After the Hero’s Journey

Tiger Beatdown has a post up about Joan of Arc, and bravery, and what Joan is a saint of, and those who run towards the gunshots. This is fitting in very well with a conversation I was having with Caroline about a type of story and character exemplified by a phrase from the tv show The Wire. That phrase is, “giving a fuck when it is not your job to give a fuck.”

I like that sort of story quite a bit. A story about a character who is not involved in whatever bad thing is happening, who has the opportunity and the perfect excuse to walk away but chooses, instead, to give a fuck. I think, on reflection, this is why I like Doctor Who. The Doctor as I best know him — Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh — has made a career out of stepping into things he could just as easily leave behind. This is also why I like superhero stories. Superheroes are largely people who have chosen to make a career out of stepping into other people’s problems and doing what they can to help. I like those sorts of people.

It’s not the same thing as altruism. Altruism, I am suspicious of altruism. I prefer it when I can see that a stranger’s kind actions are motivated by self-interest. I feel I can rely on your self-interest more than I can on your altruistic whim. The GaF sort of people are not doing this because they love others so much. They do it because they need to feel good about themselves, and this is the way they accomplish that. The cops on The Wire need to think of themselves as po-leece. It’s how they get through the day. And part of being police is stepping into other people’s messes. The Doctor interferes because he feels guilty and responsible and interfering mitigates that. He also derives a sense of victory, of skill and mastery, from defeating others. And he gets companionship from those he saves. Superheroes are motivated by a variety of reasons, but part of designing the character is coming up with why they do it.

It’s knight-errantry, is what it is, and I like those stories. But the GaF character and story also goes a certain distance towards solving, or lessening, the Protagonist Problem.

I can’t remember where I read about this, probably on LiveJournal somewhere. The gist of the Protagonist Problem is this: If you base your story on the Hero’s Journey, then every supporting character in your story is really there only as a prop or obstacle in relation to the Hero. So how do you make complex supporting characters? The corollary to the Protagonist Problem, and the reason it interests me, is that the vast majority of protagonists in science fiction, fantasy, and comic books are straight white men. So all the women, people of color, glbts, children, elderly, and disabled are, if they appear in the story at all, props filling a role in someone else’s story. How do we fix this?

One commonly suggested solution is to make the protagonist something other than a straight white able-bodied young man. This tactic is valid and I endorse it. But it doesn’t always fit the story. Another approach is the GaF story. The GaF story isn’t necessarily about the protagonist’s journey. It can be about the community the protagonist enters. It can be about a web of relationships, about the tug of conflicting loyalties and demands. The GaF story can, in fact, almost completely ignore the heroic protagonist and tell the story of the people affected by his or her actions.

Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central is a GaF story on a number of levels. On one level it’s about cops, people who have chosen a profession that requires them to insert themselves into other people’s problems. On another level it’s the story of the community that suffers and benefits from superhero interference. And on a third level it’s the story of the network of relationships the cops have with each other, and how they are constantly balancing their desire to give a fuck about each other with their desire to respect each other’s privacy and autonomy.

Of course Gotham Central has protagonists. And there are character arcs, and possibly even a Hero’s Journey for some of the cops, if you squint and look hard. But the comic is not about growth and change; it’s about keeping on, about living every day, about small victories and medium defeats. It’s a comic about endurance, not accomplishment. It’s a comic for grown-ups who have figured out that they are not on a Hero’s Journey. No one is going to make them king.

But that’s the wonderful, lovely thing about the GaF stories — you don’t need a journey towards Super Specialness to be a hero to someone. You don’t need to have purple eyes, or a magic ring, or a mysterious
birthright.

This may seem to be an odd thing to say about a story type that I claim to find in superhero fiction. But while I did start reading superhero comics for the special powers, I no longer find that the powers and specialness are what I need out of the genre. I don’t read X-Men to find out how someday I will find the group of people who truly understands and appreciates how special and powerful I am, and how the things that made me weird and freakish are actually good. I read that story — I needed that story — when I was a teenager. But these days I read the story of a group of people who continually choose to attempt to do good in the world when they have every reason to leave it behind. I read and love Batgirl, and Birds of Prey, and New Avengers. What I love about these books isn’t the superpowers. It the choices. These are the people who run towards the gunshots.

All you need to be a hero, in these stories, is to give a fuck about somebody else when you could just as easily walk away.

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