Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Hard-Traveling Heroes

For anyone not familiar with them, the artwork shown here depicts what are fondly known to many comic book readers as the Hard-Traveling Heroes: Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow (left); Dinah Lance, the Black Canary (center), and Hal Jordan, Green Lantern (right). This drawing is by Mike Grell, who illustrated the Green Lantern-Green Arrow comic book series in the mid-1970s, when I first became acquainted with these characters. The framed original is hanging in my house, in a place where I see it every day, a reminder of childhood heroes.

I call them my “childhood heroes,” but that’s a lie, really. They’re my lifelong heroes. They remain my heroes despite the fact that I am now in my 40s, and despite the fact that society generally frowns upon grown women (let alone professional book editors) reading super-hero comic books. I still adore this trio of heroes and read about them whenever I can. In fact, I still read a lot of comic books in general. I guess old habits die hard, but there’s really more to it than that.

Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Black Canary weren’t my introduction to super-heroes. That honor belongs to Batman – or rather, Batman and Robin. The 1960s camp classic Batman program, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, was in full swing on TV when I was a very young child, and I became completely hooked on it (and, to a lesser extent, on Green Hornet, starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee). I was much too young at the time to recognize the camp elements of the Batman TV show. In fact, I took it dead seriously, thinking nothing was as thrilling as watching Batman and Robin trying to defeat the bad guys every week.

That super-heroes originated in comic book form wasn't known to me until later. Mind you, I’d always had access to comic books. Every time the family went on a road trip (which was VERY often), Dad bought me a stack of comic books to read while we were all stuck in the car. Most of these comic books were of the “funny animal” variety: Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Casper the Friendly Ghost, etc. (Road Runner was a particular favorite, though I was always confused by the fact that the comic book Road Runner talked and had a family, whereas the animated cartoon version never said anything more than "Beep" or "Meep" and appeared happily single.) Dad never bought me comic books aimed primarily at girls, like the Archie comics or Superman’s Girlfriend: Lois Lane. Nope, Dad was (and still is) a big kid, so he bought me comics that he also wanted to read on the road. No girly stuff allowed! Perhaps that was a bit selfish on his part, but I don’t regret it for an instant, as I’ll explain.

During one road trip, one comic that emerged from Dad’s traditional stack was a copy of Russ Manning’s Magnus Robot Fighter 4000 A.D. This was no funny animal comic. I’d never seen anything like it – realistic-looking human beings doing fantastic things in fantastic science-fiction settings. Sure, I’d seen plenty of science fiction TV shows and movies, but having that type of story available to me in drawings was an entirely different experience. The drawings didn’t show any of the limitations imposed on the live actors of TV shows and movies. Not only that, the drawings felt more personal somehow. Though artists and writers had given the characters forms and words, they still managed to move and speak how I wanted them to, in my imagination.

From then on, funny animal comics lost their appeal. I had discovered Magnus Robot Fighter. On another road trip, Dad then showed me, much to my delight, that Batman lived in comic books, in stories and settings much richer, more frightening, and more fascinating than anything I’d seen on TV. This comic book Batman seemed much more real to me, and much more heroic, than his TV counterpart. My excitement encouraged me to explore comic books a little more, to see what other super-heroes were out there. Dad happily indulged my curiosity, and thanks to him my comic book collection grew. I still have many of the comics he bought and read with me on the road.

Batman was my first love, but Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Black Canary became my favorites -- especially Green Lantern. While growing up, I read many super-hero comics from both main publishers (DC and Marvel), and for a time I was a huge fan of the X-men. Somehow, though, I always came back to the Hard-Traveling Heroes. I’m not really sure why.

Is it a coincidence that, like Batman, the Hard-Traveling Heroes were really just regular human beings? Sure, Green Lantern had a ring that allowed him to do just about anything he could imagine, but without it he was just a man – though an incredibly brave and resourceful man. Green Arrow had no powers to speak of, but like Batman, he was a hero because he worked hard to be one. Black Canary had a super-power that seemed to come and go over time –- a sonic scream. Really, though, for the most part, she was like Green Arrow and Batman: she was who she was because she worked hard to be that way. The details aside, though, all of these heroes represented potentials that regular people could strive for.

I think growing up with these particular heroes inspired me to adopt certain attitudes that otherwise might have escaped me. I learned, for example, that when I can help someone, I should. I learned that some risks are worth taking. I learned that many things in life are bigger than me and more important than me, but I can still work hard to make life better for everyone. I learned that mistakes, rejection, and “bad things” happen to everyone, and that it’s best to learn from them and forge ahead without complaining. I learned that the unknown should be approached with excitement rather than fear. I learned that fear shouldn’t stop me from doing what’s right. And I learned that friends can remain friends by agreeing to disagree.

Of course, though they were depicted more realistically than most comic book characters, I knew the Hard-Traveling Heroes weren’t real. Real heroes were the people who worked hard every day to keep us safe and to teach and enlighten us and our children. Super-heroes, for the most part, were guilty pleasures in the face of real heroics. However, super-heroes -- just like any great fictional characters -- also represented possibilities and ideals that people could strive for. I don’t mean the ideals represented by super powers, but by what was done with those powers.

Today, I think super-heroes help many of us believe that everyone has the potential to go out and become a real hero, that we all have the ability to be heroic when situations call for it. They inspire us to be brave and to look out for other people. I’m personally very grateful to the people who worked hard (and continue to work hard) to create super-hero literature. I’m also grateful to my dad for introducing me to this marvelous fictional world during our many road trips together -- his way, perhaps, of teaching me things that he could never explain on his own. Thanks, Dad. You're my own hard-traveling hero.