Once again, I apologize for the quality of this in advance, as I often do. This is less of a proper essay and more me trying to get these ideas on paper so that I can reference them more easily should I decide to do a real essay later.

So sorry.


The Pacifying Protagonist:
Serial Media and the Birth of a New Hero Archetype


Why Doesn’t Spidey Smoke Them Bitches?

OK, first, to totally destroy any mystery, or for those of you who just want easy answers, most superheroes don’t kill simply because it would be really bad for business if the characters kept killing off their best foils. That’s a big part of why this new type of hero IS so new, dating, at the absolute earliest, to the late nineteenth century. But I am getting ahead of myself, the Pacifying Protagonist is not yet born.

First, if we’re going to establish that the Pacifying Protagonist is new, we have to cover what hero used to mean. Fortunately, Dictionary.com is like 90 years out of date as a dictionary (seriously, it’s using an old dictionary that’s fallen into public domain), we can use it to get a good idea of what Hero meant in Days of Yore.

1. a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
2. a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child.
3. the principal male character in a story, play, film, etc.
4. Classical Mythology.
a. a being of godlike prowess and beneficence who often came to be honored as a divinity.
b. (in the Homeric period) a warrior-chieftain of special strength, courage, or ability.
c. (in later antiquity) an immortal being; demigod.

Most of these Heroes are known far less for what they saved than for what they changed, destroyed, or achieved. A Hero was someone who killed evil (and not so evil) kings, stole treasure, incited riots, lead rebel armies, and generally did the things that would be made the domain of a comic book villain. Now, retroactively, we’re going to call these heroes Disruptive Heroes.

  • Hercules, son of a God, forced to live as a common human who achieved Godhood through a series of trials that largely consisted of seeking out monsters to kill or trap, and stealing
  • Genji, a boy of noble birth, forced to live as a common human who, becomes a military officer, works his way upward socially, and sleeps with pretty much everyone
  • Jesus, the son of a god, brought up the son of a carpenter, who successfully alters the entire course of history
  • Even

  • King Arthur, famous far more than most heroes as a hero of peace, is the son of a king, forced to live as a commoner*, who assembles an army of the greatest warriors in the world (read: England) who wage a bunch of amazing feats, and then it all falls apart.

Heroes, all across the world, with varying degrees of historical verisimilitude, have always been people who went out and changed things, radically. They changed their lives, they changed the world around them, they nailed all the fly hunnies, they stole shit, and sometimes they tore down existing governments. Now how many of these apply to say, Superman? Something very fundamental about what makes a hero a hero has changed. Why?

The Industrial Revolution and the birth of the middle class. Suddenly, books are not nearly so rarefied an item. Reading is something people are doing for fun in huge numbers, and all new heroes are being created, for the first time, as recurring characters in on-going projects. Sherlock Holmes, Captain Nemo, Alan Quatermain**, Zorro, Tom Sawyer and others.

But we’re not quite there, these characters are recurring, but they tended to go on isolated adventures and had the occasional reoccurring nemesis, but for the most part they fit with the classic Disruptive Hero ideal. Even Superman, our measure of the modern hero, was far from the “big blue boyscout” we see him as now. Hell, the first issue of Action Comics has him smashing up some guy’s car just to scare the dude. Not exactly the peak of nobility.

It was the start of the change though. More and more writers realized that for a hero to have a long life in the extremely speedy worlds of Radio, Pulp magazines, and comics, the villains had to live. As a result, the heroes were moved from the role of the adventurer who sought out his enemies and took on a reactive role, a defender of the establishment.

After all of this, I’m left wondering: did the hero become an agent of the status quo SOLELY because of the difficulty of keeping an active adventure character compelling after hundreds or thousands of serialized stories, or are there other reasons, social influences, that might have changed our concept of a hero from an agent of change and upheaval to a force for stasis and maintenance? What does that say about us? What does it say that when Warren Ellis writes The Authority, about a team of Superheroes who actually stop wars, remove dictators and feed the hungry, that the reaction is a mixture of acclaim and fear, after all, who put them in charge? Who elected them hero?

*There is a theme here. Maybe you have caught it at this point. In order to avoid making the average person believe they too had a right to engage in this disruptive activity, heroes tend to have some kind of special birth, meaning that while it’s possible to relate to their circumstances, by no means are you expected to cause a ruckus like this guy did.
**All three of the proceeding characters are in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This is because Alan Moore is a genius.