Monday, November 22, 2010

Off Panel Discussion 1: Us and Them

Not Happening
In the coming weeks, this blog will host a feature called Off Panel Discussion. My readers are invited to be part of the "off" Panel. A blog post from me to the universe will start the week, and end with a question. Then a wrap up at the end of the week will amalgamate all of the great answers that poured in. The first week starts now. The topic is how superheroes stand in relation to the real world. The question appears at the end of the post.

It's a tale we all have heard. The superhero era was born with Action #1. A look inside to the third feature showed the excited youth of the Great Depression a champion of justice who donned his distinctive suit and used his amazing powers to fight evil doers. Of course, I am thinking of Zatara. But the kids who read the issue in sequence had already discovered Superman.

About twenty years into the comic book experience, creators started spicing up superhero stories with foils who were very obviously patterned to be a variation of the starring character. Bizarro. The Reverse Flash. Thousands of Green Lanterns. Supergirl. Batwoman. Right through to the numerous variant Batmen in Grant Morrison's current run.

Bizarro Is Not Surprised To Meet His Double
What I find interesting about this is that superheroes are in the first place a very strange variant on everybody real. If we consider Superman to be a basic inspiration for all the others, then the explosion of new superheroes in 1938-1941 had already produced numerous variants on the concept. What is it that makes comic book readers (and of course writers) wonder what other variants would look like? The odd thing about inventing Bizarro to give Superman an "opposite" is that Superman already had in Action #1 a double who was his opposite: Clark Kent. Heroic fiction long ago found out that it's more exciting to see a hero come onstage than to have him stand onstage all the time. You can see a reluctant or waylaid hero return to take the field in the homeric Iliad and Odyssey, and the same setup prevails in The Dark Knight Returns. Thanks to Clark Kent, the writer had an excuse to show Superman emerging triumphantly rather than just standing there and being great all of the time.

But with every reading of Action #1, there was another Superman-opposite: The person whose two hands were holding the issue up. In fact, Clark Kent was not just a place from which Superman could emerge, the way that Achilles emerged from his tent. Clark was also a surrogate for us. Jerry Siegel said, " one of his identities, [Superman] could be meek and mild, as I was, and wear glasses, the way I do." Clark couldn't get the woman patterned on the girl that Siegel couldn't get. She's after Superman.

In a verbal essay in the movie Kill Bill: Volume 2, Bill famously says that Superman is the real man and Clark Kent is the disguise (which matches Siegel's description) and that Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race. But the last part isn't true. Clark Kent is Jerry Siegel's portrayal of himself. Superman is what Jerry Siegel dreamed of becoming, and he shared that dream with us.

And so, the real opposite figure for a superhero is not another superhero or even a supervillain, but any one of us. I was impressed, though, with some of the comments to my last post, wherein people mentioned the inspirational value of superheroes. And, so, the question:

Off Panel Discussion Question #1: What person in the real world is most like a superhero?

Answers, please -- lots of them! All of the comments here are visible to one and all, and I'm sure they will be excellent. Then I'll post again at the end of the week to provide a wrap-up discussing your answer. Leave your answer in the comments and be the hero of Off Panel Discussion #1!


  1. I always geek out when someone brings Bruce Lee into conversation. One of the things I have always said in regard to him is, "Bruce Lee is a real world superhero!" He moved so quickly that film producers had to actually slow down the image (in contrast to most other kung-fu films at the time where everything was sped up). Furthermore, Lee recovered from a serious spinal injury! Also (stolen from Wikipedia): "Lee could snatch a dime off a person's open palm before they could close it, and leave a penny behind. Lee could throw grains of rice up into the air and then catch them in mid-flight using chopsticks. Lee could cause a 300-lb bag to fly towards and thump the ceiling with a sidekick." Many of these feats or similar ones are performed on a daily basis by another Bruce; Bruce WAYNE in the fictional DCU. Pretty amazing.

