For much of my childhood, my career plan for adulthood was to become a superhero. I kept waiting to get bitten by a radioactive mongoose or for one of my chemistry experiments to go horribly awry. Perhaps some intergalactic agency would notify me that I had been chosen to carry out a mission, for which they would present me with a magic suit and cape. Even without special powers, I might become heroic anyway by developing tremendous self-discipline and training secretly in Asia for years, far beyond the white belt in karate I earned at age nine.
And when I say "for much of my childhood" I mean "to this day."
Of course, in addition to being a superhero, my secret identity would be a captain of industry and noted philanthropist. Often, during million-dollar fundraisers for good causes at my creepy old mansion, I would be forced to slip away and into a dramatic outfit, to save the world in a more corporeal way, while engaging in witty banter with attractive super-villains. My disappearances would be blamed on my playboy persona, and forgiven because of my humanitarian endeavors.
Turns out, the easiest way to become a superhero is in your own head, and not so much in real life. Because I am a writer, I take this one step further and try to sell the stories in my head. Last year, I wrote and sold my first Batman comic to DC Comics, but more importantly, I was working ninety-hour weeks founding redroom.com. A voice in my head said that writing and building community were too difficult to do simultaneously and I should focus exclusively on my business. Luckily, I received a well-timed fortune cookie that told me: "The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it." I decided to ignore the voice in my head and follow the fortune cookie on my plate.
So now, other than a law review article published while I was in law school, my first seriously published work is going to be a comic book. In 1987, Frank Miller wrote Batman: Year One, which tells the story of Batman's first year as a superhero vigilante. That's what I'm doing with Huntress: Year One, which hits stores on May 14, 2008. It's a six-issue miniseries that will then be published as a graphic novel. It has cameos by Batman and Catwoman—the parents of the original Huntress. The Huntress character today is the last living member of a famous mafia family who grows up to become a superhero vigilante in Gotham. As I often say, it is truly an honor to be helping shape pretend history.
Last week, I read an article in the Harvard Business Review referring to a description by William James of two distinct personality types. The first kind gets its sense of self from feeling at home in the world and thriving in preexisting systems. The second kind gets its sense of self from a feeling of "profound separateness." The first type maintains the institutions of our culture and society, and the second type struggles to transform herself and her society. I had never thought about the symbiotic relationship between the two types of actor. Also, the latter profile perfectly fits almost every superhero protagonist ever written—and it mirrors the alienation of the rabid fans who love them.
Obsession with superheroes seems to me an obsession with apotheosis (becoming god-like), which in turn sounds to me like this second personality type described by William James. Uncomfortable confined by society's expectations and institutions, one struggles to become comfortable by breaking through to a higher level of awareness and possibility for oneself and society. Most protagonists in stories from comics to Shakespeare are this second type of character.
I've taught writing for many years and, like many writing teachers, I often refer to Joseph Campbell's 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, as a useful mirror for evaluating story structure. Near the climax of many stories, the hero achieves apotheosis. At this stage of what is referred to as "The Hero's Journey," Wikipedia says "the hero's ego is disintegrated in a breakthrough expansion of consciousness." It is a moment of illumination and epiphany. The story of our lives and the stories we most love are about ascension, atheistic or otherwise.
Society tells us certain stories over and over again. The ones that inspire are worth it—I never stopped reading comic books (or self-help books). But the stories and metanarratives in our society that keep us down—those stories need an antidote. We need to tell our own stories, especially those that haven't been told before. My debut, Huntress:Year One, tells the origin story of a strong female superhero. And I'm going to keep writing variations on that theme until my life imitates art.
You may purchase a copy of Huntress: Year One here.
Main drawing: Sneak preview of Huntress: Year One art by Cliff Richards, used with permission from DC Comics.