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Where Have All The Heroes Gone?

by Tony Isabella

(originally published in Comics Buyers Guide, 1995. Reprinted in Aphelion by permission)


The following is a series of columns which originally ran in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE in 1995. The series was one of the best received series I've ever written for that worthy publication. Its grand finale remains the most popular column of them all.

These columns will appear as originally written. Some of what I wrote about then may (or may not) still apply. Keep that in mind if you are moved to respond to any of them.

******

March 24, 1995

We celebrated my father's seventieth birthday a few days ago and, during that gathering, I found myself thinking about heroes. Actually, I've been thinking about heroes a lot lately, but seldom in a such an appropriate setting.

Our parents are our first heroes. If we're blessed, like my siblings and myself, we never completely lose sight of this. Oh, we may not feel it as keenly as we grow into adults, but, once we get there, we generally understand just how correct our fledgling instincts were.

My folks worked hard all their lives to provide for us. The sacrifices that seem so enormous to me today were sacrifices they never thought twice about making. They knew what was right, then acted on that knowledge with love and generosity.

Television introduced me to my next heroes: the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Superman, and Zorro. I would lay on the floor of our living room and delight in their adventures, never once wondering why they did what they did. Had someone asked such a question in my presence, I would have looked at them as if they were speaking in Martian. What a stupid question!

All my heroes were good men with the ability and opportunity to help others. So, naturally, that's what they did. The answer couldn't have been more obvious.

My own heroes had raised me to believe people were basically good and good people, given the means, would certainly help those in distress. What other motivation would they need?

I learned to read from comic books. I found heroes familiar and heroes new in their pages: Superman, Batman, the Lone Ranger, Spider-Man, and more. They might have stumbled from time to time in the course of their adventures, but you always knew that, when it really mattered, they would conduct themselves nobly.

When I think about these heroes, images flash across my mind like a slide show. So many great memories.

I see Superman dying from "Virus X" and his friends charging to his side to carry out the missions he is too weak to complete. I see him launching himself into space to write a farewell to his adopted world, charring "Do good to others and every man can be a Superman" into the face of the moon.

I see Spider-Man trapped underneath tons of fallen steel and refusing to surrender to his fate. I see his muscles strain with unbearable fatigue as he triumphs against all odds.

I see the Challengers of the Unknown risking their lives for the conquered people of another dimension, scaling the tower that is the source of the invaders' power. I see the determination in their eyes as they take hit after hit without wavering from their gallant objective.

I see a contrite Iron Man standing before the other Avengers as he accepts a suspension for failing to answer their call. The punishment is not so terribly strict, but it makes it clear these heroes recognize the highest standards of personal conduct.

The heroes were my role models. I may not be able to attain such high standards on every occasion, but their examples set the path of my life. If I stumble from time to time, and I do, I get back on the path in hopes that when it really matters, I will not stumble again.

I think about these heroes of my youth and I wonder how they might feel about what we've done to them, how we've twisted their once-proud principles. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

Superman murders three defeated enemies for fear of what the future might bring. There is no message on the moon.

An editor talks about how he has a hard time relating to the heroes entrusted to him. He doesn't understand why they do good. He does not believe in them. So he brings them down as surely as any arch-villain, reduces them to psychotic motives that offer no hope for their grim worlds.

Bruce Wayne became Batman to avenge the senseless murders of his parents. He found their killer and saw him brought to a kind of justice. He continued to wear the mantle of Batman to protect his fellow citizens. He had grown from obsessed avenger to noble guardian.

In the DC Universe after ZERO HOUR, and even overlooking the Batman's immoral alliance with a hired assassin to bring down the Azrael-Batman he himself had created, Bruce Wayne never found the killer of his parents. He remains the obsessed avenger. Without that transition, without the moment when he chooses to remain the Batman after conquering his personal demons, he is much less than the hero he could and should be.

An editor proclaims his belief that the main competition for the comic books he produces are mindless and violent video games. The stories he publishes, save for the rare exception, are devoid of any meaningful content.

Spider-Man makes a deal with Venom that allows his murderous foeman to go free. The Justice League parties with the genocidal Lobo. Brutality rulz, man!

A new editor asks a creator/writer of a super-hero when that hero will kill. Not "if" the hero will kill, but "when" the hero will kill. Principles suck, man!

Green Arrow is a murderer; Green Lantern is a mass murderer. Twenty years ago, they were traveling our land looking for truth. Didn't they learn anything? Didn't we?

The comics heroes of my youth were beings of hope and wonder and even inspiration. The comics heroes of today are, too often, creatures of despair and rage.

Why? And why does it matter?

Comics fan Lucio A. Perez is a police officer in the Mission District of San Francisco. He is a member of CompuServe's Comics and Animation Forum and sometimes shares his job experiences with us. Last month, he posted the following:

Yesterday, I received another "Police Officer of the Year" award at a luncheon held in my honor. The mayor and my chief were there. I was sitting there dumbstruck at my good fortune. Most cops don't receive this award at any time in their careers, and I've won it five times already. And I owe it all to growing up reading comic books and wanting to make a difference. I didn't want to end up like my boyhood chums who wound up dead or went to prison.

