A common hero

I saw part of one of these superhero things while I was up visiting my son. I must admit I might have missed the bit where it might catch my attention and interest me, so to be fair, it was a fleeting impression, before I retired to work on the current book. It’s also fair to say I was never a big fan of superhero comics, so I could well be missing the point, but what I saw was a weakness I have found in many of the newer generation fantasy. The hero (and the bad guy) seemed to fighting about which one was the top dog. The collateral damage were just ordinary people and collateral damage. The hero’s save was special and beautiful and important.

It’s a theme which recurs a lot in mythology. Gods fighting other gods, and they’re all assholes, really. And ordinary Jim and Jill are often kind of barely mentioned cannon fodder. Mythology, one suspects was often as not derived from the nobility of the time and mirrors their attitudes and behavior (rather than the other way around.).  Given the endless infidelity of say Odin or Zeus not to mention various goddesses and some of the other charming behavior – possibly quite socially acceptable at the time place, I have to be glad I wasn’t around then.

Now let’s be realistic. A lot of humans seem to like being under the rule (usually not actually benign) of their upper class, and like to follow slavishly, imitating (the sincerest form of flattery, after all) and role modelling on various celebrities – whose personal lives tend to make Greek gods seem relatively prudish, and whose loud pontifications on matter social and political are usually on the dim edge of dim, even if their own lives were not a slow-motion train wreck. I don’t get it, but plainly they do. So: there is a market for ‘heroes’ like that in the book (and movie world).

Personally I’d rather watch a sheep race. It was a novelty, but I think more than one every few years would spoil me. The curious thing about it was the hero involved — the guy un-noticed and unnamed who who was looking after his kids (his wife was not well) drafting the sheep into the ‘stalls’ and… looking after a load of other matters, from soothing hurt knees to feeding bottomless pits, and, yep, helping to raise quite a lot of money for a charity. Not a fashionable one, just one that actually helped ordinary people. A man who worked hard all his life, with some swats from the harsh world of making a living as a farmer, and whose life was centered his family and his land. He was real Sam Gamgee type of hero, likeable, dependable, with no particular idea that he WAS a hero (he certainly was at least in the eyes of son and daughters). No superpowers (beyond those that good parents display -which is pretty special too), no position in the hierarchy entitling him to power. His opinion when he gave it was his own, and worth listening to, but I doubt if many did. The sheep didn’t.

A hero that I’d dearly like to have around when things got tough. A hero I’d love to read about. If you write that book, I’m buying it.

50 comments

  1. You want human-scale heroes? Not implausibly overpowered egos on wheels? That’s a tough order to fill. A hero figure has to be at least a little larger than life to qualify for the designation. If he doesn’t start out that way, he has to become larger than life — i.e., to rise to the occasion when the action starts. Having your protagonist do that without shedding plausibility is quite an achievement. I attempted something like it in Chosen One. Opinions vary about whether my protagonist is genuinely plausible. But I’m with you on the general scarcity — and desirability — of heroes who could be your next-door neighbors. It would be a refreshing change from recent trends.

    1. I think a good example of that is Nevil Shute’s “Trustee From The Toolroom”. Not much action, but definitely a human-scale hero. Well, protagonist, at least. Another couple of examples are in Shute’s “Round the Bend”, and Richard Bach’s “Illusions”. All three are favorites of mine.

      1. Keith Stewart’s quest in Trustee reminded me of The Odyssey, except Odysseus was young, rich, and had comrades, and Keith was old, poor and knew almost nobody.

        But Keith had written articles for “Miniature Mechanic” for decades, and while he was essentially a hermit, people knew *him*, at least through his writing. And he had fans who were willing to help, and many of them knew other fans, and passed him along from connection to connection toward his goal. Keith was an Odd, and so were his fans…

        Shute was British, and wrote in a style that was getting old and fusty even then. And it takes a while for the story to gather steam. ‘Trustee’ wasn’t one of Shute’s more-popular books, but it still has small but steady sales long after most of his ouvre has been forgotten.

  2. Sometimes the REAL ‘heroes’* are the “elves” – the ‘unseen’ ones, making shoes or doing some (other) ‘nobody really thinks about it – unless it doesn’t happen’ sort of thing.

    * Yeah, it’s just a damn job. But some just keep doing it, as they know it’s gotta get done. Superman? No? Batman? No? Sheer cussed stubbornness? Oh yeah.

