“On a less serious note,” Dan Gillespie said. “Would you save a woman dangling off a bridge? If saving that person meant revealing the superpowers you’ve tried to hide your whole life?”
“As we’ve all learned, from reading comic books, most superheroes want to be perceived as normal people, with normal friends, having normal conversations,” Daniel continued. “Their goal is to try and avoid having their true identity revealed, so that they don’t have to be regarded as freaks among their peers. The implication being that they like the mundane interactions that we mere mortals take for granted, and they don’t want to mess that up that aspect of their otherwise enjoyable lives. Once a person is regarded as a freak, they’re a freak for life in most quarters, and no one will ever want to play reindeer games with you ever again. We’ve all seen this in life.
“The thing about superpowers is that they are an aberration of nature,” he said. “And they should all come equipped with side effects that pay tribute to that violation of the natural order. I realize that Superman was an alien, for example, but if he had freakish strength, he should be freakishly stupid to counter that. It just seems the natural order to me that if a being is blessed with something, they should be deficient in some other area. I like to think of that as the natural order of things.
“If I had been the originator of Superman, for example, I would’ve felt that he needed to rounded out with some deficiencies, some side-effects, or consequences to his actions that played to what is commonly called the natural order.
“If the comic book gods suggested that Superman would not be a popular character if he were freakishly stupid, I would suggest that if we don’t draw him up as freakishly stupid, there should be some sort of consequence to using his powers too often, such as becoming temporarily dumb when he overuses his powers to reflect the idea that he has to reserve his powers for when they are called upon. I would have a scene where Clark Kent fails to use his powers save a kitten in a tree, it is because he knows he must harness his maximum capacity for when he runs into the bad guy. I would have him not help a healthy male getting mugged, because, again, he must use discretion when using his powers, for if he over uses them, he will make freakishly dumb mistakes when fighting the bad guy, and I would create a precedent for this for the reader.
“The point is when using superpowers too often has no consequences, or side-effects, there’s no drama, or conflict to it. The writer, Stephen King, introduced this idea of a balance to me in the novel The Dead Zone. Here was a man blessed with certain gifts that had side-effects, and he’s done it in a number of his novels that follow.
“After reading a couple of those books, I said, ‘Yeah,’ to myself, ‘What are the consequences to Superman displaying his powers all the time?” Daniel continued. “He’s better looking as Superman, he uses a more authoritative voice in that incarnation, and the women prefer him as Superman. What is the downside to being Superman all the time? He’s a freak? He doesn’t fit in with the common man? Those of us that are common men, would love a brief respite from our commonness, or we would love to have the knowledge that we could escape our common man status on a whim. The point is that some of us wonder why Clark Kent wouldn’t want to be Superman all the time?
“Thus, if you were a superhero, your side effects would be embarrassing,” he continued. “Your ability to take flight, for example, would involve a freak biological nuance in your system that results in flames shooting out of your rear end to achieve propulsion. And if you don’t want your pants and underpants to catch on fire, you know you have to remove them before taking flight.
“Superman has always been hesitant to display his superpowers, for the reasons I’ve stated, but I’ve always thought there was very little downside. He has that muscular pose, with one muscled arm extended, when he is about to take flight. I always wondered why Clark Kent would try to conceal that true identity. I’ve always thought that it would a more believable story, if he were forced to assume an embarrassing position when taking flight, like the position you would have to take to prevent your cheeks and legs from catching fire by assuming the position you take when sitting on the toilet.
“What if, by the time, you arrived on the scene of a woman dangling off a bridge, after she had been in a horrible car accident, would you save her? Would you save her, if everyone you worked forty hours a week with was standing around waiting to see how this episode would end?
“What if those flames that shot out of your rectum, used food as its source? What if your dad told you that something unexplained about your shared molecular structure alters unused food into flames that if you push hard enough can be used as a propulsion source, and you and your dad have practiced it in open fields, but the two of you could never quite get a firm grasp on how to use it? Your dad taught you how to push it in just such a way to get the flames, as opposed to the other biological functions that require some pushing, so that the energy source from the food can be altered into flames that propel you into flight. But, and this is a huge but, you and your dad have never quite figured out how much food, and the elements and ingredients in food to use as a power source to achieve a specified distance. You learned, over those years spent in fields with your dad, that whatever amount is left over ends up getting excreted all over the place, when the flight ends.”
“I would still do it,” I said. “That hero thing is a powerful, driving force.”
“So you’d do it for the glory?” Daniel asked me. “Who wouldn’t? As anyone, that has ever been a hero would tell you, however, the hero thing does die out in the minds of all players. It’s human nature. You know your friends and co-workers, and you know that they will start to become jealous over the attention that you receive. You know that they will begin searching for an embarrassing chink in the story that suggests that you’re no better than them. You know that they will focus on the fact that you soiled yourself when your “heroic moment” was over? They may be enamored with you at first, as you say, but all that media attention, and glory contained in the stories of your superpowers, will reach a breaking point where they begin to despise you, and diminish your achievement.
“‘Did you see Gillespie soil himself?’ one person would ask another after the shock and awe of your glorious episode begins to subside.
“‘He saved a lady’s life for God’s sake Rupert?!’ a good person, that wanted to remember your heroic episode for what it was, would say to attempt to counter that implied insult.
“‘Yeah, but did you see that stinking pile he left behind him when he set her on the ground?’ the jealous person would reply. ‘The guy had flames shooting out of his rectum. You saw that right? I mean Superman never had flames shooting out of his rectum, and he never soiled himself at the end. That was hilarious.’