When I pressed him for more details, Perez was gracious with his time and his memories. He wrote:

I really owe a lot to comic books and their creators. They made a huge difference in my life when I was cutting school, and getting expelled from every school that I attended because I was a troublemaker. (I had an authority problem, if you can believe it.) I grew up in the back of a bar in the crime-ridden Mission District and it wasn't easy to stay out of trouble.

The only constant I had in my teenage life was skateboarding three miles to the comic book shop in the Mission District and picking up my batch o'comics. Then I'd skateboard back home, lock myself in my room, and read them all. That's how I learned to read and expand my vocabulary...from reading comic books. I didn't realize that I was learning and educating myself through another medium. It just seemed like a fun thing to do. It paid off for me in the long run.

That's one of the reasons I want to see more books like BLACK LIGHTNING on the market. A comic book like that can actually make a difference and provide entertainment at the same time. Learning how to read is half the battle for a lot of the kids in my old neighborhood.

You would also be surprised at how many cops were former comic-book readers...tons of them. And many continue to read them to this day.

This is why it matters. Because comic-book creators do have the power and the responsibility to take their readers beyond the despair and the rage. Because we have the power to inspire. And because we have failed in our responsibility to show the light as well as the dark.

We live in a country crying out for heroes and we wonder why they won't buy our anti-heroes any more. We talk about so-called "realistic" heroes as our market shrinks around us. We allow the dark to block out the wonder of the comics.

Haven't we learned anything?

There are still interesting stories to tell about our comics heroes without breaking, cloning, killing, or savaging them. The only requirements are courage, faith, and talent.

We can draw our inspiration from the many good people around us. For even in these most cynical of times, there is courage in our world. There is generosity. There is hope.

There are heroes among us, my friends.

Next, we'll meet some of them.

* * * * *

April 5, 1995

We're talking about heroes, continuing a discussion we began last week in this space. Specifically, we were talking about the sorry state of super-heroes in today's comic books as publishers, editors, writers, and artists emphasize despair and rage over the hope and wonder the characters once reflected.

To be fair, perhaps the publishers and the rest believe they are holding up a mirror to the world around them. That it can be a bleak world is not something I can easily dispute as I sit mere miles and fewer days from a tragic situation in which hundreds of police officers were unable, despite a 45-hour stand-off, to save a 9-year-old boy from death at the hand of the demented father he dearly loved. There is a darkness to our lives.

But, like the broken mirror whose missing pieces leave holes in our perception, like the fun-house attraction that presents us with a distorted image of whatever stands before it, their mirror does not reveal the whole of our world. There is a brightness to our lives as well.

For even in these most cynical of times, there is courage in our world. There is generosity of spirit. There is hope.

There are heroes among us.

CHICAGO. A gunman bursts into the Woodson North Elementary School gym and starts shooting. Teacher Clarence Notree, head of an after-school basketball program, runs to the children, some of them as young as 8, spreads out his arms, and gets them to safety as a bullet crashes through his right wrist. Notree will lose 20 percent of the use of the wrist.

"Every one of those kids was being helped through the door, and it was Notree who, by being the last one, was shot," said one of the teacher's co-workers. "He was shielding them."

CENTREVILLE, VIRGINIA. Kevin Tupper sees a single-paragraph message on a computer bulletin board and realizes he is reading a suicide note. Tupper tracks down the author of the note and then notifies police in Miami County, Indiana. Authorities there find the distraught man at his home, where he is attempting suicide by breathing carbon monoxide fumes.

"I've never seen a rescue done from hundreds of miles away," said the deputy who dragged the man from a gas-choked garage. "A guy on his computer saves another man he's never met...in another state. I'm still not sure how it worked."

GARDELEGEN, GERMANY. In the weeks after World War II, Staff Sgt. Glenn Schroeder smuggles some Spam and other surplus rations past the MPs to a hungry girl and her family. Fifty years later, his kindness is repaid when he needs it the most.

Waltraud Zobel Kalusa, who is 63 and a grandmother of three, started writing to her benefactor shortly after the reunification of Germany. It's a time when Schroeder needs friends.

He lost his wife and only love on his birthday in 1985. His health is failing; he has emphysema and heart problems. He still has nightmares, fifty years later, of the war.

Kalusa's first postcard, sent to an address he had given the woman's parents in 1945, arrived as Schroeder had began to wonder if life was worth living. The memory of an ancient kindness gave the Elyria, Ohio resident his answer.

For two years now, Schroeder and Kalusa have been exchanging monthly letters and the occasional phone call. They hope to have a reunion in Elyria this year, the 50th anniversary of that long- ago meeting in Gardelegen.

When asked why he disobeyed orders against fraternizing with townsfolk to help Kalusa and her family, Schroeder's response was self-effacing.

"There had been so damn much hatred," he said, "that it gave you courage. Then, suddenly, there was no more war to fear. You didn't have to crawl anymore. Finally it wasn't even too hard to smile. I think every GI probably did the same thing for somebody somewhere along the way."

TOLEDO, OHIO. Retired air traffic controller Louis Streb is a man who believes in dreams. One such dream, shared by his late wife Betty, was to see that each of their six children received a college education. The Strebs accomplished that goal without any financial aid whatsoever.

Late last year, Streb fulfilled another dream: he earned his own college degree. He graduated with honors from the University of Toledo with a bachelor's degree in history.