    1. Legolas – a generally quiet guy who just happens to scale a freakin’ giant elephant in the final battle. As well as a lot of other timely saves.

    2. I love engineer heroes. Maker heroes. But… Reader, I married one.

      So hopelessly biased on the topic (and can rationalize at the drop of the hat why they are the BESTist. With classical references! I might even be right. But… Hard to be sure).

  3. My Hero Academia does a pretty good job of human characters who still avoid the “stronger thus better.”

    The impact of the Marvel universe is they recognize that “but I am all knowing and thus what I do is gold” doesn’t work.

    1. My Hero Academia is fun; I just wish some of the side characters got more time to shine.

  4. Need more coffee but one “problem” with some super-hero comics is the idea that the super-hero is IN THE RIGHT when others (especially government types) criticize the super-hero.

    This is especially true when the concern is that the super-hero might “misuse” his/her powers.

    Oh, slightly “off-topic”, I especially dislike Marvel Comics idea the “Fear/Hatred Of The Mutant” is the same as “Fear/Hatred Of Gays/Blacks”. Come on, when somebody can easily destroy buildings, it is Reasonable To Fear That Person! 😉

    1. There’s a reason why the more powerful magic workers in the Familiars series try to keep a low profile as far as their abilities is concerned. If people knew just what a truly strong magic worker could unleash, society might suddenly have a lot fewer magic workers of all kinds. That “protective reticence” does backfire on occasion.

      1. I wonder how many people in the Familiars Universe would really believe it when a Familiar says/implies a Mage is “On The Good Side” because otherwise the Mage’s Familiar would leave the Mage. 😦

    2. Whoo, yeah. Totally twisted aesop, there.

      “Hating black people is EXACTLY THE SAME as hating the guy who can accidentally kill you. We know, because half the good guy team as done that, when they WERE being careful.”

      1. That’s what killed the X-dreck for me. It just got worse when Marvel started having them inviting out and out murderers on to the team simply because they were ‘poor misunderstood mutants’. They weren’t misunderstood, they were mass murderers! They tried to kill the (supposed) heroes dozens of times and were shown repeatedly killing ordinary humans. After that, why would any non-mutant trust the X-men?

        1. Thought of something– back when it was fresh, and new, the “Mutants are black” thing sort of made sense– in the Malcom X vs MLK format.

          You have the guys who are The Hated Group, and you have guys who are activists for Good, and activists for Nasty.

          Although even then the Bad Guys aren’t morons– my uncle still talks about how when he was sent to ‘nam, the Black Panthers walked my aunt home.
          She’s black Irish, and really pretty even in her late 60s. As a young 20-something? Good heavens.
          Thing is…..
          She was a nurse.
          Those guys knew who would be patching them up if something went wrong, and made dang sure to give an honor-guard to all the ladies in that field. Black, white, purple with pokadots– nobody cared. That they were mostly the ladies for military guys gone, often under protest, just made it better.

          1. I’m surprised to hear that. I am glad that your mother didn’t have anything nasty happen to her courtesy of the Panthers. I’ve read a couple of books on the near totally forgotten ‘Zebra Killings’ which also happened about then. According to those books racial tensions were really flying high as they happened (Black cultists murdering random whites across SF, and maybe all of California depending on who you read).

            Though as I get older and learn more about them both, I admit that my opinion of Malcolm X if not of the Panthers proper has improved.

            1. If I remember the rumors right, part of why Professor X is X is because Malcom went, and looked, and changed his mind.

              Which is part of why he died.

              But from tealeaf reading, my aunt also got protection BECAUSE of the psycho abusers having… done things they should not have. Things which were tactically unsound.

              Mostly worth mentioning because somebody, even on the crazy violent side, was sane enough to go “this is a bad idea. We will defend the nurses and nurse-trainees.”

        2. A sage soul once observed that the X-men series is not about persecution but about persecution complexes.

          (I know a high school teacher who saw the first X-men movie and thought, Yup, those are the kids I teach. She also didn’t like Order of the Phoenix because she got quite enough of that in real life, thank you.)

    3. It’s very reasonable to fear people who can level cities. Just dealing with a contractor under normal circumstances when you’ve got time and money. After the flooding (Tropical Storm Lee in 2011) contractors were in short supply and high demand. Too many people had their basements full of water and everything ruined.

