Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why We Need New Superheroes...




"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive." Attributed to Howard Thurman.

We don’t need any more superheroes with steely eyes but instead ones with eyes that blink, glaze over, roll on occasion and maybe even cry.

We need superheroes who think and feel.

We don’t need any more superheroes with chiseled jaws and unmovable hair. We’ve had enough of those.  

We need superheroes who occasionally feel like hiding under the blankets and just hitting the snooze button a few times.

We don’t need any more superheroes who can deflect bullets with stylish wristlets or broad, barrel-like chests but instead those who are every bit as vulnerable as anyone not of the superheroic persuasion.

We need superheroes who are more or less equipped like everyone else.

What makes them superheroes, then? Aren’t they just boring, average, blah? What makes this person different from our cousins, mail carriers or Zumba instructors?

There are latent superhero tendencies in all of us. It’s who we are when we see an injustice and cannot stay quiet. A superhero heeds a call to step up to the plate, summoned by his or her conscience, because the thought of not doing so is impossible to accept. Even though this will require a leap of faith, a superhero is asked to go on a journey that necessitates leaving the world of predictability and safe familiarity behind. When asked to do this, the superhero ultimately says yes. This doesn’t mean that the superhero is fearless or shot through with confidence. They aren’t. This doesn’t mean that the superhero never has a doubt. They do. It means that despite this, they go into uncharted territory and this is what makes one person a superhero and another merely human. Superheroes commit to following through.

Superheroes arrive to us in all forms. Vivian Sharpe arrived to me in steam rising from my cup of tea, appearing like a genie.

The seed of the idea of writing a novel with a vegan superhero was planted one night at Kopi CafĂ© in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, where I sat with my husband as we brainstormed ideas for new t-shirt designs. We had an online magazine and clothing company back then called Vegan Street. As we tossed out ideas, suddenly a figure appeared in my mind: she was in a green unitard and a cape, with vivid red hair splayed out against the sky. She was armed with a bunch of celery. Her unitard said “V-Girl” and her slogan was “Keeping Animals Off Your Plates.”

After that night, I kept thinking about her, not just as a t-shirt or even a character but as a person. The vision of V-Girl seized me, stamped itself on my consciousness and wouldn’t relent. I decided that V-Girl needed a backstory, so I started fleshing her out. The simple backstory kept evolving, though, from a cartoonish character who leaped and bounded and scaled buildings until all the superhero tropes were eventually stripped away and I was left with a teenaged girl named Vivian Sharpe from a Midwestern town. Other than still having red hair, she bore no resemblance to the character who appeared that night at Kopi. The longer I chipped away at the raw material of her, the more what emerged was a complex, fallible, nuanced, flesh-and-blood person. Try as I might, Vivian Sharpe stubbornly refused to be molded into any kind of conventional superhero: she was her own person and she wanted me to tell her story. Just like there was no controlling Vivian, the image with the slogan became a short story, which then became a novella and, finally, a novel. It took years for me to find my way down the path, there were tons of twists and turns and certainly no trail of breadcrumbs. In addition, I had a baby to raise, paying work to find and do, and a festival to help organize. All that time, Vivian was here for me.

When I’d try to take an easy out to a plot twist, she’d let me know, and my thoughts would go cloudy, my hands would be unable to write an easy resolution. When things got stressful and complicated for me as a writer, when I thought I might have painted myself into a corner and wasted years on this project, she’d encourage me to buck up and trust the process. She was like a rare friend who will be honest with you and always hold you to the highest standard. Sometimes you are going to hate a friend like this but once you get beyond your pride and fear, you will have to admit that you are lucky to have her guiding influence. This was Vivian in my life.

Even though I didn’t originally set out to write a novel about a teenaged vegan superhero, I believe that my subconscious mind was telling me that the time was right and the thought that sparked then manifested as Vivian Sharpe. The story wouldn’t relent until it was told. To read more about the story, characters and plot, please visit here and here.

We need real flesh-and-blood superheroes because the world is kind of a mess. Lex Luthor, the Joker and Doctor Doom in their most feverishly misanthropic imaginings, could never come up with the pickles the human race has gotten into because of our prioritizing of profits over planetary survival. Why couldn’t a 15-year-old girl be a wide-awake, tuned-in agent of change? Who would be better? Vivian can’t leap a tall building in a single bound (or even twenty), she can’t zoom through the clouds or spout webs from her wrists but she has all she needs. She can change the world when she plugs into her power source. It turns out that that’s the best that any of we mortals can hope for, too. 

Superman can sit this one out. 

2 comments:

Rhea Parsons said...

The world needs more superheroes -

like one that has a passion for good and uses it to make the world better;

like one that uses her imagination to bring something smart, clever and funny into the world;

like one who sees a void in the world of young adult/teen literature and fills it with something that isn't filled with sex and vampires;

The world needs more superheroes. I'm glad the world has you!

Marla said...

Love you, darling Rhea!