Sneak Preview: NBC's Heroes

If a superhero can be such a powerful and effective metaphor for male adolescence, then what else can you do with them? Could you build a superhero story around a metaphor for female adolescence? Around midlife crisis? Around the changes adults go through when they become parents? Sure, why not? And if a superhero can exemplify America's self image at the dawn of World War II, could a superhero exemplify America's self image during the less-confident 1970s? How about the emerging national identity of a newly-independent African nation? Or a nontraditional culture, like the drug culture, or the 'greed is good' business culture of the go-go Eighties. Of course. If it can do one, it can do the others.

- Kurt Busiek, introduction to Astro City: Life in the Fast Lane

The San Diego Comicon has become one of the landmark events in the world of branded entertainment. Begun as a fan convention, Comicon has become much much more. While comics readers remain a small, tight-knit, niche market, the influence of comics extends outward to shape all other entertainment media. As longtime DC editor Denny O'Neil told the Comparative Media Studies colloquium several years ago, comics now constitute the "R&D" sector of the American media - comics don't make much money themselves but they test strategies, model content, and experiment with new relationships to their readers, which will later be deployed across film, television, and video games.

In such a context, the country's biggest comics convention has also become a test market for a range of new entertainment franchises. Take a look at the list of new films and television shows which will be previewed before the Comicon crowd this weekend. Producers, directors, network executives, and cast are waiting anxiously to see how the Comicon crowd will respond to their brainchildren.

One of the shows which will get its first public airing at San Diego this year is NBC's new superhero drama, Heroes. I was lucky enough to get my own advanced look at the series (don't ask how...) and wanted to offer my own thoughts on how it is apt to be received within comics fan culture. There will be a fair amount of spoiler information in this piece, but you are going to have to click to the continuation page to see it. If you just want some broad evaluative comments and background, you can keep reading this top level and then skip to the very end.

Unlike most previous stabs at superhero television, Heroes is not adopted from an existing comics franchise; it was created specifically for television, though its creative team includes several who have solid comics pedigrees - notably Jeph Loeb (best known at the moment for the Batman: Hush series). So far, searching the web, it would seem that the series has only started to register on the radar of most superhero fans, who are still nursing disappointment that two other highly publicized pilots - the adaptation of the Luna Brother's Ultra miniseries (imagine the Ben and JLo story told in a world where superheroes replace movie stars as the favorite topic for celebrity gossip) and Mercy Reef, (a Smallville-style version of the Aquaman mythos) - were not picked up for the fall schedule. What little online discussion I've found suggested that its premise, which bears a superficial relationship to X-Men, led to it being perceived as similar in spirit to Mutant X, a short-lived series which borrowed heavily from (i.e. "ripped off") the established Marvel franchise. If fans are imagining a rapid-paced, larger-than-life and somewhat campy superhero romp, they are in for a surprise.

This show owes more to indie and alternative comics than it does to the DC and Marvel universes: its tone comes closest to Brian Woods' remarkable Demo series of last year (more on this later) or perhaps the kinds of stories one is apt to find at publishers such as Vertigo, Dark Horse, Image, or Oni. I call such publishers mid-stream: that is, not quite mainstream and not quite alternative. They tend to build on conventions of established genres, but pull them in innovative new directions. Their stories tend to be quirky and personal, somewhat dark, intellectually challenging, socially subversive, and aimed at more mature comics readers. These are my favorite kinds of comic books, ones that seem to fall through the cracks between the two main comics news magazines, Wizard (whose editors never met a mainstream superhero they didn't like) and Comics Journal (whose editors never met a mainstream superhero comic they did like), but often attract enthusiastic interest for online fan publications, such as The Sequential Tart. Hopefully, if you are a comics fans, these reference points can help you calibrate your expectations.

If you are television fan, it might be helpful to describe this as "must see TV," that is, a quality drama with an ensemble cast and well orchestrated story arcs, focused more on its character's inner struggles than on external struggles (so far, the only character to wear anything remotely resembling a traditional superhero costume is wearing a cheerleader uniform.) I would place it roughly in the tradition of The X-Files, Lost, and Prison Break in both its emotional tone and its intellectual demands on the viewer.

