There is something I want to accomplish with this column that made up only a tiny fraction of last week’s first entry. It’s right there in my column description — “Witness the fanboy grow into a fan-adult.” I sometimes struggle with brevity, so I’m not entirely sure that phrase contains enough words to really convey what I mean, so I’ll expand here: I want this column to, at times, challenge what we as the comic book community have come to accept as rigid truth. I want to call out areas where tradition is holding us back, and in other cases I want to make my readers take a step back and look at comics in a different light. So on a relatively serious note, one that events from this week have compelled me to write, I want to discuss what a real superhero is.
Superhero stories are the predominant comic book genre. To society at large comic books are superheroes. The majority of the comics I read are superhero comics; they’re what got me into his medium and they’re what I stand by to this day. This summer, we even delighted in “Marvel Studios’ The Avengers,” which portrayed some of the biggest, most heartfelt acts of super-heroism I have ever witnessed in any medium, ever. There’s just something about superheroes, isn’t there? Part of the thrill I get from reading these stories on a daily basis (because poppa has an iPad and a comic addiction) comes from taking these stories in not only as inspiration but as an aspiration; I don’t just feel great reading these stories, I feel that the characters give me an ideal toward which to work.
But what is a superhero? What defines a comic book superhero? The first thing that springs to my mind, something that has stuck with me since I was 8 years old, has to be Rogue’s sacrifice in “Uncanny X-Men” #173. The entire storyline, captured in the out-of-print (but absolutely necessary) “From the Ashes” trade paperback, shapes how I have viewed the X-Men from the time I was a child. This one moment finds Rogue, new to the X-Men after her initial debut as a villain, sacrificing herself to save Wolverine, who she had just met and who had pretty much given her the cold shoulder for two issues straight. He wouldn’t even invite her into his living quarters in Japan; she wasn’t welcome. But Rogue sacrificed herself, threw herself in the path of a laser blast, to save him and his wife-to-be Mariko. Wolverine, in turn, let Rogue use her power absorption powers on himself, giving her a bit of his healing factor. Wolverine rewarded this woman who he had regarded as an enemy with a sacrifice of his own, both sacrifices expertly depicted by Chris Claremont and Paul Smith.
The other instance arrived in comic stores just last Wednesday in “Batman” #12 by Scott Snyder and Becky Cloonan. The issue spotlighted a relatively new character, Gotham citizen Harper Row. Harper’s high school-age brother, Cullen, is brutally attacked simply because he’s gay. Cullen gets the gay slur shaved into his head, which Harper responds to by shaving the same word into her head. This moment of solidarity between the two struck me, out of nowhere. This was a sister sticking up for her brother, showing that courage and conviction is the right way to confront outright, violent ignorance. Batman later saves Harper and Cullen from being attacked again, but by that point we’ve already met the real hero of the issue. Batman has nothing to lose against a group of high schoolers with knives, but Harper does.
Rogue and Harper are both heroes. I’m not saying they’re definitive heroes, nor am I saying these comics are the ruler by which all other comic books should be measured. Right here, right now, however, they define heroism to me. Heroism is committing a selfless act because it’s the right thing to do, regardless of the cost to the hero. Now, in my quest to make all of y’all think a little bit outside the box, I want to turn the focus on two news stories this week that have grabbed my attention in a major way, in order to illustrate what heroism looks like in our world.
The passing of comic book legend Joe Kubert this past Sunday hit the comic book community hard. A separate article could be written about how much of a real life hero Joe Kubert is, because the man definitely is one. But what I want to point out is how one member of the comic community came to the defense of not just the memory of Joe Kubert, but of our community itself. A vile article began circulating online on Monday, one that made a truly abhorrent claim and really put on display the grotesque side of fanboy mindlessness that has come to tarnish our medium’s wider reputation. This article was the proverbial knife-wielding gang member, descending on the comics community in a moment of grieving and weakness. My kneejerk response was to write an article about it. After waiting 24 hours, I found that someone else had, addressing the topic in a way that was absolutely perfect: iFanboy’s Mike Romo wrote a piece (one that, like this article, denies the original blog any Google juice) that not only took the original post head on, but completely reaffirmed what is absolutely mind-blowingly powerful about the comic book community. Go, read the last paragraph of his piece. If that doesn’t get you excited about being a comic book fan in the year 2012, then get back to stealing Christmas, you dirty Grinch. Mike Romo intercepted the laser blast, deflecting it and dealing with it expertly.
The other example that hit me on Monday came from my friend, Matt Fisher. He wrote a Tumblr post titled “My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer In Court.” Odds are, as the internet-savvy reader you are as a CBR regular, you came across this somewhere. If you didn’t, please read it. The gist of it is: Matt’s sister, Katie, was killed in an automobile accident, and instead of her insurance company paying what they owe, they hired a lawyer to defend Katie’s killer to weasel out of paying. To put it in comic book terms, that’s some Kingpin-style manipulation right there. The story has thickened since, and now Matt is one man representing his hurting, grieving family, taking on one of the biggest companies in America because of their awful, shockingly/disgustingly/horrifyingly legal actions. He’s not Batman. He’s Harper Row.
Like Harper Row in “Batman” #12, Matt is protecting and fighting for his family, putting himself at risk because it is the right thing to do. Matt has the heart of a superhero, and it shocks me because this is a person I have known for years. He’s an improviser and sketch comedian at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, like myself. For all I knew, Matt was merely a comedy loving, Converse-rocking, bespectacled goofball and belt buckle enthusiast like me and literally eighty percent of the people I interact with on a regular basis (except for that belt buckle part). And then this happened. Matt and his family were attacked and he stepped up, suited up and became a damn superhero.
The thing is, as a fan-adult I want to be able to recognize the heroism I read about on a daily basis when it happens in real life. Spider-Man is a great hero. Batman is an incredible hero. Neither of them is real. Those fictional characters do not, themselves, provide any tangible protection to us on this planet. (I mean, unless your heat is out and old comics become kindling.) Comic books do, however, provide a blueprint for what decent human beings should be. When they are written well, they inspire us.
What I’m trying to get at is, you will never be called upon to slip into some spandex (outside of Halloween or whatever you might do in your bedroom) and go fight crime. You will never swing through your hometown on homemade webbing. An alien army is never going to come ripping through the sky, craving the nommy taste of human flesh. That will never happen. But trolls will try to disgrace our community and companies will defend killers. When the time comes, I hope we can all be a superhero like Mike and my friend Matt, who are so like Rogue and Harper. And I hope people recognize your heroism, even if you aren’t wearing a cape.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre sketch team Everything Rabbits. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).