  2. Very interesting concept. I think it depends on what attribute one would consider vaulted enough to be seen as a "power" — so much so that any other faults are more or less overlooked. For instance, I say Martin Luther King is a perfect candidate for a Green Lantern Ring, showing great will power and courage while tempered with non-violent actions when at all possible (ok, maybe a Blue Lantern). Though others may point to his extra-marital indiscretions as a lack of character, passing judgment on a very human flaw.

    Real, human people are polarizing and fodder for judgemnt. Fault can be found in all of us, but it's easy to forgive (and secretly relate) if its fiction. We give Red Arrow a pass to the Justice League but we are much tougher and a lot more condemning as a society of former drug addicts.

    I would like to add more to this topic after thinking about it for a day or so and seeing where other take it. Interesting topic, indeed.

  3. Interesting question, although one I've thought of alot. In Final Crisis I think Morrison feels the same way I do about Obama. This is shown when Obama was the superman of another world. Without getting too deep into politics, he's a man thats strong-willed, has a great sense for whats right and great leadership qualities. So Obama is my real superhero :)

  4. I love these answers so far. To stir the pot, here are some candidates I will throw out. Some you may find compelling, some not.

    Evel Knievel
    Michael Jordan
    The US Navy sharpshooters who ended the pirate/hostage incident
    Members of Delta Force
    Sun Tzu

  5. My mom is a superhero to me. She is the most caring, honest and compassionate woman ever, and she is a non-stop source of inspiration and energy for myself and many others. I aspire to be like her one day, and to possess the interpersonal skills she has to make friends, and win people over. I consider myself extremely lucky just to know her and have her as my mom.

  6. I would have to say any Law Enforcement Officers and Firemen.They constantly enter into situations they have no idea of what could happen both good and bad.They can inspire,bring calm,or even fear depending on the circumstances of which you meet them.

  7. I woud vote for Bono. It use to annoy me, all the work he does b/c U2 is one of my favorite bands and it would always be 4-5 years between albums. ono is also widely known for his activism concerning Africa, for which he co-founded DATA, EDUN, the ONE Campaign and Product Red. He has organized and played in several benefit concerts and has met with influential politicians. Bono has been praised and for his activism and involvement with U2. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, was granted an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, and was named as a Person of the Year by Time Magazine. I should also note that he has been with the same woman for over 30 years. He has 4 kids with her, however a man with his money and power could easily run off with any 20 year old he wanted, but he hasn't and you have to admire that, and everything else even if your not a Bono or U2 fan.

  8. I don't think it's right to think of someone being a superhero just because they're skilled at something in particular. They have to directly intervene to make the world a better place in one way or another.

    For that reason, my choice would be British Gay Rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. He is actively making the world a better place for a huge amount of people whilst at the same time putting his personal safety at risk.

    He's devoted his life to campaigning around the world for equality and an end to homophobia. He's been arrested, mocked and due to numerous beatings from Neo-Nazis at Eastern European gay rights rallies (and on one occasion the security staff of Robert Mugabe) has sustained brain damage. There is not many finer examples of sacrificing yourself in fighting for something you believe in.

  9. Following on from my last comment, as I've thought more about it. I think that for a person to be described as a real-life equivalent to a superhero, it is not enough that they are gifted at a physical or mental skillset. Bruce Lee was an amazing martial artist, but as far as I know he never set out to make the world a better place. Police, fire and medical professionals are admirably brave and risk themselves to save their fellow man, but this is a job with regulations that have been imposed on them. Altruists like Bono DO seek to make the world a better place via their actions, and expect no tangible reward in return, but then they will never physically intervene themselves.

    So the qualities I'd think a real-life person would ideally possess:

    - Desire to improve the world by reducing what they see as injustice.

    - Willingness to get involved on a personal and physical basis.

    - Any action taken to be without the expectation of any kind of reward.

    That's why I picked Tatchell, although I'm sure there are numerous human rights campaigners that would also fit the bill.

  10. Bill Gates is attempting to eradicate Polio and put a laptop in the hands of every child on Earth. He donated over half his wealth to charity.

