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Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Eh — never mind, it’s just another superhero

Superheroes are everywhere. You’d think they were gods or something.

Humanity always has had a yen for something greater than itself, someone or some thing that will fight for the oppressed and right the wrongs in society.

Because it’s so hard to do it oneself, right?

Super-strong and/or super-smart creatures of myth go back as far as golems and Herculeses and messiahs and archangels, but for our purposes, superhero history starts in April, 1938 with the publication of Action Comics No. 1. The cover sported a man in red-and-blue tights smashing a car into a boulder as (presumably) the crooks flee in terror. The man in tights was Superman, as if any American born after 1938 couldn’t tell.

Superman was a big hit almost immediately and still is going strong, fueling a billion-dollar business today with video games, movies, comic books, graphic novels (thicker comic books, some with hard covers, to make them at least look sophisticated) and all the assorted merchandising therefrom. Superman’s got more staying power than any battery-operated bunny and he’s known worldwide. Children whose great-grandparents picked up Action No. 1 have a broad choice on which Superman story to follow. If you’re interested in Superman’s personal history and all the permutations to this point, and about the men who created him, Larry Tye’s Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero (Random House) is a fine account.

Tye did an excellent job for me in tying together the many threads that are Superman. As each generation changes to the next, publishers feel a need to update their superheroes lest they be become obsolete or even worse, unhip. This has led to the many variations of Superman and his ilk: Batman, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, the Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Captain Marvel (and Junior, Mary and Uncle), Ant Man, Aqua-man, The Human Torch, Plastic Man, Wonder Man, The Shield, Sky Wizard, Magno the Magnetic Man, Red Raven, The Green Lama, Iron Man, The Flash and so on and so on to just about infinity. Some of those are oldies and long gone, some are oldies but still around and even more have yet to be discovered. It’s a wide, wide world in the realm of the superhero.

My first experience with Superman was in the ’50s when he seemed … boring. Either he was in a romantic tiff with Lois Lane or Lana Lang or some other “LL” girl or he was being warped out of shape by the various colors of Kryptonite, or he was – temporarily, always temporarily – about to be eliminated by Brainiac, that ‘LL of a guy, Lex Luthor, or that guy with the all-consonant name. Bizarro was the interesting character; his warped being and that warped world he lived in much more interesting than the latest lecture on how superbeings must always do good. And I couldn’t stand Jimmy Olsen.

The arrival of the Marvel superheroes didn’t do much for me, either. Yeah, I know Marvel saved or reinvented superheroes (depending on your point of view), but they were all too whiny and too inward-looking. They were superheroes, for goodness sake, couldn’t they come to some conclusion and then get on with saving the world? And yes, the art was great, but the characters … meh. Mostly. Occasionally one stood out. The Thing, the Hulk, Captain America, Fin Fang Foom. (Wait – that last isn’t a superhero, is it? He’s one of those weird Jack Kirby monsters who were often more interesting than the superheroes.)

And the Marvel villains – talk about going off the scale! Planet-devouring gods. Mystic bald-headed advisers. A man with metallic arms attached to his side. A shiny surfer (in a ploy to show the surfer crowd that superheroes can be cool, too).

DC couldn’t just stand by in the face of all this, so their supervillains started getting bigger and badder. Until one came along who could kill Superman. For a while, at least.

This points out one of the basic problems of superheroes: they need enemies that can fight at their level. If you’re a superhero, just arresting bank robbers, thieves, corrupt politicians and greedy CEOs will get boring after a while. So, eventually the Lex Luthors, the Brainiacs, the Dr. Dooms, the Jokers, the Galactuses, the Doomsdays, the Doctor Octopuses start appearing. And with each iteration, they get meaner, more destructive, and more personal in their vendettas. Only on rare occasion is a villain destroyed; but usually they just slink away, only to come back later. Or escape the insane asylum

This constant recycling of bad guys became a problem for me. In the superhero realm, this has to do with prohibitions against killing. In the real world, it has to do with the writers unable to come up with a new villain. Look, shoot ’em, punch ’em, break ’em , zap ’em, pulverize ’em– just get rid of them. Granted, it’ll be hard to replace the Joker, but it’ll be a good challenge for the imagination.

Batman is a special case, of course. He’s not a superhero in the strict sense; he has no power that enables him to fly or move mountains or drop tanks on bad guys. He’s been carrying the trauma of his parent’s death for 70 years now, and he’s gotten darker and darker, until he’s just this paranoid, angry vigilante hiding in the shadows. But that’s part of his charm – if you can call it that.

There’s talk the new move will make Superman darker, too. Tye makes a good point in that Superman cannot really become this because he’s too embedded in the American mythos. In the 74 years of his existence, Superman has become the symbol of what’s good about America. Naive, maybe, but with the optimism and a belief in himself. Just like the country he represents. A dark Superman will suggest that the optimism is misguided at best and worthless at worst. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the country, but as so goes Superman, so goes the nations’ future.

It’s all tied into these generational changes. Each superhero must be reborn, his (or hers) backstory altered to fit the mindset of the hip young, the ones with money and a driving thirst for entertainment. This has led to that tangle of threads mentioned earlier that threatens to engulf all of the superheroes. This is also a failure of storytelling.

