The Hero With a Thousand Issues
This week saw a remarkable milestone as Action Comics celebrated its thousandth issue. A thousand issues since a certain man of steel debuted on that cover, taking on hoods, thugs, gangsters, anyone who thought having power and a will to use it for their own ends. Superman, of course, would go on to become perhaps the most iconic superhero of all time; even people who don’t read comics or watch the movies know what you mean when you mime ripping open your shirt. When he was killed in the comics years ago it was global news; Superman wasn’t just embedded into our pop culture. He meant something. He meant something to an awful lot of people.
(Action Comics #1000, variant cover by Michael Cho)
I was going to review Action Comics #1000, but as I read the collection of stories in that special issue I found that I was thinking less and less about the review and more about a subject that’s been swirling around in that murky morass of my mind for quite some time, about the nature of the hero. Talking online with a chum a few weeks back reminded me this idea was floating around in my brain, as we discussed the “We are Starfleet” moment at the finale of Star Trek Discovery’s first season.
It was a scene that left me with a lump in my throat, when the crew stand and say no, even in the face of possible destruction they will not give way to the darkness, abandon their morality, their principles; in extremis we find out who we really are. They chose at that moment, facing possible annihilation which they could avert by committing the crime of genocide, to be the better people they want to be, if they are to be damned it will be as the people they are, not giving in to the ever-beckoning darkness. It reminded me why so many of us love Star Trek, not just for the stories and the characters, we love the optimism, that individuals and an entire species can become better people.
It echoed themes in my mind from several months prior, when Peter Capaldi’s Doctor gave what, for my money, was the most noble speech in his tenure as the Time Lord, when he declares why he does what he does, why he has, for centuries, travelled time and space helping people he often only just met. “It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live.”
Kindness and doing the right thing; it made me think that perhaps in coming years some youngster who was watching that episode will be facing a difficult time, and they will be wrestling with what to do. And perhaps those words will drift out of their memory, from their childhood hero and fictional protector, and it will inspire them to do the right thing, to stay on the course of their moral compass even when it would be so much easier to give up. In short it set them an example. Being kind and doing the right thing are often mocked – weak, too soft for this “hard world”, you need to “man up”. It is the opposite, I think – doing the selfish thing, the mean thing, that’s far too easy. The Dark Side is quick and easy, as Yoda once said. Doing the right thing, trying to do it with compassion and kindness and show consideration, that is far more difficult and it isn’t weakness, in fact it takes far more strength than the selfish will ever have.
When Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine resurrected classic British character Dan Dare, there was a scene of Dare, in peaceful retirement, sought out by a very slippery, clearly Tony Blair-esque Prime Minister and begged to come to the rescue once more. Dare agrees right away. The politicians pauses then comments that he knows Dare doesn’t approve of him, that he dislikes the kind of country he has turned Britain into. And yet here he is, at a moment’s notice, willing to ride out once more to risk his life to defend it all. “I don’t understand that,” comments the politician. Dare just looks at him and replies “No, I daresay you don’t.” The one does things for personal gain and maximum approval from others, the hero does it because it needs done, because it is right. It’s a lovely moment and for a moment it felt like the classic 50s Dare, the solid chap who would always stand up for the good. And ye gods, don’t we need that today…
And again I found myself thinking about this reading Action Comics #1000 this week. A collection of short stories by different artists and writers, I thought the connecting theme, for me anyway, was heroism. Not the obvious kind, the flying (literally in Superman’s case) into the path of danger to save the day, defeating some vast threat, rescuing people from earthquakes and fires. No, I think for me the common theme in Action Comics #1000 was that heroism comes in many forms, in deeds large and small, and that each of these actions can add to a chain of positive actions. In one page we’re hearing of a supervillain threat Superman takes care of, but in another panel it is a former criminal, captured several times by Superman, but a Superman who cares, who looked into his history, the painful life that lead him to that criminal career, and he gives him a chance to be better than that. The heroism there wasn’t foiling a low-level footsoldier of crime, it was extending a hand, it was caring, and caring changes lives.
The stories in this issue aren’t even all about Superman, they are about the lives he touches, the people he inspires to try and be better, and the people who inspired him, especially his adoptive Earth parents, who taught him those lessons, the ethics and compassion that are what really make him a hero, not the superpowers, those are just tools. The stories here show the numerous ways all the “ordinary” (is there such a thing?) people can be a hero, even for a few moments. A good mum and dad are superheroes to a child’s perspective. The friend who holds your hand when you are scared or in pain. The person who stood and gave their seat to someone who needed it. Little acts of kindness can be heroic, as well as the more obvious bravery such as the firefighter who runs into a burning building to save someone they don’t even know.
Humans have always shared stories, it seems to be built into us, we’ve been doing it for tens of thousands of years. Superman himself draws on elements of earlier stories and myths and folklore – in his early days you could perhaps even see something of the old myth of the Golem, a being there to protect those who needed it against the tyranny of the powerful but corrupt. As long as we’ve had stories we’ve had heroes. We have real-life ones, but I think our fictional ones are often just as important, especially when we are younger – they set an example to us. We know we’re not able to fly, to pick up cars, walk through fire, but we get the message in those stories: try to be better, try to do some good. We’ve seen recently how powerful an inspiration heroes can be and the importance of having ones that different people can identify with more – the huge success of the Black Panther and the Wonder Woman movies show how many people take power from their heroes, inspiration, re-purpose them to their own needs and struggles.
That’s a decent message to implant in the minds of young readers, and it’s no bad thing to remind we older readers of too, as we get jaded by age, maybe despair of the state of the world and allow it to wear us down, roughen us. Then we are reminded of those heroes and that though lacking their abilities, we’re none of us entirely powerless, we can do little acts of kindness, heck even just carrying your elderly neighbour’s shopping up the stairs for them can be a wee moment of heroism. And every time you do that, you push back at the bad things that seem so legion in the world. We need our heroes and our superheroes. Even if we can never be like their fictional selves, just the ideas of them set an example, give us hope, a sign on which of the paths we should follow. As the song once put it, we can be heroes, just for one day. Yes, I know, often the everyday grind knocks that sensibility from us, that’s why it is good to have these stories, to remind us that we can be heroes, if we try. And I think it is one of the reasons Superman has remained so popular for eighty years.