    Same applies to George Lucas (minus the eradication of polio). I wouldn't say that makes them purely close to "super-heroes", but it's a pretty large step above what normal people can do to affect change. It's a very "Bruce Wayne" thing to do, as opposed to a very "Batman" thing to do.

    I'd be inclined to discount any and all politicians, as comparisons to super-heroes are typically pre-planned attempts at rhetoric on their part. EX-politicians, on the other hand ...

  11. As an American, I would also say Barack Obama, but I think that my answer could also extend to most elected leaders. Superheroes are icons we trust to handle problems that we can't handle ourselves (it's strange that in most comics those problems are often superpowered villains and otherwordly threats, but I guess that's a different issue). President Obama was elected because the majority of Americans saw him as the individual most capable of solving problems we cannot solve ourselves (which is also a weird way of looking at the role of politicians, and probably super idealistic, but I think that's okay for this discussion).

    My answer is only temporary, though, and could probably apply to any politician as long as they didn't exhibit qualities that were obviously NOT heroic. Like Ishaaq said, I think Obama has a strong sense of what is right and wrong, and, for the most part, acts on what is right.

    Then again, most superheroes are people that took matters into their own hands without going through the proper channels (in this case, political channels). I'd have to think more of a different answer under those criteria, but for now I'll stick with President Obama.

  12. I personally have to vote for Wesley Autrey:

    Wesley Autrey was waiting at a Harlem subway station with his two little girls when he saw a man fall onto the tracks into the path of a train from an apparent seizure. Without thinking, Autrey jumped onto the tracks, pulled the man into the space between the rails, and held the man as the train passed above their heads.

    I take the subway to work almost every day, and I often think of Wesley Autrey's heroics. To be honest, I doubt I would have thought a person had the ability to do such a thing until hearing about him. That's the thing about a real life hero like Autrey: they expand our minds to venture down new avenues of possibility that one could not believe could exist before their deeds. Certainly, people like Einstein and Ghandi are no different...people like them enhance our humanity...they make us capable of superhuman feats by expanding our imagination...

  13. I'm not going to get into a arguement over politics on here, but if one was to identify the traits of a super-hero, it would be laughable to start with any political leader in these the great U.S.A. Acts of "Super-Heroes" must come from a position of purity, which politics is not.

  14. Damian's example resembles a few that I had in mind. The 1982 crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the Potomac River in Washington DC produced two spontaneous heroes who put their lives on the line to save others. Arland Williams and Lenny Skutnik are two who stood out; Arland was a passenger, and ultimately was the only one who drowned, passing the rescue line to several others instead of taking it himself. Lenny was a bystander who dove into icy water and saved a woman.

    While those single acts are overwhelmingly heroic, even more so than what you tend to see in a comic book, they are also different than superheroics -- better in one sense, but not the product of dedication to a relentless cause.

    Consider the Guardian Angels, started by Curtis Sliwa -- unarmed citizens who patrolled public areas promising to stick up for victims of violence. Other vigilantes in places like Orlando and Florida have patterned themselves deliberately on superheroes. People with military and/or martial arts skills wear costumes and drive around those cities, getting out to break up fights if they see them.

  15. John, one political leader's act has always stuck me -- from the first moment I heard about it -- as incredible heroism: During the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union, the perception that hardliners had won was shaken when Boris Yeltsin (then known as a reformer, but who had not been detained when Gorbachev was) gave a speech in Moscow while standing atop a tank.

    There are serious questions regarding the character of Yeltsin and one may argue that he was acting in self-interest. It may or may not have been brave. (Had the coup succeeded, however, he would have paid for it.) But it struck me as a moment of singular heroism, almost to the point of the definition of hero. The moment required someone with name recognition and a reputation as a reformer, and if he hadn't done it, perhaps no one else could have. And perhaps the coup would have succeeded.

    The "Tank Man" of Tiananmen Square is another example:

    And many others who played roles in the fall of Communism, or resisted the rule of the Nazis, or fought for Civil Rights in the U.S. South.

