Can a superhero ever really stop being a superhero? Can they quit, or retire, or even escape the heavy burden of expectation and difference for a while? That question is maybe the most important one in the entire Extrahuman Union series.
The question of whether a superhero can quit is a complicated one. The reason is that there’s a piece of being a superhero that’s all about what you do, and another piece that’s about what you are.
Those two pieces seem very different at first, but maybe they’re more similar than we think.
When we first meet the character of Broken in the book that bears her name, she’s alone on the street. She’s no longer in the Extrahuman Union, which is less a voluntary organization of superheroes like the Avengers or the Justice League, and more a convenient prison to stash superpowered humans in so they won’t cause any trouble. And she didn’t just leave: she escaped.
Broken ran from the Union because she had lost one of her two superpowers: the power of flight. She still has incredible self-healing powers, but she feels lost and miserable and depressed and ends up with nowhere to live and no one who really understands her.
But she still has that need to help people. She still finds it in herself to act selflessly, when pressed. She can’t put down that part of herself.
Heroes are all about what actions they take. A hero is someone who puts themselves in harm’s way or otherwise sacrifices to help others. Heroism is about selflessness, usually, and about doing the right thing.
But heroism is also about who you are, deep down.
It’s one thing to stop doing certain actions. It’s another thing entirely to walk away from yourself. For super-powered people this tends to become doubly true, because what they can do to be heroes is a function of who and what they are. Supergirl is still a superpowered Kryptonian who desperately wants to do good even if she’s sitting at home watching TV. She never stops being what she is.
Broken, for instance, still does have powers and history that make her very, very different from everyone around her. This matters. Even a superhero without any powers at all isn’t like other people, which can be very lonely and isolating.
This isn’t to say that a superhero can’t try to get away from it all and live a “normal” life. There are plenty of super-powered people in the Extrahuman Union series who attempt to do just that, and that’s what’s at the heart of the third book in the series, The Spark. But it’s a lot more difficult to escape the past, and what you are, than anyone might expect.
I’m trans, and I get this. It’s always hard to escape the past, and to run away from who we are. It’s stressful and exhausting to try to pass, to blend into society and pretend to be just the same as everyone else. It always feels like jumping out into the void to come out, to show ourselves, to make peace with the past and to shine. Sometimes we fall.
And sometimes we fly.
That’s what these books are about.
Susan Jane Bigelow is an author, political columnist, and librarian. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine and Lightspeed Magazine.