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Real Life Superheroes?


I recently sat down to watch HBO’s documentary SuperheroesWhile a flawed, if interesting, film, seemingly more focused on the simple documentation part of ‘documentary’ than on illuminating much about the greater phenomenon, it did serve to rekindle my interest in a movement I spent some time investigating back when we started Level Up.

Some backstory–hopefully brief.

I grew up loving superheroes. My mother read me Spiderman and Green Lantern comics before I could read them, myself; and once I could, I began to devour other titles, from Superman and Batman to Challengers of the Unknown and Metal Men. And Marvel stuff, too. I’ve always been drawn to the conflict between good and evil and the clarity with which comics could delineate the two. Even as characters became more “complex” (growlier) and plotlines more “mature” (shootier), you could almost always tell the good guys from the bad, whether he (or she) wore an ‘S’ on his chest or a skull.

And I love that.

Good guys were good and bad guys were bad and you always knew who to Bam!, Pow! or Biff!

So, wanting to become a “Real Life Superhero” makes sense to me. Wanting to draw the line between good and evil in a big bold way makes sense. I mean, just look at our tagline: We Train Heroes. That’s our goal, isn’t it? To find a way for each of us to become more heroic, in our lives, our families, our communities.

But does that require a costume?

The beginnings of an answer to that is: of course not. Thousands of people perform acts of heroism every day, and most of them probably wear jeans and a t-shirt.

But does wearing a costume help?

Here is where it gets a little more complex, and so I want to break it up into two sections. The first revolves around the X-Men and Facebook, the second, Superman and KickAss.

I was on Facebook a few days ago (as some of us are wont to do), and came across a friend who had posted a picture that was actually just a font that looks like handwriting on a black background. Lots of those, lately. Anyways, it said “Real Heros Don’t Wear Capes They Wear Dog Tags”. Yes, that’s how it was spelled; no I’m not judging. Ish. It is right, though. At least in spirit: if there is anyone empowered to go and Zap! evil, it is the men and women of our armed forces. Every day, those men and women risk their lives–or plan to–to ensure our safety. And yes, soldiers are human too, capable of good and evil, but in the ideal, these are the closest we might have to real superheroes.

But for some reason (read: giant nerd), that immediately made me think of an issue of (Astonishing?) X-Men in which Cyclops and Wolverine both separately tell a newbie (Armor?) what to call their superheroing outfits. Since I have almost no recollection of the actual details, I’m going to avoid specific character attribution and just say that one insists they be called uniforms, because costumes are what performers wear, and the other insists they be called costumes, because uniforms are what janitors wear. I’m going to say this whole exchange was written by Warren Ellis, simply because it seems an Ellis-y thing to do, but it may well have been Matt Fraction. Either way, it suggests that, whatever the name, many heroes like to dress up. In the military and law enforcement, uniforms (or costumes) make sense as a means of identification, letting tactical teams know whom not to aim at, and letting civilians know whom to listen to. Superhero costumes (or uniforms) serve some of the same purpose, but I would argue that they have a greater purpose as well: inspiration. Superman doesn’t really need to identify himself for tactical purposes: the guy hovering in midair with heat vision is probably him. What his costume accomplishes is spreading hope. Much like David Goyer beat us over the head with in Batman Begins, being seen as a symbol can be far more effective in motivating people than remaining a “simple human”. And despite their heroics, our police and military–and their uniforms–remain all too human.

Part the deux.

It is a strange human condition that we find it easier to look up to something apart from ourselves. It is a very Lutheran (Lex, not Martin. Well, actually…) notion, not without its truth. We choose to emulate ideas–if not ideals–over actual people. Children play cops and robbers, not Detective Flass and Joe Chill. Because Detective Flass is a douche and humans can fail and growly voices inspire fear, etc. The problem with that, as Lex Luther is constantly bemoaning, seems to be a lack of progress on our part, then. If we don’t see people among us, our brothers and sisters and uncles and neighbors, rising to greatness, then how are we inspired to do the same, ourselves? If Heroism (capital H) is something always ascribed to the “other,” what makes us believe that we can accomplish it?