      Every time I sit through a superhero movie (and I enjoy the sheer ridiculousness of it all) I keep looking at that infrastructure in ruins. Bridges, highway overpasses, collapsed buildings.

      The casualties must run in the thousands not to mention the ten years it will take (or more!) to rebuild.

      1. In the Wearing The Cape series, there are super-powered “clean-up” crews who clean up after fights between super-beings as helping in the clean-up from natural disasters.

        They are also hired for various construction jobs.

    4. I don’t know if it’s a problem with the superhero genre specifically so much as it is the general “protagonist centered mortality” that affects a lot of shallow literature. Yes, we’re supposed to assume that Tomato Man is obviously in the right when some know-nothing Senator assumes that he has some responsibility for the fifty people who drowned in a flood of Marinara. But we’re also supposed to assume that Bella Swann is in the right when her father tries to punish her for running away to Europe, or that the romantic “hero” holding a knife to his girlfriend’s throat is exciting and sexy because he’s the love interest and thus obviously wouldn’t really hurt her, or that spying on a woman in the showers using a hidden camera is fine because you had a good reason and she’s really into you anyway. I don’t know that superheroes are worse than the romance genre in that regard.

      And yeah, the “Mutant” = “Black/Gay” metaphor really needs to be retired. There’s potentially an interesting story with those issues, but such a story would need to start by acknowledging that those who fear people who can blow up bridges by waving their hands aren’t being discriminatory or irrational.

      1. I don’t know if it’s a problem with the superhero genre specifically so much as it is the general “protagonist centered mortality” that affects a lot of shallow literature.

        Whoof, yes.

        A hundred times this, yes.

        In addition to the “other people aren’t really real” thing, there’s the “all morality depends on how it helps or hurts the main character.”

        So you’ll have in the same story, a character where them being treated differently because they had Indian ancestors is a Bad Thing, and then a few pages later they are SUPPOSED to be treated differently because they had Indian Ancestors. Just one was mildly annoying to mere failure to genuflect, and the other was a big huge bias in their favor.

        1. Much like it’s just dandy for Bones to jimmy a door open (because Booth, being FBI, “can’t”) because she’s on the side of light. The number of illegal things that happen in cop shows – that we’re supposed to approve of because “good guys” – is astonishing. As an aside, I’m embarrassed enough at how long it took me to realize that Bones was FBI propaganda that I will not put a number on it.

          1. My husband and I actually put my folks off of an entire cop show, because in the first ten minutes we were screaming for the cops to be in jail.

            It didn’t help that it was one of those ‘ripped from the headlines’ type shows with SWATing and then street racing, but…..

            (The one with the guy who does the sunglasses thing that got into the meme. No, I really don’t know beyond that.)

          2. IIRC The police Can Use evidence illegally obtained by a private citizen who then turns over that evidence to the police. (The Private Citizen can be sued by the person that the Private Citizen obtained the evidence from).

            However, if the private citizen is known to have worked with the police, the police can not use said evidence.

            It should be noted that the Gotham City Police could be successfully sued for Batman’s illegal actions since Batman is known to have a close relationship with the Gotham City Police. 😉

            1. That’s how “Fusion Centers” work. They’re nominally private outfits that do things the police and prosecutors don’t want to get a warrant for, or aren’t allowed to do. The fusion centers are paid out of public money.

              The justice system also turns a blind eye to “parallel construction”, which is when the prosecutors commit perjury, which is OK if you’re an officer of the court…

              1. They are not private at all. A “fusion center” is the “holy crud the various levels of law enforcement actually TALK TO EACH OTHER” place– I know folks who work at them. They operate exactly like any other law enforcement and gov’t intelligence center, with the idea being to avoid the whole “wait, we had all the pieces but nobody was talking to other people” thing after 9/11.

                And “parallel construction” is not perjury at all. It’s not hanging folks out to dry when they go to the cops. The evidence still has to be gathered, and presented, but the cartel doesn’t kill the little old lady who reported them. Which happened. Repeatedly. It’s part of why the cartels got so strong, and what makes New York so freaking evil with handing the defense the information on the witnesses, who suddenly started turning up dead before they could testify.

                1. I see both sides of this argument, but “parallel construction” is ominously close to entrapment, asset forfeiture, and the surveillance state. We know you did something wrong because the AI analyzing all phone calls and emails flagged you, now we just need proof fit for court – so we’ll try to set you up so we can get a look inside your phone, legally, and steal everything even remotely related to it.
                  It’s somewhere on a slippery slope. Why not make the source of the information legal so parallel construction is not needed?

