Heroes:Why We Need Them

Bill Willingham writing at Big Hollywood mourns the current state of  superhero comic books:

The ’super’ is still there, more so than ever, but there seems to be a slow leak in the ‘hero’ part. There’s even a term for it, coined by (I’m not sure who, but it might have been one of two respected comics journalists) either Dirk Deppey or Tom Spurgeon. Folks, we’re smack dab in the midst of the Age of Superhero Decadence. Old fashioned ideals of courage and patriotism, backed by a deep virtue and unshakable code, seem to be… well, old fashioned.

Full disclosure time. I’m at least partially to blame for this steady chipping away of the goodness of our comic book heroes. In my very first comic series Elementals, first published close to thirty years ago, I was eager to update old superhero tropes, making my characters more real, edgier, darker — less heroic and a good deal more vulgar than the (then) current standard. Elementals was one of the first of what was later dubbed the ‘grim and gritty’ movement in comic books. And to complicate my confession, I’m still proud of much of that early work. At least my crass and corrupted Elemental heroes still fought, albeit imperfectly, for the clear good, against the clear evil.

What can I say? When I was young and foolish I was young and foolish. In hindsight I should have realized then what is so obvious today. In any industry, especially one as inbred and insular as the comics world, one excess feeds another. Of course we didn’t think of it as excess. We called it stretching the boundaries. Pushing the envelope. Doing a bigger and better car chase in this one than they did in that one. And every other cliche we could summon to our defense. “If they got away with having their hero accidentally kill his opponent in that book, then we’re going to outdo them by having our guy purposely kill someone in ours!” And so on, until today an onscreen (and quite graphic) disemboweling of a superhero’s opponent is not only allowed, it’s no big thing…

So, finally to the point of this note. Borrowing some wisdom from the famous parable of the mote in one fellow’s eye, and the whole beam in another’s, it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to make any call for our industry to clean up its act, until I’ve first cleaned up my own. I’ve already made some progress down that road. In my run writing the Robin series (of Batman fame), I made sure both Batman and Robin were portrayed as good, steadfast heroes, with unshakable personal codes and a firm grasp of their mission. I even got to do a story where Robin parachuted into Afghanistan with a group of very patriotic military superheroes on a full-scale, C130 gunship-supported combat mission. And in my short run on the Shadowpact series I kept to the same standard (but with less success as several story details were editorially imposed).

But ’some’ progress isn’t enough. It’s time to make public a decision I’ve already made in private. I’m going to shamelessly steal a line from Rush Limbaugh, who said, concerning a different matter, “Go ahead and have your recession if you insist, but you’ll have to pardon me if I choose not to participate.” And from now on that’s my position on superhero comics. Go ahead and have your Age of Superhero Decadence, if you insist, but you’ll have to pardon me if I no longer choose to participate.

No more superhero decadence for me. Period. From now on, when I write within the superhero genre I intend to do it right. And if I am ever again privileged to be allowed to write Superman, you can bet your sweet bootie that he’ll find the opportunity to bring back “and the American way,” to his famous credo.

A lot of people have been disappointed in the dark turn of superhero stories, particularly in the comic books. That’s why when I started Laser and Sword magazine, I wanted to be sure to include stories with real heroes in them. Of course, my heroes have flaws and then there are some heroes claiming to be superheroes that aren’t, but we’re clear on that.

Why do we need heroes? If there’s a useful, redeeming point to our culture’s heroes (particularly superheroes) it’s that they point back to true North and the type of people we should be. Superman in particular is key to this understanding.

Over the years, defining the virtue of our heroes down is a way to cover up our own shortcomings. If our heroes’ virtues no longer challenge us to be better people, than “I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all okay.”  But it’s not okay.

I hope for many years to come to preserve and honor heroism and virtue through the stories we tell. It’s perhaps, one of the most impacts that can come in this business.