"We're really proud of him," said son Dan Streb. "He's such an intelligent man. I have met some highly intelligent people in the MBA program, but I'd put Dad up against any of them."

DETROIT, MICHIGAN. Deborah Kemp is dragged on her knees for a quarter-mile by a man attempting to steal her car. Her 6-year- old daughter is inside the car. As the vehicle moves, Kemp grabs the door and the steering wheel. She pulls The Club, a steering- wheel lock from under the front seat and beats the carjacker with it until he pleads for mercy. The car crashes into a restaurant. Kemp's daughter is unharmed.

WASHINGTON STATE. Bruce Gibson, a real-estate appraiser, is 49 when he dies after several surgeries and painful chemotherapy. Roy Rogers was his idol; "Happy Trails" was his theme song. "When I die," he had told his wife Beverly, "skip the urn and keep my ashes in a Roy Rogers lunch box."

On the day Gibson died, THE SEATTLE TIMES ran a first-person article about a reporter growing up with Roy Rogers and the bunch at the Double R Bar Ranch, at the movies and on TV. At his wake, Gibson's friends talked about the article and told Beverly they'd be on the lookout for the lunch box.

Beverly Gibson wrote to tell the TIMES how much this article meant to her and that she was looking for a Roy Rogers lunch box. Randee Fox, an artist with the TIMES, saw the letter and called a friend. The friend called Richard Denner, owner of the Fourwinds Bookstore and Cafe in Ellensburg, Washington.

Denner had a Roy Rogers/Dale Evans Chow Wagon lunch box on a shelf in his store. He'd gotten it from his mother-in-law twenty years earlier. As soon as Denner heard about Gibson's last wish, he sent the lunch box to Gibson's widow.

NEW YORK. The 20-year-life of Raymond Dunn, Jr. was defined by suffering. Born with a broken skull and a brain that had been deprived of oxygen, Dunn couldn't walk or talk. He had two dozen seizures a day. He slept three hours a night. Asthma made every breath a struggle. He moved only with assistance and he saw only shadows. The one thing he could do was inspire compassion, love, and, yes, heroism from those around him.

His parents dedicated their lives to him. Strangers offered their help. And a corporation kept him alive.

Dunn was known as the "Gerber Boy" because the only food his system could tolerate was a brownish liquid called MBF (for meat- based formula). Gerber had stopped making MBF in 1985. By 1985, the Dunns had hunted down every last can they could find. Gerber had exhausted its backlog as well.

In 1990, after Dunn's doctors said he would die without MBF, Gerber research division volunteers retooled to resume production of the product. They put their own projects on hold, refurbished old equipment, and devoted thousands of square feet and many days of their own time to making MBF for Dunn. Whenever Dunn finished a batch, they made more. When he died this January, he still had a year's supply.

The Dunns and their legion of helpers, many of whom had been inspired by newspaper stories of Gerber's generosity, were always at Raymond's side. They caressed him constantly, fed him several times a day, and brushed his teeth after each meal.

At his birth, Raymond was not expected to live one year. He fought his death right up to the end. "He wanted so much to stay with us," his mother said, adding, "I'm proud he was my son. I'm grateful for that honor. I wouldn't have traded it."

There is darkness in our world. There is light. Comic-book publishers and editors, writers and artist, have a responsibility to hold up a mirror to our world. And, if they hold their mirror up high enough, it will surely catch the light.

That light is the stuff super-heroes are made on. It's time we started remembering that. And, if we lack for inspiration, we can always look at the images in our mirrors.

Given that, how can anyone NOT believe in heroes? We'll meet more of them next.

* * * * *

April 10, 1998

We're still talking about heroes, a subject which the astute among you have come to realize I am somewhat passionate about. I believe in heroes, real and imagined, and treasure the message of hope they bring to an oft-uncertain world.

Conventional wisdom has it that comic-book super-heroes have become darker to better reflect the sad world around them. It is a wisdom that conveniently ignores the fact that the super-heroes grew out of the Great Depression, flourished during World War II, and remain popular at a time when the very spirit of humanity has been challenged by natural, political, and social catastrophes of Brobdingnagian proportions.

If comic-book creators and executives have trouble embracing the essential optimism of the super-heroes, perhaps they could be inspired by looking beyond the front page of their newspapers and the lead sound bite of the television anchorman.

There are heroes among us.

******

ECRU, MISSISSIPPI. Lisa Herdahl, 34-year-old mother of six, likes to see religious images in both her home and in her church. But, she doesn't believe these images should be on display in the public school her children attend.

The little community of Ecru, population 800, was stunned by her refusal to allow her kids to take Bible class and participate in daily prayers at their school.

"A lot of people labeled us atheists and devil worshippers," said Herdahl. "But I felt there should be a separation of church and state. I don't believe a public institution has the right to push their religious viewpoint on a kid.

"My parents, who were school teachers, taught us if we had a strong belief in something and believed it was right and good, we should do it."

Herdahl's children attend their church's Sunday school. She says, "It is important to me that the kids have a basic religious background."

Herdahl is sticking by her convictions. Naming the Pontotoc County Public School District "a renegade school district that is continually declining to abide by the Constitution," the American Civil Liberties Union with People for the American Way have filed suit on behalf of the Herdahls.

