Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved superheroes. When you’re the boy dealing with bullies, suffering from a temper and poor social skills the superheroes of my youth were amazing. I grew up at a time when the universe around a superhero was allowed to love them, and any voice to the contrary was a jerk like J. Jonah Jameson or one of the villains. On rare occasion it was understandable given a situation but for the most part those colorful costumes elicited cheers and relief from the people they were here to save.
I grew up in what I call the golden age of superheroes. On TV you had reruns of classic superhero shows alongside new ones and both were fun and uplifting. It took a while before I could get comics on a regular basis but the ones I could get I’ve reread so often some of them don’t have covers anymore. In middle school I started making my own superheroes and never really stopped. If not for the setbacks I’ve had the past few years and the time it took to improve my skills to where I’m comfortable making and sharing them to the world this would be a different website right now…or at least I’d have a second website just with superhero and sci-fi adventures.
The super”heroes” I see today don’t reflect the heroes I grew up with. The more cynical writers out there right now don’t embrace uplifting ideas because they’re all about gritty revenge or social promotion, while the writers brought in for DC’s YA stories just use the characters in non-superhero adventures, preferring to do some slice-of-life thing. I don’t hate that genre, and there are a few stories I do enjoy from it, but it isn’t a superhero story. And while some writers and editors even refuse to believe that comics and TV can inspire us they didn’t read the comics or watch the cartoons and live-action superhero shows I did. Here’s some of the stuff I learned.
All life is precious
Okay, I will kill the bugs and critters invading my home if I can’t get them out any other way but I mean human (or equivalents given the two genres I most follow) are worth saving. He-Man will save Skeletor from falling to his death or being eaten by a carnivorous rock (it’s Eternia, aka “planet death trap”) or something because all life is precious, even your enemies. Sure, these are kids shows and heroes who kill are a no-no but in any good adult translation (shut it, Zack!) there are still reasons not to kill. Yes, Christopher Nolan, Batman DOES have to save Ra’s because that’s still not being a hero.
None of the bullies I had were as evil as the supervillains I saw getting defeated, and the early reason for Bulk and Skull in Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was demonstrating that point. The Rangers didn’t use their blades and blasters against the bullies like they did the monsters, they simply let them beat themselves. And over time Bulk and Skull actually reformed; meanwhile some of the bullies I had as a kid are now friends of mine as an adult because they got better. The Bible teaches us to love our enemies even when defending ourselves. Jesus healed one of the men sent to arrest him when his ear got chopped off. You still send the bad guy to jail at the end of the story but leaving him to die or killing him was against the moral code of the heroes I grew up with and that showed me they were the better man or woman. In fact…
Sometimes you need to work together
Oh sure you have your superhero teams like the Justice League, the Avengers, the Freedom Force, the Power Rangers (which I didn’t necessarily grow up with but they follow the same superhero rules), and the list goes on. These were people who banded together for a common cause, whether to fight a particular enemy or to just have back-up for things you can’t solve alone. Sadly modern Batman seems to have forgotten this as he has to be forced to work with anyone, despite being on more than one team at a time. Heck, Wolverine is on practically every team in the Marvel universe at one point or another and never learned that lesson.
Allies and friends help each other, make each other stronger, and in turn make the world safer for us mere mortals who don’t have cool powers and gadgets. These same heroes will even work with villains against a more dangerous threat, knowing the villain is probably looking for an opening to betray you but just maybe they’ll actually see that doing good is rewarding enough to switch. It’s what I like about the original incarnation of the Thunderbolts, villains who played the hero role so well that they decided to become heroes for real. Going solo is fine and even on teams that don’t operate solo sometimes it’s a requirement. However, there’s nothing wrong with getting by with a little help from your friends. They may not always get along, but they can still be friends who disagree on certain issues but ultimately come together to solve the same problem. Meanwhile adults today (and I use that term loosely) can’t seem to agree to disagree on a pizza topping without setting someone on fire!
(Of course for me not wanting to be a burden on others it took accepting that someone else was cleaning out my pee bottle, a rather disgusting job, to learn to accept help from others. I didn’t learn everything from superheroes. Also I have trust issues so believing I’ll receive help and getting myself to ask is still a struggle.)
There’s more to superheroes than powers, gadgets, and costumes
I didn’t say these were life lessons, I said these were things I’ve learned from superheroes, and that includes about superheroes. Probably the most important thing to know about them is what makes a superhero. I can tell who knows nothing about them when they claim Superman or someone with his power level is a “god” because of what they can do, or just repeat the punch sound effects from the 1966 Batman show. Having superpowers does not make you a superhero. Having a cool costume doesn’t make yo a superhero, due to one key detail…
SUPERVILLAINS HAD SUPERPOWERS AND COOL COSTUMES, TOO!
Yeah, remember them? The guys superheroes used to fight before fighting each other or whatever political or other famous figure the writer hates most? (Give William Shakespeare credit for not being so obvious that those of us ignorant of the political and poet worlds of the day he was attacking can actually enjoy his works centuries later. Heck, Roland Emmerich was better at it and his shot at Siskel & Ebert in Godzilla was still blatant–and not even correct when he painted Siskel as Ebert’s yes man.) Supervillains can have cool costumes and cool powers. I’m convinced it’s the only reason Boba Fett even has a fan base. There’s even a story in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City about a colony of people who have superpowers but opted not to be a superhero or villain and went off to live in peace.
