Every month for the past 27 years the makers of Marvel comics have been trying to answer the central riddle at the heart of all heroic fiction…What make a person a hero? I’m not talking hero in the sense of protagonist, or leading character in a story, I mean Hero with a capital H – a person whose virtues are beyond the commonplace, whose struggles are on a grand scale, and whose actions set a good example for others to follow. You might think that we’d have answered that question by now and gone out of business, but we haven’t. You might even think that the ancient Greeks would have said all there was to say on the subject a couple of millennia ago, so that all practitioners of heroic fiction who followed would have known the answer, but that’s not so either. The defining and redefining of heroism is an ongoing process that ultimately has to be answered not just by writers, but by every person who lives by a code of ethics.
In one of our weekly Assistant Editor Workshops a while back, Tom DeFalco and I led the troops in a freewheeling discussion, trying to nail down a good definition of “hero.” After all, we figured, if we didn’t know what a hero was, how could we tell the difference between a good work of heroic fiction and a mediocre one? Well – ahem – we didn’t precisely come up with a universal definition so brilliant that Merriam-Webster has decided to adopt it for the next edition of their unabridged dictionary, but…we did come up with a list of virtues that every good hero (super and otherwise) should have to a greater degree than the ordinary joe. How about if I lay them on you and you can let me know if we’re in the ballpark?
The first major attribute of a hero we figured was power. Without power – the capacity to do something, be it play harmonica or lift up buildings – a person would be unable to carry out the heroic decisions s/he made and no one would know any heroism almost happened. But possessing power alone is by no means the sole province of a hero, or else Doctor Doom, Loki, and the dread Dormammu would be heroes.
The second major attribute of a hero is conscience, that inner sense that lets one know what is right and what is wrong. Without conscience to guide a person’s actions, s/he will not be able to use his/her power heroically, in a manner that accomplishes good.
The third major attribute of a hero is a sense of responsibility to others, also known as altruism. If a person simply has power and a conscience, then s/he will exercise his/her powers in such a way as to not let harm befall others. But that does not mean s/he will go out of his/her way to do anything that will benefit anyone else. Altruism spurs beings of power and conscience to go out of their way to do things for the sake of others. If a person only feels a sense of responsibility to his/her self, s/he’s not heroic. Saving one’s self from danger is a wise thing to do – after all, being dead limits the number of heroic deeds one can perform – but it is not heroic. Saving others from danger, particularly when it involves a threat to one’s own well-being, is heroic. As the narrator in the very first Spider-Man story said, “with great power, there must come great responsibility.” But that doesn’t mean it comes automatically. Responsibility is a choice one must make. (More on choices further down the list.)
The fourth major attribute of a hero is wisdom. Without wisdom – knowledge and intelligence – one’s sense of responsibility won’t do much good. Say some people are drowning, and you have the power and sense of responsibility of Spider-Man, so you try to save them by ripping down a telephone pole with a live wire attached and holding it out for them to grasp onto. Lacking the wisdom to know that a live wire and water are a dangerous combination, you will kill the people you mean to rescue, despite your power and sense of responsibility. There are many circumstances where it is not just a question of wanting to do something good and having the power to do it, but also a question of figuring out the right thing to do.
The fifth major attribute of a hero is courage. Having power, conscience, responsibility, and wisdom won’t do any good if you don’t have the guts to put your own butt on the line and use them. This is not to say that courage is an absolute that one either has – “Here comes the Man Without Fear” – or doesn’t have. Obviously it takes greater courage for a less powerful hero like Daredevil to take on the Hulk than one as powerful as Thor.
The sixth major attribute of a hero is determination or the will to succeed. Okay, you have the power, you have the conscience, you have responsibility, you have wisdom, and you have courage, but after you fail to accomplish something you set out to do (like say, put Doctor Octopus behind bars), you give up. Sorry, pal, you’re not a hero. Heroes keep going against the odds, despite the pain, no matter the personal sacrifice, until they accomplish their heroic goal.
The seventh major attribute of a hero is free will. If you have all of the previous attributes of a hero, but the choice to use them if not one you made, but was something forced upon you, you are not a hero. You have not discovered that heroic spark that exists in all of our breasts. You are merely following orders like an automaton.
The eighth major attribute of a hero is vulnerabilities or limitations. If you have absolute power – the power to do anything – doing good takes no courage or determination, two of our previous major attributes. Furthermore, the decision you make to do good is of little instructional value to anyone else, since your power level is so far beyond normal experience and relatability. But if a hero has certain limitations that s/he must transcend to perform heroic acts, that is inspirational. It takes nothing for a rich man to give a homeless person a dollar, but for a homeless person to give another homeless person a dollar, that’s an act of self-sacrifice and limit transcendence Heroes embody human ideals. If a hero’s power makes him too far removed from human, he has no heroic value for human beings.
The ninth major attribute of a hero is…culturally determined. Different human cultures prize different virtues, and their heroes would embody these traits. A totalitarian society might value discipline and self control, for instance. A warlike society might value martial prowess. A pacifistic society might value compassion. Unlike the other eight more universal heroic traits, this ninth attribute is flexible.
So that’s what we came up with. Our list covers a lot, but does it cover everything? No…it doesn’t touch upon the motivationally flawed type of hero, who slouches into heroic deeds and conducts by some psychological quirk like obsession, vengeance, or neurosis. Nor does it fully define the “anti-hero” whose moral code is not in sync with society’s – fellows like the Punisher who thinks it’s okay to kill his enemies. It also leaves martyrs largely unclassified, both those who deliberately laid down their lives for a cause and those who died by mishap or assassin while leading a virtuous if not quite heroic life. Still and all, we think our list is pretty nifty. Try rating some of your favorite heroes by the virtues we list and see how they fare.
In my opinion, people read Marvel comics primarily for their entertainment value. But for the audience to get maximum entertainment value out of Marvel’s works of heroic fiction, the makers of Marvel comics must grapple with the meaning of heroism every single issue.