"I never turned away from religion," she states. "I believe in God and in my faith."

******

A consultant laughed when told about CITY FAMILY, a magazine whose advertisers target the seven hundred thousand New York City families with annual incomes less than $25,000 mark. "Talk about your non-market," he sniggered.

Just the same, publisher Arthur Schiff knows CITY FAMILY and its sister mag, LA FAMILIA DE LA CIUDAD, are appreciated by their target audience. He says his readers "have a tremendous drive to be middle class."

CITY FAMILY is written at a third-grade level, with half the magazine in English and half in Spanish. It is available free at clinics, community centers, hospitals, and libraries. In its two years of publication, the magazine's circulation has swelled from 10,000 to 200,000.

LIBRARY JOURNAL named CITY FAMILY as one of the 10 best new magazines of 1993. They wrote, "Edited and written as a literacy tool for the borderline poor, the magazine aims to recognize them as valuable individuals while introducing them to the marketplace as a valuable, if often ignored, category."

CITY FAMILY is marginally in the red, but Schiff stated that each new edition brings new volunteers and calls from supporters. He will give himself the three to five years it takes the average magazine to become profitable. After that, he hopes to start new editions in other big cities.

******

HARWICH, MASSACHUSETTS. Alexis Brown, age 11, was born with cerebral palsy and, almost two years ago, also diagnosed with the chronic illness lupus. However, she is more concerned that other children may not have as much going for them as she does.

Brown has launched BEARABLE TIMES, a newsletter to cheer the days of hospitalized children by letting them know other kids are going through tough times, too. The 16-page quarterly newsletter features stories, poems, riddles, word games, pictures, drawings, and letters from eager pen-pals. It gets limited distribution in Boston-area hospitals.

Brown communicates through her computer keyboard, expressing a personality unaffected by the speech challenges of her illness. "It wasn't much fun in the hospital, because I couldn't always go to the playroom and visit with the other kids or play games," she writes. "So it was great to get mail."

"I felt bad for some kids, because they didn't get much mail or didn't have many visitors since their families lived far away. So I thought a newsletter would be good for kids. We could share feelings, stories, and ideas."

Most copies of the first issue, financed by Brown's parents, were distributed at New England Medical Center. The mailing list includes the child life departments of other hospitals who'd like to join the BEARABLE TIMES distribution network. The Browns have also started getting inquiries through America On Line.

Chantel Brown, Alexis' mother, says help from family members is important to the effort and adds, "We also got a big financial boost from a wonderful man here in Harwich, Bob Spidle." Spidle, a plumber, met the Brown family when he installed special faucets in their home several years ago.

******

PINE BLUFF, ARKANSAS. Steven Hines, a 17-year-old who has a delinquency record, rushes inside a burning mobile home to see if anyone is trapped within its melting, marshmallow-like walls. He rouses and singlehandedly carries its stunned occupants from this violent blaze. He saves a dozen children ages 4 to 13, and their two adult babysitters, both in their 70s.

It isn't until hours later that Hines actually realizes what he has done. "I got scared then," he says.

******

AKRON, OHIO. Loretta Hummeldorf, the head coach for women's basketball at Cleveland State University, hears a motorist scream for assistance as he is attacked by a teenager. A second boy has already gotten into the man's car.

Hummeldorf blocks the victim's auto with her own vehicle and gets out to confront the would-be carjackers. She takes a punch, but holds her ground. The teens see her take another step toward the kid who hit her and take off running.

Police call Hummeldorf a heroine who put herself in jeopardy to help someone she didn't know. She will receive a commendation from Akron's chief of police.

Hummeldorf, sporting a black eye as a result of her courage, was self-conscious about her actions.

"I saw someone in trouble and just reacted. I would hope if I was in that position, someone would help me."

******

CLEVELAND, OHIO. The parents of Allison Makar plan to start a video library for kids at Rainbow Babies and Childrens Hospital in memory of their 3-year-old daughter, who died last fall at her home in Maple Heights.

Allison spent about 130 days at the hospital over 13 months, receiving treatments for acute myelogenous leukemia. The nurses there once gave her a bag with 300 suckers and suggested she give them out to people who did nice things for her.

Once, after a 42-day stay, Allison would not leave until she had walked up and down the hallway giving out suckers to everyone on the floor. She carefully went through the bucket, picking out just the right one for each person.

"She gave them to doctors, nurses, cleaning crew, everyone," said Jim Makar, her father. "I'm thinking all these people don't want suckers. We got to the end of the hall and turned around to see everybody in a white coat with a sucker sticking out of their mouth. It became her trademark."

Jim and Mary Makar have set up a fund in Alli's name through the hospital. They presented the hospital with $10,000 and their daughter's videotape collection. The goal is to buy a player for every patient's room and start a video library.

(Donations may be sent to the Alli Makar Memorial Fund, care of University Hospital, 11100 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44106. Attention: Department of Development.)

******

What, you may ask, does all this have to do with comic books and super-heroes? It's a fair question.

Call it a challenge. Call it a challenge to the publishers, editors, writers, and artists of the classic super-heroes to once again embrace the basic optimism of this singular genre. Call it a challenge to look to the real world for its examples of courage and kindness and promise, then apply those lessons to the stories they bring us.