                  1. The question in my mind is that “how those offices work in the Real World” or is that “how those offices work in the TV World”?

                    I doubt that few here would believe that TV Shows get things correct. 😉

                    1. If folks wonder, I can go nag folks for “how they really work IRL” in a not-restricted environment.

                      Going off of prior events, they’ll be freaking delighted, half their work is nagging other law enforcement agencies to bleepin’ talk to them, it’s not even sensitive work.

                      It’s the place you’d have a a character work so they have access to information, but a good reason for it not to show up until dramatically required/someone specifically asked. (where they go “wait, you didn’t know this?)

                  2. ….

                    Since those are all things where I’ve had to do basic freaking “no, Reason is not the font of truth, and in fact lies like the rugs I wish I had” counter argument, please feel free to explain why we should publicly announce “hey, here is the name of the little old lady who called and said ‘I think there is something funny going on over here, can you please send a car out?”

                    The police have to find a reason that would justify looking. Then find a reason to justify looking more. Then find evidence to look at what they already have. Without going “hey, we got a call from Crazy Cat Lady that she had two cats rather than five show up, and we went to look, and found out that the other three had been vivisected on the doorstep of someone who objected to shoplifting, which lead us to find the guy we’re charging.”

                    Which means Crazy Cat Lady doesn’t die for calling in an animal abuse case.

                    … I kinda get the impression a lot of folks have no clue what kind of organizations they’re dealing with, and assume Joe From Next Door doing something stupid….

                  3. I see both sides of this argument, but “parallel construction” is ominously close to entrapment, asset forfeiture, and the surveillance state.

                    As I have pointed out, frequently the second aspect of that is very frequently insane.
                    Because what Reason or associated folks report as “asset forfeiture” is “we arrested dude, and he said that the illegal stuff we found is not his.”

                    This involves a heck of a lot of guys crossing the border, forced to carry a big pack of illegal stuff, and we don’t charge them when we catch them.

                    It also includes folks we arrest, with stuff we can prove is bought with drug money, hauling drugs, who say “not my car.”

                    I make a joke of “these aren’t my pants,” but it’s not that far off from many of the defenses.

                    There is a freaking REASON that, pardon the pun, Reason magazine talks about individuals being charged and convicted for this stuff. Because the property is dead-to-rights taken, and the folks it’s taken from swear under oath that it isn’t theirs.

        2. The thing to remember, is that superhero stories are soap operas.
          Kewl Powers (and fantasies of) are the hook, but what drives the story are relationships.

          You can do a few stories about Peter Parker gaining his powers and guilt complex, but after the first six episodes or so, you’ve got to keep cranking out an episode (at least) a month, for decades.

          1. Superhero stories only became soap operas when they decided to have continuity. Then they were trapped because they wanted the pretense of change without being able to commit to it.

            The thing about arcs is that unlike lines they can not go on forever.

            This is one thing that makes Astro City so great. Because he tells stories about heroes and switches between them, he can do conclusive stories. Indeed, he’s done quite a few about retirement.

            1. If you like the supers genre, I highly, highly recommend Michael Stackpole’s In Hero Years… I’m Dead! .
              It’s a great read, but it’s also an homage.
              He plays the story straight, then uses the inherent contradictions to deconstruct the genre, and then reconstructs the genre from heroes facing their darkest hour and acting heroically.
              It’s bloody brilliant.
              And if you ever wanted to see how the component parts of the genre work together, it’s a masterclass.

              1. Most of the deconstructions leave out what I like about superheroes.

                Even though Through A Mirror, Darkly set out to deconstruct a superhero trope. With a sledgehammer.

      2. The last is one aspect of the Wearing The Cape series.

        IE The acknowledgement that people/governments are correct to be concerned about all these super-beings running around EVEN THOUGH some of the super-beings want to help society.

        Oh, one of the super-beings apparently honestly wants to Save Earth. The problem is that the super-being wants to Save Earth From Humans/Civilization.

