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With great power comes great responsibility.

heroes

If you’re a fan of superhero comics or movies, you’ve heard this before. It’s Spider-Man’s motto: With great power comes great responsibility.

It’s a lesson Spider-Man learns the hard way. You know the story: Spider-Man is bitten by a radioactive spider that gives him super-strength, and the ability to climb walls. But when Peter first gets his powers, he doesn’t immediately make a costume for himself and fight crime.

Instead, when Peter sees a robbery happening, he doesn’t stop it, even though he could. Tragically, the robber ends up killing Peter’s Uncle Ben during the getaway, and it’s then that Peter learns his lesson: with great power comes great responsibility. That’s when he starts putting on Spandex and fighting bad guys on rooftops. Not before.

Legendary comics writer Stan Lee wrote a variation of the “with great power comes great responsibility” line in the very first Spider-Man comic book ever. Thinkers and philosophers had of course been saying the same thing for thousands of years, just not in those exact words. I tried coming up with a different way to say it, and for copyright reasons I do say it in different ways in my novel Heroes. ☺ But Stan Lee said it best, and without Marvel’s lawyers to stop me, I’m going to continue to say it here:

With great power comes great responsibility.

Spider-Man debuted in 1962, but superheroes had been coming to the same conclusion ever since the debut of Superman in 1938. He had the idea instilled in him by his adopted parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, after his birth parents died in the destruction of his home planet.

Steve Rogers, who debuted in 1940, had been a frail young man who’d been picked on by bullies until the US government injected him with the Super Soldier Serum, which suddenly gave him the amazing strength and coordination to become the superhero Captain America.

And they and many other heroes were joined by Wonder Woman in 1941, who left Paradise Island to use her Amazonian strength to defend the powerless and fight back against the biggest bullies the world had ever seen—Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

As each new superhero emerged on the scene, they all had to answer the same question: now that I have super powers, what am I going to do with them?

In September of 1939, just a year after Superman debuted, the United States was asking itself that same question. Nazi Germany had just invaded Poland, and by the time Captain America debuted in 1940, Germany had conquered half of Europe.

By the end of 1941—the year Wonder Woman hit shelves—Nazi Germany occupied or controlled all of Europe, and had its eyes set on England and Russia. The Axis was led by Germany, Italy, and Japan. The Allies were led by England, China, and the Soviet Union. Almost all the other countries of the world lined up to join the fight on one side or the other.

Except the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt convinced Congress to send food and arms to the Allies, but the United States hadn’t gone to war, because Americans were fiercely divided on whether or not to send our soldiers to fight.

For a lot of Americans, it was a case of “once bitten, twice shy.” Just twenty-two years earlier, the United States had decided that with great power comes great responsibility, and we had enthusiastically entered the First World War on the side of the Allies.

But World War I didn’t go so well. For anybody. Many Americans now remembered with anger and regret how hundreds of thousands of their fathers and husbands and brothers and sons had been wounded and killed in the First World War. And for nothing, it seemed. Nothing had really changed in Europe, and now they were fighting again.

Why not stay out of it this time, isolationists argued, and let them fight it out themselves? The United States was arguably stronger than it ever had been, but perhaps now that meant that with great power came a great excuse to mind our own business

Never mind that our allies were falling like dominoes. Or the growing evidence that Nazi Germany was openly attacking, robbing, imprisoning, and killing European Jews. Feeling safe and secure, the United States stayed out of the war.

At the same time, while countries like England, France, and the Netherlands were busy fighting Hitler and Germany in Europe, the Empire of Japan started snatching up their colonies in Asia. The Japanese Empire was growing quickly—and threatening to extend east across the Pacific Ocean, all the way to the United States.

To discourage Japanese aggression in the Pacific, President Roosevelt moved the United States Pacific Fleet from San Diego to the Naval Station at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. It was a fleet at the time that included nine battleships, three aircraft carriers, dozens of cruisers and destroyers and submarines, hundreds of planes, and thousands of soldiers, sailors, Marines, and pilots.

Which is where the story of Heroes begins! My main character, Frank McCoy, has just moved to Hawaii with his family because his dad is a Navy pilot in the US Pacific Fleet. Frank’s a little awkward in his own skin. He feels a little like somebody gave him an injection of Super-Soldier Serum sometime between the seventh and eighth grade, because he’s grown twelve inches in the last year, and now, at thirteen, is taller than his mom. He’s like one of the Charles Atlas ads he sees in the back of the comic books he loves to read—Go from scrawny runt to Greek god in just three months! 

Frank moves in next door to another boy his age named Stanley Summers, and when the two discover their shared love of comic books, they become instant best friends. Frank and Stanley even start working on a comic book of their own, starring a superhero they created called The Arsenal of Democracy.

Stanley was born and raised in Hawaii, but his dad is also a Navy airman. That’s why Frank and Stanley both live on Ford Island, an island right in the middle of the Pearl Harbor Navy base, where Navy scout planes take off, and planes from Navy aircraft carriers come in for repairs. And not just that—Frank and Stanley live in a row of houses along Battleship Row, where the Navy parks all of its big battleships.