What makes a superhero is in that last part of his name: superhero. It’s saving lives, writing wrongs, and doing it in cool costume. It doesn’t have to be bright and colorful (that would be detrimental to nighttime crimefighters), but my favorite ones usually are unless they end up all garish. Heroes without super in their name help others on a regular basis. Rescue workers, firefighters, and the good cops and soldiers risk their lives to stop bad guys, put out fires, and help sick people reach medical help even if they’re on a high cliff. Even Superman is impressed by them, and this is one of the reasons he’s humble enough to rescue a cat from a tree.
Superheroes put saving others first.
Some heroes may have a bit more of an ego than others and I can list a few. However, their first priority is saving lives. Even the ones who doesn’t take time to notice anyone around them needing help is under the belief that stopping the villain saves lives, revenge or egos aside of course. Superman will save a cat. Spider-Man will catch a car before it lands on someone even when it leaves them vulnerable to his foe. Batman will stop a train from crashing. People come first and they do so humbly.
Superheroes live by their code of ethics
Not sure if this exactly fits, and there are occasionally villains with their own code of honor that will keep them from, say, attacking a small child or allowing drugs and rape to be part of their list of crimes. I may be combining this with self control, not killing the villain even if you have the urge to. I recently rewatched SF Debris’ review of Superman Vs. The Elite, which I really want to get, and he noted how in one scene Superman stopped himself from killing the Atomic Skull (the post-Crisis version, not the one I grew up in that Clark Kent crossover story I love linking to the review of) after the villain went on a random killing spree for no good reason. Not wanting to cross that line (screw you, Injustice continuity), he pulled himself back, something Batman has done I’m sure more than once given the level of villainy he usually faces and his own origins. Basically they don’t want to become that which they fight against. I never wanted to do to the bullies what they did to me because that would make me into them and I wouldn’t want to do that.
Then you have the Hulk clip I posted. I never really got into the comics because it went on so long that by nature they had to try new ways to keep the character fresh with takes on the “Jekyll & Hyde” formula. However, the two animated version, the 1980s NBC show that spun off of Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends and the 1990s UPN Kids show (at least season one) I loved. As someone with his own anger management issues and easily frustrated seeing the Hulk fight villains and still rescue his friends Betty and Rick was something I wish I could be. I don’t know if you saw the first Ultimate Avengers direct to video animated move very loosely (thank God) based on the Ultimate universe “Ultimates” made long before the MCU, but in that version Bruce is trying to find a way to control the Hulk and use him as a hero rather than the raging monster of the Ultimate universes. Unfortunately the way he does it and it still failing still makes him a villain but I credit him for trying and it’s why I like the MCU Hulk and Banner learning how to do so successfully, like he did for a time in the 1990s.
Superheroes are human too.
Not counting the aliens and robots of course. Still, some of them are at least still people. They have hopes, dreams, favorite pizza toppings that they don’t go to war over (even in the Marvel universe), and desires like the rest of us. They have family and friends, some of which they don’t tell about their secret super life and some they bring in as support, if only for their own sanity. They love, they get hurt, they fall down, and they don’t always win. Beating Superman isn’t about killing him but getting away with your crime. We the readers and viewers know the hero will win in the end, when it’s time to stop the super weapon the villain managed to get the parts from. They aren’t perfect gods, they’re people with powers, gadgets, armor, or special skills that are beyond most people for whatever reason. They choose to be human. Superman isn’t Supergod, he’s Superman, meaning he’s more powerful that most people, but also more loving, all the best aspects of what we call humanity and what we claim is what it means to be human. They don’t hold their power over us because they know they’re just as human as we are, prone to the same mistakes and misunderstandings as the rest of us. They just have talents that we don’t and use them to help others in ways we can’t.
And yet they encourage us to use our “normal powers” to help, even the little things like being kind to each other, opening a door for someone who needs it, cleaning up trash in the park, or just giving a hug to someone hurting. Another of my favorite Superman stories is about a little girl writing to Superman to tell him about how she saw him fighting Metallo, who has a Kryptonite power source and thus is deadly to the Kryptonian hero, and that no matter what he wouldn’t give up, wouldn’t stop until he beat the evil man. When she got sick she remembered how Superman didn’t give up and it gave her the strength to finally work to get better. Superman flies to see this girl and tell her that she is his hero for fighting something he can’t with his powers and not giving in. On numerous occasions any properly-written Superman is just as humbled as he sees people do the things he can but in their own way to make the world better and without the protection of invulnerability. Superman, arguably the most powerful being on Earth, is as much a fan of normal humans as normal humans are of him.
These are important factors to me in what makes a good superhero, and why I reject the concept of the “antihero” and have no interest in seeing the adventures of supervillains and other criminals, even if it’s a good and heartfelt story. To me these are the heroes, super and otherwise, that fascinate me, that make me want to see more and cheer them on. These are the heroes I relate to, and what people tell me is no longer relatable because they don’t share a skin color or various sexual characteristics. They can’t relate to someone who is selfless, humble, compassionate, human, who will team with their enemies for the greater good, seek redemption, or want to make the world better for everybody. If you can’t relate to that…we can never get along and you may even scare me.
Amazing post. I grew up with comic books too. I can’t stand what they’ve done; they’ve destroyed the whole superhero genre… on purpose. I’ll stick to the older comics from now on.