the Suicide Squad, but went on to appear in both Spectre and Secret Six. I still prefer the secret identity, which goes back to the earliest heroes, like Zorro, Green Hornet, and the Scarlet Pimpernel, but a good enough writer, like Peter David, Gail Simone, or John Ostrander, can make the characters come to fake patek-philippe watches without it.

I also like my heroes to have an actual, distinctive costume. This was a trend spreading through DC before the reboot that was really getting to me. Wonder Girl in her tank top or sweater, Superboy in his T shirt, both wearing jeans; to me, that detracts from not only the visuals but the overall feel for what makes them special. There are, as ever, a few exceptions to this: Question in his suit and tie somehow just looked right. Much of the Green Hornet and Kato’s outfits are largely regular civilian clothes, just with masks added. But to me, the costume is just an essential part of who the characters are, what makes them “superheroes.” I guess that’s the one of the few things I have to thank the reboot for; the trend towards costumes that weren’t really costumes seems to have stopped.

My last point, my major point, the one I suspect will draw the most comment, is that they need to be heroic. Not “doing the best they can,” not “making the choices other heroes are afraid to.” but actually heroic. There are very few exceptions along the way for me, but they are far between. Heroes take the hard way. They protect those around them, even the bad guys. They do what is right, because it is right, as a friend of mine put it. One of the things that is really dampening my interest and enthusiasm for the DCNU is the death and graphic violence throughout it. The number ones had plane crashes, murders, maulings. I find it hard to care about heroes that don’t seem to care as much about those around them. One of the most blatant, and hardest for me to swallow, changes is the attitude of Black Canary. She used to be a second generation hero, very much dedicated to helping others and doing whatever she could to do the right thing. The Nu Canary has some of that, but she seems to have lost her aversion to killing. Her teammates use lethal force all around her, and she doesn’t bat an eye. To me, that’s not a hero, and it’s certainly not Dinah. Yes, yes, it’s a new world. Know what? That new world is not one I want to be part of. Maybe I’m old fashioned about my heroes. Maybe the DCNU will just prove to be a place I don’t feel comfortable, and my few remaining titles will fall by the wayside.

I recently read a book about Superman by Les Daniels, titled “Superman: The Complete History.” It was a very interesting study of the character himself, and the history of how the character became such an icon in about every media that exists. Throughout the book there are interviews, stories, and quotes. To go along with what I said above, I’ll go with Mark Waid, a well known name in comic book writing: “Alex [Ross] and I are both devotees of real heroes. Heroes who don’t kill, heroes who do the right things to save people, heroes who work for the common good.” Me, too, Mr. Waid. And the fact that Superman, the paragon of virtue used to measure other heroes against, is killing aliens in the first arc of Justice League, kind of illustrates my point for me. I read this quote from a man about Nu Superman “This Superman is a lot more badass.” He is, yes. The question becomes, is that what you want? Your answer to that will likely reveal a great deal about whether the DCNU is for you or not.

Just something to think over as you look at the shelves of your local comic shop.

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