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Why Mark Millar’s Huck is the superhero we need (and the one we can be)

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From cover of ‘Huck’ #1, art by Rafael Albuquerque (Image Comics / Millarworld)

(7/26 UPDATE: Check out Mark Millar’s #OneGoodDeed Huck challenge on Twitter.)

I have written about a lot of superheroes here on PopMythology. But until now I have not had the privilege and joy to write about a hero quite like Huck, the titular hero from the comic book of the same name by Mark Millar and Rafael Albuquerque.

I have been wanting to write about Huck since the first issue came out last November—not so much a review of the comic per se but a thought piece about Huck himself, the character and what he represents for me. Within just the first eight breathtakingly beautiful pages of issue #1, I knew that I was holding something very special in my hands, as precious as the gold chain that Huck cups in his own unsullied hands on page 8. By the time I finished reading Huck #1 I was ecstatic. Here was the kind of character I’d dreamed of and was now in a major title by a major writer and artist from a major publisher.

But I intentionally waited until the first story arc had completed its run. I wanted to pull back and see if the rest of the series would live up to the hopes that the first issue had instilled in me. Well, I have finished reading Huck #6, which concludes the first arc, and I am happy to report that the series did live up to my hopes and more. And now I finally get to say what I’ve been wanting to say since last November:

Huck is the superhero we need right now more than ever.

He is the hero who, more than any other fictitious one out there—yes, even the iconic Marvel and DC ones—personifies my vision of an ideal hero who is not only very possible to emulate in real-life but whose very existence and qualities cry out for such emulation.

In this article I will discuss five principles practiced by Huck throughout the pages of Huck from issues #1 to #6 along with how and why I think they should be emulated by anyone who dreams of being a real-life superhero. There isn’t enough space to discuss them all but I’ll discuss five. They are:

  1. He practices small, everyday acts of kindness
  2. He channels his powers into such acts of kindness
  3. He writes down doable acts of kindness on his to-do list 
  4. His needs and wants are simple (in an age when people want everything)
  5. He is courteous, considerate and polite (in an age when these are unpopular qualities) 

1. He practices small, everyday acts of kindness

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From ‘Huck’ #6 (Image Comics / Millarworld)

One of the ideas that I have repeatedly written about here on PopMythology in my Hero Worship column is the power of everyday kindness. I wrote about it in “Size Matters: Be Willing to Be Small Like Ant-Man.” I wrote about it in “You Don’t Need Money, Smarts or Beauty to Be an Avenger.” I am writing about it right now in this article about Huck. I will write about it again.

The reason I insist on writing about this theme repeatedly, and feel there is such a need to do so, is the overemphasis in our culture on the importance of size and scale. Through social conditioning and perhaps a bit of evolutionary psychology, human beings seem wired to think that size and scale are the defining markers of a thing’s success, whether that thing be a physical possession like our gas-guzzling SUVs or a socio-cultural abstraction like our job titles.

The same goes for our ideas of heroism. We like our heroes to be larger-than-life, ones that save the world from nuclear annihilation and hostile alien takeovers and who also happen to be extravagantly wealthy and handsome billionaire playboys. Even characters who at their core are really about inner qualities and virtues, like Spider-Man and Captain America, now have a aura of glamour about them due in part to the success of the movies and the fact that these characters tend to be played in said movies by uber-hunks and babes.

Huck is a celebration of the invisible hero who operates far outside of the spotlight, who is content to quietly practice small acts of kindness like finding someone’s necklace, pulling a truck out from a ditch, or mowing the lawn for old people. No good deed is too small for Huck who stops even during the middle of an important mission to safely guide a mother duck and her ducklings across the road. And it does not matter if others do not realize how such small acts of compassion fit into the grander scheme of things. He knows. And for him that is enough.

2. He channels his powers into such acts of kindness

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From ‘Huck’ #1 (Image Comics / Millarworld)

Leaping like a daredevil across the roofs of speeding cars. Racing through cities and towns like the Flash. Fearlessly jumping off the edge of a cliff and diving into frigid waters. Is Huck trying to save the world from the grips of some diabolical supervillain in this scene?

No, nothing so ambitious. He’s trying to find someone’s lost necklace. But the beauty is that in so doing, he is in fact saving the world—one small act of kindness at a time.

We are trained since youth to see our talents as being there to be exploited for profit and self-gain. Now, as always when I raise this topic I want to stress that I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with using your talents to secure a living. We all need to eat and pay rent. And in a harsh and often ruthless world, it behooves us, at least to some degree, to use the talents we have to ensure our own livelihoods. But the question everyone needs to ask themselves is: how much is enough? At what point do you begin to reallocate some of your time, energy and resources from just accumulating more for yourself to giving to others who may have little or nothing to offer you in return?

It is a question that each individual can only answer herself. As someone gifted with preternatural strength, Huck could exploit that strength quite nicely to make a sweet buck if he wanted to. But he doesn’t. In fact, he doesn’t use his powers for money at all. He works as a gas station attendant and absolutely does not ever use his powers in this capacity because his regular human abilities suit the job just fine. Instead, he uses his powers in activities where he stands to gain little except the joy that comes from helping his fellow living beings.