Which brings us to Kickass and the Real Life Superhero movement. RLSH are very, very, human. Very human. No matter how many times Master Legend tells you he has super speed, increased strength, and the ability to tell the future, he’s still just a guy drinking beer out the back of a van. And that should be okay. Inherent van creepiness aside, there should be nothing wrong with just “some guy” wanting to help others. But claim superpowers and you’re a little off. Same reaction when you slap on some spandex. You become seen as “other.” And not that good one that’s above us normal people, but the bad one where we want you to have a separate water fountain. Because the line between things we revere and the things we hate is very, very thin. So why choose to put on a cape and cowl instead of fatigues or a badge? Well, it must be that notion that you can tap into something greater, become a symbol for people and inspire action. I mean, it works for Superman, right?

Well, yes, it does. Kind of. Superman is afforded the right to wear his underwear on the outside without mockery because he can throw a train at your head, not because he helps at a soup kitchen. Costume is a function of character, not intent. Uniforms, on the other hand, are a mark of intention, not character. To explain: there are no guidelines to costume creation. Superman has one and Batman and Mysterio and Dr. Doom. Putting a cape on doesn’t tell anyone that you’re a hero. It certainly doesn’t make you one. All it does is express your character; that you want to be seen. Conversely, putting on a badge tells people that you are there to uphold the law; it speaks to your intention. Whether your character actually holds to that is another story, entirely.

So, to return to my question of 1000 words ago: does wearing a costume help when being heroic?

Well, it may very well help put you in the mindset. Being able to distance yourself from the insecurities associated with just being ourselves can be incredibly empowering. And if your primary goal is to enact violence on people you judge as evil, then the cloak of anonymity is extremely important. In that case, though, I would suggest you stop being a dick and get some anger management counseling, but whatevs (helping people is never wrong; hurting people often is).

But if you’re interested in being a Hero (the super variety even moreso), then shouldn’t your intention be a bit loftier? Batman vows to end crime. End. Crime. The X-Men fight for equal rights and acceptance, often with the fate of the world depending on their success (and don’t think the soul of our world doesn’t). They wear costumes because, in their world, it is the best way to get their point across. Wolverine loves his cowboy boots, but he puts on his costume because that what he needs to get the job done in the most efficient way possible. Clark Kent flying around might not inspire the same confidence as Superman’s primary colors.

But in our world, it’s pretty obvious that capes and tights invite ridicule. Right or wrong, seeing someone in a homemade superhero costume doesn’t inspire confidence so much as mockery. So, in this world, is putting on some pleather and a pith helmet the best way to get my point across?

No.

It’s a selfish way to get my point across. Now, I don’t mean that in as pejorative a sense as it might seem, I just mean that putting on that costume in our society, in this day and age, is more for the wearer’s benefit than the viewer’s. Heroism is selfless. It’s doing what needs to be done for the greatest good (whatever that may be is arguable, obviously) without regard to your personal crap. That’s why you don’t see Superman adding “cool shit” to his suit (editorial mandate aside)–he doesn’t think that way. That’s why you don’t see extended scenes of Batman showing off all of his toys–he just uses what he needs to get the job done. To steal a bit from The Dark Knight, being a hero often comes down to giving people what they need, and what people need, if I may be so bold, is not heroes to mock, but heroes to which we can aspire. And as much as we may love the image of the comic book hero, cape, tights, and all, the reality of a hero may necessitate something vastly different. Anyone choosing to take up the mantle of Hero owes it to the people he or she serves to do what is necessary to accomplish good in the most effective way possible. Is that wearing a costume? A uniform? Jeans?

I suppose I don’t really have a point to this beyond the simple: do good. If you have to wear pleather to get it done, so be it, just be honest with yourself about why. If I could get my hands on this, you can bet your ass I’d be wearing it 24/7 until it bonded to my flesh. But I wouldn’t be doing it because seeing me would inspire people to greatness; I’d be doing it because it would be the coolest freakin’ thing ever.

Be Good.

-justin