A World Without Heroes ? Our World?

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Occasionally, an exemplary super-hero story slips quietly onto the comic book racks with little fanfare and even less appreciation. Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #5 is one of these

What makes a consummate super-hero tale? The last single issue that was widely accepted as such came about years ago – in Action Comics #775 – wherein the Man of Steel was brought alongside a variation of morally righteous, highly violent, modern comic-book super-heroes. The timeless admiration of Superman’s iconic moralizing was brought into direct comparison with the zeitgeist of the time (which in light of the world’s terror-filled events was not a very romantic one).

The question was: which held more truth? Was the Superman way outdated, naïve, ridiculous; or was the modern trend just that – a trend that would pass while the ideal forever remained? But if the latter is true, then why does such a standard remain? Why is Superman – why are all super-heroes of the classic mold, for that matter – as constant and continuous as the most ancient traditions? The answer, I think, lies within Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #5. Right off the heels of the big, big Spider crossover The Other, writer Peter David takes over the series full-time, and to make sure there wouldn’t be any confusion as to whose title this was, he brings out his very best single story in years. In fact, this is the very best comic-book story in years. Period.

The story opens on a girl named Vanna as she writes her web-blog – “Vanna Be Alone”. She’s only a teenager, and so her writing is full of irrational spite, not only for those in her life but also for those she’s never met and only conceived of (she can see the large number of hits her blog receives, though no-one ever writes her, and she labels these phantom people “losers”). Vanna has family problems, though nothing outside of her parent’s infidelity and falling out of love with each other; the actual oppressive effect this has on Vanna is virtually nil. So what makes Vanna special? One day at school she is, by default of being one of a dozen kids present, rescued by Spider-man from the clutches of the Vulture.

Years later she’s present again when Spider-man defeats the Looter, then again, and again, and again. Never once does Spider-man give Vanna any personal notice, and each episode occurs years apart and within the same general vicinity (Manhattan – the only place Spider-man frequently patrols). Still, Vanna makes a startling decision: she’s being stalked. She confronts Spider-man about this (he calls her “crazy lady” and runs off to continue fighting a very present, sociopathic villain). Then she succeeds in convincing a judge to grant her a restraining order on the wall-crawling vigilante, going so far as to make the front page of the Bugle for this deed (her photograph snapped by none other than Peter Parker!). Eventually though, these notable occurrences become fewer and fewer and they eventually cease. Vanna grows older and the story jumps ahead some unspecified number of years later – to Vanna’s twilight years, and a heart-wrenching epilogue is revealed.

So how is that a quintessential super-hero story? Where Action #775 put the classic hero next to its modern counterpart, FNSM #5 puts the classic hero next to its honest antithesis – the modern common man (or woman, as the case may be). Peter David presents Vanna as an everywoman: she is a cheerleader of average beauty (pretty, though not glamorous), a working woman (she sells cosmetics); she goes to the beach on her time off, and all around seems to lead the average life of any streamlined, modern American girl. Vanna even has the required pinch of deep seated issues – she feels abandoned by her parents who are unfaithful with each other, and Vanna is disgusted by sexuality and distrustful of love because of this. She overhears her father accuse her mother of constant unfaithfulness and allows her feelings of this to keep her at arms length from others; she never goes out of her way to avoid society, but neither are we ever witness to any relationships built within Vanna’s long life, platonic or otherwise. She believes she understands that giving in to sex is what makes for a terrible existence and therefore reflexively decides to become some sort of ultimate virgin – not a prude, as her need to be desired is always present, and she’s desperate for others to look – but she cannot allow anyone to touch.

With this semi-isolation weighing upon her, whenever Vanna’s very average, unfulfilled existence is encroached by something greater, something noteworthy, she immediately squanders it with petty attempts to make herself even greater still. With her blog, she places herself above her readers, using the online journal’s existence as an excuse to feel important. When a true hero swings into her life, risking his own life for hers, she immediately feels threatened and lashes out, furious that such a being exists to show her how possibly empty her own life might be by comparison. So she begins a crusade against a truly extraordinary individual, ignoring any direct comparison between her own experiences and those of actually abused, stalked women. She places her own ephemeral sufferings on par with the emotional traumatizations of true victims and all for nothing more than to unconsciously grasp for her own superficial, proverbial fifteen minutes of fame.