The series opens with the following text, which more or less sets up its core premise:

In recent days, a seemingly random group of individuals has emerged with what can only be described as 'special' abilities. Although unaware of it now, those individuals will not only save the world, but change it forever. This transformation from ordinary to extraordinary will not occur overnight. Every story has a beginning. Volume one of their epic tale begins here.

Casual comics readers will certainly associate this idea of random everyday people acquiring special abilities and confronting its impact on their lives with the X-Men franchise, but similar premises run through a range of other texts, including George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards books or J. Michael Straczynski's Rising Stars series, both of which come closer to the spirit of this particular narrative.

Spoiler Warnings Start Here

Those who read my earlier post about Krrish will be interested to know that the series opens in Madras, India, where a young professor is lecturing a class on his groundbreaking work in genetic engineering and we soon learn that his father, another professor, has left India to come to New York in search of clues about what he thinks may be some world-altering shift in the human genome.

Professor Mohinder Suresh is one of two Asian protagonists in the series: the other being Hiro Makamua, a otaku-turned-salary-man who is the most pop culture oriented figure in the series. If Prof. Suresh speaks about the events through a mixture of scientific and spiritual analogies, Hiro makes sense of the changes he is experiencing via references to Star Trek, manga, and specific issues of X-men comics. As he explains "every ten year old wishes they had super powers and I got them." His more down to earth friend dares him to teleport into the women's restroom and dismissing his buddy's claims of superior abilities by asking whether they can help him get laid.

The aptly named Hiro is nothing short of exuberant about the discovery that he can manipulate time and space, running shouting through the maze of cubicles in his workplace and laughing giddily when he teleports from a bullet train into the heart of Times Square. For him, having super powers is one big lark, something that makes him exceptional, after being a perpetual loser who was the last in his class and the last picked for any sports team. We can see these two figures as reflecting the further globalization of American television - adding to the ranks of Iraqi, African, and Korean characters on Lost and paying tribute to Japan and India as two central comics producing and consuming countries.

Hiro's fanboy ramblings are simply one of a number of suggestions here that the creators know and love comic conventions even as they are choosing to warp and stretch them for this version of the story. Pay attention, for example, to the role music plays here - several times sending up conventional superhero scores even as it settles into a soundtrack that feels more like a Wes Anderson film than a big screen blockbuster.

Earlier I mentioned Brian Wood's Demo as a point of comparison. For those who don't know the series, Wood is a hot young alternative comics writer whose recent work has taken on new maturity - in part from his ability to play off the tensions between genre borrowings and a much more realistic/pessimistic representation of the world. Demo was a series of short stories about everyday people who suddenly acquire super powers; none of his characters save or transform the world; they are still struggling to get some control over their own lives. The super powers are often incidental to the events of the stories and in some cases, you have to look closely to see them at all. The stories capture a kind of longing and frustration that in Wood's works seems to be the common human experience, something like the quiet desperation that Thoreau wrote about. His characters include working stiffs trapped in nowhere jobs, runaway teens trying to escape domineering parents, angry young men who have never fully accepted traumatic childhood experiences, and a serviceman who has the ability to hit anything who he shoots at but is saddled with a growing conscience about the human consequences of war. In each case, the super power either becomes a metaphoric extension of their emotional conflicts or simply one more complication in an already troubled situation. And Wood avoids altogether the capes, masks, secret identities, transforming rings, and other gewgaws we associate with Golden and Silver Age comics.

Similarly, Heroes takes the superhero genre in some of the directions suggested by my opening quotation from Kurt Buseik - seeing the superhero as a powerful metaphor that can be used to explore a broader range of human issues. Take for example Claire, a cheerleader growing up in a small Texas town in what looks to be a stifling family situation who discovers that she is nigh on indestructible and spends the first episode testing the limits of her remarkable healing powers - flinging herself off buildings so she can push her dislocated bones back into place, sticking her hand down a garbage disposal in what seems as much an act of bored desperation as anything else, and in one of the few moments which looks like a traditional superhero story, rushing into a burning building (except the act of saving a trapped victim is incidental to her desire to see how well her body holds up under extreme heat). If Busiek suggested that the superhero might shed new light on the adolescent female experience, this is an interesting experiment - one where superpowers are linked more to "cutting" or eating disorders than to notions of power and social responsibility.

