The Science of Heroes


Hello, Marvel Writers!

In my last note I mentioned the ongoing torture of our many Marvel favorites.   I cannot help but think that part of the reason you are mutilating the Marvel greats, fellow writers, is because you are attempting to play the role of scientist or psychologist, whichever one of these two you endeavor to shadow.

Here is the basis for this hypothesis of mine.  Some years ago I found an article in an edition of The Saturday Evening Post which talked about heroism.  The first case the writer(s) for the article used to illustrate his/her point was an incident where a man pulled over to put out a fire in the engine of a school bus.  The driver of the car did not know the bus driver, nor did he know any of the children.   But he still made the decision to pull over and assist.

To ask why he and numerous others have done such things is good.  It is always good to ask why someone did something heroic, or why they did something terrible.  This is why stories (whether they are in comic book form or not) are so important.  They are character studies that help the readers better understand the difference between right and wrong.

The problem here comes when the questioners lose sight of their objective, as the writer(s) for the Post did.  As you have done.  The questioners lose sight of the question when they ‘answer’ their question with such things as, “He just reacted.”  Or, “It was his abusive childhood that made him do/not do x.”  Or, “It is a programmed response due the effects of thousands of years of evolution.”

I am sorry, but these are not answers.  People do not simply ‘react’ unless they have either: a) trained themselves to react in a certain way (such as by practicing a family fire escape drill); or b) have been trained to react in a certain way (as soldiers are trained to react to certain situations before they go into the field).  And even then, they have a choice of reactions.

Other cases of ‘reaction’ are actually a combination of the decision to do something (i.e. pull someone free when they are trapped beneath a car) and the ability to keep thinking during a crisis.

Some would call this last instance a fluke.  In a way, they would not be mistaken; people more often than not freeze or panic when they are frightened.  So when someone keeps thinking and finds a way out of a bad situation, they are an exception to the general rule – in essence, a fluke.

In the other cases I referred to above, a person’s environment, previous or current, does not entirely influence their actions.  Case in point for the comics, Hawkeye’s lousy boyhood would suggest to some that he would take up a life of crime instead of a life as a hero, costumed or otherwise.  Did Clint Barton automatically become a criminal when he reached adulthood?  No.  This is because Hawkeye had a choice before him: follow his father, the Swordsman, and the first Trick Shot’s bad examples or choose a better path.

He chose – chose – to become a hero.  And he remains an Avenger, whether he is actively serving on the team or not, to this day.  (Once an Avenger always an Avenger.)  So his past, and the past of other characters, is not a complete or proper answer to his actions in the present.

As for heroism being a programmed response after thousands of years of evolution, it does not answer why one person in a particular crisis would choose to stop and help instead of running away screaming; or maybe even pushing the crisis along a little bit.

Crime shows such as CSI, NCIS, Castle, etc., prove that this theory does not hold water for individuals.  If heroism were an ingrained human response, like the knee-jerk reaction all doctors are familiar with, then there would be fewer crimes committed – on and off screen.

You know, fellow writers, in a way you are scientists.  You are trying to figure out “What causes a man to turn right instead of left at just the time when it is needed; a woman to say yes instead of no; a child to laugh at something instead of running away in fear.” (Star Trek: Crossroad by Barbara Hambly.)  This is the science of philosophy, the search for the truth for its own sake.  The problem here is that you are chasing down all the wrong answers.

So what IS the right answer, you ask?  I think that the right answer is this: it comes down to a choice.  The choice the individual has to make between good and evil.  Why would a child “laugh instead of running away in fear”?  Perhaps he would laugh because there was nothing to be afraid of in the first place, and he recognized this somehow.

Why would a woman “say yes instead of no”?  No is easy to say.  Yes is much harder.  How easy was it for Susan Storm to say ‘yes’ when Reed Richards asked her to marry him?  She could not be sure that they would have children.  If they did, there were certain factors which had to be considered.  The children could be born mutants.  There was, and there remains, the very possible chance that someday Franklin and his sister will be orphaned.  Someday, both Sue and Reed fear that they may have to give their lives so their children can live in relative safety, leaving their two children, whom they love dearly, in the care of others.

Yet the Invisible Woman still said, “Yes.”

Why would a man “turn right instead of left”?  Maybe he went right because the path to the left was just too easy.  Maybe because, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” (Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back).  It is much harder to climb upward than it is to descend downward.  Skiing is good proof of this.  How easy is it to walk all the way up the mountain after going down?  If it were easy, they would not have invented ski lifts.

