Driving The Big Boat, by Dennis O’Neil
Maybe we ought to retire the word “hero” and designate the characters whose needs and actions drive the story, more technically and accurately, as “the protagonist.”
(You’ve guessed that we’re continuing our incredibly prolonged discussion of the evolution of superheroes? Good.)
As mentioned in an earlier installment of this blather, the word “hero” is derived from the Greek and means, roughly, “to protect and serve.” (Lest anyone think I’m a scholarly dude who actually knows Greek…I wish!) The problem nowadays is defining exactly how the protection and service is to be accomplished. In other words, what kind of person do you admire, and why do they do what they do? Who do you favor mor e– Mother Theresa or the late Colonel David Hackworth, our most decorated combat veteran?
I never met the good nun, but I did spend an hour or so with Colonel Hackworth once and liked him very much. I don’t think I would have enjoyed Theresa’s company a whole lot. But maybe she was the more heroic of the two, if we count heroism as doing deeds that take courage and accomplish long-term good. Going out every day to deal with disease and poverty…it must have taken guts and it can’t have been easy. Easier than facing enemy guns? I have no idea what measurement we can use to quantify such things. Maybe there is none.
Col. Hackworth did what he did repeatedly and must have often known what he was getting into and, presumably, chose to do it anyway. But I’m wary of heaping too many accolades on folk who, in a military situation, do one brave thing because…
Well, here’s one of my secrets. I’m a hero. According to the United States Navy. Sort of. But not really. Somewhere among the thousands of objects stored in this house is a medal given to me about 15 years ago by Richard Hill, writer and once my immediate superior on an aircraft carrier. It was a gift Richard bequeathed during a visit to New York, along with a baseball cap bearing the name of the carrier and I guess I was glad to get it, though not glad enough to remember where we put it. The reason the medal was awarded to me and several thousand other swabbies was that we participated in the Cuban missile blockade. For those of you whose history is sketchy: President Kennedy told the Russians to take their missiles out of Cuba and sent a lot of U.S. warships to confront the Russian fleet. After a tense few days, which some historians say had the Earth teetering on the brink of nuclear war, the Russians relented and loaded the missiles onto outward-bound vessels. And I was there, bravely facing the Red guns, protecting your mothers and sisters and their flag from the invading hordes…
Well, I was there, anyway. Because some Marines came to where I was in Rhode Island and told me and others to report immediately to our ships, don’t bother packing, don’t bother doing anything, get your asses out there…And for a few days, four, I think, I spent most of my time at my battle station, a compartment – you landlubbers might call it a “room” – below the water line (again, I think) waiting for the bulkhead – that’s “wall” to you landlubbers– to spring a leak. If it did, I was to go through the hatch – “door,” lubbers – and tell a bunch of guys in the next compartment to do something about it. I don’t know what they were supposed to do – use a great big wad of gum?
It wasn’t until the crisis was past and we’d steamed – “sailed,” or “drove the big boat” – back to Rhode Island that we learned exactly what we’d been participating in. We did what we did, which did entail risk, because it was all we could do, given the circumstances. And thus it is, maybe, with a lot of actions we consider heroic. People react, they do what they must, and this is quite noble. But pin the medals on our ancestors because they developed the traits that gave us a survival instinct (and damn good thing, too) and that instinct gives us much of our heroism.
Which has what to do with superheroes? Maybe later.
RECOMMENDED READING: Breaking the Spell, by Daniel Denned. And are some of you groaning, not another anti-religion diatribe? Can’t O’Neil find another horse to ride? Neighhhhh…But Dennet’s book is worth noting because, unlike some of the others, it is devoid of anger and it concentrates of what questions we should be asking.
Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning editor and writer of comic books like Batman, The Question, Iron Man, Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow, and The Shadow, as well as all kinds of novels, stories and articles. The Question: Zen and Violence is on sale right now in trade paperback.