In 1883 Nietzsche published this book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It had a bunch of philosophy and stuff in it, but the thing you need to take away from it is this: he invented Superman. Or Übermensch. Anyway, it’s supposed to be the zenith of human evolution… this ideal persona that we achieve at some point. And then the idea was taken over by some people in government and bastardized a bit to justify some very bad behaviour. But what do you expect from the guy that said God was dead?
Fast forward 50 years and these two guys in Ohio come up with the idea of this alien baby that looks like us sent to earth as the lone survivor. Under our yellow sun he develops superpowers and is known simply as Superman. Between 1933 and 1938 you have the development of the first ever American comic book and the debut of the “prototypical” superhero. That’s something important we all need to remember.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the modern concept of hero, antihero, superhero, and villain entered literature but I do know a few of these things happened: Lord Byron wrote about a guy named Lord Macualay, a sort of version of himself, that was not the ideal and set the precedent for the modern antihero. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this short story about a guy named Dalyrimple. Dalyrimple Goes Wrong explores the themes of the evolution of an amoral hero and is the piece that has one of my all-time favourite quotes about writing, so you should read it.
The thing about these terms Hero, Villain, Antihero, and Superhero is that they morph as time marches on. It’s difficult to read or be entertained by something without applying the lens of current culture. Each summer for the past 10 years, at least, we’ve had the superhero (or heroes) of the moment. These guys and gals of the tight suits and fancy gadgets experienced a change in portrayal 10 years ago, too.
No longer did the American public want someone lofty to look up to, a mere role model; no they wanted someone real, someone like them. It’s an interesting set up: a person (alien, demigod, science experiment gone wrong, or what have you) given an opportunity more extreme than most of us would encounter, yet something we all wish we could face. And we wonder: will they rise to the occasion or collapse under the pressure?
It seems that these days we like our heroes a little more human than before. That could be because of the idea that if their humanity is diminished, or removed they become something other and lose the ability to have a moral code that means anything. And comic books don’t back down from this trend. Watchmen deals with what happens when superheroes become untouchable and have no accountability, V for Vendetta sets a monster as the savior, the Green Lantern is re-written with a new sexual identity, the Man of Steel trailer depicts a Superman burdened with selfish choice.
I would posit the idea that it gives us hope. Instead of creating a fictional standard of perfection to be reached we are shown superheroes that look and act like us overcoming obstacles, making tough decisions, and rising above their circumstances. That’s something important we all need to remember.
In reality, we are our own heroes. It doesn’t take superhuman strength, intelligence, a limitless bankroll, or fancy gadgets to make the world a better place. Just you and me, in the thing, for the long haul.