  16. How about Che Guevara? "The most complete human being of our age."

    Disgusted by the treatment of the poor he encountered while training as a doctor in various South American countries he forged himself into an ideological weapon to improve society.

    He fought through the Cuban countryside towards Havana, inspiring and recruiting peasants as he went, educating and medically treating those in the villages he passed. Eventually he helped topple the corrupt Batista government. Even with occasionally crippling asthma he was a skilful warrior, an intelligent scientist and philosopher.

    He even died for his beliefs, but knew (in quite Morrisonian fashion) that his philosophy and legend would live on past his death and serve to inspire countless others.

    "Shoot, coward. You're only going to kill a man."

  17. A few of these are really interesting... it's amazing how polarizing it can be. Initially I though of Michael Jordan (much like Bruce Lee) due to an almost "super-human" hang-time, accuracy and stamina — but then it was only ever used for entertainment and to make money. This is not a judgement of him as a person but in comparison to a "Hero". I may be mistaken though, his hang-time may have saved many a cat from the peril of dangerously high tree branches.

    Che Guevara is an interesting one too. Personally I agree with his cause, mostly thought his works as a younger man, but again — a polarizing figure. Parallels, though, can be made between him and those who controverted his views and to Superman and Lex Luther; keep an open mind till I've made my point though. Superman looked after the less fortunate, protected those who couldn't protect themselves and never acted on if they "deserved" what they had coming — even if they did (eg: protected/defended the Joker after he killed robin, even though Batman was his best friend). He was for the "people" — very socialist in some ways.

    Alternatively, Lex thought having an entity like Superman getting humanity out of every whole they found themselves in (even ones that sometimes it put its self into) held them back from truly achieving glory and success. The strong prevail, the weak wither and we are left with the best and brightest... those who could continuously contribute to society.

    Obviously, I am not saying Ché was a true to life Superman, nor do I mean to insult any American friends (past, present or future) with Capitalist leanings/beliefs. I just want to highlight that if there were people who could actually fit the profile a Super-being, would we cheer for them or would they be a menace. Some though Ché was a hero, some a destructive force — much like Superman, Batman, Spider-man, the X-men, Norman Osborne...

  18. A while ago there was a story on all the tv shows about a blind kid that used his voice as a radar sense to see. The kid was basically Daredevil.

    Also the guys that are really great at Parkour are pretty impressive. Actually, if that blind kid could do Parkour and kick ass, he would be Daredevil.

  19. Gary Faulkner, who was on a one man mission to kill Osama bin Laden, armed with a samurai sword could qualify in my book. I would have let him through to see what happened.

  20. they just made a movie about this, but i remember when the story was originally reported and i thought it was very impressive; the one about the girl whose brother was wrongly convicted so she put herself through law school and got him a new trial and freed from jail. i mean, that's sort of batmanish. or also, that movie about the dude who got his arm caught mountain climbing or whatever and had to cut it off. that's gotta count as something, no?

  21. Anyone ever see the Illusinist/ Mentalist Derren Brown? This guy is completely uncanny, if he wanted to start robbing banks he could be a serious Super-Villain. He seriously has some stupifying abilities

  22. Obama as a superhero is laughable, while Che Guevara as a superhero is sickening and dishonest. But even Joker and Lex have there followers.

    One of the closest examples of a real life superhero is a ... ready? ... real life superhero. Look it up. They're out there performing heroic acts and they have been for a while. It's time we stopped overlooking them.

  23. Why is Che as superhero is 'sickening and dishonest'?

  24. The people who truly have balls and do stuff that affect people on a global level (without being reactionary)-


    I find it ironic that most evil villains in comics are model after Hitler and Co and good guys are modeled after Jesus. I was just re-reading Batman Chronicles #1 and even in the first issues Batman literally fights some guy who thinks he's Napoleon. Darksied was basically Hitler in FC.


    rich people who have enough money they don't have to worry about the mundane aspects to life (and don't).