This is the best answer I have been able to find for the question of why people do heroic things.  Every man, woman, and child has to make a decision between right and wrong.  Characters that choose to do what is right – characters such as Hawkeye, Luke Cage, Falcon, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Wolverine, the Hulk, and oh, so many others – prove that good is the better choice although it is also the harder one.  They stand as witness to the rewards of a hard choice.

Just so, characters such as Trickshot, Sabertooth, Emma Frost, Dr. Doom, Mister Sinister, Magneto, Mystique, the Red Skull, etc., stand as warnings about the cost of taking the ‘easy’ path.  When Hawkeye stands face to face with Trickshot, it is easy to see that, while they are brothers, one is the stronger of the two.  And I will tell you this: it is not Trickshot who stands firmer than his younger brother!

In the end, who would we rather be?  The scarred hero or the comfortable villain (I am thinking about the Kingpin here)?  Even with all its hardship, good has more rewards than evil.

So what will it be, fellow writers, fellow philosophers, fellow scientists of the human condition?  What will your choice be?  Do you continue chasing the red herrings, or do you hunt the fox?

For my part, I will continue to hunt the fox.



Mithril (A Philosophical True Believer)


2 thoughts on “The Science of Heroes

  1. sullysgirl

    A thoughtful post, as ever, but there are nuances to be considered. You write, at one point, “Once an Avenger always an Avenger”, but this can’t be true, because it violates the principle of choice and negates the possibility of redemption. And, again, if you are treating these characters as if they are non-fictional (not always a strong starting point as I mentioned in an earlier comment), then the potential to rise or fall must exist at every moment, … else what’s a heaven for? (Sorry, Robert B.)

    Remember that many of these characters were first devised in the 60s — or at least, the series were set on their current trajectory during that time. The Marvel writers, bored with churning out stand-alone (or even multi-issue) stories that featured the inevitably triumphant superhero crushing yet another defeated (but apparently indestructible) foe, and influenced by the rise of pop psychology (to say nothing of the counterculture then flourishing around them), wanted what passed for psychological depth in their comics. Instead of the Lonely Hero — Superman, e.g., the orphan with powers beyond human ability — they dreamt up college boys transformed from weeds to mighty oaks, or squabbling families dealing with the fallout of, well, fall out. They weren’t Dickens, or Dostoevskii, or even Agatha Christie: they were writers with brains and ambition working in a medium they wanted to rescue from children and the underworld culture of nasty “comix”.

    They weren’t, most of them, even artists in any sense of the word that means much. But they had, or developed, a real genius with “bande dessineé”, as the French put it. (See if you want to know a bit more.) Their audience shifted from youngsters (Richie Rich, Archie) or adults with very questionable taste and morals (never mind) to the audience that comics still chase: young people 18-35, predominantly boys. To be honest, given that demographic, their heroes were surprisingly complex, and the stories far more ambitious, even grandiose, than any that had gone before.

    And, having created these characters, and come up with paces to put them through, they began to suffer the consequences of success: hence the long tradition of either retrofitting, backstopping, or endless psychologizing. Why doesn’t Peter Parker ever learn? resolve his problems? make a decision that allows him to grow up? Because then the story would be over; or at least, the story that attracted readers in the first place. There would be a new story, one that might well intrigue readers who were interested in “what happens after”, but one that would not speak to the anxieties, desires, fears, insecurities, and fantasies of that precious demographic, the boys becoming men.

    It’s a little like teaching in a university: no matter how many years you spend there, no matter how grey your hair, how lined your cheeks, how arthritic your knees, the faces you look out at term after term never change. They are always 18-25. They always make the same mistakes. They always have the same questions, hopes, fears, joys, confusions. The individuals come and go, but the situations facing the students never alter all that much, nor their needs, nor their hopes (not in any sense that means anything).

    In the same way, as I mentioned in my earlier comment, endless story arcs are essential if the audience is to remain constant, or expand; individual readers will eventually leave behind their comics and their superheroes, but a rising generation will discover and fall in love with them. Hence the endlessly deferred adulthood; the eternally unsolved dilemma; the always frustrated romance or enmity; the never resolved misunderstanding. The writers, over the decades, have deliberately pushed their readers as far as they dare, drawing back from the brink and then retooling, backstopping, rebooting, as needed.

    The questions of good and evil do, I think, genuinely attract them; else why write about heroes at all? But their philosophy is contingent on the baser issues of commerce and popular art.

