In 1944, during World War II, DC Comics published The Big All-American Comic Book. It was nothing particularly remarkable other than it being the first “here’s a bunch of stuff from all over what we do, and it’s all original.” This was the cover:
It’s iconic, in a way. All that golden age art. The price of 25 cents. The kid and his dog. The hero worship. It was definitely All-American.
Shortly after September Eleventh, DC Comics published two comics to raise funds for victims and workers at the crash sites. Here’s the cover for volume 2:
It doesn’t take much to see where painter Alex Ross got his idea.
There were heroes who sacrificed their lives that day. The men and women who took control back of their plane over Pennsylvania. Men and women inside the towers who helped others get out. And of course the first responders who ran into the danger, even though it was impossible to breathe and there was no way of knowing when the next building would come down.
My senior thesis in college was about the heroes a society produces. In that sense, I spoke of the heroes in literature. Heroes, naturally, have the virtues that the society values most. When those values are in upheaval, the traditional hero is unable to accomplish heroics.
I have since written, more than once, that because of this thesis, the heroes I see honored in our pop culture disturb me. The Punisher is a cruel, vindictive, serial killer. Wolverine is an animalistic dealer in violence with little control over himself at times. We spend so much time looking at the dark side of stories and then finding fault with established role models. It makes me scared for what we’ll develop into.
I remember discussions with people after September Eleventh. Conversations full of anti-Semitic statements that grouped not only all Arabs, but all Muslims into easily derided segments. Conversations full of violent, vengeful wishes to torture those responsible. Conversations that made many ordinary people look like the dark anti-heroes put before me in pop-culture. And I was frightened more than what any terrorist could inspire in me.
But then I remember these pictures. The heroes of reality, not of literature. How these people are honored. And how, no matter what heroes they were presented with in the media, they chose saving others over their own lives. And many of them kept putting their lives at risk.
September Eleventh revealed what we are like under pressure. In the moment, There is still a shining model of heroism in humanity and Americans.
We are not supermen.
But we have those who are worthy of the awe of supermen.