Sunday, November 3, 2013

Villain of the Month: D.C. Comics and the Claim that "Heroes Are Lame"

Comic Con 2012. Jabba the Hut: NOT a hero.

On the D.C. Comics website there is a post by Kevin Mahadeo entitled "5.2 Reasons Bad Guys are Cooler Than Good Guys." Since I do have a bit of an obsession with character villainy, I had to check it out. While a simple list post, I must admit I was bugged by the first point: "1. Heroes are lame." 

Really? So that's why we've seen such a non-stop tidal wave of superhero movies/ culture post-9/11??? FYI I live in San Diego, and went to Comic Con pre-2001 when it was mostly just a handful of geeks in spandex. Huh. And now San Diegans need illuminated traffic directives during Comic Con because heroes are lame??? Or was the post just written now because we're starting to feel safer, because people have forgotten the dull ache of what it was like to crave superheroes? I was mulling over all of these when I got to the final line "Plus, they're always so predictable. They'll strive to the do the right thing and save the day and help people. You know who isn't predictable? The Joker. Who knows what that guy will do? One minute he's standing right next to you laughing at what you're writing and the next he could stab you in the face" 

Okay. maybe Mahadeo has a point; I don't worry that any of the heroes I know will stab me in the face. Maybe heroes aren't complex enough to be anything more than boring.

Maybe the traditional model of hero as predictable isn't working for us anymore. Maybe we need to let our relatable, good, trusted, characters, the ones with whom we identify, shock us a little more. Allow them to embrace their darker natures. Even if those darker sides scare us when they aren't tidily placed in the "villain" category. The success of Gone Girl with its foray into the darkness of an initially-likable character certainly shows American readers will eat it up and beg for more.

Or maybe the whole "heroes are lame because they are predictable" argument just plain sucks. 

While I know that great writing requires that our characters surprise us with their complex blends of good and evil, I feel as though I live in a world of predictable heroes who are far more complex than anyone gives them credit for. 

I'm a teacher. 

And I'm a teacher at a public school where many of my colleagues have highly competitive CVs (degrees from Princeton, UC Berkeley, Harvey Mudd, UCLA, etc., one colleague even left a very successful company he'd founded to teach). Every day I'm surrounded by a pack of these men and women who eschew the monetary rewards they might've earned and will always "strive to do the right thing and save the day and help people." 

And the more I get to know my colleagues the more I find the "predictable" heroes far more fascinating than any villain.

We live in a world where the easiest path is one of basic self-centered living, as Mahalo points out, "Clark Kent would have to work for a year to make the kind of money that the Rogues earn for one heist. Just saying." and as I learned from reading The Dictator's Handbook the best way to be a "successful" dictator is to always do what will be the best for you, it seems to me that those motivations are the most dull/predictable because they are the most infantile  responses.

Why be a predictable metronome of goodness when it goes against all basic self-interest, even coolness? Now that's interesting. Complex. Not predictable.

And I believe that teasing out the answer to that question is what makes the writing of a hero great, but (and this is a very big but) can't be limited to the origin story alone

What makes a hero good initially and what makes him/her slosh through the myriad small/large battles of life and stick with it are often two, or three, or four, or countless very different stories.  If I've learned anything teaching beside a pack of heroes for the past decade, even the motivations are complex and ever-changing arrangements and, based on my experience, is far less predictable than one might expect.

And I believe that this is the key to writing a good hero. Your reader might not get the rush of constantly being at risk of getting "stabbed in the face," but maybe there's a different kind of rush in pulling back the curtain to see that ever-changing sea of motivation behind what makes a man "super."


  1. Heroes are far from lame. I love them; I need them, and I'd hate to see them change either in real life or in fiction.

  2. Vilians are lame. Look at Lord Voldemort. Boo-hoo, he had a rough patch and turns evil. Get over yourself. Harry, the hero, had a similar fate and rises above it - much more interesting.