For a comic book about a superhero, there is very little superheroing and almost no instances of capes and costumes in the first two issues of Hero Squared. In fact, there is very little in these issues that would lead a reader to believe this was a superhero comic book at all. Rather than slap-dash action with “POW!” and “ZAP!” fights, the stories of Milo and Captain Valor, the hero squared of the title, are filled with existential angst and situations normally found in brooding graphic novels.
Most of this is the result of the brilliant concept of the series: Captain Valor, beefy and heroic superhero, and Milo, scrawny and pathetic film student loser, are the same person, separated by universes. Milo’s girlfriend, Stephanie, and Captain Valor’s arch-nemesis, Caliginous, are likewise the same person with a cross-dimensional separation. The two incarnations of the same person meet in Milo’s universe after Caliginous destroys Valor’s universe in an attempt to kill him. She fails, and now Valor is living with Milo, lusting after Milo’s Stephanie who bears a striking resemblance to what Caliginous was before she became a villain; Caliginous is sleeping with Milo—it’s not cheating, Milo reasons, because she is his girlfriend, or was, or would have been, in that other dimension—and Stephanie is trying to keep everything straight. Adding to the confusion is that Valor and his universe are known to people in Milo’s universe as comic book and pop culture inventions.
Hero Squared began as a limited series before making the jump to monthly status. But you won’t be lost if you start at issue one of the monthly series. There’s enough explanation and discussion of past events that you’ll feel caught up rather quickly.
Straight out of the gate, Hero Squared isn’t a typical monthly series about a superhero. While Valor threatens to bring down Caliginous on many occasions in the first two issues, he doesn’t really do anything but make threats. (Batman or Spider-Man wouldn’t be so restrained.) Violent action might have made sense in Valor’s universe, Milo reminds him, but it doesn’t work in the “real” world he’s in now. But somehow, having a universe-hopping doppelganger living with you while you sleep with a sexpot mass-murdering doppelganger of your girlfriend is peachy keen.
That’s not meant to be a criticism of the series. In fact, that disparity is part of the appeal of the series. While Valor has to come to grips with living in a world without superheroes, Milo has to deal with having a better version of himself in constant view. The first issue of the series touches on this issue a bit; it’s more concerned with Milo confessing to sleeping with Caliginous. In issue two, though, Milo and Valor see a psychoanalyst and existential fun abounds. Which version of Milo is the “original,” or “correct,” version, the scrawny filmmaker who can’t find work or the overachieving, blockhead hero? For a comic book, the word balloons in this issue are particularly wordy. Writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis give their characters a lot to say, and it’s not simply exposition. Instead, they put intelligent, honest words and questions in their characters’ mouths. Valor, Milo, Caliginous, and Stephanie are treated with respect as living, three-dimensional characters, not two-dimensional archetypes.
There’s also an interesting confrontation at the end of issue one and into issue two between Valor and the rules of life in Milo’s universe. At the end of issue one, he rushes to save a man from having a heart attack by flying him to a hospital. It’s the only act of superheroism we see in that issue. But by using only panels of Joe Abraham’s art instead of the usual gobbledygook lexicon of superhero babble, we see Valor in the hospital being forced to deal with the actuality of death. The last panel, Valor atop a skyscraper in contemplation, is a moment of refreshing sincerity.
If you were looking to compare Hero Squared to something, the closest thing to it is Superman: Secret Identity, a story about the Earth-Prime Superboy gaining superpowers seemingly out of thin air. But that comparison only goes so far. While Hero Squared and Secret Identity both deal with characters in a “real” world dealing with heroes with powers that are supposed to only exist in comic books, Hero Squared takes a more human and almost cerebral approach to its story. It’s not about being a hero; it’s about questioning why heroes are heroes and why “normal” people are not.
Hero Squared is a nuanced and textured universe with characters not all bad and not all good. Giffen and DeMatteis don’t pander to the lowest common denominator of comic readers. Instead, they seem to be going after the graphic novel crowd with a serialized version of that more prestigious comic book. It’s a welcome pursuit. Their themes are large, and reading the books makes us think about issues of reality, society, obligation, and what it means to be a hero. In other words, it’s the perfect comic book for the post-9/11 world.