The David Crosby and Phil Collins song “Hero” has a line that perfectly defines my favorite type of hero character: “And the reason that she loved him was the reason I loved him too. He never wondered what was right or wrong. He just knew.” That’s the paragon, the hero who doesn’t need to “become” a hero, just an incident that starts him to his destiny, but he was already formed by loving parents or a fictional character that inspired him to want to be that kind of hero.
This archetype seems to be a lost art, and there’s a sadly loud chorus cheering the death of the paragon and the aspiration heroes in general because they refuse to believe anyone could just be inspired from the beginning to do good, if they ever are good at all. They embrace the anti-hero and want regular heroes to struggle not with a powerful foe but his or her own inner demons. Any hero to the contrary is “unrealistic”…in a world where everyone is wearing spandex flying around punching each other.
Professor Geek dropped a great examination of the paragon as part of his series on character archetypes, and I have a few thoughts of my own on the subject.
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The rejection of the inspired hero, who doesn’t need a crisis to become a hero can best be viewed with Barry Allen, the Flash who wasn’t allowed to stay dead because Dan DiDio and Geoff Johns doesn’t know what a legacy character is while hating Wally West for being a legacy character. Apparently nobody told either of them about Jay Garrick, the first Flash. A fictional character pre-Crisis and a historical fictional story post-Crisis, the comic book adventures of Jay is what inspired Barry Allen from childhood to want to fight crime as well. That’s why he became a forensic scientist, Jay also having been into science. He didn’t need any other reason other than to see someone else doing it, admiring his dedication and desire to the point of sharing both, and doing so in his own way, not realizing that it would lead to him sharing Jay’s powers through a different method. The “Speed Force” wasn’t a concept in the comics yet.
Sadly that idea that kids can be inspired by heroes to become heroes was lost not only on DiDio and Johns but on Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, the creators of the 1990s series that used Barry even though he was dead and Wally was the comics’ Flash at the time. In the CBS series Barry is given a brother not from the comics who is killed off in the pilot while Barry, part of a family of cops but choosing the science lab to the annoying (to me) disappointment of his father, is given superspeed. This is the incident that drives Barry to become the superhero Flash. The comics were no better thanks to Flashpoint. Not believing a happy reason was enough, Johns decided to kill Barry’s mom and have his father framed for the murder. (It was actually a Flash villain named Professor Zoom…let’s not even try to go into that.) It was not being able to catch the police car that took his daddy away that made him interested in speed, but he became a forensic scientist in the hopes of clearing his father or at least making sure they got the right person in the future.
In turn, Wally was inspired by tales of the Flash to want to be a good person, especially after finding out his Uncle Barry was the Flash and gaining the same powers when Barry was trying to figure out how he got his powers and Wally was caught in the experiment. These were heroes inspiring heroes, and in turn inspiring the next generation of heroes. This is a good thing.
Even Superman inspired other heroes, though Connor Kent’s Superboy needed to learn being a hero was more than showing off and playing with hot girls. John Irons was someone who had lost faith in the world because he designed weapons before learning his boss was a bad guy. However, John still saved the life of one of his co-workers in his new job on a construction site at the risk of his own, In turn he was saved by Superman, who inspired him to become a better person and when Doomsday seemingly killed Superman for good (he got better), became a superhero by designing his own battlearmor originally in Superman’s image as Man Of Steel and later forming his own identity as Steel. In Superman: The Animated Series they sped things up a bit by having Irons work for Luthor and it was a speech by Superman that inspired him to quit Lexcorp and later design his own suit of armor. How many people in turn were inspired by Steel besides his niece Natasha who now wear the identity as John retired from direct superheroing?
Even Marvel knows this, or knew it. Every version of Captain America, even the versions that get the origin wrong, knows that Captain America is someone who wanted to serve his country to the point of taking part in a potentially dangerous experiment, and immediately did all he could for his country, his fellow fighters in World War II, and other innocent people whether fighting the Axis powers, mad scientists, or supervillains. His first thought is to do what’s right (except in the Ultimate universe because everyone who wasn’t Spider-Man was basically a horrible person) and that in turned inspired others to want to be like him.
Even if they lost their way in some form their first response is to protect others do what is right, even if they don’t always know at first what that is. Like the song said, they never wondered what was right or wrong, though they would at worst be missing some information or wisdom to achieve what is good and right. Instead of discouraging that we should encourage more of those kinds of heroes? Not realistic? It’s fiction! Who says it has to be…and who says it isn’t? We’ve seen real-life heroes large and small who saw someone in trouble or knew someone was dangerous and took action because they’re good people. They gave to or take part in charity because they were raised to care about others and give back. If it was so easy for them, why not someone with greater powers fighting greater evils?
We don’t need less paragon characters, we need more/ While I don’t want other archetypes changed to the paragon, I don’t want the paragon to lose what makes them special. They exist for a reason and our world is worse off for their waning existence.