This is a question I get fairly often. Here is a synopsis.
The Former Hero, by Jeffrey Mays
An abusive, alcoholic, single mother goes into a frenzy when she learned her daughter, Penny, is abducted. City services have fallen into decay because of rampant corruption, and she is unable to reach the police. She sets out on her own to find the girl and solicits the aid of Angus, a surly profligate on a motorcycle. They learn of Lieutenant McCarthy, a detective and the only remaining good cop in the city. McCarthy has been sidelined for his refusal to join the new police union, and spends his days reading the ancient city records researching the early stories and characters of the city’s history.
Meanwhile, a man referring to himself as ‘John Common’ checks himself into a hospital seeking help to recover his superpowers. He tells doctors that until recently he was Omni-man, superhero of tremendous powers, and the only hope for overthrowing the villainous tyrants who have taken over the city, and their leader Mayor Robert Knox. Doctors keep Omni-man for several weeks under surveillance, assuming he is under a delusion rather than a deflowered superhero. Frustrated with their evasions, he overpowers a nurse and breaks out of the hospital.
Detective McCarthy, stewing over hard memories of his deceased father and wishing for new crime-fighting assignments, returns to the record storage room and discovers that a primeval villain, Lucy Burden a.k.a. The Minstrel, caused much heartache and mayhem in the years when the city was young. She was, he learns, the first villain and grandmother of the current crowd of real villains, and the lingering spirit that breeds corruption in the city. He bitterly questions why the comic book heroes are not real, but the villains are.
Through a series of adventures, McCarthy, Mary the mother of Penny, Angus the biker, and the Former Hero find themselves on a bus together with a clue to where Penny might be held. The surprise ending tells what happened to Penny, what the Former Hero’s true identity is, and how Mary comes to grips with her addictions and abusiveness toward Penny and her estranged husband.
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What is it about heroes? Long before Joseph Campbell’s analysis, before Bulfinch, before The Golden Bough, there were just the stories of heroes and their effect upon the imagination of the listener. Gilgamesh, Krishna, Achilles, Hercules, Anaeus, Beowulf, Arthur, Galahad, Sir Gawain, Pocahontas.
Of course, in the 20th century, comic lore exploded with literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of superheroes being invented along with their stories. Today, superhero movie franchises are some of the most lucrative (Avengers, Batman) and some of the worst stinkers (Fantastic Four). New ones arise from nowhere (Kick Ass, Hit Girl, Hancock, Scott Pilgrim).
What is it about heroes?
I can’t go into Campbell’s Hero with 1000 Faces right now. Too much material. But why are we so charmed by modern day heroes? Here are some possible answers:
- We are dazzled by explosions, flashing lights, and anyone with cool dialog like, “Billy, you and Dolores get back to headquarters. It’s time I paid a little visit to Dr. Vile.”
- They ennoble us and inspire us to our own deeds of valor.
- We secretly hate them and envy them and use them as a prop to our own vanity. We compare ourselves to them and wonder if we are more virtuous. What would we do if WE had superpowers? Or, if they succumb to some temptation and the ‘dark side’ we wonder would we have done the same?
- We sense that the world really IS inhabited by villains, that we are imperiled by them, and a fantasy hero gives us a momentary relief from the admittedly unromantic villains of our real world (Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Ladin, Bashar Al-Assad, the Koch Brothers). A corollary to this is the conviction we all have that there really is good and evil, but they are so confused by the heroes going sour and the villains occasionally making sense that who can really know what to make of it? And we revel in the grayness of the situation, incredulous toward any narrative of a oh-so pure superman of the 60’s, pretty well captured by Christopher Reeve in the 70’s.