Life is pretty good for Frank and Stanley, until one day when they’re coming home from a baseball practice and Stanley gets into a fight with some bullies. It’s the perfect time for Frank to step up and use his newfound strength to fight for his friend—but he doesn’t.

Even worse, Frank runs away.

Frank hasn’t yet learned that with great power comes great responsibility.

Running away from the fight drives a wedge between Frank and Stanley. Frank wants to explain—he has a good reason to be afraid of getting hurt—but he can’t find a way to tell Stanley. Not until the next day, when the two have been invited to go on a tour of the USS Utah with a sailor who’s dating Frank’s older sister, Ginny. Frank apologies, and starts to explain, but he never gets a chance to finish. Because suddenly they and everybody else at Pearl Harbor have a lot bigger things to worry about.

Wave after wave of Japanese airplanes come flying in from all directions, attacking the Naval Station at Pearl Harbor. They shoot up airfields and parked airplanes, dive bomb battleships, and torpedo cruisers and destroyers.

The sneak attack comes as a total surprise to the American sailors, many of whom are still asleep or enjoying a day off. Slowly, sporadically, the US ships and planes return fire. But they do little damage to the Japanese forces. 

And Frank and Stanley, they’re caught right in the middle of it. One torpedo hits the USS Utah—BOOM—and then another—BOOM—and the Utah begins to roll over. Frank and Stanley have to climb up the deck of a tilting battleship, and then swim for Ford Island. But they’re not safe yet. The Utah is up here, along Carrier Row, and their houses are on the other side of the island. To get home, they have to cross Ford Island Naval Air Station—which is under attack from dive-bombing, shooting airplanes. And when they do get home, their houses are right next to Battleship Row, where the Japanese planes are focusing their attack! Frank and Stanley arrive just in time to get knocked on their butts by the explosion of the USS Arizona. And there’s even more danger to come, as Frank and Stanley make a harrowing trip across Pearl Harbor in an open boat during the second wave of the attack.

The attack on Pearl Harbor lasted a little under two hours, which seemed like an eternity for the sailors and civilians who survived it. By the time the battle was over, the Japanese had sunk, damaged, or destroyed twenty American ships, and wrecked or damaged nearly three hundred and fifty American planes. Over 2,400 US soldiers and marines and sailors died in the attack, and another 1,177 Americans were injured.

Because Japan hadn’t formally declared war before the sneak attack, nearly all Americans—even those who had opposed a foreign war—were united in calling for revenge. The US Congress declared war on Japan the next day with almost unanimous approval. Germany and Italy declared war on the United States soon after, and the debate was over. America was now officially in World War II.

Like the superhero origin stories I mentioned before, Pearl Harbor—and the US involvement in World War II that followed—can be seen as America’s origin story as a global superpower. You’ll note, though, that unlike Superman—who never once questioned the values he learned as a child—it took a painful, Spider-man-like loss for the United States to re-learn the lesson:

With great power comes great responsibility.

Frank’s second chance to learn that lesson comes when Stanley and his family find themselves fighting a second war—this one on the US home front. Because Stanley is Japanese-American, and the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, combined with pre-existing and long-standing racism against Asians and Pacific Islanders, sparked a wave of anti-Japanese prejudice across the United States during World War II and beyond. On the West Coast and in Hawaii, local authorities immediately began to restrict the rights of Japanese Americans. Then, in February of 1942, just two months after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued an executive order stripping all Americans of Japanese Ancestry of their civil rights. Despite never being charged with a crime, 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and communities and imprisoned in US concentration camps.

As Stanley’s best friend, it’s not just Frank’s physical strength that matters now. It’s his power and privilege as a White American of European descent. Will he, like the United States before Pearl Harbor, use that power to protect himself, and only himself? Or will he, like the comic book superheroes he loves, decide that with great power comes great responsibility, and stand up for his friend?

Heroes is historical fiction. But as in so many of my books, the past echoes our present. Right now, here in the United States, people are using their power and privilege to bully, to silence, to marginalize, and to outright attack people they dislike, or disagree with, or don’t understand. Heroes then asks the same questions of its contemporary readers that it does of its historical characters: What will it take for you to stand up and fight for what is right? Will you, as the United States did in World War II, wait for someone to threaten your personal safety for you to respond? Or will you use your power, your strength, to help those who need it, when they need it, even if it jeopardizes your own security?

A valid critique of superhero stories is that they encourage us to wait for someone else to swoop in and save us. That by focusing our energy on hoping and praying for a savior, we fail to look for and work for ways to help ourselves. Because as awesome as they are to read about in comic books and see in movies, there are no super heroes. There is no Spider-Man, or Superman, or Captain America, or Wonder Woman coming to save us.

Our best and only hope is to save each other. 

With great power comes great responsibility. We may not be super heroes, but each of us is powerful in our own way. The question Heroes asks of its country, its characters, and its readers is: how will you use the power you have to stand up and help those in need?

Alan - Red Background - 1

Alan Gratz is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of a number of novels for young readers, including Prisoner B-3087, Refugee, Ban This Book, Allies, Ground Zero, Two Degrees, and Captain America: The Ghost Army. His latest novel, Heroes, goes on sale February 6, 2024. A Knoxville, Tennessee native, Alan and his family now live in Asheville, North Carolina. Visit him online at www.alangratz.com.

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