Call it a prelude. Call it a prelude to a discussion of why DC Comics, perhaps the worst but, by no means, the only offender, should be ashamed of what it's done to its legendary super-heroes in recent years. Call it a prelude to a discussion of how DC can restore those heroes to their former glory.

Tomorrow: some real good reasons why DC Comics should start thinking seriously about this stuff.

Followed by: Tony saves the DC Universe. Can't you just FEEL them holding their breath at 1325 Avenue of the Americas?

******

April 19, 1995

He couldn't sleep.

He didn't have to sleep, mind you. Well, not exactly. But, he found that taking a few hours of rest each night allowed him a much-needed respite from his busy days. He was only super-human, he would chuckle to himself as he turned in. The world certainly didn't need a cranky Superman with bags under his eyes.

But, this night, he couldn't sleep. He read the new McBain. He watched Leno's monologue. He went out and got newspapers from London, Paris, Copenhagen, and Yokohama, and worked the crossword puzzles in each. And he still couldn't sleep.

There was a nagging question that had lodged in his head and wouldn't be stilled, a question whose answer eluded him as surely as his desired rest.

Why had the world, the universe, gone so terribly wrong?

We've been asking our own questions about why so many comics publishers have abandoned the essential optimism of their classic super-heroes, those shining beacons of inspiration, for "revamps" born of despair and rage.

We've been disputing the view that claims these super-heroes have become darker to better reflect the sad world around them by offering examples of real-life heroism in that world.

And, if we appear to be singling out DC Comics for an unfair measure of our disapproval, we plead unavoidable circumstances in the answering of that charge.

DC Comics is scarcely the exclusive offender in this regard, but, by virtue of their having so many classic super-heroes among their characters, and their obvious willingness to deform any and all of them for short-term gain, they necessarily come in for the lion's share of our reproachful commentary.

Then, too, there is the simple fact that your scribe is more familiar with the DC Universe, having recently tarried within its cheerless borders for some short while. If I'd been reading more Marvel super-hero comics, perhaps it would be those books and not DC's efforts concerning me now.

And so, it is the DC Universe we consider herein.

All too often of late, he found himself thinking life itself had degenerated into an unending series of crises, that the hopes of tomorrow had been eclipsed by the terrors of the now. He knew the seemingly unrelenting struggle was exacting a heavy toll from man and Superman alike. He could see it in the grim faces of the ones who fought alongside him.

It was two o'clock now and he still couldn't sleep.

I have held that the creators of super-hero comic books have the power and the responsibility to take their readers beyond the despair and the rage, that they have the ability to entertain and inspire us. These convictions are, of course, born of the values I grew up with and still embrace.

However, beyond any one writer's concept of right and wrong, there are several compelling creative and economic reasons for DC Comics to reconsider the increasingly dark avenue down which they have taken their super-heroes.

Fictional universes require an internal consistency to work. It isn't logical for Superman to fight his neverending battle for truth and justice, then allow the serial killer Lobo to slaughter his way through the DC Universe. It isn't rational for Batman to devote his existence to stopping criminals, but ally himself with a vicious assassin. Yet these and like incongruities are written into story after story for the sake of the fast buck.

The DC Universe relies on its readers' willing suspension of disbelief. The shortsighted thinking that allows a Hal Jordan to go insane or a Lobo to murder without significant consequence can push that willing suspension past the breaking point. The reader loses faith and interest in the fictional reality. And, perhaps, he moves on to other forms of entertainment.

One wonders how small the comics market has to get before DC Comics will look at the big picture?

In those small hours before dawn, the mightiest man on Earth wanted nothing more than to share his melancholy with someone who might understand it. There was no one.

He considered flying to Gotham City, then rejected the idea. Though there was no man he respected more than the Batman, he had watched his friend grow colder with each passing year. It was as if Bruce had come to consider hope as an indulgence ill-suited to his eternal war. There was no one.

Barry would have understood, but he was gone now. So would have...the other heroes who gave their lives to save the universe from the Anti-Monitor.

(How strange. When he thought of Barry, another name popped into his head and just as quickly left. Kara?)

Who else? He found Arthur a bit confounding these days, and he wasn't sure who--or what--Carter had become. He hadn't talked to Ollie in months, not even to refute the disturbing rumors he'd heard of the archer's activities.

And Hal? He tried not to think about Hal at all.

If DC Comics were to look at the big picture, they would see a country driven by the need to hope. We elected Bill Clinton to office because we wanted to believe he could change our lives for the better. We elected the Republican Congress because we wanted to believe they could change our lives for the better.

Okay, we screwed up.

(We are, in addition to being a hopeful people, an amazingly impatient people. We want those ready-to-use answers to the most complex of problems. This also explains why we took to microwave ovens so quickly. We want it all right now.)

DC Comics is an excellent position to tap into the essential optimism of the American people. They have two vital ingredients that would allow them to secure said position: classic characters and lousy sales.

Their classic characters give them a high recognition factor among the vast majority of Americans who don't read their comics. If those characters were more in tune with the essential decency and optimism of our fellow countrymen, and aggressively marketed as such, their readership could grow beyond the tiny confines of their current following.