        No, it’s not Captain Planet. 😈

      3. One thing I’ve seen people say is they might enjoy something in fiction without approving of it in real life.

    5. Looks at the detritus of Detroit compared to Hiroshima. And the R.C. hierarchy

      You sure about that? Not that the gays/blacks got informed consent at any point. But still…

  5. To ordinary people, being anywhere near battling super-beings is like being caught up in a force of nature.

    This reminds me of my love for 1960s and 1970s Godzilla movies. Even though the flashy parts are the battling giant monsters (Monster of the Week: “I am here to destroy Tokyo!” Godzilla: “This is MY town! I’m the only one allowed to destroy Tokyo!” *blast of radiation breath*), there is usually a whole other level of story on the human level going on with reporters or scientists or Interpol or whoever. And these human characters are often shown trying to survive the destruction caused by the giant monsters.

    Survival counts as victory, especially if the guy and girl both end up alive and together in the end.

  6. When I wrote “Unfair Advantage” (by Edward Thomas) my protagonist is literally the counter guy at the auto parts store. He randomly gets almost killed by hostile nanotech dropped on him by a space probe. Due to the most impossible fluke in the history of flukes, he doesn’t die. He turns into a monstrous 10 foot tall troll instead, and has adventures. (Otherwise it’d be boring, you know? ~:D ) He has all the super powers of course, but his real power is that he’s able to figure out when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

    I spent a lot of time thinking “what’s really going to happen here?” and “what’s this guy going to do if he’s supposed to be super smart?” And I decided that the super-smart post-human would spend a lot of time doing as little as possible. After creating his robot girlfriend store (later employment agency) and a bunch of tanks the size of Walmarts, he settled down to concentrate on not rocking the boat. He’s got aliens out to destroy the Earth, right? He needs to deal with that and not worry about the human scale nonsense, beyond what’s absolutely necessary on a day-to-day basis.

    As the series goes along, he gets to deal with the government at increasingly higher levels, moving from dealing with local spooks to national and eventually international-level stuff. By Book 4 they get dragged into something off-world, and by Book 6 we have semi-transcendent beings from all over the universe dropping by to see what ruckus the Monkeys are up to. Kali the Destroyer drops by for coffee, hilarity ensues.

    Each time they find that the over-application of sheer destructive power, which is measured in megatons-per-second (giant tanks, right?) by itself will not get the job done. They try it anyway of course, because you can’t write a book with a giant tank in it and she doesn’t get to shoot the immense gun. But each time they find it isn’t sufficient. Somebody, somewhere, has to make a choice between light and darkness.

    Our protagonist spends a lot of time biting his lip and sticking his hands in his pockets, because his real job is not punching bad people in the face. His job is setting the right people up to make the right choice. As the series goes on, he’s getting lessons from some really big, really old aliens.

    The unsubtle point I’m trying to slap the reader with is that free will is important. You can’t make people do it right by yelling at them. They’re going to choose for themselves no matter what anybody else has to say about it. They have to. Humans have to, that’s just how it is. Our job, as civilized men and women, is mostly janitorial. We try to limit the uglier mistakes, be a good example, and clean up after the ones who choose badly.

    That, to me, is a well considered super hero story.

  7. The collateral damage were just ordinary people and collateral damage. The hero’s save was special and beautiful and important.

    Why I loathe nearly every vampire aka “lets make the kewl villain the protagonist” novel (Stories like the Silver Kiss excepted).


    A lot of humans seem to like being under the rule (usually not actually benign) of their upper class, and like to follow slavishly, imitating (the sincerest form of flattery, after all) and role modelling on various celebrities – whose personal lives tend to make Greek gods seem relatively prudish,

    The native state of humanity outside small family bands (and even within them betimes) is Rulers + ruled. If I am mistaken, please let me know. I’d love to be wrong here. King Log, yanno?

    They want to be the courtiers. The West Wing staff. Where they’re super-specialness will finally be recognized as it deserves by the Daddy and mommy Amenable Authority.

    There’s also the dead common desire to be on the winning team. See “hierarchy” above, and the way every successful culture (measured by survivability over time rather than enjoyment of same) has the leaders rewarding the loyal and punishing the treacherous. In Christian theology, Pride ought to be the bottomost circle of Hell, but Dante still stuck traitors there.

    Why the Good Aristo stories work for the European / American-influrnced audience, is because Christendom consecrated the Good King as wearing a crown of thorns along with his ermine and empurpled robes.

  8. In “Through A Mirror, Darkly” Helen is superpowered but quite a bit of the plot deals with the little people caught in the work of some REALLY superpowered people.

    1. For instance, at one point, I have them gathering refugees and using her home to get them inside.

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