  25. The political agents mentioned here split the question, potentially, into who is "super" and who is "hero." Of course in matters of policy, just about any goal has those who oppose it, and that will divide those who offer their opinions. Few who read this would likely call the 9/11 hijackers heroes, although they applied their energy and lives towards a goal with the fervor that a superhero or a supervillain might.

    I have met a South American who believes that Fidel Castro was a great hero, even though he does not think that Castro ultimately brought positive change. If one applies the microscope finely enough to see what Castro or Lenin fought *against*, it becomes easier to call them heroes in the week that they triumphed, and then villains for what transpired in the years afterward.

    Hero or villain, are people such as these "super"?

  26. People have used the examples of Michael Jordan and Bruce Lee above. Sure, they may have been able to jump high, or kick hard and fast, but does this make them "super"? They, and this is not meant as a criticism, used their talents to entertain people and make money.

    What if Spider-man chose not to fight crime after, but instead to continue his career in the wrestling ring? Would he be a superhero?

    It would be impossible for someone such as Superman to exist in the real world without him choosing to fight for a political ideal. Would Superman have helped George Bush invade Iraq? Would he intervene in the Sudan? Would he defend corporate interests if it was in America's best interest? All of these are political choices, and whichever decision he would make would paint him a political colour.

    I believe real-life left-wing revolutionaries are more suited to being classed as superheroes, as they tend to embrace a philosophy of collectivism and helping the downtrodden whereas more right-leaning figures tend to embrace individualism and help the accumulation of capital and consciously or not promote the exploitation of the helpless.

  27. And protecting the helpless is what superheroes should do.

  28. Howard Zinn:

    In one of his last interviews, he said he'd like to be remembered "for introducing a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality," and "for getting more people to realize that the power which rests so far in the hands of people with wealth and guns, that the power ultimately rests in people themselves and that they can use it. At certain points in history, they have used it. Black people in the South used it. People in the women's movement used it. People in the anti-war movement used it. People in other countries who have overthrown tyrannies have used it."

    He said he wanted to be known as "somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn't have before."

    Donald Watson: Founder of the Vegan movement.

    People who create a voice for those treated unjustly without one.

  29. Rikdad, I read the post you suggested at:

    I have to say, however, that I found something terribly tragic about the people featured in that article. Perhaps the Comments that followed the article swayed me. Indeed, those people are relentlessly dedicated to a particular cause but does that alone make their heroics super? I had the feeling that some, if not all of them, suffered from insanity of some type (that was likely due to that crazy silver costume with goggles that guy was wearing). If I saw one of them on the street and they were coming to my aid, would I feel a sense of relief, I wondered, or dread? If one of them was actually able to help me, I'd probably ask them to seek psychiatric help after the heroic exploit. Which got me to thinking: would I still consider them a hero afterward, or would I more feel that a little part of my self that believed in superheroes had died after their good deed? Sadly, even considering that I might ask that question caused a little part of my childhood to die...

    With reference to the people who mentioned Che Guevara, I just can't figure out why bread lines are so popular these days or why people who watched The Motorcycle Diaries failed to read any further on Che. Of Che, Wikipedia states, "[c]onflicting views exist of Guevara's delight towards the executions at La Cabaña. Some exiled opposition biographers report that he relished the rituals of the firing squad, and organized them with gusto, while others relate that Guevara pardoned as many prisoners as he could. What is acknowledged by all sides is that Guevara had become a 'hardened' man, who had no qualms about the death penalty or summary and collective trials."

    Super Hero? My god! Someone also brought up Napolean and Hitler. Seriously!? We can't turn our historical criminals into heroes!! Is Jeffrey Dahmer a hero to any of you? What if he had eaten a million people?? Conqueror??

    I suppose the test for me is whom I'd like to sit down and eat dinner with? Ghandi or Superman? Yes. Hitler or Lex Luthor? Very bad dinner conversation (probably a little self loathing and a lot of talk of mass murder of innocents kill).