Their lousy sales make a convincing argument that "grim and gritty" doesn't translate into sure sales anymore. Their comics need more. They need better, more original stories and artwork. They need hope and wonder. They need heroes.

Real heroes for real people.

He had virtually willed his body to sleep when he awoke with a start. Someone had called to him from very far away.

It was not a dream, this single thought fired into his mind. It was a cry, a revelation, a warning.

He recognized the "voice" instantly and he knew this was the answer he had been seeking.

Now he knew why the world had gone so terribly wrong. And he knew what he had to do.

As the first rays of dawn flowed over the still-resting city of Metropolis, the Man of Tomorrow burst through their shimmering glory and into the darkness beyond.

Next: why bad things happened to good heroes.

* * * * *

April 26, 1995

I first learned about the Oklahoma City bombing when my wife Barb called me that morning. I was working on last week's column and, as is my habit, was pretty much oblivious to the rest of the world. After she told me what had happened, I went into the next room and turned on the television.

I stared at the blasted hulk of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and heard about the (No!) day-care center. Scattered on the floor around me were toys my kids hadn't put away before they went to bed the previous night. I usually pick them up during my writing breaks. It would be hours before I could bring myself to disturb the airplanes and crayons and Legos.

I can't remember when I went back to my office to finish the column. I worked on automatic pilot, numbed by the grisly images on the flickering screen. I faxed the column to Michael Dean and made myself a lunch I never ate. I picked up my son Eddie at his day-care center two hours earlier than usual.

Since then, like the rest of you, I have tried and failed to make sense of this hateful assault on innocent children, innocent adults, innocence itself. It can't be done.

My thoughts are as fragmented as the ruins of that shattered structure a thousand miles away. I have images and questions and tears. I have no answers.

At first glance, the Murrah Building looked much like one of those miniature sets designed for a Godzilla film. But, the more I looked, intricate details became evident. This was no harmless fantasy. No movie maker could have created such devastation in a mere studio.

The first accounts pointed the finger of blame at the Middle East and oh, how I wanted to believe them. Yes, give us the evil alien monster to hate. Give us a target we can put down with our own bombs and our own righteous might. It bothers me, though not as deeply as it should, that I could harbor such feelings. It is not something I wanted to learn about myself.

Hours later, I watched a newscaster weep as she reported the story. It was an honest emotion in a medium that rarely delivers such veracity. I cried with her.

The next day, Tim McVeigh was being held as the main suspect in the bombing. I could not imagine what could lead an American, one of our own, to commit such a cowardly and heinous act. I was able to imagine it better after listening to radio talk-show host Bo Gritz label the bombing "a masterpiece of science and art," as if it were some sort of Science Fair project.

McVeigh has ties to the Michigan Militia Corps, one of maybe thirty such fringe groups infesting the heartland of our country. They are militant, paranoic, largely racist gatherings of men and women who have chosen to forego the political process and instead prepare for war against the government. They arm themselves with assault weapons and moralize violence. They are the listeners of right-wing hatemongers like Gritz and G. Gordon Liddy.

The militias and their broadcast gurus are already inventing implausible conspiracy theories which have the federal government as mad bomber in a plot to orchestrate an all-out attack on their organizations. Days after the bombing, while determined rescuers continue to search for survivors, Liddy is advising his listeners how to shoot federal agents.

The absurdness of such delusions is of damn small comfort to me when I look at a NEWSWEEK map tracing these groups. There are swastikas, letters, circles, and squares symbolizing the nearness of Neo-Nazi organizations, the Klan, Skinheads, and others to the county in which I live. The headquarters of the Michigan Militia Corps, which kindled McVeigh's violence, is a too-short five-hour drive from my home.

Homegrown terrorists like McVeigh communicate with others of their ilk via various computer bulletin boards. They trade their bomb recipes and their conspiracy theories. Today, some of these psychopaths are calling McVeigh a "hero."

My definition of "hero" is somewhat different. I look at Oklahoma City firefighter Chris Fields holding the bloody, dusty form of 1-year-old Baylee Almon, just handed to him by city police Sgt. John Avera. I see his all-too-visible sorrow that such a life should be cut so short. And I know that both he and Avera then went back into the horror that stole this innocent child to do their best to help others.

A friend called Friday evening to talk about the bombing and the heroes of its aftermath. We talked about the rescue teams in Oklahoma City, some of which had flown in from all over the globe to assist in the rescue. We talked about how the teams often had to be ordered to leave the building after their shift. We talked about their painstaking, piece-by-piece efforts.

But no heroic image affected me more profoundly that of Aren Almon, 22, the single mother of young Baylee. She wanted to meet Avera and Fields, to thank them for taking her daughter from that bombed building. In the midst of the greatest grief a parent can know, she wanted to thank them.

McVeigh, that wretched creation of hate, had robbed Almon of her child through a cowardly act of unspeakable vileness. But he could never steal from this grieving mother her simple decency or her dignity.

In a few short hours, as I write this, the rescue teams will be reaching that area of the Murrah Building where they expect to find well over a hundred victims of McVeigh's hate. I don't want to watch the news reports, but I will.

We owe it to the victims of this despicable villainy to keep watch over their memory and to ask some very hard questions about our country.

