Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Origins: When Do We Want Heroes?

Last night I sat in stupefied horror as I watched the newest incarnation of Batman in the animated series The Brave and The Bold.

Evidently, Batman seemed too dark to the show's creators and they decided to regress him back to the non-offensive, the Joker is just a prankster, every hero is a buddy, Adam West and Burt Ward days.

At first glance, I was impressed, since I saw an unusual episode where Batman had gone back in time to meet Sherlock Holmes. He fought alongside Etrigan - the half-demon, half-human rhyming powerhouse (kudos for that) against a soul-stealing demon of Hell. It had a solid grim lesson: demons lie and trusting them will bring you horror not power.

So I watched another episode and went "GAHHHHHHHHHH!!" It was bad.

I tried another. "Uhrk..." It too was bad.

Just like that, the Powers that Be decided to undo 12 years of coolness, the coolness we had gotten from Bruce Timm.

Now Timm had gotten his lessons the hard way: he was self-taught and was in love with the genre. He was unable to become a regular artist for DC or Marvel, but ended up getting the opportunity to create with all of DC's main characters and then some! He even got to "back-pollinate" by creating Harlequin, the Joker's girlfriend, and did such a fine job, DC made her part of their youth market line of comics - Batman Adventures.

Timm got his inspiration for his dark urban landscapes and epic heroism from the old Fleischer cartoons of Superman, done waaaaayyyy back in the 1940's during World War II.

They are in the public domain, I believe, and in watching them, you see the heavy dark areas, the fluidity of movement, the expression of line, etc. They are amazingly good artistically. They have some whimsy that is not too oppressive and - since this is the Superman of yesteryear - Supes really has to hammer away and work to defeat his villains.

But why did we want Superman? Why did he succeed and Captain Marvel did not - oh, he outsold Superman for a little while, but the Big Red Cheese never captured America like the Big Red S.

For that matter, why did Batman also succeed under Bill Finger's hand (the real genius behind Bob Kane's creation)?

Why does Spider-man rule in all sales? What makes these guys so good - so iconic they can survive anything but a personality change?

Answer: loss. Real, understandable loss.

How many boys of European descent read Superman "strange visitor from another world" - dressed like everyone else but not like everyone else?

How many boys in the late 30's were orphans or friends of orphans? Who had lost either one or both parents in the Great Depression - or later in World War II?

The same with Spidey - only we add in the self-focus of the Beat Generation. Poor Peter - he never had a chance to be the super star he wanted to be.

But he could be a hero.

I think when we lose the idea of loss - of alienation - we cease to be able to understand the heroic trope. You see a hero is not a person who does great deeds or has great powers.

A hero is a person who has suffered great loss and refuses to fall down and die over it.

An anti-hero is nearly the same persona, except they work not for the good of others but their own power base. They heroically survive to defeat their foes, but they have no goal outside of that.

When do we want heroes - even anti-heroes? In wartime, in a time of great depression, in any time of great loss.

We don't want just straight fantasy, though that is fun for the moment. We want to see someone survive and make it - and make a difference in the world.

If you forget that, you lose your audience.

And you lose your hero. Something we can never afford to do.

Amen.

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