Special Attack

Special Attack
The Hero Bag of Tricks

Mur Lafferty | 15 Mar 2012 17:30
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I love superheroes.

Specifically, I love superhero stories that turn the typical tropes on their heads. I'm not a longtime reader of X-Men or Superman or any of the other Marvel/DC comics. (I did read the entire run of The Amazing Spider-Man when J. Michael Strazynski wrote it, and talk about turning tropes on their heads - course, then it was all retconned, so it NEVER HAPPENED.)

But I digress. The stories I adore: Astro City. Top 10. Powers. Paul Cornell's very funny Knight and Squire, a British take on Batman and Robin. I love what Frank Miller did to Batman and what Alan Moore did to heroes in general with Watchmen. I've answered the "flight or invisibility?" question a million times in my head. I've watched Internet flame wars about costumes (dang if those costumes aren't the spine of the superhero nervous system!) I've studied the very meta It's a Bird, by Steven T. Seagle. I loved the first season of Heroes and mourned how bad it got. I tried to love No Ordinary Family, but it just didn't hold together. The Cape? Well. Come on. I do have taste.

I've been thinking about why some stories work and others don't. Hero stories are obviously mirrors to our existence, taking a downtrodden geeky kid and making him powerful, letting an orphan know he's a super kid from another world, giving a wealthy playboy a free pass on obsessive vigilantism. I know more scholarly writers have gone into the details of various heroes, but at the most basic level, hero stories are wish fulfillment. We are unable to fight our bosses, punch our traffic jams, or fly up and rescue our plunging 401(k), so it's nice to imagine a world where things boil down to an overwhelming force is battled by another overwhelming force.

Superhero stories require a couple of things from us: they ask us to believe the character has powers (or skills) beyond that of the average human, they ask us to believe that most of these characters have both a public life and a secret superhero life, and they ask us to believe that enough bad things go on in this world that a powered hero is needed.

The first one is the most outrageous, so naturally that's the easiest to believe. It's like how people will swallow that Superman can fly, is nigh invulnerable, etc, but they will howl with rage if a character's gun is a Glock and she switches a manual safety. We can believe something totally unthinkable, but a Glock with a manual safety? YOU FOOL!

I was thinking about the latter two, however, and their role in the hero story bag of tricks. The mild-mannered alter-ego encountering very human problems that their powers can't fix - usually having to do with a pretty woman - is relatable and makes us like the hero more; hey, I can't fly, but at least Spider-Man is as crappy with his love interest as I am with mine!"

But what if I did have powers? I wondered what it would be like to try to go through everyday public life like a powered person in her public persona. Take good old Harvey Dent. (I know that Two-Face doesn't have a public persona, him being all half melty and stuff, but work with me here.) Consider going through your day with such crippling OCD that you flip a coin for every major decision; not whether or not to kill Batman, but the more mundane stuff. Sure, the coin worked last night when you chose not to throw Robin off a building, but then the sun rises, you have to go to work. The coin flip might work for breakfast choice and route to work, but it's not going to go much further.

"Sorry, boss, I can't make that meeting. Tails."

"Tails. I'm allergic to peanuts, but the coin says I have to join you at the Thai Palace for lunch. Just let me flip for my epi-pin... Tails. I can't bring my adrenaline shot with me. This is going to be a fun afternoon!"

In regards to heroes and their secret identities, it seems that Clark Kent and Peter Parker have it easy; working for newspapers, they get to leave the office whenever there's a news story going on. But what if they had gone into other work? Parker's pretty smart, what if he had become a surgeon?

"Spidey sense tingling! Too bad I have to leave this brain surgery patient here to die while I run off and save the bus full of nuns."

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