The Victimized Hero

Have you noticed this trend in movies and TV shows recently?

Seems every “hero” in film these days is somehow a traumatized snowflake that has to overcome some past trauma. And that’s most of the plot.

I understand that characters need internal conflicts, as well as external, but to me this is taking it too far.

I don’t want Star Wars characters who actually had some traumatic childhood that they need to overcome. Remember when orphan Luke Skywalker was still a fully functional (if whiny) human being In Episode IV?

That’s a protagonist right there.

The Star Wars OT was about Luke growing as a character, as the hero of the story. The Prequels are only good for being a gold mine of memes.

And don’t get me started on the Sequel trilogy. Rey didn’t grow, didn’t become more interesting. And any interest in Kylo Ren was horribly squandered.

One of the most egregious examples that springs to mind in recent memory is that awful Halo TV show. They took everything awesome about Master Chief, one of the most badass video gamer protagonists in history, and made him pathetic.

I understand Spartans are supposed to be pretty messed up, at least in the books (which I’ve never read, I’m a Halo game purist). But you never, ever got a sense of weakness from Chief in the games.

He was a laconic murder machine who kept his damn helmet on.

This made him a perfect vehicle character for the players, making them feel like badasses while fighting tides of hostile aliens singlehanded as the Chief.

I never once wanted to learn about Chief’s sad and sappy backstory.

Admittedly, most of my examples come from film. I would reference books, I just don’t read much fiction written this century (with a few exceptions). And I don’t say that to sound smart or super literate, I’m just a Boomer at heart.

One thing about competent, un-traumatized characters is they get out of their own way. They let the story be told.

Take the crew of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek series. All competent adults. And all are vehicles for interesting, engaging (and lovably campy) sci-fi stories. It becomes about the conundrum and how they are going to solve it than some emotional character growth.

Captain Kirk never had to come to terms with his crypto-racism towards Uhura, or that the real treasure was the friends he made along the way, or grapple with his own homoerotic feelings for Spock. Nothing stupid like that ever happened in original Trek.

And then compare that to the Picard show, where its a bunch of emotional children, who look like adults, but act like spoiled, illogical babies. All the while, the script for each episode was forcing the latest “message” down the throat of the show.

“White men bad”

“Climate change”

“Depression”

Mommy issues”

Everyone’s damaged in that show. Everyone’s an unstable, ball of emotion who need Patrick Stewart to let loose his philosophical flatulence in their faces about “the issues” for them to be cured of their problems.

Roddenberry must be rolling in his grave.

I’ve recently been introduced to the Conan the Barbarian series by Robert E. Howard. A friend recommended I read one story in particular, “The Hour of the Dragon”.

And boy, is it good.

I never thought I’d enjoy Conan this much. Always looked kinda stupid from the outside.

And you know what? It is. It’s dumb, stupid fun is what it is.

The world and style give me serious Dungeons & Dragons vibes (played that a fair amount as a kid). But like, a really well written D&D campaign.

And Conan is the opposite of a traumatized character.

Dude hardly ever shows emotion to the other characters in the book. Except of course his manly rage.

Now I know characters like Conan can totally become macho fantasy trips for some people. Fay nerds want to be him, girls want to be done by him.

Conan is pretty handy with that two-handed sword of his.

But for me and the friend who recommended the book, Conan is a fun, over-the-top vehicle for the plot to happen.

Conan is an active character who is always moving on to the next thing, the next action scene, the next set piece.

Perfect character for a fantasy, globe-trotting adventure story.

This is what makes characters like Indiana Jones and James Bond so much fun.

They are macho, competent men who are fun stand-in characters for the audeince and who, while still having personalities, are primarily there to move the plot along and do exciting things.

They’re action story protagonists. They are not Charles Foster Cane.

We do not need to delve into their psyches and understand them from the inside out.

It is their mystique, their stoic exteriors, their withholding of details that makes them compelling.

It is their strength and their competence we find attractive, not their traumatic past, daddy issues, or whatever a modern hack writer would try to foist on them.

Hence, why that Picard show sucked. Picard in TNG was a competent commander with that air of aloofness that made him good at his job. We did not need to delve into his mommy issues. That did not make him a more compelling character, only a worse, shallow one.

Batman. I love Batman. And there’s a good character who has trauma as part of his backstory, part of his reason for existing. But that’s what it is, in the background. Batman as a character should be much more than his trauma. In a a way, he is a character that’s about dealing with and overcoming trauma in a healthy or productive way (such as beating people up while dressed as a nocturnal animal). Because Batman is a strong character with an unbreakable code that he lives by. He is indomitable, a force of nature that his villains must go up against.

