On September 25, 2006 NBC debuted a new drama series Heroes. The series was an immediate ratings success for NBC and retained its popularity through its first season. Heroes’ basic conceit is that ordinary people develop superhero powers. The show lasted out a difficult second season in which plot intricacies were disrupted by the writers strike. The show has returned for a third season, but by November 2008 it looked in trouble: obtuse story-lines resulting in producers fired. The first season though was something worth watching.
The series owes a large debt to comic book superheroes and comic book visual story telling techniques. More importantly it appears after a wave of comic book superhero movies and is an attempt to transfer the popularity of that genre to television. The series includes among its producers Jeph Loeb, a comic book, television, and film writer who previously worked on the series Smallville. Comic book icon Stan Lee dutifully made a cameo appearance on the show, just as he has in all movies based on Marvel comic books.
The story arc for the first season of the show had the characters struggling to prevent an impending nuclear explosion in New York City and stop one lethal villain bent on killing those with powers after absorbing them. As with so many comic book stories the heroic nature of the characters comes not from their superness, but from their relation to humanity. In the show those with powers, but lacking in human compassion are villainous.
Comic Book Origins
The superhero comic book character began in June 1938 with Superman’s debut in Action Comics. For almost the next 50 years superhero comics bounced along through various adventures that although they shifted in style through violence, humour, camp sensibilities, self-righteous liberalism, and deep-seated conservatism never seemed to break the basic mold that the superhero possessed an uncanny and a priori morality of goodness. Two comic book mini-series challenged the genre conventions. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s twelve part series Watchmen published by DC in 1986-87 depicted a group of retired superheroes dealing with the murder of one of their colleagues. The plot of this series need not concern us that much today. Moore and Gibbons’s refiguring of superheroes as flawed beings, and the flaws were all too human – neurosis, ego, venality and more – gave their characters a richness previously missing from superhero comics. This richness resonated with a maturing comic book readership for whom comic books, if not superhero comic books, remained secret pleasures.
Watchmen featured generic superhero types rather than established icons such as Superman. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns series of early 1986 re-imagined The Batman as a driven vengeance seeking monomaniac. And the vengeance unfolds in visceral depictions of violence. Miller’s series introduced an even hyper hyper-reality to comics in the violence and the muscularity of the heroes.
Together these two mini-series greatly influenced the ways comic book creators depicted heroes. To be sure these two series were a culmination of earlier changes, such as Marvel’s superheroes who had somewhat more human concerns if not character flaws, but together they made superheroes more human than they had ever been. I am somewhat simplifying things here to point to the key role of these texts and that moment. For instance, I could talk about the unfolding drama of Superman’s conflicted identity as alien or human as a meditation on what it means to be a superhero.
Meditations on being a Superhero
After 1986 many superhero comic books featured both more hyperreal heroes whose muscles made Schwarzenegger look like a 90 pound weakling. Likewise though many comic books explored the notion of what superhero might be and some focused on the relationship between being human and being a superhero. Writers posed this issue in numerous fashions depending on how superheroes came by their superdom. Some were god-like, or indeed Gods – Marvel’s Thor after all is the Norse God of Thunder – and that comic book had from time to time featured punch-ups between the numerous deities of ancient worlds. Others were the product of scientific research – Captain America was merely a weakling Steve Rogers who ingested the super soldier serum, ironically enough just before the Nazis killed its inventor. The X-Men of course are mutants, which of course raises the question of just when does a human stop being a human and some other species. Batman, Green Arrow and others were mere humans with no powers but titanic will-power who imposed their regime of perfection first on themselves, then their wards and then the criminal population. And still others were the result of magic, alien intervention, or just plain aliens like Superman. Post 1986 Superman’s arch nemesis, Lex Luthor, increasingly referred to him as an alien freak across the multiple franchises in which DC and Warner present the character.
If I seem to be sliding across great turfs of comic book history with little detail please remember that the books come out every month, and some characters like Superman and Spiderman appear in different comic books and that there are thousands of stories.
The “human” turn in comics also led to constant reinventing or retelling of characters origins and histories. In Superman’s case many more stories concentrate on his human aspects so much so that one mini series imagined a young man named Clark Kent who developed super powers just like in the comic books. And of course the Smallville series’ total rationale is this human aspect.
Heroes replicates numerous comic book conventions as well as the central theme of ordinary humanness of heroes. I do not have space to got in to them here but some of those are the sort of serial narrative mechanisms used in comics. For instance the writers use story arcs, a series of inetrelated stories within a larger story, to build suspense and yet contain it with in an unfolding and never ending story. Also the design of the series that with much economy brings a comic aesthetic to the screen, no mean feat, if you think about other attempts, such as Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy that came off as ham-fisted.
But it is the way the writers embed their characters’ heroism in the post 1986 conventions of comic books that is the central feature of Heroes. As Season 1 of the series unfolded key characters developed a super power and along with setting up a relationship between the disparate heroes from Japan, the USA, and India, the writers weaved a narrative that placed their powers within the fabric of humanity. Hiro Nakamura played by Masi Oka is a Japanese salary man who day dreams of great things. He comes off as a wistful day dreaming trekkie. He longs for greatness, not so much for greatness itself but because he wishes to do good. (In one of the de rigeur moves of comic book based television series to have cameo appearances George Takei, Star Trek’s Hikaru Sulu, plays Hiro’s father) Sylar played by Zachary Quinto is Hiro’s opposite He is a serial killer who absorbs powers from others and kills them. He wants power for powers sake. The contrast between Hiro and Sylar is reinforced by their different trajectories through the first season. Hiro discovers a power and a mission to save humanity. He does so with the help of a powerless friend and along the way acquires new friends. Sylar betrays and kills a mentor of sorts and embarks on an individualistic quest for power. Heroism is then defined by concern for greater than individual needs and is part of a web of social relations.
