Hero Squared #1-2

Dante A. Ciampaglia

It's not about being a hero; it's about questioning why heroes are heroes and why "normal" people are not.

Hero Squared #1-2

Publisher: Boom Studios
Contributors: Artist: Joe Abraham, Colors: Ron Riley, Letters: Ed Dukeshire
Price: 3.99
Writer: Keith Giffen; J.M. DeMatteis
Length: 22
Formats: Single Issue
First date: 2006-05
Last date: 2006-06

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.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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