With real-life superheroes turning up on the six o'clock news and providing fodder for prime-time procedural dramas, we've seen some of the most sensationalized aspects of the real-life superhero movement. This year, the long-running webcomic Something Positive has cast some of its characters as costumed community servants, but while these real-life superheroes endure their share of pepper spraying and kicks to the ribs, they're portrayed as ordinary people who just want to make their communities better — while in costume.
Something Positive is one of my favorite webcomics that I rarely get to talk about on here. Despite featuring a shapeshifting kitty cat and a possibly hallucinatory glowing bear creature, S*P is, for the most part, set in an exaggerated version of our own universe. For more than a decade, Randy Milholland has chronicled the misadventures of his misanthropic misfits, including the initially angry Mike Dowden. Mike starts off as an antagonistic character: antisocial, misogynistic, and prone to arguing over minutiae long past the point of other characters wanting to kill him. But for all of the horrors Milholland dreams up — cannibalistic catgirls, teddy bear rapists, and trap-door alligators who can eliminate pesky characters at random — he's indicated through Something Positive a profound belief that people can change. Mike is one of those people, and while he still makes his share of social stumbles, he tries to be a good person.
Last summer, Milholland started a storyline in which Mike became aware of the real-life superhero movement and decided to take on a mantle for himself. Mike dresses up in purple and starts calling himself the Pythagorean (and no, nobody thinks that's a good superhero name) before heading out into the streets of Boston.
Milholland has a lot of affection for the superhero genre. If you ever see him at a convention, you should pick up his Super Stupor comics, which offers smart reinventions of superhero conventions (including a rather heartbreaking read on universe reboots) with his familiar combination of crassness and sweetness. He's also a fairly careful lampooner of subcultures, admitting that while otherkin culture and My Little Pony aren't really his thing, most of the people who enjoy them are perfectly lovely people who are as ripe for mocking as anyone else. Except catgirls, who are, apparently, pure evil.
Milholland gives Mike plenty of lumps. Mike makes mistakes in his superheroing attempts. Everyone makes fun of his dumb name. He's pretty much a walking target for anyone who feels like roughing up the skinny, weird guy. But Mike's heart is in the right place, and he generally doesn't bite off more than he can chew superhero-wise. He changes people's tires and finds their lost dogs. He makes sure elderly ladies get their doctors appointments and keep retirees company in the park. He isn't pulling any flashy Kick-Ass stunts, but he finds his popularity growing, much to his surprise.
In the current storyline, other members of the S*P cast have joined the real-life superhero movement, and a local councilman is trying to piggyback off their popularity. In true S*P fashion, things aren't going so well for the scheming politician, and it's causing chaos for the real-life heroes as well. It may well be that Boston's fictional superhero movement will get ruined for everyone, and if that happens, it will be the folks grabbing for glory who will do the ruining, not the people who like to dress up in costume while they're helping their neighbors.
Just as a word of warning, S*P's humor can be quite vulgar and dark. But there is a powerful sweetness underlying Milholland's sometimes crass cynicism.