The appeal of classic hero stories is that they present us with a world we want to live in. A place where things work out in the end, people are basically good-natured, and nearly anything is possible if you adhere to a strong moral code and never give up. Human narratives encompass a wide variety of tones and types, and classic hero stories adhere to a sense of justice that is rarely fulfilled in our daily lives. They allow us to pretend for a short period of time that there’s a place where life is fair and just.
So much of modern entertainment tends towards false realism, tension, paranoia and cynicism that an optimistic story is unexpected. It comes off as nostalgic and a little naive. But it’s like a refreshing breath of fresh air. That’s why certain series are lauded endlessly. Not for skill or originality, but because the creators manage to capture the appeal of classic hero stories and present us with a world that despite all of the weirdness doesn’t seem like that bad a place to live.
And it’s not the plot that does this. Take Astro City for example. There is a definite nostalgic feel to this book. The book is showered in praise. The stories aren’t simple heroic tales, though. They tend to be complex character pieces, and everything doesn’t fall into place like it does in Parzival. The endings aren’t pat, the characters are realistic persons with problems they can’t always solve. The plot doesn’t create the nostalgic, optimistic mood. It’s something in the characters. Most of the bystanders are basically good-natured. The viewpoint character is always sympathetic, whether a good guy or a bad guy.
And there’s little details, things that make you ache to live in that world.
From Beautie: An Astro City Character Special:
Look at those dolls. “Stunning race driver with Hi-Speed Action!” “Lovely Firefighter with Cat-Rescue Action!”
What I wouldn’t give to live in a world where the most popular toys for little girls are like that. That’s a strong message. That’s what that society wants girls to learn. It wants them to be vital, vibrant, active members of society. It wants them to fantasize about being astronauts, superheroes and soldiers (I’m pretty sure the first one is a Marine). It encourages them to be strong and heroic and behave with courage. It teaches them that adventure is fun and attractive and yes, it’s for girls too!
My Barbie was always a beach bum (not a surfer so much as a sunbather). A fashion model or a rock star. Maybe a Veterinarian. That’s fine, as long as what you want to fantasize about is being pretty and performing and taking care of animals. But if I wanted adventure game, I had to mix and match the wardrobe to come up with something appropriate for a space ranger or a super-spy. I had to take GI Joe uniforms and cut them to fit. It seemed wrong. Even thought I loved dolls, for a time I despised the Pink Aisle for the lack of variety.
I didn’t see a superhero Barbie on the market until I was in the Air Force. It was a $50 Collector’s Edition. My mother knew me better than Mattel, and I found it under the tree on Christmas leave.
I still love Barbies. I don’t think they’re bad for little girls. I had hours and hours of fun growing up with them, and I still buy one for myself or as a present from time to time. They’ve gotten a tiny bit better on racial diversity (not much, though), but they seem to have regressed when it comes to career variety. I see aisles and aisles of beach bums, fairies and fashion models. I have to seek out Collector’s Editions for a superhero, and I pray these are more abundant this year than in the past. I’ve never seen a policewoman or a firefighter Barbie in any place.
Any place but Astro City, that is.