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Heroes and Villains: Real and Imagined

Title Page >> Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Afterword | Message Board

PART ONE: "My Heroes Have Always Been Heroes" (written March 24, 1995)

We celebrated my father's seventieth birthday a few days ago and, during that gathering, I found myself thinking about heroes. Actually, I've been thinking about heroes a lot lately, but seldom in a such an appropriate setting.

Our parents are our first heroes. If we're blessed, like my siblings and myself, we never completely lose sight of this. Oh, we may not feel it as keenly as we grow into adults, but, once we get there, we generally understand just how correct our fledgling instincts were.

My folks worked hard all their lives to provide for us. The sacrifices that seem so enormous to me today were sacrifices they never thought twice about making. They knew what was right, then acted on that knowledge with love and generosity.

Television introduced me to my next heroes: the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Superman, and Zorro. I would lay on the floor of our living room and delight in their adventures, never once wondering why they did what they did. Had someone asked such a question in my presence, I would have looked at them as if they were speaking in Martian. What a stupid question!

All my heroes were good men with the ability and opportunity to help others. So, naturally, that's what they did. The answer couldn't have been more obvious.

My own heroes had raised me to believe people were basically good and good people, given the means, would certainly help those in distress. What other motivation would they need?

I learned to read from comic books. I found heroes familiar and heroes new in their pages: Superman, Batman, the Lone Ranger, Spider-Man, and more. They might have stumbled from time to time in the course of their adventures, but you always knew that, when it really mattered, they would conduct themselves nobly.

When I think about these heroes, images flash across my mind like a slide show. So many great memories.

I see Superman dying from "Virus X" and his friends charging to his side to carry out the missions he is too weak to complete. I see him launching himself into space to write a farewell to his adopted world, charring "Do good to others and every man can be a Superman" into the face of the moon.

I see Spider-Man trapped underneath tons of fallen steel and refusing to surrender to his fate. I see his muscles strain with unbearable fatigue as he triumphs against all odds.

I see the Challengers of the Unknown risking their lives for the conquered people of another dimension, scaling the tower that is the source of the invaders' power. I see the determination in their eyes as they take hit after hit without wavering from their gallant objective.

I see a contrite Iron Man standing before the other Avengers as he accepts a suspension for failing to answer their call. The punishment is not so terribly strict, but it makes it clear these heroes recognize the highest standards of personal conduct.

The heroes were my role models. I may not be able to attain such high standards on every occasion, but their examples set the path of my life. If I stumble from time to time, and I do, I get back on the path in hopes that when it really matters, I will not stumble again.

I think about these heroes of my youth and I wonder how they might feel about what we've done to them, how we've twisted their once-proud principles. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

Superman murders three defeated enemies for fear of what the future might bring. There is no message on the moon.

An editor talks about how he has a hard time relating to the heroes entrusted to him. He doesn't understand why they do good. He does not believe in them. So he brings them down as surely as any arch-villain, reduces them to psychotic motives that offer no hope for their grim worlds.

Bruce Wayne became Batman to avenge the senseless murders of his parents. He found their killer and saw him brought to a kind of justice. He continued to wear the mantle of Batman to protect his fellow citizens. He had grown from obsessed avenger to noble guardian.

In the DC Universe after ZERO HOUR, and even overlooking the Batman's immoral alliance with a hired assassin to bring down the Azrael-Batman he himself had created, Bruce Wayne never found the killer of his parents. He remains the obsessed avenger. Without that transition, without the moment when he chooses to remain the Batman after conquering his personal demons, he is much less than the hero he could and should be.

An editor proclaims his belief that the main competition for the comic books he produces are mindless and violent video games. The stories he publishes, save for the rare exception, are devoid of any meaningful content.

Spider-Man makes a deal with Venom that allows his murderous foeman to go free. The Justice League parties with the genocidal Lobo. Brutality rulz, man!

A new editor asks a creator/writer of a super-hero when that hero will kill. Not "if" the hero will kill, but "when" the hero will kill. Principles suck, man!

Green Arrow is a murderer; Green Lantern is a *mass* murderer. Twenty years ago, they were traveling our land looking for truth. Didn't they learn anything? Didn't we?

The comics heroes of my youth were beings of hope and wonder and even inspiration. The comics heroes of today are, too often, creatures of despair and rage.

Why? And why does it matter?

Comics fan Lucio A. Perez is a police officer in the Mission District of San Francisco. He is a member of CompuServe's Comics and Animation Forum and sometimes shares his job experiences with us. Last month, he posted the following:
Yesterday, I received another "Police Officer of the Year" award at a luncheon held in my honor. The mayor and my chief were there. I was sitting there dumbstruck at my good fortune. Most cops don't receive this award at any time in their careers, and I've won it five times already. And I owe it all to growing up reading comic books and wanting to make a difference. I didn't want to end up like my boyhood chums who wound up dead or went to prison.
When I pressed him for more details, Perez was gracious with his time and his memories. He wrote:
I really owe a lot to comic books and their creators. They made a huge difference in my life when I was cutting school, and getting expelled from every school that I attended because I was a troublemaker. I had an authority problem. if you can believe it. I grew up in the back of a bar in the crime-ridden Mission District and it wasn't easy to stay out of trouble.

The only constant I had in my teenage life was skateboarding three miles to the comic book shop in the Mission District and picking up my batch o'comics. Then I'd skateboard back home, lock myself in my room, and read them all. That's how I learned to read and expanded my vocabulary...from reading comic books. I didn't realize I was learning and educating myself through another medium. It just seemed like a fun thing to do. It paid off for me in the long run.

That's one of the reasons I want to see more books like BLACK LIGHTNING on the market. A comic book like that can actually make a difference and provide entertainment at the same time. Learning how to read is half the battle for a lot of the kids in my old neighborhood.

You would also be surprised at how many cops were former comic-book readers...tons of them. And many continue to read them to this day.
This is why it matters. Because comic-book creators do have the power and the responsibility to take their readers beyond the despair and the rage. Because we have the power to inspire. And because we have failed in our responsibility to show the light as well as the dark.

We live in a country crying out for heroes and we wonder why they won't buy our anti-heroes any more. We talk about so-called "realistic" heroes as our market shrinks around us. We allow the dark to block out the wonder of the comics.

Haven't we learned anything?

There are still interesting stories to tell about our comics heroes without breaking, cloning, killing, or savaging them. The only requirements are courage, faith, and talent.

We can draw our inspiration from the many good people around us. For even in these most cynical of times, there is courage in our world. There is generosity. There is hope.

There are heroes among us, my friends.

In my next column, we'll meet some of them.

Tony Isabella

Discuss this column with me at my Message Board.

    Heroes and Villains: Real and Imagined

    "My Back Pages" (September 22, 2001)

    Part One
    "My Heroes Have Always Been Heroes" (March 24, 1995)

    Part Two
    "There Are Heroes Among Us" (April 5, 1995)

    Part Three
    "Heroes and Hope" (April 10, 1995)

    Part Four
    "Crisis of Faith" (April 19, 1995)

    Part Five
    "Oklahoma City" (April 26, 1995)

    Part Six
    "Making It Right" (May 16, 1995)

    Part Seven
    "Columbine High School" (May 4, 1999)

    "Unfinished Business" (September 23, 2001)

Title Page >> Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Afterword | Message Board

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