Huck is bit of an extreme case, surely, and a fictitious one at that. But it is fiction that, through the symbolic language of myth, explores an idea—in this case selfless compassion—to its logical extreme in order to illustrate an important point. It asks us to consider that perhaps our talents are meant for something more than just getting ahead in the world.

3. He writes doable acts of kindness on his to-do list (#TheHuckChallenge)

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From ‘Huck’ #1 (Image Comics / Millarworld)

I believe that most people sincerely want to practice kindness and compassion amidst their everyday lives. But days and weeks, even months and years, may pass in frenetic activity with nary an act of kindness that isn’t calculated towards self-gain. It’s not because people aren’t sincere in their desire to do good. It is just the way our societies are structured which makes it very difficult to incorporate kindness in our lives, especially Huck’s brand of kindness, given that so many nowadays are terrified they will not be able to secure enough for even just themselves.

Here too Huck shows us the way and it is twofold.

First, as laid out in principle #1 above, think small, doable acts of kindness within your means. Stop fantasizing about saving the world in epic, grandiose style and realize that the actual key to saving the world lies equally in tiny acts of goodness that often go unnoticed. You can’t fit curing cancer into your average work week but it isn’t so hard to stop by your colleague’s desk during lunch, for instance, to say how much you appreciate his hard work or to offer words of encouragement if he is feeling discouraged. Think such actions don’t make a difference? My entire life is dedicated to proving that they do. But, hey, don’t listen to me. Listen to Mark Millar.

Second, think of specific, small acts of kindness and write them down on your to-do list if you have one. If you could look at most people’s to-do lists the bulk of the planned tasks are probably oriented either around their work or their families. Certainly, the family-oriented tasks may very well involve acts of kindness but the family unit is just one small step removed from the self—indeed, it pretty much is the self, making such actions anything but selfless. Huck performs acts of kindness for his family and friends too, but he also performs acts of kindness for those in his community beyond his immediate social circle.

I offer, therefore, a challenge. I’ll call it #TheHuckChallenge.

#TheHuckChallenge (or #HuckChallenge) is to think of just one simple and easy thing you could do for someone who is not family or within your close social circle. It doesn’t have to be a random stranger, necessarily. There are plenty of candidates who grace the margins of your life, and indeed I would encourage you to start with these people. Think of just one small, easy act to do per day and then write it down on your to-do list. Try this every day for at least a week, gauge the reactions of those who receive your kindness, and see how that makes you feel. Feel good? Keep going! An alternate method is to do this just once per week but to do it consistently for at least two months straight. I can’t promise how this exercise will turn out for you, but for me discovering the joys of doing this was practically life-changing.

This might feel like work at first but believe me, once you can learn to see the hidden power of such Huck-like (Huckian?) acts of kindness the mere act of thinking up such small, easy acts of kindness will become fun, almost like a game.

Need more of an incentive? Tweet the small act of kindness you did for someone with the hashtag #TheHuckChallenge or #HuckChallenge or just tag @HuckChallenge. I’ll retweet your beautiful, Huckian deed for all the world to see.

And keep the acts small! The key to seeing the magic of this is consistency and sustainability. I don’t want to see any tweets that go, “Just bought my neighbor front row tickets to Garth Brooks #HuckChallenge.” Unless you are Garth Brooks, that’s not really sustainable.  “Bought a cup of coffee today for my coworker who looked tired #HuckChallenge” is more like it. 🙂 

4. His needs and wants are simple

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From ‘Huck’ #3 (Image Comics / Millarworld)

Huck is clearly a Christ-like character. But the description “Christ-like” in people’s minds is virtually synonymous with undoable. Why is that? Why is one of history and religion’s most preeminent archetypes of selfless compassion considered something that is impossible for the rest of humanity to attain—so impossible, in fact, that we seek to rationalize our lazy self-exemption by assigning godhood to him? Well, he was God so of course it was possible for him to be so selfless. He was God and we are not, and therefore he was able to be what we cannot ever be.

Aside from the theological issues, the real reason that people find it difficult to imitate Christ, even for those who profess their undying devotion to him, is a decidedly non-supernatural one. It is because the extraordinary demands of living a life of compassion inevitably conflicts with the myriad of powerful, conflicting desires that human beings have. It is also because our socio-cultural superstructure whispers promises that our every desire will be fulfilled if only we do as we’re told and conform to the values of materialism and unchecked economic growth.

What Huck illustrates so poignantly is that the less desires we have, and the simpler those desires are, the easier it is to prioritize the Christlike/Huckian values of love and compassion, and the easier it is to actually live in accordance with those values. I stated in principle #2 above that we all need to eat and pay rent. We do. But the amount that different people need in order do these things can differ spectacularly. If you feel you simply must live in a palatial mansion and eat like a king, then you will obviously need more money, and thus you will need to be more success-driven, and thus you will have less time and energy left for other things.