Tales of a different set of superheroes (and superlosers) has worked around that problem. The Wild Cards series doesn’t come out in comic-book form but as novels and anthologies (thus perhaps too daunting for some people). Edited by George R.R. Martin (yes, that George R.R. Martin; he does do other things besides Game of Thrones, you know) and Melinda Snodgrass, the series has been going since 1987 and is up to 21 books, soon 22. The series came out of a role-playing game and started with a core group of writers sharing the Wild Card universe. New writers have been picked up along the way, helping solve the staying-relevant problem. The generations not only pass in the real world, they pass in the series, too. The original superheroes have aged, some have died, others have just disappeared; and still others have been born (or mutated) since the series began so there’s always a new crop of heroes. And villains, who come out of the same source as the heroes.

That source was an alien virus deliberately spread into Earth’s atmosphere. Its effects on humans varies; you can become an Ace with nifty superpowers, or you can become a Joker with terrible physical consequences. All this certainly stretches credibility, but it’s better than bites from radioactive spiders, mystical magic, lanterns from space and vats of acid.

The stories are about humans dealing with the cards they are dealt, and it’s not always for the better. Power has different effects on people; not every man endowed with superpowers is going to fight crime and battle for truth, justice and the American way. And other people – heads of corporations, dictators of nations – are going to want to exploit those powers for nefarious reasons. Even reality TV enters into the Wild Card universe. How hip is that?

(A Wild Cards movie is in the works, but if you want to familiarize yourself before then, you can always start at the beginning with the original Wild Cards anthology called, um, Wild Cards. Tor books has released a revised edition with a new story added. Or you can start with the latest, Fort Freak, for a good introduction; Lowball, the 22nd book, is due this year).

As mentioned, the Wild Card heroes at least have ready-made villains instead of having to wit for someone to arrive out of the mist. This idea of superheroes having no one to fight is one of the premises of my own superhero novel, The Tyranny of Heroes. (You didn’t think I was talking about superheroes just for the heck of it, did you?) The heroes – 54 of them, just to make things interesting – descend upon Earth at about the same time Superman did in his universe, during the Great Depression. They start out like Superman did, catching crooks, smacking down nasty landlords, dealing with greedy capitalists etc., etc. They help with big government projects like Hoover Dam while taking care of the Mafia-connected gangs that terrorized the population. Unfortunately for my superheroes, though, there isn’t anyone who can challenge them. So what do they do? Well, they do what I’ve always thought people with superpowers would do – they take over the world.

At first, they are reluctant to accrue too much authority. But World War II persuades them that humanity needs guidance and they’re the only ones who can provide it. Good intentions begin to go awry, as they often do. In trying to fix this problem or stop that injustice, they slowly usurp the powers of the government. Not just the USA government, but all governments. Soon the superheroes are not just in charge, they are dictators. A benevolent dictatorship to be sure, but in securing the world’s safety they have to take draconian actions, meaning dissidents go to jail, certain ideas are crushed, censorship is the norm and all nations must follow the American ideal.

Is that so bad? There are no wars big or small; civil rights are guaranteed for all; electric cars dominate the roads; mag-lev trains crisscross continents; nuclear weapons are banned; every country is economically secure; air, land and water are unpolluted; and national borders are open with passports a thing of the past.

The downside? Humans haven’t gone into space. You want to study Moon rocks? The Supers will bring you all the samples you want. You want to know what Saturn looks like up close? The Super will take videos for you. You want to live in space? Well – it’s dangerous out there and not inviting at all. Humans haven’t explored their own planet much, either. It’s cheaper to send a Super to the bottom of the ocean than it is to build an expensive machine to protect frail humans. The world might have mag-lev trains in 2014, but personal computers are just barely appearing in the marketplace. The Internet isn’t even a dream and cable TV has yet to be strung. Cell phones? Never heard of them.

Scientific and technological advances are under Supers control. While research has eliminated diseases such as smallpox, polio and malaria, everyone in the field must adhere to the Supers rules – or be bounced out (sometimes literally). And often politics plays a part – look at the debacle the Supers made of the AIDS epidemic. (I know what some people are going to say about the politics of all of this, but they will be wrong. This is a fable, not a manifesto.)

Of course, most people are quite satisfied with the way things are. Life is good, why rock the boat? But there is that minority that sees the status quo as a dead end for humanity. They struggle to point out the loss of national sovereignty, the denial of due process, that civil rights don’t exist if dissidents face imprisonment in Alcatraz – or worse. Arrest, trial and execution cane be swift then the overlords have powers way beyond mere humanity.

Still, the Supers have secrets of their own, secrets that could undermine their authority. This is why they keep their origins a secret; this is why research into Super DNA is banned. But they can’t stop human curiosity. One man who feels his family is threatened by the Supers suddenly is becoming a real irritant under their superskins.

Then the Supers suddenly face a threat that does have the power to destroy them, but from a direction they never expected.

The Tyranny of Heroes is an e-book. Clicking on the picture at right will take you to Amazon.com. For now, you’ll have to go to Barnes & Noble through your browser.

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