When Batman stories become all about how moody he is, with Nightwing poking fun at him, or him being overly emotional and lashing out like an alcoholic father, that’s a big no-no. Or like that newish Batman movie with Robert Pattinson, where they make him an emo teenager with very little likability.

Why are so many characters weak in recent movies and shows? What happened to the strong, competent hero?

We are affected by what we read (yes, even this blog post as affected you somehow). Words shape our reality. So if we spend all day absorbing stories, written or visual, of weak and traumatized “heroes” what’s that going to do to us?

How is that going to negatively affect the way we see the world and ourselves?

Read/watch stories with strong protagonists. Characters who overcome obstacles. Characters who fight for and achieve their goals, even if the road is long and hard.

We all got baggage of some kind or other. Might as well look up to heroes who, despite what might be holding them down, achieve goals and do things with their lives.

A Samurai Named Akira

Akira is a stoic, battle-hardened samurai in a futuristic city. He combines old and new: he carries samurai swords yet has cybernetic arms. His swords and stylized helmet are a call back to feudal Japan.

The setting that Akira lives in is a sprawling, nameless mega-city. It is a place of enormous skyscrapers that tower over the rest of the city like mountains. But also a place of cozy, traditional taverns and Shinto temples sitting in the shadow of modernity. The city is a place where the future meets the past. Shinto spirits and robots exist side-by-side. Akira, as a character, embodies this melding of old and new.

I had the idea of Akira long before I finally got around to draw him. He was always a samurai and always a loner, for different reasons. Originally, he was a robot who broke free from control and found purpose as a samurai warrior. Then, not being terribly interested in writing a robot-searches-for-freedom story since they are over done, I changed Akira into a man. Though some of the robot has still lingered.

When you first meet Akira, his face is hidden behind his golden mask and helmet. His hands are prosthetic. There is no flesh insight to let you know this person is a human or not. Almost like a machine with newfound freedom, Akira searches for his true purpose while struggling against a sense of deep ennui. Though he is the personal retainer to one of the six most powerful men in the city, Akira longs for something more meaningful to serve than the ambitions of corrupt men.

Akira’s design was always emphasized by dark colors. Black and red in particular have been prominent colors through the character’s entire development. The gray trench coat was added just because everything is cooler with trench coats. The metal gray I think fits the stoic nature of the character and contrasts nicely with the golden mask.

Above is my very first full-color sketch of Akira. Below is a better one, though I haven’t yet drawn he shadows and highlights, or the details of Akira’s mask. Still, I think it’s better than the first one.

Akira’s shoes changed from strange loafers to slim-fitting shoes reminiscent of the sandals traditionally worn by the Japanese. Also, Akira’s helmet looks so much better. It was surprisingly hard to draw, even front on, but even from the three-quarter profile view.

Akira’s name uses the kanji 明, which means “clear”, “bright”, and “tomorrow”. In a world of murky intentions, betrayals, and immorality, Akira stands out as a beacon. Not a completely innocent beacon, but at least he alone has honor and integrity.

The name Akira is a reference to the 1988 Japanese film Akira. Also, it is a reference to Akira Kurosawa, whose samurai films starring Toshiro Mifune were definitely an inspiration for the character of Akira. Lastly, Akira is just an easy name to pronounce as an English-speaker.

I’ll post updates as I complete the drawing of Akira. More pictures of Akira will come at some point in the hopefully not-too-distant future.

Deep Thoughts About Batman

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always loved Batman.

Like, always. I had Batman pajamas when I was little that even had an attachable cape. I have a hardcover guidebook to the whole Batman universe. And I have the box set of Christopher Nolan’s excellent Dark Knight trilogy.

So I’ve always been a fan. Anyway, here’s some musings I’ve had on the character of Batman and why he’s so compelling, not just to me, but millions of other fans.

More than any other superhero I know of, Batman acknowledges the suffering of life. He faces it, stands against it. Batman’s backstory (like most superheroes to be honest) is defined by tragedy. Now, yeah, it makes good storytelling to have tragic origins. It makes the character sympathetic and gives them a reason to become a superhero in the first place.

Losing your parents is a far better justification for fighting crime than just being bored one day and thinking of something to do.

Superman has the destruction of Krypton. Spiderman has the death of dear Uncle Ben. One Punch Man couldn’t find a job. Every superhero has a compelling reason to be super.

