We Can Be Heroes: A Reflection of Our Best Selves As Told Through Comics

Rock legend David Bowie knew a thing or two about the human condition when he said, “we can be heroes.”

If this pandemic has proven anything, it’s that we have the propensity for stepping up and doing great things when being called upon. And while there’s a lot going on right now that could easily send us spiraling down a rabbit hole of Bummertown, Population: You, it’s beneficial for us to take a moment and spend time witnessing our better selves unfurl like a coveted roll of toilet paper.  

I’d therefore like to take this opportunity to pivot for a moment from covering the overly capable heroic caped alien, or the evolved vigilante mutant, or the cybernetically enhanced half-robot half-man, and focus on some worthwhile humans living in the shadow of giants, nevertheless, still very much capable of doing exceptional things. 

Below, you’ll find a list of worthwhile reads featuring worthwhile people–yes, people–all living within a shared existence in which demigods or sometimes straight-up gods are depended upon for justice…yet, these heroes below, like our doctors, pharmacists, food delivery guys, or all essential workers, won’t outsource or relegate the saving business to others.

Because to these people being a hero even, “just for one day,” as Bowie sang, means being a hero every day.

Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja

He may be an Avenger, but at the end of the day, Clint Barton is nothing more than a supremely talented archery enthusiast. Which is what makes Matt Fraction’s twenty-two issue residency so genius–the Eisner Award winning writer eliminated everything that could be qualified as “super,” including his purple Errol Flynn-inspired costume, and made Barton into a regular Joe. Watch our hero as he becomes a landlord! Adopts a dog! Partakes in banter with his neighbors!

This is not to say, however, that Hawkeye by Fraction and the enormously talented artist David Aja is like Marvel’s answer to Seinfeld, in which nothing happens. On the contrary; Barton has to protect his neighbors from the Tracksuit Mafia which wants to–gasp! –raise the rent of all the tenants and aggressively force them out of the building.

The normalcy of the narrative and the extent to which our hero cares for the helpless is so refreshingly heartbreaking and unlike anything else in the imprint’s canon that if it were aiming to entertain its readers, it’s an unequivocal bullseye. 

Gotham Central by Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Michael Lark

Think of it less as a Law & Order: Gotham and more like Ricky Gervais’ Extras. By focusing on the secondary characters within Batman’s crusadersphere, writers Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka infused brilliant texture into the lives of the Gotham police officers normally relegated to second fiddle status while the Dark Knight dominated through lead banjo.

Characters like Renee Montoya, Crispus Allen, and Jim Corrigan, up to this point, had been ancillary in a citywide pursuit of justice, but through this narrative shift, we’re privy to the collective headache of some idealistic cops dealing with both internal corruption and a vigilante who answers to no one.  

Incredibly enough, while its quality is on par with other great police procedurals like The Wire and Homicide, Gotham Central never sold that well, but maybe that’s due to its emphasis on gritty realism within a medium known for escapism. “You’re going to make a difference. A lot of times it won’t be huge, it won’t be visible even,” the Commissioner tells Montoya. “But it will matter just the same. Don’t do it for praise or money. Do it because it needs to be done. Do it to make your world better.” And without missing a beat, Batman walks into the room having just served justice his way and proclaims, “It’s finished.” 

Lois Lane by Greg Rucka and Mike Perkins/ Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olson by Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber

It’s one thing to be the one non-famous person in a celebrity’s squad, but it’s quite another to be in the Man of Tomorrow’s entourage. Imagine hanging out with someone who’s stronger than you, smarter than you, faster than you, and on top of all that, can pull off wearing red underwear in public. 

Right now, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson are respectively starring in their own critically acclaimed series and they’re both highly entertaining offshoots as explored through two completely different tonalities. For one, Rucka’s Lois Lane is capital “S”-serious as it exemplifies journalistic integrity in a time of fake news accusations and mainstream media skepticism (the 12-issue maxiseries is titled “Enemy of the People”). Lane is a woman of integrity displaying a fierce virtuousness that could almost be qualified as superhuman, which means, obviously, that those threatened by her persistence will do whatever they can to manipulate the narrative, even if that means silencing Mrs. Superman for good. 

As writer Matt Fraction’s first DC comic, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olson couldn’t be more different than Lois Lane. The delightfully slapstick 12-issue reboot of the original series which ran for an astonishing 163 issues over the course of twenty years is zany, heartfelt, and, as artist Steve Lieber describes it, “an ADHD explosion of a story.” Olson, a new media journalist at the Daily Planet, finds himself mixed up with a hodge-podge of shenanigans like being chased by a dinosaur or marrying an alien empress or wearing superhero Metamorpho as a diaper (um. Yeah).

But the singularly most charming thing about this series is a four-page spread involving Olson convincing the pal-in-the-title to show off some stupid superhuman tricks for a vlog episode. Because, presumably, Olson realizes that silliness, while so very human, is also heroic. 

Alias by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos

Okay, you have some issues with this inclusion. Because Jessica Jones is ultimately a person with powers. But here’s the thing: In the history of comics, there has never been an enhanced individual who has tried this hard to be a regular person.

Jessica, who dresses in normcore from head-to-toe, would rather focus on a missing person case or on a teenage runaway than on supervillains seeking global domination. Because if there’s one thing Jessica Jones can appreciate, from firsthand experience, it’s that being a superhero actually kinda sucks and being a dysfunctional person is where it’s at. 

Which is why Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias does something truly radical–it demystifies the allure of superheroism, within a comic book no less, and emphasizes the want of the super-enabled to seek out mundane normalcy just as regular people like you and me fantasize about having powers.

Jones spends page after page not necessarily celebrating her humanistic flaws but living her life, blemishes and all, in the best way that she can given her circumstances. This means a bout in alcoholism, a curmudgeonly demeanor, and questionable tactics, but all the while, Jessica Jones means well. Which is not to excuse her behavior necessarily, but it certainly makes her wholly relatable. 

Powerless by Matt Cherniss and Michael Gaydos

Imagine a Marvel Universe in which Peter Parker was still bitten by a radioactive spider, Matt Murdock was a blind well-intentioned lawyer, and a mysterious drifter named Logan was struggling with his primal urges. Except in this reimagined world, there is no Spider-man, Daredevil, or Wolverine.

In fact, there are no superheroes. Just a nerdy teen with a mangled arm who takes on a maniacal businessman named Norman Osborn, an attorney whose only acts of heroism are relegated to the courts, and a frustrated ex-soldier haunted by amnesia and nightmares. 

Powerless, a six-part miniseries, provokes the reader into considering whether it’s the enhanced abilities or an individual’s character that make them a hero. And based on the title, naturally, writer Matt Cherniss is arguing the latter. By denying three core Marvel characters of their defining abilities (although there is still a three-clawed apparatus involved…), we’re privy to an alternate reality not dissimilar to ours in which Uncle Ben’s famous proverb, “With great power comes with great responsibility,” takes on a less literal meaning. 

Who is your favorite hero without powers? Who inspires you to be a hero? Let Your Geek Sideshow and tell us in the comments!