Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Role of the Innocent Hero


You can file this one under the "The More Things Change." Almost 20 years ago, I used to run a fansite called DCU: Next Generation that covered the teen and  young heroes of the DC universe. Comics had recovered from the wave of cynisicm of the 80s and were rediscovering a more fun and (dare I say it now?) innocent tone. So I did my first roundtable interview ever, (yes, ever), and I cold contacted lots of then popular comic book creators to pick their brains about that very idea. So, here is that blast from the past. (Just remember to read it in its context historically in the market, especially if you're an old fart like me.) 

A Note About the Art: All the art shown with this article is from the original fan art gallery on the DCU: Next Generation website. 

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A long time ago, in a galaxy remarkably similar to this one, there once existed a group of super-powered (and not so super-powered) individuals who flew the skies and ruled the nights, making the streets safe for everyone else. They weren't driven by dark psychoses or private, hidden agendas. They simply believed life was precious and that there was a moral foundation for society to operate on. Well, that, and they believed flashy costumes were actually hip.

But, as with all things, time (and new writers and artists) assaulted these heroes, and twisted them into psychotic, tainted beings who kept society safe for reasons of their own. Some creators did so with admirable skill (Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns come to mind), but many merely followed what seemed to be the newest trend. It was no longer acceptable to be good simply for the sake of being good. Justice was no longer its own reward. Heroes had to be driven by attempts to purge their dark pasts, traumatic events that played forever in their minds' eyes, or some private (i.e., selfish) reasons that weren't necessarily noble -- that is, if the heroes still maintained a sense of heroism at all; many of them were simply villains stalking other (supposedly worse) villains.

Comic book creators and fans credit many reasons for this shift in thinking. Concepts and worldviews like Postmodernism and Deconstructionism are often blamed. Many also place the blame on events like the Vietnam War, Watergate, the me-ism of the 80's, and the Roe vs. Wade decision. Regardless of the reasons, the days of the innocent hero (i.e., the hero who acted nobly simply because it was the right thing to do, because he valued life and felt it worthy to be saved) seemed doomed.

Then came the 90's. Something in the grim and gritty, psychosis-driven mindset snapped. Fun came back to comics. Not in droves, to be sure, and it didn't commit a comics-wide genocide of "heroes" like the Punisher, Hitman, and Wolverine, but it was noticeable, nonetheless. Superman returned from the dead, his sense of honor intact. Bruce Wayne's back healed, and he reclaimed the mantle of the bat from his tainted and flawed successor. Fun-loving teen heroes (once the bane of comics readers) popped up again, some of them even as (Heavens no!) sidekicks. Captain America was restored to his iconic role as American patriotism personified under the care of Mark Waid and Ron Garney.

And then, like a thought that needed to be said and couldn't be contained, came Kingdom Come. As a statement on the state of heroism, it spoke volumes about how the superhero world could become if left to the villains and tainted heroes. But, it also made quite a statement on the redemptive power of good.

So, where does that leave us now?

Curious as to how current comics creators saw today's market, I emailed some of them a list of three questions concerning the future of the innocent hero. Nine responded: DC's Mike Carlin, Jim Valentino (Shadowhawk, A Touch of Silver), Brian Augustyn (Flash, X-O Manowar), Tom Bierbaum (Legion of Super Heroes), Kurt Busiek (Astro City, Thunderbolts, Ninjak), Marv Wolfman (The New Teen Titans), John Ostrander (The Spectre), Phil Jimenez (Tempest), and Jerry Ordway (The Power of Shazam).

Do you feel there is still room for "innocent heroes," or must even heroes be tainted in some way in order to be believable (i.e., marketable)?

Bierbaum: The current comic book market is reaching an extremely narrow demographic, and within that demographic, there generally hasn't been much interest in innocent heroes. But there's no reason why different twists can't work, even for that very narrow audience (i.e., some of the characters in Astro City and Batman Adventures). To us [Tom and his wife Mary], there's nothing less believable about an innocent hero because the world has plenty of people who live daily up to a very high standard of behavior. These people aren't especially common, but that's exactly what makes them interesting, appropriate, believable models for ficticious "heroes."

Wolfman: I think heroes can be both innocent and be real (i.e., have problems, etc.). The fact that you can make them real to some minor degree allows the characters to see the world as a place worth saving. If they're just dark and depressing then I'm not interested in writing about them, but if they see a dark world around them and still believe they can make a difference, then they're innocent and optimistic, which I like.

Ostrander: Having a character who is without flaw is reassuring when you're a kid; you need that. We tend to see our parents that way (happened in my age as well). As you grow older, you can no longer accept that because you're thinking on your own. You re-examine your heroes and your parents and find feet of clay (happened in my age as well). You NEED to find that. For characters to be believable, they need to be flawed. We need to find flaws. They also reflect more correctly our OWN positions, our own situations.

Carlin: DC does TONS of innocent heroes: Impulse and Captain Marvel and friends come to mind. Sure, there's room for everything out there!

Busiek: I think there's plenty of room for what you call innocent heroes, from Flash to Superman to many of the Astro City heroes to Iron Fist in Heroes For Hire, and more beyond them.

