I

“Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?” he would ask, before bursting into tears.

Tony Soprano lamented the decline of the ideal, all-American hero; the strong, silent type. But then Gary Cooper set the mould for heroes and heroics at the tail-end of the silent-movie-era. He gave to and took from Tony Soprano all that the hero should be, because if for Tony Soprano the hero begins and ends with Cooper, then it is with Cooper that the hero begins to do exactly what Tony bemoans: talk.

And doesn’t he talk. All John McClane does, first time round; cries, too, and that in the heyday of the 1980s hard-man. But he does so safe behind the masks of a pseudonym and a walkie-talkie. That’s John McClane, marque one: a faint voice on a weak signal, promising to look after you and make things right.

Perhaps Tony Soprano thought his was a similarly faint and fading voice: between the brief bouts of weeping, he tries to take care of him and his; tries to balance the interests of the Family and his family; plays the role of king and seducer, which is to say that he does no more and takes no more than is surely, by dint of ancient rite, the due a king. All this Tony does, while his wife minds the palace, wards off the occasional suitor, and ravels and unravels and re-ravels plans for the next party. In The Sopranos, the Family presides over its regional state. John McClane – John McClane I, that is – finds himself the unwilling guardian of the corporate citadel. For nearly thirty years, McClane seems to have been subjected to a series of Herculean tasks; penance, perhaps, for his early neglect of his wife and children. Tony does not die, will not die, and now – thanks to that ending – cannot die.

Tony needn’t have worried about all that crying, nor about what happened to Gary Cooper. Tony’s real problem is that he just didn’t understand heroes. Because the heroes have gone somewhere: they’ve gone to the comics. And that’s obvious, of course, when one thinks of all the superheroes that populate our best-loved works. So obvious, in fact, that it barely seems worth the mentioning, so natural a home has the comic become for the hero.

But consider this: what is the difference between the hero and the superhero? Etymologically, we are told, hero is somewhat obscure but connotes a god-born mortal; a brave and warlike man; one who – Hercules being the exception – watches over and protects his city or locale, so whose reach and influence is regional. We also find that in Homer, all warriors and free men of the Heroic Age had the title “hero” extended to them. We find, that is, that on the one hand any citizen might be a hero, while on the other the hero is something other than, something beyond, man. But if heroes are, at least in part, more-than-man, what space is left for the so-called “superhero,” one who must be more than more-than-man?

Various dictionary entries give the birth-year of superhero as 1917; an etymological entry, however, offers a translation from Nietzsche from 1908. There is a direct line from superman to superhero: George Bernard Shaw coined the former as a translation of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, which had previously been rendered as over-man and beyond-man. From his birth, then, the superhero, in his very designation, is already sounding his own obsolescence, for there is already something of the extra-, supra-, or even meta-human built in, as it were, to the hero. Either that, or there is in very the coining of superhero the stamp of a desire to wrest the heroism of the hero away from the everyman.

The heroes of epic are dubious characters. Homer’s Odysseus is, frankly, a jerk of the first order. Is it hard to read him as a hero, in the narrowed, somewhat attenuated sense we tend to ascribe to the word today. The demands he makes of his wife, son, and kinsman; his treatment, in Book 19, of his nurse; his unbridled machismo, insatiable bloodlust; infidelity: he is not a hero for our age, though he may still be one squarely of our age. It’s so much easier to read Odysseus as the invisible but ever-present villain of The Trojan Women.

But he doesn’t half talk. And he cries plenty. As old-man Lebowski declaims to The Dude: “strong men also cry; strong men also cry.” Tony just didn’t know which cloth he’d been cut and woven from.

II

The heroine and the hero are born from and into conflict and violence: after all, if they are by nature protectors, there must be something at risk, something in need of protection. They are both every-human and more-than-human. And where the epic poets may have extolled the warlike bravery of their heroes, the tragedians relativized the virtue of their heroes and heroines and their heroics: one person’s hero, after all…

Now, perhaps, we can see how the heroes and heroines of the comics-world are the heirs and placeholders of those of ancient epic and classical tragedy. The most enduring comics characters are so often presented as guardians, less of the world than of my world: they are here to protect Gotham, Hell’s Kitchen, Metropolis; by referring in The Dark Knight Rises to a world outside or beyond, Christopher Nolan simply reminded us that Gotham really is a city-state of mythic fashion; and Guardians of the Galaxy is in fact far more regional in scope, and far more interested in “local” matters of kin and community, than its title suggests.

The heroes and heroines of comics are, at their best, liminal being in all ways: simultaneously all-too-human, sub- and supra-human, they live on the borders of morality, both between good and evil and just beyond, on ground where such anchors are in danger of losing all purchase. They dwell in the greyish Mach-band area between rationality and magic. They manage a dual existence between Apollonian restraint and Dionysian excess. And they stand silhouetted against a horizon, over and above the city they are sworn to protect.

Such figures are not unproblematic. Nor should they be. The logic of Odysseus’ mask was deception: disguise allowed him to identify the faithful and draw out the disloyal. With the superheroes and –heroines of the comics, the logic is different: the mask, of course, reveals rather than conceals; but it also erases a little of the person only to make way for something a little more than the human. The superwomen and –men of the comics dramatize and excavate the “big” concerns that have never really left us, and perhaps never will: the tensions between positive and negative liberty; between power, authority, right, and justice; the roots of loyalty and obligation. We want to want them; want as in lack. We want them to be always to come, not to have come. We can’t quite accept these figures; nor can we quite give them up.