There are always two. One to find the path, and one to find the way back.
As a kid, I was a huge comic book fan. It started in third grade when my father brought home the bound collections of all Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics (I loved the cartoon show), and it quickly grew from there. My consistent go-tos were Spider-Man and Batman, but after a while I found myself taking on any superhero title that was available. Some heroes were goofy, others were dark and aloof. Many in the end, just weren’t all that interesting. At least not for an extended period of time, so it made sense to jump around from title to title.
Yet, the hero I always returned to was Spider-Man. I, like most other nerdy comic book fans, related to the SUPER nerdy Peter Parker. It wasn’t just because he was a nerd who lived every nerd’s fantasy of gaining a super power and kicking bad guy butt every night. It was more than that. Peter Parker, unlike so many other heroes who rose to prominence in the sixties, was, IS, inherently flawed. If you look back to Spider-Man’s origin story in Amazing Fantasy #15, Peter lets a robber escape in a petty attempt to get back at a man who wronged him earlier. Somewhat ironically, it is later revealed that the same robber murders Peter’s Uncle Ben. Peter could have prevented the act had he just been more responsible. It’s a tough lesson, and one that he has to keep at the forefront of his mind.
As the character grew, his temptation to sometimes do the wrong or selfish thing was always present, and it wasn’t uncommon to witness Peter doing the wrong or selfish thing. What set him apart, and what I believe made him truly heroic, was his ability to recognize these transgressions and attempt to make up for them.
Peter Parker / Spider-Man is severely flawed, but he knows it!
This fascinated me, and it’s something I often try to include in the characters I create. What is the protagonist’s central flaw? Will he recognize it? If he does, will he be able to learn something new about himself in order to improve? In my novel, The Compass from the Red Lands (I know, I know, cheap and shameless plug), Tom Gareth is selfish, manipulative, and cowardly. It takes him a while to truly accept that these negative traits are cornerstones of his personality, but once he does his true growth begins.
The reason why Peter Parker / Spider-Man has remained relevant over the last fifty years is because he keeps on growing. He’s willing to change. And so often the only way to progress is to acknowledge the hurt you’ve inflicted on others and seriously try to atone for it. These contrite actions, if genuine, are self-sacrificing and, ultimately, heroic, which most audiences find to be both endearing and captivating.
So, is Tom Gareth a hero? Not really, but in The Compass from the Red Lands he desperately tries to be.