“What if you became little more than a laughing stock? What if everyone started urging you to take flight, not because they were in awe of your superpowers, but that they wanted to see you soil yourself at the end?”
“Couldn’t you land in an obscure area?” I asked, “To avoid people seeing those … after-effects? Couldn’t you hover, maybe an inch off the ground, until all of those flames were expunged?”
“Again, you’ve never perfected this, so going to an obscure area might be treacherous, and as for the hovering, how long do you have to hover? Do you hold a finger up saying, ‘Wait for it?’ Are you going to hover for a half an hour with your johnson hanging out, to those that you hope will never see the steaming pile you leave behind? They may never know that you leave a steaming pile, but they’ll remember you hovering over the ground for a spell without pants on. Or, are you just going to land and let others deal with the spectacle of your aftermath? What’s going to be more embarrassing? You know, by this point, that you need a certain amount of food to sustain propulsion, and you know the consequences of taking flight with an insufficient amount of food, but you’ve never been able to pinpoint the exact amount required.
“Your parents have warned you, through the years, about the amount of food required to maintain flight, and you’ve experienced your own errors in judgment the hard way with near-death experiences and prolonged hospital stays. You have never been able to judge how much food is necessary, and what kind of food works better than others. You’ve practiced this over the years, and you’ve also learned that there are no indicators to suggest that you’re out of food while in flight. Your flames just extinguish, and you fall as hard and fast as anyone else. Those falls, and the obvious pain involved, have made you tentative about testing the limits too often.
“It is a guessing game,” your father has warned you. “There are days when you, like every other human on earth, are not in peak physical condition, and your body requires more food than it does on others. You can have days of insufficient sleep, days that are more taxing on your system than others, and it’s almost impossible to know which chemicals and elements of food that your body needs and which are cast out into the colon for our special use from one day to the next. I never figured out the exact answer to that question, and I’m a lot older than you, and if I had I would’ve been flying more often. If you can figure that out, with all of your internet resources, let me know, and we’ll both be better at this. My advice, until then,” he said. “Is that this power should be limited to emergency situations.”
“This woman falling off the bridge is that emergency, and you have no time to weigh all of the ramifications, but you’ve thought about a moment like this your whole life. You reactions have to be impulsive. This lady is hanging off the bridge, by her fingers, and you guess that she’s been up there for quite a while, judging by the crowd that has gathered. And, of course, you know this scene isn’t going to play out long.”
“But you’d be saving a life,” I said. “Doesn’t that trump everything else?”
“Let’s say that you saved a life before. Let’s change the dynamic a bit. Let’s say that you saved a life in the dark of night, where no one but you and the victim of impending doom knew about it. You have urged that near-death victim to be quiet about it, because the mechanics of it are embarrassing to you more than anything else. You’ve asked them, a number of times, to just be grateful, to shut up and be grateful that you saved their life, and they have tried, but your shared story has just gnawed away at them. No one would believe them, and they have badgered you for years to join them in telling your heroic story. You know that this person just wants to become rich off your story, and they have begged you to back them up, to show the world your superpowers, so they can videotape it, and Youtube it, and get a million hits that they could put ads on and get rich. What if they have warned you that they were going to put someone in a life-threatening position, so they could videotape you saving that person? Would you be so quick to save that next person you saw in a life-threatening position, or would you think that that previous near-death victim was in on it?
“It’s an unfortunate side of human nature that they’re never happy, and that quiet “in the dark of night” moment where you saved a life revealed that unfortunate side of humanity, that side that your dad always warned you about. Let’s say you had all that swimming in your head, at the moment, and you saw dozens of phones out filming this episode, hoping to catch the lady’s fall on their phone to videotape for local and national broadcast. Would you still save that lady’s life?”
Similar to age old The Trolley Problem scenario, there are answers, but those answers are yours and yours alone. Some have quick “of course” answers, but these answers are projections of who we want to be, as opposed to the reality of who we are. For some, answers to theoretical questions bolster the beliefs we have in who we think they are, based on the definition of moral, righteous man with ironclad beliefs, that isn’t afraid to act when called upon.
If you’ve ever been a part of such a situation, be it on a much smaller on scale or not, you see that most people join the pack of spectators that stand in place hoping that someone will step up to save this person. You may even hear them ask for another to call someone. You do not see these people choking in the clutch, so much as you see them standing there, hoping that someone will do something before tragedy occurs. They may believe, in a theoretical sense, that they’re the type of person that would stop an elevator door from closing on an old lady’s head –or any number of scenarios that may not be life-threatening, but are a call to action nonetheless– but when these situations do occur, most will watch, wondering why someone isn’t doing something.
The best definition I’ve heard of ordinary men and women that are well-suited to being a member of a first responder, emergency unit, such as firemen, police, or other emergency medical services is that: “They’re the ones that will run into a burning building when everyone else is running out.” While I’m sure that the very normal, human instinct to run away from a fire is in every single first responder’s head, they fight that instinct, until it becomes their instinct to run into a burning building. I don’t think that the latter instinct occurs soon after they fill out their application. I think that they’ve been different, in this way, for as long as they can remember.
Most of us sit somewhere in the middle. The question is where do you sit? The honest man would say, “I don’t know, because I’ve never experienced such a situation.” Or, they would say, “I’d like to think that I’m a type A personality in this regard, and I think I am based on a couple of small scale experiences.” The point that scenario builders hope to get across is that the subjects of their question don’t know. The reader can theorize all they want about the type of person they are, but the very act of saving a life, or preventing a smaller scale tragedy, involves an impulsive decision that is largely instinctual, or as difficult to teach as it is to learn. It’s often more about who the person is, as difficult as that may be to grasp or accept.