How can we defend ourselves against homegrown terrorists and those who, in the name of free speech, encourage them?

Can we make the price for such terrorist acts so severe that it will deter future assaults on humanity?

Do we have the courage and the wisdom to forego the rhetoric of politics in addressing these issues?

Even after the last victim is brought from the ruins of that building in Oklahoma City, the search must continue.

For answers to our questions.

For our piece of mind.

For our children.

******

SOME THOUGHTS (October 26, 1998)

The above column was an unexpected departure from the "heroes" series. When I first decided to post this series online, I thought I would skip over this one. But, reading it for the first time in three years, I came to realize that it belonged with this series, that it added another dimension to the point I was trying to make about the state of heroism in comic books.

Could something like the Oklahoma City bombing happen again? Most definitely. There are people in our land, people with ties-- philosophical ties, if nothing else--to the so-called "religious" right. These people have already shown their willingness to kill in the pursuit of their repressive agenda. They have assassinated doctors, bombed clinics, and cheered the killing of gays. Could it happen again? You tell me.

The week the above column was published, I returned home from some errands to find a death-threat on my answering machine. The anonymous caller said militia members would not allow me to write any more s--- about them. Amazingly, it was neither the first nor the last such threat I had or would receive in my career. But, it stuck in my craw for the longest time.

My response to this and other threats? I make sure my family exercises some additional caution in their daily activities...and I keep writing.

A friend once suggested that made me a "hero" and I laughed at the notion even as I secretly relished it. Because I have always believed in heroes and I have always wanted to be a hero. Which, I suppose, is why these columns meant so much to me and my readers. Because they came from a place inside all of us, a place where we ARE heroes, a place where evil cannot survive.

* * * * *

May 3, 1995

Previously:

We have talked about heroes, real and imagined, and how both sorts have the power to enhearten and inspire. We have discussed the alteration of the DC Universe from a place of hope and wonder to a guignol of rage and despair...and we have promised to rescue it from its tormented existence.

******

"This is the story," he said to the eager young faces around him, "of how the world's greatest super-heroes were given another chance to get it right."

******

As the first rays of dawn flowed over the still-resting city of Metropolis, the Man of Tomorrow burst through their shimmering glory and into the darkness beyond.

All night long, he'd been tormented by thoughts of the world gone terribly wrong, of his friends and allies becoming more grim and desperate with each passing month. Then, he had been snapped to cold awareness by a warning, a revelation burned into his mind from so very far away.

Darkseid had the anti-life equation.

Darkseid had the anti-life equation, had possessed its awful power for years, and had used that power to corrupt the universes into twisted playgrounds for his malevolence. That mad master of Apokolips could control the minds of all living beings, and, with that control, had reshaped reality itself again and again.

The glowing portal boomed into existence before him. In the unimaginable distance, he could see the profane energies escaping from the very soul of Darkseid's world, the anguish of the damned given blazing corporeity.

Without hesitation, Superman entered the Boom Tube. Space and time lost their meaning as the last son of Krypton tumbled through the vortex. He saw realities explode and reform, all at Darkseid's whim. He saw visions of loved ones, the memory of their courageous lives wiped from the universes as if they had never lived at all.

And, when he seemed likely to drown in that vile tempest, he was delivered from its toxic pull by the "voice" which had roused him from the shroud of Darkseid's treachery, carried to safety by a will every bit as determined as his own.

The will of Hal Jordan.

Jordan did not know when Darkseid had wrested the secrets of the anti-life equation from him. He did not know how long he had been held prisoner in the dungeons beneath the blistered crust of Apokolips. He did not know how many pieces of his flesh and mind had been torn from him and reshaped into evil simulacrums spawned to do Darkseid's loathsome work.

He only knew that he could not surrender to his captor, that he could not yield to the threats and temptations laid before him in that dark place. Darkseid could flay the flesh from his bones one layer at a time. Darkseid could restore life to his murdered friends. Darkseid could cast his soul into hells beyond rational imagining and leave him shattered within the blackness of his own mind. Darkseid could grant him power beyond reckoning.

Jordan endured.

And, at long last, when Darkseid let his vigilance relax for but a single moment, Jordan triumphed. He gathered up a will too strong to be held by the chains of Apokolips and send his warning out into the cosmos.

His own will linked to and strengthened by that of his long- lost friend, Superman scattered the forces of Darkseid as if they were but a mad child's toy soldiers. It was the beginning of the end for the lord of Apokolips.

A man from Krypton stood side-by-side with a indomitable man of Earth. With the extent of his malevolence now fully revealed, Darkseid held no power over them. He who had sought to subjugate all living thought was now himself ruled by an outside force that he had never known before.

It was fear and, as hero after hero joined with Superman and Jordan, it grew within Darkseid like a cancer.

There were battles, battles in every corner of every reality that had been touched by Darkseid's evil, battles in the heart of life itself. Heroes were born and heroes fell, but the armies of anti-life were pushed back, back, ever back.

Superman and Jordan were there at the end. The Man of Steel fought the brutal killer called Lobo, now revealed as yet another creature of Apokolips, while Jordan faced Darkseid on a different battlefront, one beyond the physical universes.

Four men, for that is what they were, met in final combat at the end of the universes and beyond. Two came back. Neither the Kryptonian or the earthman would ever tell their fellows what had transpired on the day Darkseid fell.

