Column: A World Without Superman

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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.

“Superman!”

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?

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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

 

Comments

  1. Ryan says

    Much as I love this, the word “gypsy” is a racial slur, and it jars me every time.

  2. Lucia says

    Everything about this, I love. So, so hard. Thank you for sharing your experience and thank you being one of the good guys.

  3. says

    “But it is joy that unites us. I believe in that joy, and I believe in us too.”

    So well written. This made my day.

    – Matt

  4. Bryan Hill says

    Apologies for the offense, Ryan. “Gypsy” was the word used by the local crew. So what is the proper word? And I won’t make that mistake in the future.

  5. Wolven says

    “Rroma” is the label of choice for most i know.

    Fantastic writing and message here. Thank you for it.

  6. says

    Very well-put. It’s been clear to me for years that too many fans love these characters but seem to be missing the point of all those stories. (The racism and misogyny are flagrant and horrifying examples, but I can’t help but think of how *every single time* a creator asks a publisher for a share of profits from his creation, a certain segment of the fandom doesn’t just side with the publisher but actually openly mocks and insults the creator.)

    I’ll be keeping an eye out for Romulus. Thanks.

  7. Brad says

    This is great. Thank you for putting it up here. I will look for it. Your experience reminds me of what Mark Millar wrote about Man of Steel. Kind of hurting his sensibilities. And as a response, he wrote HUCK.
    Each book, I have cried. I can’t wait for more Superhero stories like it. And by what you have written, I have high hopes your story will be just as fantastic.
    The heart is there. And that seems to be what has been missing from our Superhero stories.
    That one image, and symbol that unites us, shows each other that we are a brotherhood, sisterhood, of people that believe in the extreme possibilities of human capabilities and potential… That hope and love and kindness defeat all ill will and hatred.
    A superhero isnt super because of the abilities they have that us mere mortals dont. They are super, because they choose to do the things that we are often too scared to do, or too self conscience to try.
    Giving your shirt to the boy, was more potent than anything else. That is what that S shield represents. The potential for good. Above all else. The shirt off your back, you are now the Superman that kid will talk about for the rest of his life. The alien from another land, that swooped in, and gave him the shirt off his back.
    That would be an incredible comic book. About a writer, that flies into locations, and in the daylight, goes around and does simple, little things in each community he/she visits…. leaving a little bit of hope behind… and with each little act, runs back to the hotel, writes a comic book about it, and leaves it for the kids… making them the star of the book, so they can show their friends… and they now believe, they too are Superheroes….

  8. Paul Galletley says

    In my 45 years up until tonight, I’ve associated the word “gypsy” with Gypsy Rose Lee, a couple of other old ladies I’ve know named or nicknamed :”Gypsy” and nomads of European descent. I just spent 45 minutes Googling and I see that it is now a pretty loaded term for some people. However, I get the feeling that North Americans in general have been spared the racial slur component of that term and I have yet to hear it used as a slur in my presence.

    I feel both enlightened and saddened. OTOH, great article! Your sentiments are what drew an 8-year-old me to superhero comics in the first place and keep me in the game decades later.

  9. says

    I agree with the sentiment here wholeheartedly. The behaviour of ‘fans’ can be appalling. I wonder what lesson a Star Wars fan got from the films when they become Kylo Ren, outraged that a woman and a black person are movie leads. Or what Captain America would think of people outraged that his partner of 40 (real) years inherited his title, particularly fans not outraged when Bucky took over. And all the other outrage at “SJW.”

    Name one popular hero that would rage about SJW, in any medium. They wouldn’t. So, these readers, why do they like these comics and characters? Is it simply cool art and awesome action? They seem to have no ambition to emulate the heroic ideals in their daily life. That’s the way it looks too often, and it makes me pull back from wanting to be associated with fandom.

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