Augustyn: Yes. In fact, I think the pendulum is swinging back toward the direction of the innocent hero. Characters like Superman, Flash and Captain America have all experienced recent new popularity, and all are lighter in tone than the grim and gritty characters who've reigned for so long. More and more new, lighter heroes are being introduced all the time, so I think the trend is building. The days of the cynical hero may be numbered.

Ordway: I still feel strongly that there must BE room for innocent heroes, or all is lost. There's nothing to prevent an innocent from having feet of clay, or some other flaw, you know. Furthermore, I think an innocent hero provides a role model for even the most jaded readers. Pessimism might be the way of thinking these days, but optimism is what got past generations looking ahead to a better day, or better life for their own children.

Jimenez: I definitely feel there's room for heroes who are not grim and gritty, bearing razor sharp talons or guns as weapons in their fight against crime. Without a doubt, these have always been the characters that bored or disinterested me the most (Wolverine, Sabretooth, Cable, etc.). I actually believe that heroes can be just and good (I question the definition of this word "innocent") and still be desirable as heroes -- it's all in the way they're played. However, I think characters "tainted" by something -- not necessarily evil or violence but characters who are not solely good and pure -- are far more interesting for the sheer fact that giving them such flaws makes them multi-faceted and, therefore, playable on many more levels (same with the villains -- the most interesting villains are those that have a very human motivation or love -- like Mystique's love for her daughter Rogue, or Magneto's actions for mutantkind based on his past as a Jewish detainee in a Nazi death camp). Singularly good (innocent) or bad (evil) characters get real boring, real fast.

Valentino: Heroism implies the act of placing the welfare of others above one's own welfare. Therefore, in order for there to be heroes, by their very definition they must be innocent (as you're using the term). Whether or not they will succeed on a commercial level is an entirely different question.

What do you believe helped bring on the era of the anti-hero and diminish the comic-reading public's interest in innocent heroes?

Bierbaum: In general, I feel that super-hero comics were once almost exclusively a juvenile medium and they gradually have become almost exclusively an adolescent medium. Adolescents tend to enjoy breaking away from and rejecting the more innocent pleasures of their earlier years, thus the innocence of the old heroes became a target very quickly, especially when they're perceived as the heroes of an older generation.

Ostrander: Essentially, the anti-hero arose partially in response to what was happening out in what we laughingly call the "real world" and the need, every once in a while, to "deconstruct" our heroes. We need to debunk our own myths every once in a while to re-examine the myths themselves, find out what still has validity, and the re-construct those heroes (or make new ones) who more accurately reflect our group social conciousness, a gestalt ethic of our society. Deconstruction has definite values and importance but we can't just get stuck there and, I think, by and large people don't. To stay stuck in the deconstuctionist mode is to invite cynicism and nihilism, usually of a very shallow mode. It leads to the concept that attitude is more important than thought, than belief. It's not more important; it's just easier. Having an attitude requires neither thought nor belief nor any real work; it just strikes a pose. And, ultimately, that's shallow and vain and, for most people, not enough. I resent that "Gen-X" has been depicted, more often than not, as being just attitude. Those of Gen-X whom I know may play with attitudes but there's also more depth to them. And they want more depth to the characters they read -- and that includes comics.

Jimenez: I think the general feeling across the country that not everything is sweetness and light -- that there are evil, greedy people that hurt others, that people we were supposed to admire and trust (priests, policeman, the president) are, in many cases, the greatest violators of decency, and therefore, innocence -- helped lead to this age of nihilism and anti-hero as hero. Further, when you understand that America itself is founded on an inherent injustice -- the destruction of the indigenous peoples here, and the slavery of others who helped build the nation -- you begin to understand the dubious reaction readers have to characters like Superman and Captain America and what they represent. And, of course, anti-heroes are generally more interesting to read about -- John Constantine, for example, a nefarious rogue with a checkered past, is amazing because he still acts, for the most part, heroically. Superman, on the other hand, is fairly one note.

Ordway: I believe movies played a big role in popularizing anti-heroes, starting with Dirty Harry, and the like. I spent my teen years seeing nothing but that kind of movie in theaters, movies where the hero dies, or movies with the main character doing whatever it took to get the bad guy. Then, in the early eighties, comics pros like Frank Miller on Daredevil started toying with motivations in long established heroes. Also, the influx of UK writers, starting with Alan Moore, brought realism to character motivations, and stories that made the simplistic comics of my youth seem empty and shallow. Let me state that I enjoy the work of these folks, but really, after Watchman, everyone in comics had to rethink their work.

Wolfman: "Innocent heroes" means heroes who don't reflect anything but childish optimism. I think as we grew up to some degree we saw you could still see the world clearly but believe you can do something to fix it. In comics, Spider-Man was certainly the first anti-hero. However literature predates that by centuries. Also, the counter-culture of the 1960s helped usher in the anti-hero because we saw the world wasn't exactly what we'd been told it was. There is nothing wrong with this.

