Heroism in fiction
February 12, 2011 Leave a comment
An interesting article over at Big Hollywood got me thinking about heroism in fiction. This topic is near and dear to my heart – I praised Bill Willingham’s coming-out against superhero decadence essay, but I’ve also written a song about Rorschach, the anti-hero of Watchmen fame, so it’s safe to say that I’m not completely of one mind on the issue.
The problem that Grin and Willingham identified is absolutely present; there is a modern trope which does not permit the unalloyed good to confront the untempered evil in an un-ironic manner. This trope is ascendant but not overwhelming – there are certainly examples of straightforward heroism and villainy in media, but they are not the majority of the new works being developed. Interestingly, those takes seem to do quite well financially when they appear, so I’m surprised that financial interest alone does not propel more creators in this direction, but perhaps some creators are more attached to their ideas than public acclaim.
Personally, I think that there’s some value in trying to understand the villain – Dr. Doom or Magneto become much richer characters because we understand their motivations – and while presenting evil as tempting and seductive makes for good storytelling, we shouldn’t forget that in fact evil is, well, evil. Both Doom and Magneto earn their villain stripes on the backs of mass murder regardless of their motivations, and that shouldn’t be ignored or glossed over – Doom can offer Ben Grimm the chance to be human again, and Grimm might want to take it, but if Grimm is the hero that he’s built up to be he will come to refuse, knowing that this is a figurative deal with the devil.
Consider the current vogue of vampire stories – Sookie Stackhouse, Twilight, and others: these follow in the footsteps of Anne Rice by putting the vampires at the heart of the story as sympathetic characters, and the Stackhouse novels at least use the vampire/human relations as a proxy for commentary about relations between liberal and conservative views on homosexuality. The problem here is that the analogy isn’t a good one: no matter where one falls on the liberal/conservative spectrum on that issue, no one alleges that homosexuals displace heterosexuals as apex predators, while in the Stackhouse universe the airbrushed-over consequence of the unmasking of all of these vampires would do just that to the humans. Further, another unanswered question would be the assorted killings by vampires of humans and the reverse: in either case it could be argued that murder did not take place, because in the first case there was no underlying homicide (because the victim is not human) and in the latter case the question of whether non-humans are subject to human law is not fully answered (although Harris seemed to touch around the edges of this) – for more interesting legal discussion like this, take a look at Law and the Multiverse – but be that as it may, how would you punish a vampire? Worse, look at the amount of blood on the hands of the heroes in these stories: any one of them would stack up nicely when compared to a Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy, and they certainly have killed a lot more people than Charles Manson.
But back to the topic – the heroic ideal is that the hero confronts some obstacle, overcomes it with great difficulty, and becomes a better person in the process. It’s possible to deviate from this and still tell a great story: the aforementioned Watchmen, for instance, does not have that arc, and in fact deconstructs heroism quite effectively. However, very few deconstructive attempts are as good as Watchmen, and the successive deconstructions need to be more and more destructive to the ideals, and thus perform greater and greater acts of cannibalism on their own genres. If too much of this flourishes, then the genre dies of irrelevance, because it can no longer tell effective stories.