Batman has the murder of his parents. Batman’s is certainly a bit more dark than some of the other origin stories out there. He witnesses the murder of his own parents while a boy. He probably got their blood on him. That’s an event no one is going to forget.

Understandably, that moment defines the rest of Batman’s life. Instead of giving into despair or fear however, Bruce Wayne decides to act. He decides to transform this dark moment in his life by turning into a symbol of hope for some and a symbol of fear for others.

Batman defends the weak and innocent. He seeks to prevent the same tragedies that changed his life from happening to others.

We all face moments in our life that almost destroy us. We lose loved ones. We become addicted to something destructive. We sink into endless depression. Batman gives an example of how we could, perhaps, transform our tragedies into something constructive. Maybe we could help those who suffer the same things as us.

I find Batman much more relatable than an immortal alien prince. Batman is vulnerable. He dresses as a bat, something he was scared of as a child. In a way, Batman never stops completely being a scared and lonely child. But instead of wallowing, he rises up and turns his vulnerability into strength.

Gotham is a dark, crime-ridden city, yet Batman fights for it. He sees the good people, as few as they are, and lets those few redeem the city for him. Batman finds the good even in a seemingly bleak and hopeless world.

Batman does what he does not for glory or vanity, but because he knows it is right. Again, it’s a superhero trope to have a secret identity and costume, but with Batman it really has an impact. Bruce Wayne is such a high-profile character that it really means something that he hides his identity as Batman.

Batman has found his purpose in life. He has a mission which is greater than himself. People spend their whole lives searching for the same thing. Batman found his calling not in a distant country or in a glamorous profession, but in his hometown. In anonymity. He is satisfied by serving his higher purpose and not himself.

Another comic book trope is to have the heroes never kill their villains since this would mean the writers having to create new bad guys every week. With Batman they most successfully turned this trope into a cornerstone of his character. Batman does not kill. Period. Batman does this out of a sense of higher morality. In effect, he respects the humanity of his villains. They aren’t simply “bad guys” who need to be defeated. They are human beings. Many of them are deranged, but that does not stop them from being human beings. Many of them are murderers. Batman is not.

This is where it gets really interesting. I think Batman’s no kill policy works so well and is so believable because, had life gone a little differently for Bruce, he would be like the Joker. Batman has every reason to hate criminals, to even want them all dead. Instead of choosing darkness, however, Batman chose life, or rather to preserve life. Even the life of his most hated villains.

It is only Batman’s sense of moral truths that sets him apart from the Joker. Both have tragic back stories. One chose good, the other evil.

Batman is also so defined by his villains. Without the Joker, Bane, Mr. Freeze, the Penguin, and all the rest, It’s Batman who is crazy. A billionaire dressing up as a bat and running around at night, punching criminals in the face. But because the Joker exists, Batman logically exists as his dialectical counter.

Batman’s villains also do such a good job of mirroring aspects of Batman. Every good villain should have aspects that mirror or directly counter aspects of the hero. Like I said above, the Joker is a kind of anti-Batman. The Joker has no tragic past. The Joker is cunning; a criminal mastermind while Batman is the grizzled detective foiling his crimes. While Bruce struggles to maintain the balance of his two lives, the Joker’s criminal identity completely subsumed who he was previously.

The Joker has no boundaries, no rules. He is chaos incarnate, as represented so perfectly in Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight. He is the only one who sees the twisted humor in how twisted and corrupt Gotham is. Even the way Joker dresses is a direct contrast to the dark blacks and grays of Batman’s costume.

There’s a yin-yang dualism going on between the Joker and Batman.

Two-Face represents the duality of Batman, as well as a warped sense of Batman’s strict sense of justice. Two-Face has justice but without Batman’s compassion. The Penguin is a bitter Bruce Wayne without Batman to channel his passions. Even Catwoman is Batman as an anti-hero rather than a true hero.

Even though he is a billionaire orphan, Batman is and always will be just a man in a costume punching bad guys. No powers. No alien home world. Just a human being who suffered tragedy, finding a constructive way to channel his anger and anguish by fighting for what is good and just. Batman takes a stand when others wouldn’t out of fear. Batman fights against evil and insanity without hating it or seeking its destruction.

Batman acknowledges that life is suffering. But he is determined to do what he can to lessen that suffering for others. His feelings of loneliness and fear are transformed into weapons and armor. And no matter how mighty Batman is, he is still human. He himself is still vulnerable, even when wearing the cape.