Augustyn: The times, I suppose. The eighties was a very cynical, selfish decade and popular entertainment reflected that. As we move through the nineties a lot of folks feel adrift and searching for something. I think that "lost generation," initially fell easily into the cynicism of the eighties, and embraced the nihilistic anti-heroes out of some sort of sense that, while negative, at least these guys were consistent. But, I think the definition of heroism is shifting back to a more traditional one. Heroes are heroes again, and even some formerly grim and gritty heroes are lightening up some -- ala, Batman (particularly the Batman of the movies). There's only so much angst anyone can digest, after all -- entertainment should offer escape from everyday woes, not validation of them.

Valentino: Rambo, video games like Mortal Kombat, the declining trust in institutions from government to corporations. There are any number of culprits.

Carlin: What brought it in was that ten years ago, it was different -- eventually it wasn't different anymore and the ol' innocent was different. It's a vicious circle!

Busiek: I don't think their interest was diminished -- the era that saw the rise of the anti-hero was a popular era for both Superman and Spider-Man. However, I think that whenever any status quo gets familar, then readers respond favorably to stuff that rebels against the status quo, as Wolverine did, as Dark Knight did, and so forth. They were different, and thus they stood out.

With the popularity of books like Leave It To Chance, Impulse, Robin, Captain America, etc., and the return to a tighter tone in the Spider-Man books, do you feel that comic book readers are becoming more receptive to innocent heroes? If so, what do you think has contributed to the change?

Augustyn: Yes. As I said, we're actually at the crest of a groundswell that's been building for some time. The titles you mentioned are perfect examples, but Astro City, Quantum and Woody, Ash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Savage Dragon, Alan Moore's take on Supreme, and tons of other books are reaching back to reclaim the sense of fun that comics used to exemplify -- while continuing to be contemporary in every other sense of the word. Keep in mind, that Waid and Ross's Kingdom Come, was, in a way, a commentary on this very tension between innocence and cynicism -- and a damned hopeful and positive story, despite the very real tragedy that pervades much of the early chapters. I think the times, again -- and the general mood of the country -- is in part why this change is under way. Even those not on the conservative side of the political spectrum agree that the time for negativism and cynicism is past, and everyone longs for a resurgence of "good values," however you may define that. In general, I think NOW is a good -- and fun -- time to be creating comics.

Busiek: The grim-and-gritty heroes are no longer different; they've been around for over ten years, and readers are ready for something else.

Jimenez: As with any medium, comics work in cycles. Obviously, the popularity of anti-heroes and busty heroines in recent years was a reaction to a plethora of characters projecting "goodness and light" in an age where that seemed hypocritical. However, people are starving for examples of goodness and just living in this society, and, I think, have grown tired of seeing this constant barrage of darkness and sadness and gloom. People want to believe in hope, and in goodness, and I think that they will search for characters out there that bring them such feelings. But I would never want to see only one type of character or the other -- I think in this medium there's room for both Leave it to Chance and for Preacher, and for each to be entertaining, inspiring, and, perhaps, enlightening.

Ostrander: Part of the success of the books you mention is that a) they're awfully well written; b) they're FUN to read; and c) they make us FEEL good. Anti-heroes rarely make you feel good. It may be a wish to reach back more to childhood, when things were simpler. It may also be an evolving process; that we're ready to accept innocent characters, characters who believe in something, because we are ourselves, as individuals and as a society, are willing to believe again, having gone through a necessary deconstruction phase. Or I may just be an old gasbag who is rambling on too long and making more out of things than they really are.

Bierbaum: The market has shrunk and shrunk, so it's the real die-hard readers who are sticking around in greater percentages than the casual readers. I'm guessing that's meant a greater and greater percentage of the market is being made up of older readers, baby boomers, who're more interested in recapturing the feel of the comics of their youth, when comics were a juvenile medium, than in continuing to rehash themes of adolescent alienation and rebellion. In most cases, these innocent books may be selling no more than they would have five and 10 years ago, but now those sales figures look pretty good, because there aren't as many younger readers around to build up the sales of more adolescent-themed books. Also, of course, we've just reached a point where the more cynical approach has been done to death and people are simply weary of it and ready for a change.

Ordway: I think that the popularity of the books you mentioned is more a reflection on their execution, than on their tone. There is always a pendulum effect, in entertainment, where, if things get overly dark, then a light movie comes along to start a new wave. Same with comics. Please mention Power of Shazam, and the Batman/Superman cartoon books in your list as well, as they provide something for younger readers to get started in on comics with. That's the key to dwindling readership -- you need new kids to pick up the hobby, when the older ones go off on other endeavors. Without newsstands, where comics are easier to come by, that task is more difficult, but it still needs to happen.

Wolfman: I think all the books you mention have a "real" world, but with characters who are optimistic. There is a big difference between optimism and innocence.

Valentino: I think one must consider just HOW "popular" these books actually are in today's marketplace. What I see when I look at the top ten is that it is dominated by X-books, Spawn, Witchblade, etc... I doubt any of these fit your definition, so I call into suspicion your whole argument here. There really has not BEEN a change in the tastes of the marketplace. The day Phone Bone, Chance Falconer and others of that ilk replace the Lobos and Wolverines, we can say there has been change.

(©1997 Sean Taylor)