A recent conversation on the CO Preview forums (which, alas, I cannot link to) brought up that old canard that superheroes are basically reactive creatures while villains are proactive ones, and this explains why everyone likes supervillains better. I got to thinking about this, and partly out of a desire to pull my weight, but more out of a desire to get back into a good writing habit, I thought I would tease out that notion a little bit, put some pressure on it, and see how it holds up.
First off we have to acknowledge that this idea is pretty ingrained in comics culture, ingrained enough that writers like Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis, a couple of pretty smart guys, have intentionally crafted books that go against this idea, with the goal of being innovative and different. The Authority was pretty clearly this sort of book from the get-go, with Sparks and later Hawksmoor making clear an intent to change the world. There have been many other books like this, some glorious (Squadron Supreme), some in- (Force Works, anyone?). This does not tell us that the premise that heroes are reactive creatures is true, but it does tell us that many writers act as if it is true, and then it tells us that the product of these writers thwarts that premise. This is something you learn fast about superhero comics analysis: there have been so many stories over the years that you can find an illustrative example for just about any thesis, and usually you don’t even have to look very hard.
Which is, of course, what I am going to do, because pro-active superheroes are far older than The Authority. Let’s start with something like the Armor Wars, perhaps Iron Man’s second-best story arc after the Obadiah Stane reprise of the original Demon in a Bottle. (Having re-read Demon in a Bottle recently for my dissertation, I am obliged to note that a story in which Tony fails to become a drunken bum is not nearly as good a story as one in which he does). Tony discovers that virtually every high-tech villain in the Marvel Universe uses equipment based on Stark designs, so he arms himself with special anti-Stark limpet mines and goes hunting them one at a time over the course of a year. Obviously, Stark’s sudden desire to go out and beat up the Beetle instead of waiting for the guy to rob a bank or, you know, actually do something bad was just a pretext for a long line of brawls with armored foes, but the fact that this was a marketing ploy intended to raise sales does not, in itself, make the story any worse. The end does not injustify the means. Tony’s willingness to go outside the boundaries of the law on his quest to make the world safe has become extended by later authors into a broad arrogance about Tony, a “my way or the highway” attitude which we see in many other stories, from his willingness to mind control everyone on Earth in order to conceal his secret identity to his role in the Civil War. And, to some extent, that attitude, that arrogance, has become something which many fans like about him. He doesn’t take any shit. And that attitude is admired by the same people who insist that villains are the proactive ones, and heroes just sit on their butts waiting for the Batphone to ring.
But we don’t have to linger on Iron Man to find proactive heroes. The Fantastic Four got their powers when an enterprising scientist led his family onto a rocket rendezvous with destiny, and those writers who have understood the FF in the many decades since have consistently written them as explorers, as “imaginauts” who travel through space, time, the Negative Zone, the Microverse, etcetera etcetera ad nausueum. This isn’t a book about stopping crime, it’s a book about Boldly Going. The X-Men were founded not to prevent bank robberies, but by a schoolmaster, an academic, who envisioned a future in which mankind and mutants lived together peacefully. The Xavier school was created to make that future into reality. Its hard to get more liberal and progressive than that, and more proactive. But I think the ultimate demonstration of Action/Reaction has got to be Peter Parker. When that blonde Ditko crook ran past Spidey and shot Uncle Ben, Pete learned that a true hero could not wait for the bad guy to do something before taking action. The hero does not linger or loiter. Any hesitation could result in an awful tragedy from which there is no recovery. And so Peter sacrifices everything, his personal life, his family, his career, so that he can patrol the streets by webline looking for Ditko crooks.
The trouble is not that superheroes are reactive, it’s that they’re so damn busy. They don’t have time to come up with complicated schemes designed to trap the villains before the bank has been robbed. That’s because, unlike the villain, the hero is on 22 pages every month, and if he’s not doing something on every one of those pages, the reader gets bored. We want our heroes to be constantly pulled in a dozen different directions at once – trying to get Gwen Stacy back from that jerk Flash Thompson, hiding from cops when you’ve been framed for a murder you didn’t commit, trying to pass your classes at New York University, pay your rent and still catch the Shocker. Only off-stage characters, mostly villains but sometimes notable vigilantes like Punisher or (a great example of proactivity for you) the Scourge of the Underworld have vast leisure time in the gutter in which they can plan, scheme, and conspire to make the world a better place. The exception to this rule is a story like Armor Wars, in which the hero drops everything else in his life in order to focus on bringing down the bad guys before something awful happens. We like those stories, not because the hero is suddenly proactive but because they are tales of sacrifice. If Tony wants to catch the Crimson Dynamo, Titanium Man and Red Ronin all in one day, he’s going to have the pay the cost, and that cost is not bruises and broken bones, it’s broken relationships, a suffering company, the alienation of his friends and colleagues and a spiritual withering that comes from a man who is too focused on the job. Read the first issue of Astro City and I dare you to call the Samaritan “reactive.” If watching a hundred re-runs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has taught me anything, it’s that we do love our sacrifice stories.
Stories of proactive heroes like this tend to work well as limited runs. Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis could write their stories about the Authority changing the world, and then they could just turn the results over to someone else. Because now that the world has been changed, the heroes are once again trying to defend it or protect it from whatever comes next, and any claim to an innovative proactive narrative is gone. The original Squadron Supreme miniseries started with the Squadron’s efforts to change the world and ended in a cataclysmic bloodbath; see Kingdom Come for a prettier but less complex version of the same story. Both these comics end in the failure of the hero’s grand scheme, and there’s a reason for that; as with Tony Stark, these kinds of “proactive” stories are really about all-consuming arrogance. Superman and Wonder Woman think the current crop of superheroes is inferior, so they go about rounding them up and putting them in a concentration camp. Hyperion decides the world would be safer without any weapons, so he rounds them all up and destroys them. Our world is not that simple, and when these plans fall to pieces, the writers are showing they understand that. You cannot simply make people do what you want them to do. How many MidEast nations do we have to invade before we learn this? You have to negotiate. You have to persuade. You have to find common ground. And all that sort of thing takes time, time the superhero does not have.
Fans who say they want their heroes to be proactive are not only blind to the fact that the characters actually are already pretty proactive, they also are asking for arrogant anti-heroes who don’t ask for permission or forgiveness. You want to know what’s down that road? Azrael dressed up as Batman, that’s what, and all the rest of those ‘90s dark-and-gritty Watchmen wannabes, including a great many otherwise interesting heroes who suddenly never found a suit of combat armor they didn’t like. Yes, Daredevil, I’m looking at you. Superheroes don’t want to spend their day sitting around waiting for crime to happen; only peeping toms like Martian Manhunter volunteer for monitor duty. They have lives, lives which we see unfold for us every month. If you put a villain in the same situation, he suddenly looks pretty “reactive” too; suddenly all the little bits of life which used to happen off-panel are on. He’s not only got to kick that poseur off the throne of Latveria and fight SHIELD with an army of robots, he’s also got a weird love/hate thing going on with a sexy rival and he’s surrounded by an entourage of hangers-on and fanboys who all insist he get involved in their personal issues. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, and if you want to focus your attentions like a laser beam, you had better plan on making it a story arc that’s easily shelved in a trade paperback, because as soon as you finish up and give the character back to another writer, he’s going to shift gears and move on in a Bold New Direction.
Because there are monthly sales goals to meet, and “changing the world” is a story you can only tell once.