by Bryan Edward Hill
Years ago I found myself in Sofia, Bulgaria as part of the production team on a Dolph Lundgren movie I had written (in three days because that’s how the low-budget action kingdom works), kept around to do last-minute changes as is sometimes the case in filmmaking. Bulgaria was a remarkable place, a country with a much older history than America, a history you felt in the architecture, in the manner and the speech of people who had not forgotten the old ways.
One of the perks of being a professional writer, not often mentioned, is sometimes you get sent to far away places and your world expands. Also, sometimes you have to ride in a propellor plane filled with chickens because it’s the only flight you can get. In this game, you take the good with the bad.
The final action sequence took place in a Romani village, so I traveled with Dolph (he was directing so he was personally scouting locations) and I found myself on a small homestead. A Romani family lived in a barn there, with a well for water, and the only electricity came from a gas powered generator that kept the livestock warm with an mobile heater. Nothing there was young except the children, children that wore hard faces under bright eyes. The Romani village was a place removed from time. They wore traditional clothing. They spoke a regional dialect that even the local crew didn’t always understand. Global culture, especially American culture, did not seem to have reached them.
Dear my fellow Americans, we are not the center of the world.
Filmmaking is a lot of waiting and drinking coffee (and smoking if you so choose), so while location decisions were being made I followed a set of giggles to the Romani children playing European football.
I took a moment to play football with the kids. They couldn’t speak english and I can’t speak a lick of Bulgarian, but I knew what four tin cans turned into opposing goals meant. I can speak soccer-ball so while the crew debated camera set-ups, I played football, barefoot in the cold grass, pants rolled up, just like them. There were three boys, two of them were about twelve years old, and the other boy looked no more than three or four. During the game, the four-year old ran over to me and did something I never expected to happen.
He gave me a hug, a two-armed, waist-wrap-around hug. Like he knew me. Like he was happy to see me. Unless you’re a monster, when a child hugs you the world stops. So I stood there, unmoving until eventually I hugged him back. After a few seconds, he broke the hug and smiled. I had no idea why the boy did it, why he was so damn happy to hug a stranger. Then the boy pointed at me and said one word in accent-shifted English, probably the one of the few English words he knew. He said it like a declaration, like he had discovered something and wanted everyone around him to know.
I was wearing a Superman T-Shirt, the classic “S” on the blue. I pack them when I travel, a little piece of my childhood I can wear that makes me feel good. The Romani boy knew Superman. Somehow, the message and the joy of that story reached him. He loved Superman so much that he was compelled to express it.
That boy trusted me because I wore the symbol of the House of El.
Those moments still happen to me. If I wear Superman’s symbol, or the Batman logo, or even a Frank Castle skull, someone will comment on it, happily. A thumbs-up here. A ‘nice shirt’ there. If I’m wearing one and I pass someone also wearing one, there’s a nod of recognition, the silent brotherhood of people who love superheroes.
I’ve said it here before, and I’ll say it again. Superheroes mean something to people. They represent ethical possibility, the point of view of someone who will risk their life to see justice done in the world. They’re a clarion call to those who believe in truth, or justice or even righteous vengeance. They are the personal aspirations of goodness made anthropomorphic, given names and stories, the myths that shine the way for our better natures, our best natures.
That’s why I’m saddened sometimes by the state of Superhero culture. This is a culture where everyone should not only feel safe, but BE safe. Safe from racism. Safe from sexism. Safe from harassment. Safe from abuse. We as creators, and fans, and editors, have a responsibility to manifest the ethics of Superheroes in the actions we take in daily life.
You cannot say you love Batman and then verbally harass a reviewer who didn’t like a film about Batman.
You cannot say you love Peter Parker and call Miles Morales a racial slur.
You cannot say you love Superman and bully the innocent.
You cannot say you love Superheroes and then live your life as a villain. What WOULD your favorite hero do in the face of racism? What WOULD your favorite hero do in the face of abuse? What WOULD your favorite hero do to protect the innocent?
Are you doing the same? In the little and large ways that you can?
We, those who love these stories, are better than this. We are good people. We are brave people. We have the power to create an industry where the ethics of the fiction we love is manifested in the way our culture behaves. The shirt is only a symbol when those who wear it live by its code.
My upcoming Image/Top Cow book ROMULUS is a story about good vs. evil. I’m writing that story because I see the evil around us and I see the struggle of the good. I believe in the ethics my heroine Ashlar, because they are my ethics. I’m not just writing a story. I’m sharing my belief system with you, and if you respond to it, if you share those beliefs I have a responsibility to live by them in daily life. If I fail, and I often do, I have to correct my course. I owe you that. I would be a hypocrite if I did not believe I owed you that.
If I ignored Ashlar’s ethics, if I ignored the core battle at the heart of ROMULUS, I would be a liar.
Ashlar, if living and breathing, would vow to destroy me too.
If people respond to these stories, if they accept them into their lives and support them with their money and time, those same people should be able to trust us to echo the message of those stories. It saddens me that many don’t trust us, that they have the circumstantial evidence we don’t deserve trust. So-called “Nerd and Geek Culture” is growing a negative reputation as a hub of contrarians and abusers and our “rage” is more often mentioned than our joy.
But it is joy that unites us. I believe in that joy, and I believe in us too.
We are good. We strive to be good. With every tweet and email, every blog and personal interaction we can demonstrate that. On the now-lost planet of Krypton, the “S” was a symbol of hope.
Let us not forget that. I don’t want to live in a world without Superman or his ethics and it’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen.
If you’re wondering, I did give that shirt to the boy. What else could I have done?
Bryan Edward Hill is the story editor of Top Cow, and the writer of POSTAL. His book ROMULUS (co-created with artist Nelson Blake II) is due from Image/Top Cow this fall. He invites discussions on twitter: @bryanedwardhill
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.