When those firemen died recently in Massachusetts, it was a horrible, tragic event. It shouldn't have happened. They shouldn't have died. There's no two ways about it.
At the funeral, a victim's father said of his son that he's not a hero because he died in the fire, he was a hero from the moment he was born.
Under the circumstances, I'm willing to cut the father all the slack in the world. I'm not trying to ridicule or belittle him. His son died. He suffered a terrible loss, and I have nothing but sympathy for him.
But there's got to be something more to heroism than that, doesn't there? If the mere fact of life or death constitutes heroism, we're all heroes, because both happen to all of us.
There's an apocryphal story about Nicholas Ray's 1954 JOHNNY GUITAR, an anti-anti-Communist-hysteria western in which saloon keeper Joan Crawford is smeared by jealous townswoman Mercedes McCambridge, who drums up a lynch mob to string Crawford up. Right wing Hollywood stalwart Ward Bond co-stars as the town sheriff. The story goes that when Ray (who followed up JOHNNY GUITAR with the iconic misunderstood youth film REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) was much later asked how he convinced Bond to appear in what's tacitly a left-wing film, Ray replied that he just told Bond his character was the movie's real hero, causing Bond to presume it was a right-leaning film after all.
Hero is one of those words (victim's another) that's so widely and often inappropriately used that it no longer has much functional meaning. Part of the confusion is linguistic - there are half a dozen different official meanings for "hero," and more unofficial meanings accrued all the time - and part is cultural. One problem is the euphemistic confusion of "protagonist" - the central character in a story - with "hero" - the man of might. America didn't invent the confusion, but we've turned it into a national pastime, for a long time subscribing to the notion enshrined in John Ford's THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE: when the legend becomes truth, print the legend. Now there's a new prevailing attitude: when the legend becomes truth, print an anti-legend.
For the most part, comics remain wallowed in a 19th century conceit of heroism sprung from an unholy alliance of high and low culture. Edward Wheeler and Edward Judson (better known as Ned Buntline) created fictional heroes or fictionalized men like Buffalo Bill Cody c. 1870, selling the country an image of rough excitement in a West that was itself mostly fictitious, while Victorian scholars rediscovered classical mythology, misinterpreting it (deliberately or otherwise) into a dispensable form suited to the tastes of their society. In Victorianized Greek mythology, elements fall pleasingly to one side or the other of a moral divide, separated into the Apollonian (light, good) and Dionysian (dark, bad). No such easy division exists in the Greek originals, which themselves were often the result of centuries of accretion, as successive cultures conquered other cultures and absorbed or demoted the native gods. Apollo may be the god of light, but he's also the god of pestilence. Dionysus is the god of madness, but he's also the gentle god of fertility and cultivation.
Hero, in the Greek, simply means "man of might." We like to pretend that comics heroes are the modern extension of classical heroes, part of some sort of noble continuum, but it's not true. We ascribe a morality to the concept that never occurred to the ancients. Greek heroes are venal, vulgar creatures without much respect for human dignity at all, aside from their own. I was recently asked on the message board if young Greeks identified with their heroes the way we're supposed to identify with comics heroes, daydreaming of being Hercules
The pattern is common. The all-but-invulnerable crybaby Achilles dies of an arrow in the foot after first, to all intents and purposes, taking his ball and going home, then slaying the Trojan hero Hector and dragging his body around the battlefield for show. Bellerophon, slayer of the Chimera, gets thrown by Pegasus and wanders in misery until he dies. Oedipus discovers he has killed his father, blinds himself, and plays out the rest of his days as a sightless, dispirited wanderer. Etc.
About the only Greek hero who comes out okay is Odysseus, who spends 20 years getting bounced all over the Mediterranean until he finally admits that, yeah, however smart and tough he thinks he is, it doesn't mean jack to the gods. In his day, Odysseus was reviled by the Greeks as an insincere, devious trickster who prefers strategy to sheer force of arms. He's the stuff we make villains of today - crafty, disingenuous, argumentative and doggedly advancing his own cause - but he's the one who wins the Trojan War and the only hero with the brains to shift tactics in the face of divine obstinacy.
These aren't heroes Ned Buntline would have recognized, and Buntline is the spiritual father of comic books. His heroes were always purehearted, fought for righteousness and feminine virtue, and shot straighter and faster than the bad guys, who were the Manichean opposites of the hero. Stripping the ambiguities of truth from the men he wrote about, he codified the American heroic mode: no matter how great the odds, no matter what the forces marshaled against them, heroes win, nobly. It was pure juvenilia, tailored for a young, impatient country; Buntline's quickly written, gaudy stories were manifest destiny on the hoof, and though Buntline himself was quickly eclipsed, his spirit dominated American popular culture for years.
Most media, even TV for the most part, outgrew Buntline years ago. 30s pulps may have been the heirs to dime novels, but there was already a darker, more mature streak in them slowly blotting out the Buntline legacy. Darkness doesn't equal maturity, but maturity does demand at minimum an acknowledgement of the uncertainty of the human condition. Many pulp heroes were recognizably Buntlinian, but most developed a range of response that Buntline's heroes never would have dreamed of.
Comics began that way too. Batman sometimes used a gun and often content to stand around and watch his adversaries die instead of taking action to save them. Superman, who often demonstrated a nasty sense of humor, had a special fondness for dropping dictators from heights, and he may have been faster than a speeding bullet, but apparently slower than bullets bouncing off his chest, more than one of which struck down whatever crook shot it. It wasn't long before they and all the heroes like them were cleaned up, "buntlined" and trotted out as role models, instantly infantilizing the medium. These heroes were of extraordinary skills and morality, always brave, always right, always on the job. They were men molded for you to look up to.
