Whatever Happened To The Heroes?
Oh, great, an excuse to be even wordier.
This covers three titles from DC’s new 52, and a common problem I had with all of them: Supergirl, Teen Titans, and Superboy.
I’ve read the first five issues of each.
The common thread throughout all these has been a lack of genuine heroism. Which is a little lame in a superhero comic.
We’ve got these characters we’re supposed to look up to, supposed to see as heroes – and they even say so – but they never do anything.
I expect heroes to save lives, to be noble and self-sacrificing. These guys spend almost their whole serieses trying to get out from under oppressive groups.
Out of the fifteen issues, I’ve seen three actual instances of villainy (one small town taken over by a machine, mind-controlling the citizens – but, see below; one pair of thrill-killers; and one possible dangerous soon-to-be alien invader); and only one instance of the heroes stopping them (the mind-controller mind-controlled Robin into forgetting about it; the invader was a set-up for issue 6; and Superboy stopped the thrill-killers).
It’s not much for fifteen issues. The rest of the time? They mostly just fought each other.
Superboy wandered around in a VR reality, and worked with the shadowy group who made him and fought the Teen Titans.
Supergirl fought a shadowy group who came to take her, then Superman, then got taken to a satellite by a company, then escaped. Then she went to outer space and fought the possible evil invader.
The Teen Titans mostly just fought each other. And ran away from Superboy’s shadowy organisation. Their one attempt at heroism (stopping a creature from controlling a town) failed.
Let’s look at the first five issues of other, older, more interesting serieses, shall we?
By issue five of X-Men (1964), they'd stopped a terrorist from taking over military bases and missiles, a bank robber, a dangerous bully from doing all the above, that terrorist again, and a conquering Atlantean.
Within the first five of Alpha Flight, they'd stopped a creature destroying Canada, a would-be world conqueror, and a bunch of drug dealers.
Fantastic Four A terrorist, invading aliens, Dr. Doom, and a conquering Atlantean (yes, the same one as the X-Men).
How ’bout older series with these characters?
In the first five issues of Supergirl (1996), she stopped a demon, defeated a gorilla turning a town into gorillas, and fought a biological nightmare.
Superboy 2011, he stopped a thing turning a town comatose, fought Poison Ivy, and set up for the final showdown against an ancient Atlantean evil (but not the same one as Fantastic Four and X-Men). (By last year, decompression had really set in.)
Teen Titans 1980; in the first issue, they stopped invading alien slavers. I don't have the next four.
To be a hero, you need a good villain.
What are they doing? What makes them so villainous?
Yeah, I get that, but what's the evil?
Mind control! Mind control!
They’ve captured our heroes.
Yeah, well, until our heroes start doing anything heroic, that’s not quite enough to make me feel their villainy.
You support mind control! You’re twisted!
... I like it.
No, I’m not saying mind control is good; all I am saying is
All hail the Hypnotoad!
... but on its own, mind control isn’t evil enough to carry the story for me. I mean, sure, poor guys, sorry that they're captured and stuff, but what are the stakes? Mind control, by its nature, is a means to an end – so what end? If I don’t know that, it’s hard to care. Not when that’s the only story an ongoing comic series tells.
I mean, saving a small town of innocent bystanders is one thing, but if all our ‘heroes’ do is try to save themselves from mind control, it’s not compelling. And it is all they do.
Besides, unlike a couple I could list *cough*Alpha Flight volumes 2 and 4 fell victim to it, and I was no fan of either (in part because of that).
There’s no stakes for me.
If I wanted all action with no stakes, I'd watch sports.
If the protagonists fail, so what? What happens next?
Next, you die!
I mean, imagine if you’re an ordinary citizen of the DC Universe. These characters have torn up half your street, destroyed your home and your car and possibly seriously injured or killed you and your loved ones.
If they lose, they’ll be locked away where they can’t hurt you anymore. If they win, so what? You’re not helped in any way. Why should you support them?
Because they’re killing and maiming, tearing up the world wherever they go!
Yeah, but imagine if you were the one being killed, maimed, torn up, folded, spindled, and mutilated.
What? That would be awful! Boo, hiss!
Until the comics have established that these characters actually save the world, I’d see locking them away as a good thing.
Let’s take a few positive examples:
If the Rebels failed, the Empire would keep its grip of terror over the galaxy, blowing up planets willy-nilly. If the Enterprise failed, Earth would be destroyed. If Frodo and Sam failed, Sauron would send his Orc army across the land, devastating it. Even if Westley and Buttercup are fighting only for their own love, they’re doing it in such a sweet-natured, light-hearted story that you can actually care about them.
If I lived in their universe, but wasn’t them, I’d care.
But these comics have been so self-important, so serious, and so what?
They’re not stopping bank robbers, they’re not fighting villains or space invaders, they’re not making the world a better place; they’re just failing to rescue themselves from vague vague shadowy organisations.
If you want a ‘our hero is trapped by a shadowy organisation’ story, it can be cool – but you have to buy it. Establish that your hero is a hero. Show them saving the world, helping other people, then have them captured. That way, we’ll know the world is a worse place without these people in it.
Writing a bunch of stories about characters who do nothing but try to escape from shadowy organisations is getting real old real fast. And not really suited to the superhero genre.
Is this some wonderful new trend? I wouldn’t say so; at least, not a universal one. It’s just a style of story that’s been happening a lot since, oh, the 90’s?
Is it indicative of the New 52? No. I’ve been reading Green Arrow and Justice League International. In their first five issues, Green Arrow stopped a team of thrill-killers and an assassin bent on killing Oliver Queen. (That second part was a little like what I’m talking about, but never quite fell over the edge). The JLI spent the whole time saving the entire world from a group of massive invading aliens. Heroic.
These comics are telling me that just being a shadowy organisation is evil; but so what? These aren’t even really playing up the mind control angle; they’re just capturing our ‘heroes’. Heroes who, when they’re out on their own, are doing nothing but causing property damage.
Um... boo? Hiss?
Would I say don't read these comics?
No. First, I imagine some of my readers would read them just to be contrary.
Second, they're not actually bad. They're written okay, with characterisation and some good ideas. They're well-drawn.
They just don't have anything compelling for me. I just don't care.
So, I neither recommend them nor say you should stay away.