    G K Chesterton, who wrote one of my favourite novels, _The Man Who Was Thursday_ (try it: you’ll be challenged, I think), wrote something related to this topic: “There is still youth and honour and humour in you; don’t fancy they will last in that trade. Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down.” (You’ll find it in “The Flying Stars”, a Father Brown story.) Without denying the possibility of redemption, Chesterton makes clear that there are no stops on the fall from grace.

    So: “Mr Holmes, you must widen your gaze.”

    1. The Mithril Guardian Post author

      A well written critique, sullysgirl! I confess that saying “Once an Avenger always an Avenger,” is probably one of my most biased statements to date. That said; very few Avengers have ever truly left the team (in any sense that means a great deal, anyway). They go away or ‘die’ for some time and, inevitably, somehow or other return to the team at a future date. In that respect, I think, no character who has ever become an Avenger has actually stopped being one.

      You mention that I do not appear to be treating these characters as fictional. That is not so at all. I quite recognize that these characters are fictional. I recognize all such characters as fictional; but I also recognize them as perhaps a little more.

      Since the beginning of time, back as far as when men drew pictographs on cave walls I am certain, there have been stories of good versus evil. Perhaps the earliest written evidence of this that most are familiar with would be the great epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, which were so compelling the Romans adopted them with most other aspects of Grecian culture. Rising after this epic age came the Celtic legends and Norse myth, the epic of Beowulf, and then the Legends of King Arthur. These in turn were overshadowed by stories detailing the exploits of a certain English archer known as Robin Hood. Later still there came the plays of Shakespeare, the era of the fairy tales, and myriad other literary works.

      None of these stories have died. Instead they have evolved, as Joseph Campbell points out in his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. As the years roll by the stories remain while the heroes and heroines are given new faces, new gimmicks, and new settings with which to attract and entertain people.

      An example of this point, I think, is the genre of fairy tales. I have a small volume of Russian fairy tales, several of which are easily identified as versions of popularly recognized fairy tales. “Vassilissa the Beautiful and the Witch Baba Yaga” is a Russian version of the tale of Cinderella, while the Russian “The Feather of Finist the Falcon” is a tale so similar to “West of the Sun, East of the Moon” some might dare to call it plagiarism.

      The same can be said today of Marvel’s seven thousand or more characters. None can fail to see that Hawkeye is the most recent adaptation of the well known hero Robin Hood, and only the most blind would fail to see the parallel between the Incredible Hulk and the Ancients’ Hercules. As I stated in my post “Cyclops and Wolverine,” Cyclops is the most recent version of King Arthur, while Wolverine has taken Lancelot’s place – albeit with far more ‘rough edges’ than Arthur’s best knight ever had. Jean Gray has long stood in the position of Queen Guinevere; loved by both Arthur/Cyclops and Lancelot/Wolverine, the Marvel writers have kept her largely faithful to the former. It is impossible to miss the idea, therefore, that Professor X has taken over Merlin’s role and that his “School for Gifted Youngsters” is a modern Camelot.

      The ‘powers’ these characters and many others possess are mere window dressing; smoke and mirrors that gain the attention of current readers, the 18-25/35 year olds becoming men and women. What was once described in the Legends of King Arthur as magic is now described as science, though it is fictional and impossible science. The heroes and heroines are the same; they have merely been given a ‘new’ face.

      You are quite correct in your statement that Marvel is targeting the perennial audience of 18-25/35 year olds entering society. This is a society in turmoil, just as the society in the ‘60s and other eras were roiling with change. Every generation shall have to face that; the world is not perfect and it cannot be made so by human hands or wills. What people look for when they read a story is a sign post, an example for how they should behave and what they can expect as they acclimate to an unruly world.

      Speaking of signposts for youths and those becoming 18-25/35 year olds, as Charles Bronson’s character Bernardo in The Magnificent Seven stated after three young farm boys accused their fathers of cowardice, “Your fathers are very brave men! They carry the responsibility of you and your mothers their whole lives. It is like a great rock they carry on their backs that bends and twists them until it buries them in the ground! I have never had that kind of courage!” Everyday life, where fathers and mothers worry and toil to provide for the children who study them as they grow is, as Charles Bronson said, a great example of courage.

      But, some ask, what about those whose father and mother are lesser men and women, or worse? That, too, I have mentioned before, though there is more to say on the matter. In my post “A Teacher,” I reviewed a book of quotes from several of Louis L’Amour’s novels. This book was compiled by his daughter, Angelique L’Amour, who mentioned in her Foreword that single mothers wrote her father to tell him that they held up the male heroes in his books as role models for their sons. Here I will repeat what I said there: no author has a greater honor than one whose characters are held up to inspire others to be their best.

