What is a superhero?
A hero with superpowers.
What is a hero?
That is a question the genre is struggling with today.
To be a hero is to protect the innocent, uphold moral norms, and preserve society, even if it means experiencing great hardship. It is to embody and express the great virtues, even at tremendous personal cost. It is to use your gifts and talents wisely, in the service of others, instead of satisfying personal vices.
It is to be good and do good in the face of incredible challenges.
But what does it mean to be good?
And does possessing superpowers make you less than, greater than, or something other than human?
Once, there was an easy answer to these questions. Not any more.
Golden Age to Iron Age
The first American superheroes appeared at the turn of the 20th century, drawing inspiration from mythological heroes like Hercules and David, and folkloric heroes like Robin Hood, and real-world masked vigilantes of the Old West.
Proto-superheroes first appeared in the pulps. The Scarlet Pimpernel introduced the masked vigilante with a secret identity. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon had super tech in their space opera adventures. The Shadow was a ruthless masked vigilante with formidable mental powers and an omnipresent network of agents.
From the pulps came the enduring superheroes: Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel. Some were original inventions, others like Batman were pastiches of the pulp heroes that came before them.
This marked the beginning of the Golden Age of Comics, from 1938 to 1956, introducing the superhero into the public consciousness.
The entertainment of the time reflected the values of the time. The America of the early 20th century was a predominantly homogeneous society grounded in Christianity. Echoes of Christian morality can be seen in the deeds of superheroes.
Superman could have destroyed the world with his powers, but instead uses them to fight for truth, justice and the American Way. The Shadow visits Old Testament style vengeance on evildoers; for a time, Batman did also, until he adopted the creed of thou shalt not kill.
Other nations introduced their own superheroes—Astro Boy from Japan, Perak from Prague—but superheroes were by and large an American phenomenon, reflecting American values.
The Silver Age of 1956 to 1970 built upon the works of the Golden Age. It saw a second wave of superhero fiction, with new tales and characters, plots and settings. This era reflected the general optimism pervading American society following victory in the Second World War and America’s subsequent global domination.
The Bronze Age ran from 1970 to 1984. With the Vietnam War came a darker, grimmer mood. Real-world social issues such as drugs, crime and the environment crept into plotlines. The X-Men appeared, representing minorities in American society.
The veteran writers and artists of the Gold and Silver Ages had retired. Now came a younger generation, one that had come of age in the tumultuous 1960s, and with it the struggle for civil rights, an end to the Vietnam war, and other social sills. Their experiences and concerns spilled out into the page.
After the Silver Age came what is now called the Modern Age of comics. I think these are two separate ages.
The coming of the antihero, villain protagonists, troubled heroes, graphic violence and adult content of the 1970s and 1980s marked a Bronze Age. Where comics were once family-friendly entertainment with clear-cut heroes, titles were now aimed at adults and featured characters who no longer fought for truth, justice and the American Way, but instead for more selfish personal goals. This reversal was complete in the 1990s, with the anti-hero replacing the superhero as the principal comic book character.
Today we live in an Iron Age. The genre has crossed into film, television, books and video games. Technological and artistic advancements led to incredibly detailed and beautiful illustrations. But there are no heroes now.
Today’s superhero comics have been infected with the scourge of social justice. In the name of ‘representation’, artists take Golden and Silver Age characters and twist them into minorities. Instead of fighting for the values of a Christian America, the values that had created the genre, they fight for progressive talking points. The idea of virtue itself is gone: superheroes are heroes not because of their deeds, but because of their identities and ideologies.
Worse yet, it’s not even done in an entertaining fashion. Observe:
Self-censorship and blatant references to ‘social issues’ injected into the story is now accepted practice in comic books. Small wonder that Big Comics are dying, and need movie and television deals to prop themselves up.
Superheroes were born in a society that celebrated heroism. As society changed, so too did superheroes. From an age of truth, justice and the American Way, superheroes have fallen into an age of ideology, social justice and identitarianism.
When I was invited to write for Silver Empire’s Heroes Unleashed universe, I understood I could not pretend this decay did not happen. Heroes reflect the age, and the universe is set in the not-too-distant future. Any hero I write has to be a product of the Iron Age.
But he doesn’t have to extend it.
A Song of Karma
Adam Song is a third culture kid. Born in Singapore, he moved to Hong Kong, and later emigrated to the United States. He enlisted in the Marine Corps, became a Marine Raider, and after he completed his service he joined the Halo City Police Department. Starting from Patrol, he was headhunted for the Asian Gang Unit, and finally joined the Special Tactics And Rescue team.
Adam Song shows many traits of being a TCK. He is multilingual, speaking English, Chinese and Cantonese, and recognizes Spanish when he hears it. He builds relationships across many cultures, with many friends and contacts from all walks of life. He is highly sensitive to his inner and outer states, and can rapidly adjust himself to fit in with the people around him. That he chooses not to fit in with some people is a personal statement, born from his own experiences and what he believes to be true.
He also faces many of the same challenges of a TCK. He doesn’t have a stable sense of identity. Superficially he appears to have absorbed American values–he joined the Marines, he is an ardent Second Amendment supporter, he thinks deeply about the state of America–and yet he also leverages guanxi and approaches the world using Chinese philosophy. He never had a root, and he is always moving from place to place. Deep within him is a profound sense of restlessness. He doesn’t enjoy being tied to one place, and yet he hasn’t found a place he can call home.
Halo City is a city on the edge. One of the most diverse cities in America, it is also divided into ethnic ghettoes and quarters with varying degrees of assimilation. Ethnic street gangs roam the city. Dozens of languages and cultures combine and clash at the borders. The racial and religious homogeneity of Old America is gone, replaced by fluidly-shifting borders demarcating hostile groups with incompatible cultures. A single spark could set the city on fire.
Now throw three hundred thousand superpowered individuals into the mix.
Including Adam Song.
A superhero must have a code. But for a rootless man in a rootless city, what is the basis of this code?
Personal morality demands a strong sense of personal identity. Adam Song doesn’t have that. He doesn’t even know who he is — and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.
Civic law is the law that governs everyone within the city. For six years he upheld the law and protected the citizens of the city. But the laws of Halo City are written to serve the powerful, and when the law bites him in the back, he can’t count on the law any more.
He needs to find a higher law.
Laws were supposed to reflect the values of the day. Religion heavily influenced, and continues to influence, societal values. Many modern laws can be traced to religious teachings. When the State fails, Song turns to the Church.
He is, after all, a third culture kid, one who grew up in East and West without fully settling down in either. In his investigations into faith, he is seeking a compass to guide his life and actions.
Hence the title of his series, Song of Karma. More than just a play on his name, it reflects Song’s worldview. He doesn’t consider himself much of a religious person (but he unconsciously comports himself like one where appropriate), but he has absorbed the concept of karma. The idea of cause and effect, where an individual’s intention and action influences that person’s future.
Song is keenly aware that his actions and intentions will carry long-term and unforeseeable consequences. He has to navigate multiple minefields—the treacherous legal environment of Halo City, the superhero community, the underworld—and a simple misstep could spell his doom, and that of the city. Even the smallest things he does will come back to haunt him.
Is he fighting for truth, justice and the American Way? Arguably, yes. But he must also do it in a way that ensures his long-term survival and credibility, and prevent the continued degeneration of a city and a nation on the brink.
How do you write a superhero in an iron age of vice, treachery and politicking? I can’t ignore the influence of the ages that came before, but I do not have to follow the trends of the times.
With Song of Karma, the answer is: have the superhero rediscover virtue.