Huck is quite content working as a gas station attendant because it is sufficient in paying for his wants and needs which are modest. Having his needs fully met, he is thus free to allocate time and energy to helping to better his community in various ways, and he can do so unconditionally because he neither needs nor wants anything from these people in return. He already has everything he wants. Our success-obsessed culture may scoff at such limited ambition but when choosing between the simple humility of Huck and the ruthless ambition of his nemesis Professor Orlov, it is clear which writer Mark Millar considers to be the more heroic. And personally, I agree with Mark.

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Phony power likes to mock what it perceives as weakness. Real power has no such childish need. From ‘Huck’ #6 (Image Comics / Millarworld)

But in order for Mark to portray this in a believable way, he made Huck have a minor but unspecified developmental disability (Huck’s been compared with Forrest Gump for this reason). This is because the notion that a “normal” human being could be so absent of greed, lust and self-interest is so alien to us that virtually the only way you can write such a character in a way that doesn’t break our suspension of disbelief is to portray him as having some sort of disability (or literally be an alien like Superman).  But the disability—with Huck as with Forrest Gump—can and should be interpreted beyond the literal.

Am I saying we should all be gas station attendants? No, I’m certainly not. I am saying, however, that if you can learn how to be content with the idea of being a gas station attendant, just in principle, then no matter what you actually end up being in life you will always find ways to be happy and to make a difference. Just like Huck.

There is a reason why in mythology and in certain mystical traditions like Taoism, the archetype of the Fool is considered to be symbolic of the highest wisdom. It is not because the Fool is “stupid,” a quality projected onto him by those who cannot understand. It is because the Fool is simple, and his simplicity is not an innate quality that he was born with but one cultivated by unlearning what he has learned through his social and biological conditioning.

Others have more than they need, but I alone have nothing.
I am a fool. Oh, yes! I am confused.
Other men are clear and bright,
But I alone am dim and weak.
Other men are sharp and clever,
But I alone am dull and stupid.       

—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 20 (trans. by Gia-fu Feng & Jane English)

5. He is courteous, considerate and polite

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From ‘Huck’ #1 (Image Comics / Millarworld)

In our current political and cultural milieu, old-fashioned manners and courtesy seem outright revolutionary. Far too often our culture foolishly confuses humility and gentleness with weakness when the difference is gargantuan. So widespread is this confusion that across the political and ideological spectra it appears nowadays that mean-spiritedness and antagonism are the universal ethoses that people of different persuasions share in common (if nothing else). Sarcasm and ridicule are falsely believed to be the marks of wit, and viciousness is wrongly believed to be the mark of conviction. In actuality, these things only serve to undermine the causes people purport to care so much about.

Once again, Huck comes to the rescue here. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any other superhero who is so unrelentingly polite and courteous that it approaches comical levels. Even when he needs to punch a villain in the face he first says, “Take off your glasses, please, sir.” Not even Captain America does that!

Huck is the superhero exemplar of what I call radical civility, or the conscious decision to be stubbornly courteous and considerate in a world where selfishness rules supreme, where conflict has become public performance art, and in which abrasiveness and smugness have become the defining features of so-called activism and is rewarded with “likes” and retweets on social media.

Radical civility won’t get you many retweets, sorry. But it does make you a superhero in my book. And in Huck and Mark Millar’s book too.

There are aspects of other, more widely known superheroes that always have and always will continue to inspire me and inform the ways I try to go about my life: Batman’s singular focus, Superman and Wonder Woman’s devotion to idealism, Captain America’s leadership, Spider-Man’s relatability, the X-Men’s outsider status, even Punisher’s conviction and Deadpool’s… well, Deadpool’s Deadpool.

But despite the legendary status and nostalgic value these iconic characters have, no single one of them alone represents the kind of person I want to be, and the kind of life I want to live, quite so perfectly as the new kid on the superhero block, Huck.

I know this is quite a statement given that there have only been six issues of Huck and hundreds of issues belonging to the aforementioned characters. But it also speaks to just how starved we are in our culture for a simple, wholesome hero like Huck who, despite his tremendous power, doesn’t care about using this power for self gain because everything he could ever hope to gain—things like love, friendship and fulfillment—are already within easy reach using normal human abilities.

Huck can devote his super powers, therefore, to making the world a genuinely better place—not through sweeping gestures and grandiose actions but by quiet, barely noticeable acts of goodness. The good news is that Huck’s “super powers,” when translated into the real world, are also just normal human abilities, ones that you are full of no matter who you are. And his secret for being content and happy with who he is and where he is in life—his Forrest Gump-like simplicity—this too is within your reach. Such simplicity is not a quality one is born with. Nor is it a disability. It is wisdom. And it is a quality one chooses to cultivate through effort.

And so I say again: in this election year in which an alarming percentage of American society appears to be choosing fear over compassion, Huck may not be the hero we deserve (he’s too good for that). But he is the hero we so desperately need.

[coffee]

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From cover of ‘Huck’ #6, art by Rafael Albuquerque (Image Comics / Millarworld)

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About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.