  30. tell me this isn't a superpower

  31. My god, earthmanny! I'm so glad I saw that this morning!!

  32. I'm South African and I chose Obama as my super hero of today, but if I really had to choose somebody who stands out, I'd say our former president Nelson Mandela. John said that politics is not a pure playing field where super-heroes arise from, and I'll agree on a large scale but if you look into the life of Mandela, how he endured small wars, prison time and all the racial discrimination of apartheid that our country was plagued with, and then fought it off until all races and religions in our country could be seen as equal. I think he has all the criteria to be a superhero, fighting for what was an injustice, physical intervention, and then leadership into a new era of equality. There was even a comic book series of his exploits, how much more superhero can anyone become? :) Or for the full version look up 'A long walk to freedom' , his biography.

  33. I have to go with firemen. In many areas, the fire department is voluntary. They put their lives at risk and for what? Do they make a ton of money? Not if they are volunteers. And even if they are full-time, I'm pretty sure I make more writing computer apps. Fame? Care to name me some famous firemen?

    Superheroes help people anonymously. So do firemen.

  34. I'm going to also have to go with Steve's answer here; firemen may not always be perfect people, but it is a pure cause. likewise, superheroes are rarely flawless -- nor do I really enjoy reading about flawless superheroes -- but they, like firemen, devote themselves to something pure, and they do it without reward.

  35. A beleive that a super heroe is someone who puts themselves in the way of danger for the sake of others. So for me , down here in Aus, it would be the members of the CFA (Country Fire Authority ) or SES (State Emergency Service).

    These people put themselves in the way of raging bushfires or run ropes out to people caught in a flood, or saw away a broken treebranch that is hanging over a live powerline.

    Quite a few years ago we had a landslide up at a ski village called Threadbo. There was one survivor who was stuck under a cement slab for a week. He got recued and all the media pronounced him a hero. But to me the super heroe was the SES mem who dug a long flat tunnel under the cement so that someone could bring him water and keep him company. He was there due to an accident, the SES guys because they wanted to save him.

  36. hmm - lets start by defining superhero - vigilante, extremely intelligent, selfless - this said, politicians by default can't be included - there is a better case to be made for them as super villains.

    How about Ralph Nader? Here is a private citizen who lived his life fighting the major supervillains (auto industry, GE, etc.). He brought the fight head on and never backed down while winning many. The people might only know him as the guy who helped keep Gore out of office but isnt that the case of a super hero - hero today, gone tomorrow?

    Curtis Sliwa maybe, even though I don't think he is all that bright - his politics are sheer buffoonery. But he does have the hero mentality. Another characteristic I would give superhero is a firm commitment to their well defined sense of justice. How about (time for a little controversy) Mumia Abu Jamal? Here is a guy who dedicated his life to fighting against the forces of injustice as well as for his life. Mother Theresa also comes to mind as somebody selfless by attempting to make the world a healthier place, fighting the forces of illness - but she is more like a nurse and didn't take the fight head on and call out the enemy. How about the ex-gangster turned snitch using justice system and fighting to stay alive then trying to turn his life around? A superhero confronts the enemy directly and isn't afraid to call them out regardless of consequences. Lawyers? Michael Moore - imagine him in a cape and tights? Navy Seals - that is such a Marvel response.

    OK - what about real life super villians? Osama? His Bin Laden Inc. crusade sure has made him a villain in this country. Enron execs? George Bush and Haliburton? Dick Cheney? Industry heads employing lobbyists to influence legislation for their favor. OPEC? Economic Hitmen employed by the CIA? Insurance industry heads.

    Great question and some great responses so far.

  37. OOhh, how about investigative journalists - the real ones on the front line, not afraid to publish the story. Seymour Hersh comes to mind.

  38. I nominate Albert Einstein for the Reed Richards Scientific Genius Award.


  40. I'd also say that if you're going to include any political type, it's Putin for sure. even the US government compares him to Batman! and every time you see him he's wrestling a tiger or a bear or something. Brother is intense.

  41. The comments have all been excellent. I am working on a writeup now that I hope puts all of these great answers into perspective. It's hard to do justice to the contributions everyone has made so far.

  42. Rikdad...whatever you do, put on the #45 and come out of retirement...and soon!

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