When consuming superhero stories, there are many key aspects to the genre that are important to look for/be aware of the absence of, but there is one theme which appears to always be present no matter what the story: What does it mean to be a hero?
While the question may seem like an obvious one, different approaches to the superhero genre tend to come up with extremely nuanced and intricate responses. To demonstrate this, I will be reviewing the presence of this theme in three different stories, all three being extremely popular yet varying instances of the genre: Watchmen, the graphic novel by Alan Moore; Boku no Hero Academia, the ongoing manga by Kohei Horikoshi; and The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which I set up several days ago as having a very clear indication of what it means to be a hero.
So first, let’s deal with the graphic novel that changed the way graphic novels were received as literature, and simultaneously tore down the superhero genre of the 70s and 80s: Watchmen.
Originally appearing in DC Spotlight back in 1985, to eventually be published as a twelve-chapter series from 1986 to 1987 over the span of twelve months, Watchmen is generally considered Alan Moore’s greatest masterpiece, of which there are – admittedly – a lot.
Watchmen tells the story of roughly half a dozen supers, their relations to each other, and the threat of nuclear destruction as the Cold War looms on the horizon. One of these supers, Dr. Manhattan, is quite literally a walking hydrogen bomb. The story follows the 1980s trend of more adult sensibilities and theme in comics, which is identified in all of the big three hits of the genre: Watchmen, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
As you might expect, the more adult approach to this story mixed with Moore’s penchant for mysticism, cynicism, and ambiguity created a moral lesson that seems quite negative, largely because it is. This is represented in a vast amount of SPOILERS, so be aware.
The clearest picture of Moore’s cynicism appears in the death of one of the stories’ main characters: Rorschach. Rorschach is a ruthless detective based roughly off of Batman, whose passion for illegal justice in a world otherwise bereft of passion gets him killed. When fellow superheroes begin to be murdered, Rorschach is the only super who wants to bring the murderer to justice. When he, along with an on-and-off supportive friend Nite Owl discover the truth about who is committing these crimes, his doom meets him.
The former superhero, current Bruce Wayne/Tony Stark-archetype Ozymandius has been killing off his former coworkers as an end to the days of supers, seeing that they have only sped up the process of international turmoil. Oz manages to convince every hero except Rorschach into complacency, as he successfully detonates a nuke that demolishes most of New York City, but cleverly makes the destruction look like it was an extraterrestrial declaration of war (plot stuff).
Nite Owl changes his identity and moves across the country to live out life with his new wife – also a former hero – and Dr. Manhattan, whose literal omnipotence provides practical godhood, finds that he would rather continue to live far into the reaches of space, where the triviality of humanity cannot pain him anymore.
So, how does Rorschach die?? I hear you asking. It’s simple, ingeniously written, and extremely sad, truthfully. After walking out of Oz’s hideout to return to the demolished New York, Rorshach is confronted by Dr. Manhattan, who is fresh out of a conversation with Oz himself. When Manhattan refuses to let Rorschach go, and ruin public perception of the sacrifice that Oz made, Rorschach simply tells Manhattan to kill him. Figuratively declaring that he cannot live in the world with this knowledge like his comrades, Rorschach is executed by Manhattan solely because of his passion for justice and righteousness in the world around him.
To me, this somber, morally ambiguous ending speaks clearly to the idea of heroism in Watchmen. Moore seems to be saying two things, which the audience is free to choose between. You may either agree with Rorschach, in that ‘to be a hero is to fight against all injustice, for all people’, or with Ozymandius, in that ‘to be a hero is to make great sacrifices, and dedicate your life to the bigger picture and the greater good’.
A particularly intuitive reader may notice an extreme similarity to the MCU’s depiction of heroism. However, if you believe my previous claims that the MCU places one methodology above another, then wouldn’t that imply that Watchmen does as well?
