Sometimes in order to avoid stagnation and revitalize some mode of expression, it takes an outsider to break the paradigm and challenge tradition. That “outsider” status can come from both perspective and field, or medium and mechanism. In the case of Perry Moore, and his book Hero, he fulfills both qualifications. Perry Moore has written at length of his negative feelings towards comic books and their portrayal of homosexual characters. He has argued that gay comic book characters usually suffer terrible fates.
Consequently, his new novel, the story of a young gay man with powers, breaks with that tradition by altering the representation of the comic book’s most traditional icon: the superhero. Moreover, it does this by taking the discussion outside the realm of comic books and placing it in a novel, thus altering the medium. This book is significant, not just because it is well-written and replete with interesting characters and insightful social commentary, but is important for what it represents. The superhero story, despite its often being dismissed as escapist entertainment, is truly a telling example of the beliefs and values of a society. This book adds to the discourse on the subject and is a very necessary work.
Hero begins as a fairly traditional contemporary superhero story with a few deconstructionist elements. Thom is a young, intelligent, athlete, who slowly learns that he has superpowers. His father is a disgraced superhero and his mother has disappeared. Despite his father’s bitterness over superheroes following his unjust fall from grace, Thom wants to use his powers to help the world and despite his awkwardness and inexperience, he is able to make it onto a viable superhero team. These desires to use his powers for good are coupled with his internal conflict over his homosexuality; both represent who he is and who he wants to be, but both come in conflict with the beliefs of his kind and well-meaning, but sometimes narrow-minded, father.
The book functions on two distinct but well-integrated narrative planks. The first is from the perspective of the adolescent. Thom struggles with the natural social clumsiness and painful embarrassments teenagers usually endure. He attempts to fit in with tough social environments, all the while crippled by his anxiety over society’s reaction to his sexual orientation. This is compounded by an overwhelming desire to please his father, who sacrifices much for the boy’s happiness. The myriad conflicts and internal antagonisms will resonate with anyone who remembers those thrilling and painful days of adolescence.
The second plank of the story is the superhero paradigm that drives much of the actual plot. Thom joins a team called the League-Moore’s interpretation of the JLA and Avengers, complete with its own versions of Superman, Flash, Wonder Woman, etc. As Thom trains with his provisional team of green heroes, they eventually find themselves on the trail of murderer who is targeting powerful superheroes. As the narrative — which is reminiscent of Watchmen both in execution and conclusion — continues, Thom is forced to suspect that members of the League may be connected to the mysterious deaths. His team of would-be heroes goes out on their own in order to catch the true killer.
Both of these devices create a well-fleshed out coming-of-age-tale: Thom becoming a man secure with himself, and Thom becoming a Hero. There are multiple subplots that add to the substance and subsequent enjoyment that will offer the reader several levels of engagement; the murder mystery, the father/son dynamic, the fall from grace and subsequent vindication, but the questions of Thom’s sexuality are the most significant for readers interested in the nuance of superhero mythology. Hero is the archetype for how homosexual heroes should be represented in popular culture. His internal conflict and eventual open acceptance of who he is, symbolically crosses the threshold that many other writers have tripped over. Thom is not just a gay hero, a definition that other creators have spent too much time muddling through, he is a hero who happens to be gay. This is not just a semantic trick of language, it is emblematic of how superheroes should be represented. Now that Moore, through Thom, has added his novel to the discourse on superheroes, it can be hoped that homosexual comic characters will no longer be as marginalized and misrepresented as before.
Not since Superfolks by Robert Mayer, has there been a novel as important to contemporary superhero mythology, and subsequently, the comic book medium. It can only be hoped that Moore’s work has the same impact Mayer’s did. Placed in a vacuum, Moore’s book is good; read it once then move on. But in its appropriate context in the larger discussion of homosexual representation in superhero stories, it becomes something so much more significant then just “good,” it becomes important.