Or consider the case of the agonizing artist Isaac who seems, under chemical influences, to be able to paint stylized representations of events which have not yet taken place but who is pushed by the end of the first episode into self mutilation because he is so horrified by his clairvoyance. Or there's a young single mother, struggling to keep her child protégée son in an elite private school by stripping but in the process, over-extending her credit with a local loan shark: she is haunted by a "second self," an image in the mirror which may have the power to intervene on her behalf. And then there's Peter, the much-dismissed younger brother of an ambitious politician; Peter believes that he may have the power to fly but still can't get any attention for his sibling.

These characters embody forms of longing and desperation that one rarely sees on television - if for no other reason than that the problems they face are unlikely to be solved by a bite from a radioactive spider or a burst of Gamma rays, let alone by mouthwash or toothpaste. And there are moments here which remind me of films like Crash or Grand Canyon, where people from very different backgrounds cross through each others lives and sometimes have unintended consequences. As the series proceeds, I have no doubt that these lives, seeming so separate at the outset, will become more and more intertwined. In the short term, though, viewers can enjoy looking for subtle -- and not so subtle -- hints of connections between them.

Its somewhat bitter aftertaste links the series more closely with Brian Woods' Demo than to most mainstream superhero comics. The characters here seem drawn earthward - more like suicidal jumpers - rather than skyward. None of them yet knows how to leap over tall buildings with a single bound and we are left with the sense that they are going to have to struggle to bring their emerging powers under their control and to make sense of their impact on their self perceptions. As with Demo, these characters aren't going to run right out and buy fancy new superhero duds anytime soon and it is not yet clear that any of them is ready to take on great responsibilities when they are barely able to solve their own inner demons.

Around the edges, there are hints of dark secrets, perhaps a government conspiracy, perhaps bad guys who are going to track down those with powers and force them to make a choice about where they stands, but the first episode allows the protagonists to wallow in their various emotional responses to the discovery that they are not like mortal men. This is a series which will provide lots of fodder for internet speculation and decipherment within the fan communities that it is apt to inspire.

Spoiler Warnings End Here

All of this makes Heroes a worthy if risky experiment - so far, there's been much more room to experiment with the superhero genre through comics where the line between mainstream and alternative seems to be blurring more and more. (Witness, for example, the recent Project Superior and Bizarro books that have allowed a range of alternative comics folks to experiment both formally and thematically with the genre's core building blocks) Film has been perhaps the most conservative in its use of the superhero (where Ang Lee took some hits for making his version of the Hulk too brainy) while television has shown the greatest pull towards melodrama (Smallville) or romantic comedy (Lois and Clark). It is not clear how this alternative version of the superhero will play with younger comics fans who tend to make theirs Marvel these days or to those who know the superhero only through other media. I think more mature comics fans, especially those who toss something by Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, or Chris Ware into their pull bin, will really get into this darker than typical vision of the genre if they give it half a chance. And my sense is this may appeal to a large number of viewers who are looking for something different but who have not warmed to the colorful outfits one associates with most superhero television. This is certainly a series I plan to set my tivo for when the fall season rolls around.

One More Rec

While I've got your attention on revisionist superheroes, let me put in a plug here for John Ridley and Georges Jeanty's The American Way, a miniseries coming out this summer from Wildstorm,. This book seems to just get better and better with each issue. Set in the early 1960s against the backdrop of the New Frontier rhetoric and the beginnings of the Civil Rights era, the book depicts superheroes as embodying the social and political debates of the time. The core storyline deals with America's first "colored" superhero who the government has floated as a trial balloon, trying to build public sympathy for a hooded crusader (and only gradually revealing that he is black) but circumstances blow his cover and suddenly the issue of race becomes a central source of division and friction within the superhero community. Predictably, many of the southern superheroes are reluctant to fight alongside him and some resort to race-baiting, but the author is careful to show the complex and contradictory range of attitudes towards race that divided the south during this transitional moment. I've seen little buzz or fanfare about this book in the comics press but it is a provocative reworking of the superhero genre. The series is in its 5th of 8 issues so you either need to go to a store where you can buy back issues easily or hope that they put it out as a graphic novel when the current run is over.