The universes were free once more, but they were not as they were meant to be. The heroes considered using Darkseid's secrets to make things right once more.

It was Oliver who talked them out of it, an ordinary man who once more served as the conscience of the Overpeople. Like them, he had been cruelly twisted by the darkness. He had done evil in the misappropriated name of justice and he stood ready to pay for those deeds. But, first, he would be heard.

Darkseid had tampered with all of reality and visited misery on their world. How could they ever be sure they were not merely perpetuating that evil by attempting to reconstruct the realities to their own liking? What gave them the right to wield the power that had nearly destroyed the very concept of hope?

It was only after he had finished his passionate appeal that Oliver felt the hot tears streaming down his face. Diana ran her soft hand over his cheek tenderly. Hal clasped his shoulder with a firmer hand. And, although he could not be certain of what lay behind the typically somber expression of the Batman, he hoped it was something like forgiveness.

There would be no prideful attempts to recreate existence as they might prefer it. They would accept the reality around them, but always striving to better it with their courage, their deeds, their examples. This time, they would get it right.

Quietly, slowly, so quietly and slowly that the heroes never saw it happening, reality began to heal itself.

Aquaman, Arthur, looked at his new prosthesis with a hopeful expression. That there were serious differences between the land and the sea could not be denied, but, now, he would try to bridge those disputes with the hand of peace.

The Batman confronted the demon that had ruled his existence since the dark moment he saw his parents brutally murdered on the sidewalks of Crime Alley. There had to be more to life than this endless anger. He had to be more than the obsessed avenger or he would never make a real difference in his city, would never truly honor the memory of his parents.

He thought about it a long time. Then, he called for Alfred and Dick and Tim. They had all pledged their lives to his cause. They had a right to be part of this.

"We're reopening the Wayne murder case," he said. The courts would have been more lenient with Oliver Queen if he had not insisted they hold him fully accountable for his cold- blooded murder of a corrupt politician. For justice to rule, all men must be judged equally.

Oliver was sentenced to a life in prison, but he was never a prisoner. He did what he could to make the world a better place, writing, teaching from a room that could never be a jail cell for someone with his unquenchable spirit.

It was Kyle Rayner who sought out Jordan afterwards, certain the older man would want to resume the role of Green Lantern. He was surprised when Jordan declined.

"Life is change, Kyle," Hal told him. "I learned that there was an incredible power within me, something Darkseid was able to corrupt to his own ends. I think that power is within all of us. I want to understand it and, when I do, I want to teach others to understand it as well. I want to use that power for good.

"Sounds pretty corny, doesn't it?"

Kyle smiled.

"Can I be your first student, professor?" It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Clark Kent had just finished his column for The Daily Planet when his super-hearing picked up a roaring sound in the distance. A missile of some sort was about to crash in the woods miles away from Metropolis. It was flashing downward at an incredible speed and he gasped as he realized it held a living passenger. He knew he could not reach it in time.

Swiftly flying to the crash site, Superman was amazed to see the rocket had not disintegrated on impact. Though its nose cone has crumpled, the body of the object was intact. Still, no human being could have survived such a crash.

His amazement turned to utter shock when a young girl, maybe thirteen years old, literally flew from the wreckage. She smiled with obvious excitement as she said, "Don't worry, Superman. I'm alive without a scratch!"

"You...you're unharmed," he sputtered. "But that would mean you're invulnerable like me!"

"Why not, Superman? I'm also from Krypton." Her name, he soon found out, was Kara.

******

The youngsters had listened to the stories eagerly up to the very moments they drifted off to sleep. Hal smiled as he wrapped the soft blankets around them, then stepped through their bedroom wall into the pleasant Martian night.

He had heard the rushing of wind even from within the energy shields that gently surrounded the house. He had heard the sound a hundred times over the vast centuries. It signaled the arrival of his oldest friend.

Something had happened to Hal and Superman during that final battle with Darkseid at the end of the universes. Though neither realized it at the time, they had somehow passed beyond the grasp of time. It was difficult, at first, watching loved ones age and move on to other realities, but, like the great heroes they were, they had found a purpose to their own eternal lives.

Superman spent the centuries traveling throughout the length and breadth of the universes, inspiring new generations of heroes and learning their stories. Then, he would seek out Hal and tell him these tales of adventure and courage and hope.

Hal would tell the stories to the children and the children, someday, would tell them to their children. And, sometimes, they would even have new stories to tell to Hal.

It was a fine way to spend one's days.


© 1995, 1998 Tony Isabella. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

Tony Isabella is a featured weekly columnist in the nation's largest comic book collector's publication, Comics Buyer's Guide. His satiric "Tony's Tips!" is a favorite among fans and industry professionals alike. Currently Tony Isabella is working on properties for a number of book and comic-book publishers as well as developing new, creator-owned projects. Tony's latest project, the daily "Tony's Isabella's Journal" made its debut in June of 1997 on the world wide web exclusively through World Famous Comics.

Tony Isabella, his wife Barbara and children Eddie and Kelly reside in northeast Ohio, where he is a much sought-after speaker by the area libraries and schools.

More information about Tony Isabella E-mail Tony: tony@wfcomics.com


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