A few variants have popped up. Marvel made a play for audience identification with heroes who had all the same qualities, but who people should have looked up to but didn't. The other characters in Marvel comics feared and mistrusted their saviors, and Marvel's heroes were sometimes tempted toward the dark side, but otherwise Ned Buntline was standing there right beside them. In the early 70s, Gerry Conway introduced the concept that it was all right - de rigueur, even - for heroes to fly into rages, on the battlefield and off, and it caught on like crazy with comics writers, a quick and easy alternative to motivation when used badly, and it usually was. The 80s saw the first wholesale onslaught on the standard image of the comics hero, but the backlash, a reactionary cry for a return to heroic normalcy, was already taking place alongside it.
The problem is this: the Ned Buntline style character doesn't act in any way a human being recognizes as a normal response. There's no range. There was a movement toward "relevancy" in the early 70s that was really a half-understood plea for a wider response range for characters, something recognizable as a real-world reaction. You can't have this and maintain the Buntline style. Virtually every other storytelling medium - even TV - has figured this out by now. This may be an argument for comics providing something no one else does - but it's not something most people want. We're still dealing the cards for a game that has been going steadily out of fashion since the mid-60s.
It's not that anyone is against heroics. People still do heroic things, heroism is still a legitimate response to a situation. What comics profess is an immature idea of a "steady state heroism," the idea that heroism is not only a continuous condition but the dominating characteristic of a personality. When we call a comics character a hero, we mean that person will set aside all other matters to do "good things," possibly a side effect of the rigors of endless monthly publication. But people aren't like that. No one's heroic all the time. People have good days and bad days, good moods and bad. Heroism exists at the confluence of personality and situation, and someone who commits a heroic deep in one circumstance might not in the next. Very good men are capable of very bad deeds, and vice versa. A war hero might embezzle from his job, a bank robber might save a drowning child. You can never tell. This is the intrigue of the human condition, it's what keeps us surprised and interested, and it's what we keep trying to beat out of comics.
Heroism, as I've said before, isn't really found in comics anyway. It's all set up. Comics were fortunate enough to stumble across the ultimate Buntline villain in Hitler in 1941, and they've been duking it out with him in one guise or another ever since. But it's set-up heroism, an endless battle to simulate wartime, and it sends the message that the only true heroism takes place in war. Comics heroes don't actually solve anything. They can't. Superman tried to dodge the problem in the 40s by dunning Clark Kent out of service, but that still didn't explain why Superman didn't just whip over to Germany and toss Hitler off the Matterhorn. Realizing early on that comics heroes are basically impotent when it comes to the real world, we've since steadily created an artificial world around them that now connects to virtually nothing.
No one besides comics and the press think Buntline style heroes are anything but a joke anymore. Hollywood gave up on them, preferring to round out even the noblest characters with humanized blemishes. They're seriously frowned upon in novels, where the most common description of them is "cardboard." Even kids don't seem to have much use for them anymore; Ash, the hero of POKÉMON, for instance, may have a number of Buntlinian characteristics - he's steadfast, purehearted, and reasonably brave - but he's also egotistical, reckless, oblivious, clumsy and, 80% of the time, wrong. Kids eat it up, and not just because they like the toys.
Comics have just not gotten hip to the notion that "hero" is now a meaningless term. In real life, getting a hero label on you is the equivalent of wearing a "kick me" sign - it's an invitation to the press to savagely hunt for your soft underbelly - but, given that we've taken to calling ball players, actors and movie stars heroes, that's not a terrible thing. Most people who get labeled heroes simply don't deserve the title, while most real heroes don't call much attention to themselves, having their heroic moment then fading back into their daily lives. Whoever they are, they're all just people. Great in one area, they stumble in others. Pete Rose plays inspirational baseball but gambles. Hugh Grant demonstrates a fondness for prostitutes. Fire and brimstone ministers cheat on their wives. That's what people do.
The last 35 years have taught America to distrust self-proclaimed heroes, to distrust even the word. They smell a con job, and rightly so. "Hero" is now a political term, its validity depends on your point of view. Ronald Reagan - in a speech crafted by Pat Buchanan, who now portrays himself as the "hero" of the average man - could, without pause, refer on the one hand to the Contras as heroes and on the other list SS soldiers buried in Bittenburg as "the victims of WWII." After all the effort they made to reconstruct Nixon's historical image after his death, minimizing the meaning of the Watergate scandals that led to his resignation and highlighting his foreign policy achievements, Republicans re-savaged him in an effort to tar Clinton by comparison. A little Cuban boy gets named a hero simply for not dying with his mother in the seas off Florida.
Only in comics and in the press does the word "hero" still mean anything. In the press, it's a target word, and they start looking for the feet of clay. In comics, it's a buzzword, and all it really means now is a merchandising gimmick that can no longer ignite the imagination. We have a little over a year until the next millennium. We could come up with a new style of comic by then if we wanted to, comics that joined the 20th century by focusing on protagonists, not heroes. This doesn't mean we have to abandon heroism as a focus or a theme, but it does demand a modern redefinition that works for us, an opening of the borders to other themes or to deeper, more sophisticated examinations of the one we have. It doesn't mean the end of stories, it means a much wider range. It doesn't even mean that there cannot be people whose ambition in life is to do good deeds, but it means the possibility that we can examine, recombine and re-energize the form. It means we can't live in the 19th century and just wear modern clothes anymore.