Defining a Hero
By John Byrne
Pronunciation: 'hir-(")O, 'hE-(")rO
Inflected Form(s): plural heroes
Etymology: Latin heros, from Greek hErOs
Date: 14th century
1 a : a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability b : an illustrious warrior c : a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities d : one that shows great courage
2 a : the principal male character in a literary or dramatic work b : the central figure in an event, period, or movement
3 plural usually heros
4 : an object of extreme admiration and devotion
Pronunciation: -"hir-(")O, -"hE-(")rO
: a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers; also : an exceptionally skillful or successful person
Thank you, Merriam-Webster.
It seems an odd thing to need to point out to anyone, but a "hero" is by definition a Good Guy, and a superhero even moreso.
I was struck by the need to emphasize this the other day, reading an article in the latest issue of Science News weekly, in which a writer -- admittedly one whose first language was not English -- made a reference to something seeming like the work of "an evil superhero." bviously, that would be "supervillain," right?
Well, you'd think so.
But, when we look at the state and shape of the comicbook industry today, is it really any wonder that confusion like this might exist? Consider this often heard/read mantra:
"Batman could beat anybody, because Batman would cheat!"
Really? Batman? Cheat? I know Batman would use every resource at his disposal -- but is that cheating?
Perhaps that's a core to the problem. Roger Stern once observed of another writer that he could not handle superheroes well because he could not conceive of someone more noble than he was (i.e. not very). Have we then come to a point where the ability to achieve, the ability to exceed the norm, is looked upon as something somehow less than desirable? Have the past couple of decades of excuse making and denied responsibility created a generation that cannot look at someone who does the right thing for the right reason, and does so to the absolute best of his ability -- without seeking in that person some ulterior motive?
Put it into something like a real-world context: did Einstein "cheat" when he came up with Relativity because he used his superior brain? Did Jesse Owens embarrass Hitler at the Olympics by "cheating" and using those powerful muscles he'd worked so hard to develop? Did Mark McGwire. . .
Oh, hold on a second. Maybe that's part of the problem, too. McGwire has admitted to using steroids. (Hasn't he? Consider that automatically retracted if my memory is at fault here...) [Editor's Note: McGwire has admitted to using androstenediones, which technically are steroids and are considered very controversial] Many athletes have, in fact. Time and again real world "heroes" have turned out to have feet of clay. The President dallies with interns. Cops take bribes. Firefighters set fires. Baseball players strike for more money.
The real world, it seems, has taught us that we should always look askance at the presumed hero. We know, don't we, that there must be something wrong in the mix. There have been too many times when this has proven to be the case for us to assume that this time it isn't.
But -- aren't superhero comics supposed to be escapist fare? Aren't they supposed to show us heroes who are, well, super. And not just because they fly or bend steel with their bare hands.
To invoke my buddy Roger again, Mr. Stern has ofttimes said that were he to suddenly gain the powers of Superman he would go on worldwide TV and make a speech that would begin "As your king..." What makes Superman Superman is not the powers -- it's the fact that he doesn't do that. That he is, at some intrinsic level, better than us.
Which is not, all insistence to the contrary notwithstanding, a bad thing.
Of course, the Dictionary isn't always a great help in letting us understand comics and superheroes. . .
Etymology: French bât packsaddle
: an orderly of a British military officer