Artist Mike Wieringo does a marvellous job at bringing Vanna’s (spin on vanity?) character to life. She’s pretty and indignant and powerful – you can see the chill fire in her eyes, the drive that fuels her narcissistic desires – and yet never does her character seem to dominate any scene where the true hero (Spider-man) emerges. In these instances, she appears as such a small, insignificant figure, like so much background filler, and the reader almost feels for her. Even with Peter Parker’s checkered moral beginnings (he lets the robber who later kills his Uncle Ben go) there’s a major distinction between Vanna and the hero. Vanna never learns, never takes to heart the lesson Peter learned from his one lapse into ego-driven selfishness, and Vanna has her whole life to figure this; but she doesn’t.

In the advanced cultures of the modern world, where the majority of needs are provided and we are equally well-protected, and it can be a difficult thing to not take advantage of this provision and protection to the fullest extent; but this leaves precious little room for every-day heroics. We do not wish to struggle, but we don’t want to be forgotten, either – we don’t want to be redundant in a world that no longer requires us to battle or struggle in any way which might make us feel personally exceptional, personally heroic.

Human comic-book villains exemplify this fear: they believe that super-heroes (Lex Luthor believes that Superman and Norman Osborn that Spider-man) are destructive to the human psyche. They are convinced that such beings show what the common man can’t do rather than reveal their true potential; that they give us our excuse not to even try (because we don’t have invulnerability or spider-reflexes, now do we?). They believe that so-called villainy – lying, backstabbing, cheating, survival of the fittest, end justifying the means mentality – is the only honest way a common person can achieve extraordinary things.

Peter David explored this very same theme way back in Spectacular Spider-Man Annuals #5 and #6 (titled Ace and Ace II respectively). Within these stories he places Spider-man and his unbending moral perspective up against a street tough named Ace and this man’s loyal yet violent attempts to protect and provide for his family and friends. Spider-man’s attempts to help, to show a simpler, kinder way for Ace to deal with his troubles only led to complicated results, and the wrong people getting hurt. Still Spider-man would not relent: his way was the only way, and he felt uncomfortable in letting Ace handle his problems via the man’s own, brutal methods.

The Ace stories went a ways to show a reality – the half-way point between comic-book heroics and real life heroics. So the question was asked: how reasonable were super-heroic ideals? Could any person without a sizable number of grander-than-life powers even hope to live life by such obviously ridiculous, good-willed extremes? Perhaps not, but neither is the extreme of self-seeking ambition a reasonably honorable trait.

A Spider-man story written by Roger Stern in Amazing Spider-Man #248, 'The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man', showed the great super-hero doing a very small, very human act of good will, an act that could and should (when the chances arise) be emulated by any real, modern person. Perhaps to show how accurately this story displayed a convincingly real-world heroic act, it remains to this day one of the most well received Spider-Man stories of all time. If Web Logs Vanna could have realized that she had the power and ability to do what she had the power and ability to do (remember, super-heroes have only ever been metaphors), then perhaps she could have accomplished a hundred times the number of humanitarian acts as Spider-Man did in Amazing #248 and been, in human eyes, an even greater hero, perhaps even more iconic for her greater limitations.

Another comic I read this week, Grenuord from Fantagraphics, had a quote which struck me as a perfect summation of Web Log: “…mistrust when faced with kindness is a distinguishing trait of a society that has evolved to the point where it cannot conceive of selfless deeds…” If this is an accurate theory, then the subsequent question is why does it have to be this way? Peter David goes a long way in Web Log to give an answer to this; to show why and how an individual can misjudge and misconceive of anything truly kind and truly heroic. Personally, I don’t think we have yet wholly abandoned the concept of the selfless deed. Not as long as the classic super-hero – the Spider-man/Super-man way – is remembered and revered. We no longer trust in its existence, but we still hold out hope, and with stories such as Web Log to lead as an example, as a comparison of what we love versus what we are – perhaps in the end that will be enough.

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