I have an affinity for superheroes. They are, objectively, the best things. When done well, I like to think that a superhero can be an effective role model. Of course, I’m not saying that we should try to emulate superheroes in the real world, because putting on colorful costumes and fighting crime are not a safe combination. But the characteristics that superheroes demonstrate can be quite admirable.
One of my favorite characters in all of superhero comics is Colossus of the X-Men. I didn’t think he was so interesting when I was a kid, but when I got older and started reading through backlogs of old X-Men comics, I developed a new appreciation for him.
See, Colossus, or Piotr Nikolaievitch Rasputin (and yes, he’s canonically related to that Rasputin), started off as a big Soviet stereotype. When the X-Men were getting revamped in the mid-70s, it was decided that they would make the new team consist of heroes from around the world. Though the intentions were good, the results were a little cliche. You had your racial stereotypes with Thunderbird and Sunfire, and your national stereotypes with Banshee and Colossus. Perhaps unironically, none of these characters became mainstays of the team except for Colossus. Still, he was bland at the start, being your typical strongman character. His background as a young man who had been rescued from toiling away in communist Russia served as a novelty, but his roots were never emphasized. Being a hero on a team based in America meant that he adopted American values. Except for that one issue where he was brainwashed to fight the X-Men as the Proletarian. He got better.
Fortunately for Piotr, the writer who helmed the X-Men franchise for 16 years after its 1975 retooling, Chris Claremont, decided that he was a character worth keeping around and developing. Claremont, a radical feminist, was responsible for introducing a ton of strong female characters to the X-Men roster, including Kitty Pryde, the waif who launched a thousand Slayers. Though Kitty was only 13 at the time of her introduction and Piotr was 19, Claremont decided that they made a cute couple and spent years developing a romance between them in a way that felt pretty organic. It started off as a one-sided crush, but as Claremont aged Kitty up, Piotr began to reciprocate.
Aside from linking Colossus romantically with Kitty, Claremont also saw fit to develop his personality by making Piotr a talented illustrator. Though he’s always effective at wreaking havoc in his metal form, he prefers to sit in a quiet place and draw. Piotr was also shown to be the idealist on a team of idealists. Whenever possible he preferred nonviolent solutions, and situations that did call for extreme measures wounded him personally. The ur-example is when the X-Men fought the mutant Proteus, a reality-bender with the ability to possess the bodies of people. Proteus had an intolerance for metal, so he couldn’t possess Colossus, who punched Proteus while he was without a host body and effectively killed him (it’s probably pointless to say he got better, but he did). Piotr didn’t take that very well, and he carried the guilt over it for a long time.
So what makes Colossus a superhero role model? Well, put simply, he is a character who is always motivated by his desire for purity. Now, when I say purity, I don’t mean it in the sense that you begin life with purity and any misstep will take it away from you. I mean it in the sense that purity is a goal to be achieved through personal refinement. Colossus provides a strong visual metaphor, because he’s physically impressive when he isn’t in his metal form, but when he transforms he becomes larger, stronger, more essentially the strongman archetype that he’s modeled on.
The reason this distinction is important is that Piotr’s history has been full of tragedies. Every known member of his family has been killed in some way, with only his sister Illyana currently living (which is to say that she died and then got better). He’s had to struggle with holding on to his idealism when he’s been frustrated with the mission of the X-Men. He’s let himself be possessed by the energies of a destruction god in order to protect his sister, and a lot of other people, which it later turned out was all a ploy by his sister to get him to a point where he understood her own suffering (Illyana, though one of my favorite X-Men characters, is most assuredly not a superhero role model). On top of all that, he also died once, because if you don’t die at least once in your superheroing career, you’re not a very good superhero.
So Piotr has a lot of baggage hanging around his neck, but despite that, he’s always tried to be better than what happens around him. He’s very much a character who sees the world as it is, and does everything he can to make it the world that it needs to be.
Which superhero do you think would make a good role model?