What makes a hero? Are they paragons of morality and justice? Martyrs who lay down their lives for a cause, or a people? Or everyday people doing the things most of us would rather not?
According to dictionary.com, The term “hero” means “a person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character”. Of course there are many other definitions, but I believe this one works best for our purposes. For, when one thinks of a hero, they think first of superheroes. And what do superheroes do? They save people, and exemplify the best bits of human morality while they’re at it.
In some ways, the Hero character is used to represent the impossible. For example, you can never be as strong as Hercules, nor as cunning as Odysseus. And, though perfect they were not, you certainly couldn’t exemplify the host of values they were written to embody. Then we have Superman, who is criticized as almost impossible to identify with due to his exaggerated abilities and near-perfect morality. This kind of hero is meant to represent what we could never be—and to perhaps inspire us to be better in spite of this clear impossibility. But that is not the only type of Hero that exists.
A Hero without flaws isn’t very interesting. Hercules had his blood-rage, Odysseus his pride. Even Superman is sometimes written to have chinks in his shining armor, though how deep and to what extent varies greatly from writer to writer. However, the fact remains that despite the clear aspect of impossibility that comes with heroism, a Hero must still project a somewhat believable persona to be successful. Their personal struggles, moral dilemmas, interpersonal conflicts—it is they who drive the story, and which will be successful no matter how impossibly strong your characters are.
To me, the most important aspect of Hero is that of self-sacrifice. Saving people, accomplishing a momentous task, and/or simply being the protagonist of a given story are all well and good. But to give of oneself for the sake of another? That is how I would define pure, distilled heroism.
Allow me to illustrate this with what I hold as one of the greatest examples of self-sacrifice that I have seen in recent media. Be warned, for this example contains massive spoilers for the One-Punch Man series; although the events I will recount come from the original webcomic which inspired the manga. It is unclear as to how much of this narrative will remain intact, but spoiler alert all the same.
The character I wish to examine is called Amai Mask, or Sweet Mask depending upon translation. This character started his superhero career with the greatest of intentions, but his insecurities concerning outward appearance and public opinion become an obsession. In the world of One-Punch Man, obsession causes people to metamorphosis into monsters—and Amai Mask was no exception.
Amai Mask finds himself alone, facing down a monster that is far stronger than he can handle. At least, in his disguised human form. So he has a choice to make. There are crowds upon crowds of people in danger–meaning crowds upon crowds of witnesses to his secret should he reveal it. Will he save them, and face the very real consequences of being shunned and even hunted by those very same people? Or will he let them die?
Just then, Amai Mask remembers the words of Saitama, the One-Punch Man himself, who knows Amai Mask’s secret: “Compared to that, how do you see yourself? Isn’t that more important? After all, we’re human.” In this moment, Amai Mask chooses Heroism. And in so doing, loses everything.
It is moments like this, choices like this, that define ultimate Heroism for me as a person. It is important to clarify that this is not to call it the only valid type of Heroism. But it is the most intense, the most raw, and the most truthful type. Because at the end of the day, the Hero is someone who lives—and often dies—not for themselves, but for the sake of others.