Friday, July 27, 2007

I Wasn’t Bitten by a Radioactive Novel When I Was a Kid

There are many ways to divide up heroes, just as there are many ways to divide up people. My most recent thought is to go back to the classics: the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Achillies (yes, I understand that he was nor invulnerable until Roman times–unfortunately, that spoils my analogy, therefore, I’m going to ignore it) had a skin that could not be hurt by any weapon. He was a real badass, one of the major players in the siege of Troy. The Iliad is primarily about him. Odysseus was known as the Sacker of Cities. He was eventually the man who won the city of Troy, not by force of arms, but by trickery. He later got his own poem, the Odyssey.

Now here’s the thing. Achillies is a hero with gifts. He didn’t arrange to be dipped in invulnerability serum; someone else did it for him. Thus people who are given special gifts are Achillean heroes. Whether Luke Skywalker, Neo, Gilgamesh, Anita Blake, Superman, Heracles, Hellboy, or Harry Potter, the Achillean hero got some cool mojo. They are set apart from other people by virtue of something they inherited, or were given as a child, or by happenstance. This gift allows them to perform feats beyond that of most individuals. Their stories are of individuals learning to use their specialness on order to right wrongs, or bringing order to the world, often in ways that they are uniquely suited to do. The task is appointed for them.

Odyssean heroes, on the other hand, are self-made. What sets them apart from other men is their drive, their intelligence, or their ability to endure. Examples include Batman, Frodo Baggins, Indiana Jones, Conan, Sam Spade, and Fallout’s Vault Dweller. The Odyessean hero is still special, but lacks a magical breastplate or special gift to distinguish them from the rest of humanity. They must rely on their own natural wit, intelligence, and whatever else they can come up with. Certainly Batman’s wealth as scion of Wayne Enterprises helps him out, but the Darknight Detective is best known as an investigator and a martial artist.

Now, I’m not going to say that one is bad and the other is good, although I tend to favor the Odyssean hero over the Achillean. Ultimately, it depends on how the hero is handled. Hellboy was born with abilities beyond that of ordinary mortals, but that’s not what his stories are about. Hellboy generally has fights with things, but that’s not how he triumphs. His major character arc has been his inner struggle, in which case, his supernatural gifts are actually against him. (See my next essay for more on this).

Gilgamesh, the original action hero, is another Achillean hero that I greatly love. For while half a god, Gilgamesh finds that being unchallenged in the world brings him no joy. It is only when the gods send Enkidu to be his near-equal and friend that Gilgamesh discovers the value of life. And that existential quest of love and loss is something that no amount of strength can help with.

However, I will say that there has been a lot of abuse of the Achillean hero in the past twenty years. I blame the countless imitators of Star Wars. From Neo to Anita Blake, people in stories have been given some pretty damn amazing things, just for being in the right place at the right time, being born of the correct parents, or boffing the correct combination of vampire, werewolf, and whatever other supernatural creature might be in the area. And sure, whatever, but what is the lesson there? That some people are better than others, and if you aren’t born special, then you never will be? What kind of message is that?

What really bothers me is that Achillean heroes don’t have to work for what they get. Batman had to bust his ass to become The Bat. He trained, he failed, he learned, he suffered, he overcame. Superman? He learned to fly one day. What does that teach us?

There seem to be a lot of people just waiting to hear that they are “The One”, secretly hoping that someday, someone will discover something special in them, that they are the last scion of Christ, or the King of Gondor and Arnor, lost all these years. That someone will come and sweep them away, and make their lives wonderful, rather than setting about doing so themselves.

The reason I like the Odyssean model better is that I don’t believe much comes to most people in this world without work. If I want opportunities, I’m going to have to make them. If I want to sell a novel, I’m going to have to sweat over the damn thing and produce it, and then sweat as I polish the shit out of it. Because if I wait for it to just happen, it’s just never going to.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

It's 2007, and I’m not going to my 20th high school reunion

In a misguided fit of nostalgia, I joined classmates dot com last year. This was partially because one of my classmates, who I didn’t know particularly well, died in a snowmobile accident in my local county.

And so nostalgia reared its head. I signed up with classmates dot com, and viewed the profiles and a few pictures from people I hadn’t seen or heard from in nineteen years. I’ll point out here that I wasn’t your typical social outcast by the time I got to high school–I was voted ‘class individual’ by my graduating class. Or at least, one of four class individuals, which will tell the perceptive a great deal about the people I graduated with.

Anyway, I signed up with classmates dot com and checked out the other people who’d had fits of nostalgia. And I remember, very distinctly, running across someone and thinking “he learned how to use email?” That broke the nostalgia spell pretty well, especially as I remembered that I didn’t particularly like a lot of the people I graduated with.

Not that I hated them, but they are a total of four hundred people who are pretty much irrelevant to my life at this point in time. I don’t agonize about what I did in high school, nor am I tortured by the treatment I received. I break out the yearbook less than once every three years. High School is pretty much a non subject with me. I moved on. There were other things to do, other places to go and both were more interesting than Newington High.

Class of 1987. For the most part, I wish you well.