Hiro and Sylar are two diametrically opposed characters and the rest of the characters in Heroes fall somewhere between the two. So for instance we have the unworldly cheerleader Claire Bennet played by Hayden Panettiere, who has regenerative powers and whose step-father Noah Bennet works for an organization that is tracking down and controlling those developing powers. Although he works for this organization Noah tries to protect his daughter from their machinations and finally has to make a choice and chooses his daughter. Claire’s biological father is Nathan Petrelli a would-be politician who comes from a patrician family. His ambitions cause him to ignore and hide his own powers but again when faced with a choice he chooses to save humanity at the end of Season 1 and seemingly die alongside his brother Peter to affect such. Peter has a similar power to Sylar, but unlike the former is beset with neurosis and finds it hard to call forth the powers he has absorbed. What I think is important here is the way that the powers and those who have them are enmeshed in social relations and the powers do not immediately make them heroes.
Less than perfect heroes may be a fairly recent scenario for comic books and comic book inspired series like Heroes, but it is not particularly innovative outside of this fictional genre. But to trace why comic heroes have changed it is necessary to discuss their origins a little and to do some history. Shortly before he died the historian Lawrence Levine suggested that the Superman and other superheroes in the 1930s were a response to the complexities of modern life, particularly the centralization of power in the hands of corporate and government bureaucracies. Superman was a release and a hope for release through some magical transmogrification. To be sure for Levine comic book superheroes were but one response and the importance of Superman for him was that he coexisted alongside other forms of coping and responding. Levine made a series of connections to a mood in 1930s American culture linking diverse artifacts and people from detective novels, movies such The Public Enemy and the original Scarface, Woody Guthrie (in high myth mode singing of Pretty Boy Floyd), soap operas, the Marx Brothers and even Abbott and Costello, whose absurdest “Who’s On First” routine he sees as typifying the disenchantment and resultant anxiety of Americans in the 1930s. Levine suggests these anxieties of the 1930s were elided as people learned how to live with the institutions of modern society. Levine hints that such an accommodation meant a cultural shift from the Horatio Alger concept of hard work resulting in success to an ability to negotiate the complexities of administrative structures, a shift from substance to savvy.
Insider knowledge and a certain cynicism about the dopes who worked hard and thought the world a level playing ground then became a coping mechanism for the complexities of modern life. A sketch of this view’s triumph as a broad social ethos could start in the 1950s with advertising executives writing novels about the need for individualism to stand against the sort of society being created by the organizational man. As Thomas Frank and others have show the cultural radicalism of the 1960s was in many ways simply an extension of this insider individualism made large. Politically the American War in Vietnam and Watergate extended this outlook across a broad spectrum of American society. Furthermore, although some of this outlook mostly certainly reflected left leaning liberalism’s distrust of say the military-industrial complex, with the ascent of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency it became clearer that conservatives had successively tapped in to this sentiment and used a distrust of “big government” in the form of “tax and spend Democrats” to not only win the Presidency but to reshape American political sentiment. In other words across the American political spectrum distrust of government and governmental action became a commonly shared sentiment. Comics like The Watchmen were part of that moment. During the 1980s Federal power was increasingly suspect. The plot devices on shows like Miami Vice often included valiant local law enforcement doing their best to resist the incompetent and more likely than not also corrupt federal officers of various government agencies. A slew of television series like The X-Files promote a general view of deceitful governments. That some of the most popular and lasting television drama series of recent years have been police procedurals like Law and Order and CSI in which the action is reduced to technical detail, often carried out against the backdrop of inefficient and bungling administrators and politicians is indicative of this generalized distrust.
In Heroes the sort of radical transmogrification that Superman represented in the 1930s happens, but instead of being a release from the complexities of modern life they rather call forth the need for even greater savvy in negotiating the maze of structures. Good and evil in Heroes do not exist as some polar opposites, but rather variegated actions in a field. To be sure, Sylar is the opposite of Hiro, but even Sylar’s actions and evilness can be understood. As one episode reveals it’s all his mother’s fault; isn’t it always. In Heroes the organization that Noah Bennett works for my or may not be a government agency. The patrician families of the Petrelli brothers (again the mother appears as the real power), and Hiro may be behind their children’s development of powers. The powers the heroes develop may be the result of a secret experiment. So although Peter Petrelli can depend on his brother sometimes, and Claire on her step-father when things get tough, families too are capable of deceit. Hiro’s relationship with his family is difficult, but his friend Ando Masahashi is a true friend who stands by him at the worse moments of danger. Another character Micah Sanders, a child prodigy, has a troubled family with a split personality mother and a father in jail, but both his parents care about him, more so it seems than say Petrelli’s mother. At a certain point the plot twist and turns start to resemble a soap opera but that is true for any serial narrative. The point here is that the conceit driving the narrative is superhero powers, but the resolution of the plot tensions is in asserting the values of basic human values such as friendship, love, and a capacity to muddle through things. And muddle through is what we have to do because no social institution can be taken at face value. The series then highlights the necessity of human agency, which here I have called the ability to muddle through, but holds this agency to work only individually. That is all collective actions is suspect and only we as individuals can truly take charge of our lives.Or perhaps, just perhaps all actions that seek to speak in the name of an amorphous “the people” are empty unless individuals are somehow invested in that process.
(A slightly edited version of a conference paper: “Heroes and Villains: Everyday Folks, Powers and Abilities Far Beyond Mortals,” Australia and New Zealand American Studies Association Conference, University of Sydney, July 5, 2008.)