So I’ve just finished rewatching the first season of Heroes and again I’m struck by just how incredibly geeky it is. It’s very obviously a show written by comic book fans for comic book fans and a lot of its appeal comes from consciously emulating the elements that work in comics and translating them to television. Not all of the borrowings from comics work in practice of course: Mohinder Suresh’s opening and closing narration might come off well in a comic, lending it a literary air, but in the show the bland reading comes across as pretentious and boring. Still, things like the awakening of unusual powers in unsuspecting ordinary people, plots within plots on a grand scale, showdowns between heroes and villains, bursts of frantic and spectacular action, and even nail-biting cliffhanger endings to episodes are all part of what makes traditional superhero comics so great.
For existing fans of such comics, spotting the frequent references to comics and geek culture in general is a pleasure in of itself. These range from the overt (Silver Surfer #1 in the hands of Mycah), the blatant (Kaito Nakamura’s limousine bears the license plate NCC-1701) to the downright subtle (Hiro Nakamura takes his katana to be repaired by a Mr. Claremont, a possible allusion to Chris Claremont who wrote for Uncanny X-men from 1975 to 1991). And if all that isn’t enough, the final showdown takes place in the fictional Kirby Plaza, named after Jack Kirby who co-created such characters as the X-Men, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four and Captain America, while Stan Lee, a former chairman of Marvel Comics who developed the idea of the Marvel shared universe, appears in a cameo as a bus driver.
Notice anything unusual in the above references? They’re all references to Marvel comics, despite the fact that DC characters like Superman and Batman are at least as iconic as Marvel ones in the popular imagination. One reason for this might be because the characters in Heroes are much more in the style of Marvel characters than DC ones. The differences between Marvel and DC heroes is a hoary subject for comic geeks, but in brief: DC characters tend to be larger-than-life. Superman is the epitome of heroism and courage. You would never be able to imagine Superman as being fearful or hesitant. Likewise, the Dark Knight is perfectly ruthless and efficient in persecuting criminals. You would never find Batman plagued with self-doubt or guilt over what he does. For these reasons, DC heroes are unapproachable and lofty personifications of specific ideals. You admire them from afar, but you can’t really relate to them.
Marvel heroes on the other hand, and this is one of main reasons why upstart Marvel managed to grab so much market share from DC beginning in the 1970s, are ordinary people first and heroes second. In Kill Bill Vol. 2, Bill remarks that Superman is unique in that his real identity is Kal-El, and Clark Kent is his cover while the reverse is true for other heroes. But actually when you think about it the same goes for many DC characters. Bruce Wayne gave up his mundane life long ago to be the Batman. The wealthy, playboy socialite is a fictional cover for the crime-fighting activities that he considers to be his true calling in life. Wonder Woman is really the Princess of Themyscira; Diana Prince is the cover that she uses to blend in while living in the world of men. By and large what David Carradine’s character says does hold true for Marvel heroes: when Spiderman first got his powers, he tried to make money from it, only later did he learn that with great power comes great responsibility. Even so, he tries hard to maintain his real life and the conflicts between the needs of Peter Parker and the needs of Spiderman is one of the main driving forces in his stories, as Sam Raimi understood when he made the recent movies. This made it easy for comic fans to relate to them: they were ordinary people who unexpectedly received powers one way or another, and struggled to come to terms with them.
The characters in Heroes appear to be cast from the Marvel mould: Claire Bennett the cheerverine repeatedly longs, to sometimes tiresome effect, to be just an ordinary cheerleader; Peter Petrelli wants to be part of something bigger, but is continually plagued by lack of self confidence; Hiro Nakamura feels the pull of destiny but hesitates when it is time to strike the killing blow. As with the stories in Marvel’s comics, all of these help ground the fantastic premise in believability and probably contributed to making the show the breakout hit that it is. A geek would note that this isn’t creator Tim Kring’s first attempt to make a show about ordinary people gaining extraordinary abilities. He’d previously worked as a writer for the short-lived and light-hearted Misfits of Science. One could say that it suffered from much cheese and too little whine.
While watching the series my wife wondered aloud why Asian television series seem incapable of achieving the quality of writing in shows like Heroes. Apart from obvious issues such as budget and the pool of good writing talent, one reason is the long history of comics plots that Heroes can draw from. Heroes doesn’t just reference comics, it mines ideas from them. Sylar’s power-stealing killing spree is reminiscent of Critical Maas’ actions in J. Michael Straczynski’s Rising Stars; the idea of Sylar as a watchmaker turning away from a mundane life to become something greater parallels the story of Dr. Manhattan in Alan Moore’s Watchmen; Hiro’s trip to a dark, alternate future is similar in tone to the highly praised X-Men storyline Days of Future Past. The plot of blowing up New York to unite the world in grief and fear comes again from Watchmen. All this is a good thing for geeks. I look forward to watching Heroes draw on ideas from more of the same sources and also ones like George R.R. Martin’s Wildcards series.
There are plenty of flaws in the series of course such as Angela Petrelli’s abrupt change of behavior from a widow who shoplifts socks to get attention to a scheming opportunist willing to sacrifice her sons, the curious lack of bystanders during the final showdown (superpowered fights are only heroic if you have normal onlookers to gawk at them!) and a sadly insufficient special effects budget. These are however easily forgiveable flaws in what is clearly the coolest show on television at the moment.
Unfortunately I won’t be able to watch season 2 for a long while yet because my wife insists that we have every episode before we actually start watching any.