Remember When Heroes Used to Be Heroic?

This idea started in a thread on the unofficial DC Message Boards, and the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I think the idea has a lot of merit. Essentially, the “superheroes” appearing in comics are increasingly less heroic as time passes. There are all manner of possible contributing things to this, but at the end of the day, I’m coming to think it’s true.

Here’s a challenge for you: take all the superhero comics you got last week, and lay them out on the floor in front of you. Now take away all of them that feature solely heroes fighting villains, or villains plotting to/actively attacking heroes. Do you have any left? Are there any that show the hero having, well, a life? Or a scene where they help someone who’s not under attack by a villain as part of some revenge scheme?

Heroes used to be about more than fighting. They used to help people. They’d patrol their cities, looking for crimes to halt or people who needed them. I can’t remember the last time I saw that. It’s one, long, ongoing fight now. Heroes fight villains. Villains come up with elaborate plots to hurt heroes. That’s about it. Villains used to have their own motivations that didn’t involve simply attacking folks in costumes.

Another thing I find disturbing is the reaction of people to this idea. When I mentioned that heroes seem to be getting darker and more about fighting villains, and even each other, than about improving the world in any way, a lot of posters basically said “So what?” One in particular said something about how boring it would be to see “Boy Scouts on patrol.”

My two reactions to that are, first and foremost, if you find the idea of someone helping someone else boring, why are you reading hero comics? Has it really become “old fashioned” to want to read about characters that actually care about the world around them, and try to use their powers for something besides an ongoing grudge match? Second, aside from their stance on gays, why is “Boy Scouts” supposed to be negative? They educate young men, give them skills, help give them positive things to do. This is a bad thing?

It really does seem now that comics are almost all fighting, all the time. Villains exist solely to attack heroes, heroes are there just to fight the villains. Isn’t this the “dark” future they worried about in Kingdom Come? Is this really what everyone but me wants to read?

People who put on a certain outfit just to identify themselves and attack others based on what they are wearing aren’t heroes. That sounds like a gang to me. Think about it, if they aren’t there to protect the citizenry, and they spend their time assaulting each other because of the costumes, why is that different than gang colors?

I’ll take a few recent things I’ve read or seen recently as examples of the general trend I’m talking about:

Arrow is a tv show based on DC’s Green Arrow. In the show, the lead character fairly routinely kills henchmen as he goes. Often he shoots them in the chest with arrows, occasionally he snaps their necks in hand to hand combat, sometimes after pausing first. This, to me, is not a hero. Arrow, as he is shown, is a vigilante, and a criminal one at that. When your standard method of operating involves death, it really weakens that person being a hero in my book.

New Avengers 3 recently showed several powerful Marvel characters dealing with a major crisis, a threat to the entire planet. When Captain America spoke up against what they were doing, they attacked him and erased his memory. Not only is this scene very reminiscent of one that occurred during Identity Crisis several years ago, but it’s far from heroic. Captain America is the one most Marvel characters look up to, he’s been referred to as the moral center of the Marvel Universe. What does it say about the heroes when they not only attack the “moral center,” but they erase his memory of the event? Doing something and then hiding it afterwards usually indicates that what you did was wrong, and you know it. Lifting the scene to one side, attacking a long time friend and ally for disagreeing with you is wrong.

In the rebooted DC Universe, almost every character has been changed in some way. One of the most striking, and, to me, disappointing, is the character of Captain Marvel. He’s not even called that any longer, now he’s known as “Shazam.” One of the things I always really liked about this character is that he was a hero of pure heart. Years ago, when the demon Neron orchestrated a huge plot to ensnare the “purest hero” of them all, he was going after Captain Marvel. In a world that includes people like Superman, that really says something. Now, courtesy of the reboot, we have seen the newly-empowered Billy Batson trash a man’s car because he didn’t like him, ask for rewards for breaking up a mugging, use his power to steal money from an ATM, and then, when confronted with an actual challenge at his own level, he runs away and hides. I’m told I don’t “get it,” and that this is more realistic.

Well, maybe I don’t get most of this. But comics are getting darker and darker as time passes, and few of the people in there I’d still consider “heroic.” Black Canary went from a second generation hero with steadfast convictions to saying things like “Leave one alive for questioning.” This is a hero? Superman, when meeting Batman in Justice League, grabbed him by the throat and said “Talk before I won’t let you.” Every hero has changed in DC, and most in Marvel. None, in my view, for the better.

I wonder, what does it say about our world when these things are the actions of “heroes”? Not every character needs to be a goofy, Dudley Do-Right caricature, of course. But unremittingly dark doesn’t work either. Batman is dark and tragic, absolutely. Nightwing isn’t supposed to be. If all you have is one note, the music isn’t interesting. There’s no contrast. I’ve seen several reports of directives from DC editorial that indicate this line-wide trend isn’t a coincidence. There are reports of mandates that every single issue has to have a certain page count dedicated to fighting, that all the good guys must show “the burden of being a hero.” But not every hero should be burdened by their choices.

Aside from actual good deeds and heroism, one of the things I’m missing in my comics is actual fun. I am presuming most hero fans have seen Iron Man I by now. One of the best scenes in the movie, for me, is when he gets his second version of the armor working, and flies around the city. He’s whooping and yelling in delight at the ride and the rush. Remember when heroes used to have fun? Seems like most of the writers don’t. And I think that’s just really sad.