      And it is not only youths who desperately need heroes and heroines. What of the fathers and mothers who sweat and toil for those who will become the 18-25/35 year old demographic? What have they to steady them when, though the seas of life are calm, they fear the storm that may someday break? They, too, need heroes and heroines. Everyone needs heroes and heroines because these characters are the railing that supports the climb up the stairs of life into, as my blog title suggests, forever. Without heroes and heroines there is no railing to support a man who falters on that stairway. And to falter at a great height is to fall a great distance downward.

      Therein lies the root of the problem I was attempting to express in ‘The Science of Heroes.’ The ‘experts’ who ‘manage’ today’s society have done a rare and terrible deed. They have ripped the heroes people crave from their grasp. No longer are The Iliad and The Odyssey studied in schools; no longer do boys thrill to tales of archers who rob from the corrupt to give to those less fortunate; no longer do boys learn the code of the mailed knight; no longer do girls listen with rapt attention to the tale of Atalanta or to the stories of the great women who have gone before them. No longer are they taught, through these stories, the standards and duties of heroism.

      No, instead the ‘experts’ throw up politicians and other cardboard cutouts to stand before the people. “These are your heroes! These are the best our society has to offer!”

      Few, very few, of these people placed on the faux pedestals of the press meet the ideals touted by the journalists. One has but to sneeze and several dozen of these cardboard statues topple backward onto the pavement. “What was so great about him/her? Why did we listen to him/her?” people ask. The illusion is broken and they wander off, even more lost in some cases than they were before.

      Stan Lee and the other early Marvel writers had been raised learning the principles of heroism. They did not simply learn these principles from old tales, from The Iliad and The Odyssey. They learned them from the great men and women of their time. They learned from men such as General Patton and Sergeant York, who was still living when Mr. Lee was a young man. Howard Hughes, the basis for Marvel favorite Tony Stark, had made great advancements in science and technology during Stan Lee’s life, advancements that are still felt today.

      Women like Hedy Lamarr, also technologically bright, made contributions to the war effort of World War II, the time when Lee was learning his craft in comics. What better inspiration could he have had for characters such as the Wasp, Black Widow, Mockingbird, and myriad others than Hedy Lamarr or the ballerina Josephine Baker? These were women who, being famous, were invited to Nazi Germany to perform. Perform these women did and, in doing so, they gained information vital to the Allied forces’ war on the Nazis. If caught, these women would certainly not have been spared the fate of all spies, even with their fame. Yet they heroically went into the lion’s den and emerged with the same grace and poise that they had carried in.

      Doth that make the Black Widow blush a bit, I wonder?

      Today we are bereft of these and other such stories. Rather they are buried in the dingy corner of the library where none care to go because it is “not interesting” or “not new” or “not cool” or “it smells of mold.” All that can inspire the 18-25/35 year olds of today is hidden between the pages of a new, brightly colored book. And so they read, voraciously trying to find the stair railing they cannot discover anywhere else.

      But in today’s ‘progressive’ world heroes and heroines are denigrated, made out to be as nothing. One of the methods by which this is done is through ‘pop psychology,’ which is what I was discussing in ‘The Science of Heroes.’ Marvel’s Avengers have managed, largely, to remain heroic. But they are slowly being poisoned, being muddied to fit the views of the ‘experts’ who detest heroes and all they stand for. The railing is being sawn away, in some places with a chainsaw.

      That cannot be allowed to go on. The sawing and cutting must stop and the railing must be repaired. The world of Marvel Comics is one of the few bars left; if it falls, then the rebuilding will go much the harder. The characters must be allowed to be heroes and heroines again.

      There are others who believe that the Marvel heroes must be allowed to be heroes again. Mr. Joseph Quesada, the editor-in-chief of Marvel, has stated as much: “Heroes will be heroes again… They’ve gone through hell and they’re back to being good guys—a throwback to the early days of the Marvel Universe, with more of a swashbuckling feel.” (Check the Wikipedia listing for the Avengers [comics] to see this,

      Apparently more popular – and therefore louder voices – than mine have been attempting to press this point home on Marvel before me. I believe that Marvel has a way to go before it can truly have the “Heroic Age” Mr. Quesada desires. But the path has been chosen. I hope to see Marvel well on its way down that path in the future. Until that time, they will likely be hearing from me occasionally on what I believe does or does not fit in with the duties of a hero. For now, however, I must rest my voice on this subject. I have not, I will not, abandon it; but the time has come to, as you said, “Widen [my] gaze.”

      Once again – very insightful comments, sullysgirl!


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