I would say yes, however Moore doesn’t seem to fault the viewer for choosing the other side. Due specifically to the sadness behind Rorschach’s death, we are inclined to sympathize with him and the way he sees the world, which indicates to me that he is the story’s true moral compass. You wouldn’t be wrong for believing the Oz’s sacrifice is noble, but like a true cynic, Moore seems to have a lofty expectation for how we should morally conduct ourselves, versus how we do.
Now, on a much lighter note, let’s take a trip to the far east, where in the past five years, a new story has dominated the minds of pop culture readers. This story has spread to be just as popular here in the west, perhaps due to its western influence, or just because it is a truly stellar superhero story with a killer animated adaptation. Of course, we’re discussing Boku no Hero Academia, also known as My Hero Academia.
My Hero follows a young boy named Izuku Midoriya, a quirkless boy in a world where nearly everyone is born with a quirk – the story’s name for natural superpowers. After a heroic action he takes despite being quirkless, Japan’s Number One hero All Might admires him, and decides to pass on his quirk to Izuku.
Izuku embodies a viewer of traditional hero stories, as his years of being enamored with heroes without having the capability to be one result in him taking vast notes on the heroes and powers around him, and being hyper-aware of what the world needs. Like All Might, whose power begins fading at the beginning of the series, Izuku wants to become a Symbol of Peace for the world to look up to, so that he may inspire others like All Might inspired him.
In a world where everyone is super, it would seem to imply that no one would be as a result, but Horikoshi paints a clear picture that his super-powered world exists on a spectrum, which Izuku plans on climbing to the top of. To do this properly, Izuku spends a lot of his time learning from other heroes, but at the same time inspiring them as well as his classmates to act appropriately, confidently, and justly.
In the ‘Hero Killer: Stain’ Arc of the story, one of Izuku’s friend’s Tenya discovers that his brother has been gravely injured by a villain known as The Hero Killer. This killer, Stain, goes about killing all of the heroes which he sees as not living up to his heroic ideals. He wants the greed of heroes created by monetary reward and fame to be replaced by the ideals of All Might. To save people truly, to the greatest ability, with no attention paid to the reward. As Tenya, Izuku, and their other friend Shoto confront and fight the villain, Stain recognizes Izuku’s potential for fulfilling the proper heroic ideal, and vows not to kill him. However, Tenya becomes a prime target due to his bloodlust and revenge, as he cares less about saving the victims of Stain than he does about avenging his brother.
In the end, Stain falls in battle, being defeated by the trio of students, but not before declaring that his true wish is to be killed by All Might in battle, to make a statement about how he believes the hero world should operate.
While Stain’s life is long gone in the current story, his effect on the series is longstanding. Many villains still look up to him as a martyr, while heroes are forced to reflect on his actions and change themselves appropriately. It is in this arc of the story that My Hero most clearly defines its moral standpoint. While Stain was inherently evil, and took his viewpoints to an unhealthy extreme, the notion that ‘a hero is someone who saves people for the sake of saving them, and thinks of nothing else’ remains ever-present in the narrative. After All Might’s power is fully extinguished, it is up to Izuku to speak this message to the world.
So, My Hero Academia ALSO seems to give a similar message to Captain America’s viewpoint! As Izuku wants to save people simply because he hopes to inspire others like All Might did for him, the MCU’s Steve Rogers wants something very similar. As he says multiple times throughout the comics, “I see people who need saving, and I save them.”
If we use our past conversations, and see that Captain America’s morals represent Deontology, then is there something particular about deontological morals that speaks to the success of the superhero genre? Perhaps we admire stories that show us extreme, admirable examples of morals? Or maybe the Categorical Imperative lends itself to the storytelling which we recognize as fictional.
I believe that the last option might be the closest to the truth, and as a result, I plan on looking into the CI in future weeks of research to see if it spreads past this genre.
So, next week, we will be focusing on the tenth grade all across America, delving into the American novels which we read here so en masse, and perhaps finding reasons as to why these pieces of true literature are still popular today.
Happy reading/watching, and remember: every ending is open to discussion.