Friday, March 28, 2008

What makes a hero?

One of the supplements to the new animated DVD from DC Comics, Justice League: The New Frontier, is a documentary called The Legion of Doom: Pathology of a Super Villain. In it a series of creators past and present sit down to discuss the background of a handful of DC's most infamous villains. Toward the end of the documentary, each creator gives their take on what separates a villain from a hero.

The one answer that stood out to me the most was put forth by Jim Krueger. Jim is probably best known for his work on Justice, the twelve-issue Justice League story he co-wrote with Alex Ross. When asked what differentiates a villain from a hero Krueger said: The villain wants to be the hero, but can't. The hero doesn't want to be the hero but knows they have to.

I found this interesting because its an argument I don't hear all that often. A hero, especially in comics, usually has a certain gift or ability that the vast majority of citizens do not possess. This ability can be something as incredible as a super power, or something as simple as a strong desire to help those who can not help themselves (in the real world we call these people police officers, firefighters, and members of the armed forces). This "power" affords them the opportunity to do great things that others either can not do, or choose not to do, often putting themselves in harm's way. A hero knows that by taking up this mantle they are placing themselves at great risk, all the while carrying a very heavy burden on their shoulders, the fate and well-being of mankind. This is not a responsibility most clear thinking men and women would want to take on willingly. What if you screw up? How many people will suffer because of your failure? Can you be everywhere you are needed when you need to be there? Will you ever be too afraid to act in time? These are serious questions. Questions that would send most people fleeing for the hills. But not a hero. They stand and fight because they know that even in the face of all these questions and all this danger, they are the ones who can truly answer the call.

I was reminded of Krueger's comment, and the concept of what makes a hero, while reading issue #31 of Red Sonja from Dynamite Entertainment. In this issue, Sonja is being ferried down the River Styx on her way to the Underworld. While on the trip, the ferryman is showing her moments in her life in an effort to judge whether or not her actions have been just. This particular issue focuses on a time in Sonja's life when she served as bodyguard to a King. When the issue begins Sonja aids King Teran and his people in holding off an invasion. Once the battle is complete, Teran, so enamored with Sonja as a woman and a warrior, proposes marriage. Sonja, believing her life should be devoted exclusively towards her duties as a warrior, declines. The King understands and lets her be, believing that as time progresses she will change her mind.

Teran's beliefs are correct, and as the story progresses Sonja realizes that she is in fact falling in love with him. During a sparring session Sonja tells him that she vowed to never marry unless the man could best her in combat. The reason being, once she casts aside her role as a warrior, the powers granted to her will disappear and there will be no going back. Knowing that Teran can not be her equal, she rejects his proposal once again. In the end, her love for him is too much to overcome and she goes to his bedchamber to finally accept. Just as she awakens him, Teran's palace is attacked by a wizard-king and his minions. During the fight Teran is almost killed, but Sonja saves his life yet again and the enemy escapes fearing for his life. At this moment, Sonja comes to an important realization.

Had she given up her life as a warrior and married Teran when he asked initially, he would have been killed that night because she would have been unable to protect him. Not only would Teran have died, but his people would have been murdered and enslaved. She wants a normal life living as Teran's queen, but she knows that her duty lies elsewhere. She doesn't want to be the hero but she knows she has to. Sonja leaves Teran telling him that she will not return. When the story returns to the present the ferryman tells her that Teran eventually married and raised a family. Sonja, noticeably saddened by this information, is told by the ferryman that she did the right thing. The ferryman forgot the most important detail. She did the heroic thing.

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