I have been thinking quite a bit lately about heroes. The book I’m writing revolves around a reluctant hero born with power and ability unlike other people. He struggles with how to use that potential. Is it a gift or a curse? What is his role and responsibility, given his power? How do his actions follow intention and where does that intention fall within the moral spectrum?

We all have innate power and ability but we often don’t realize it. As a boy, I sought out comics to feed my imagination, to escape from boredom, and to enjoy a good story filled with heroes and villains, plot and dialogue, setting and scene. The villains were equally as interesting as the heroes. Both powerful, both had something at stake and the means to fight for whatever the prize might be – concrete desires such as money and weapons or more abstract aims such as power, respect, and public safety. I read stories about Spiderman, the X-Men, and Avengers. In retrospect, I believe that a question of identity – how to use power and what is the impact of doing so as a hero of villain? –  is at the heart of comic book stories. More often than not, these characters wield their power under the guise of a secret identity that gives them anonymity to operate and use their ability without compromising their public persona.

Kids live in an adult world of rules and restrictions and often think of themselves as powerless so instead they unleash their imagination. Perhaps that’s why we’re drawn to imaginary heroes and villains that exercise power, whether in comic books, classic fairy tales, modern novels and films. The appeal of a good story is more than plot, snappy dialogue or rich characters. We’re drawn to stories because we want to see how it ends – not only how the action plays out on a physical and emotional level but also what moral and message is left for us to consider. We identify with characters (be they heroes or villains) because we want to discover and affirm what our identity is. Where does the needle on our moral compass rest if we were in a dire situation, if we were compelled to act?

In my teenage and college years, I abandoned comics and delved into music, literature and film as the source for heroes and flights of imagination. Growing into an adult meant refining tastes and making informed choices in part to further establish my identity and world view. Gaining knowledge and a measure of independence led to a gradual realization. I had the innate power and ability all along to become who I wanted to be even if I didn’t know how to use the tools at my disposal. As I grew into an adult, I realized that it wasn’t the characters I found in books and film that were truly powerful and heroic. Instead, my heroes were actually the artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers that created the stories. These creative spirits expressed themselves through their gifts. They wielded their inherent power in public without a secret identity. I connected with the ideas and emotions and perspectives of the character, song, book or film because of the expression of the artist’s creative talent.

To me, the ability to affect another person through the power of words, a song, or an image was a grand power. In the past six years, I have taken the opportunity to write about and experience the work of countless artists, actors, musicians, photographers, writers and filmmakers in Kansas City. I have met my heroes and befriended them, patted them on the back, applauded and cheered their work.

Last night, I saw the full expression of a hero’s power. Anyone familiar with Kansas City’s music scene knows about the prolific output of finely crafted songs by Howard Iceberg. He is legendary for both his ability to write songs across multiple genres as well as his generous spirit in collaborating with and inspiring other musicians. He’s written over 300 songs in the past seven years. To me, Howard is a modern day Woody Guthrie, a Midwestern Homer that wrote his Odyssey in 300 three-minute installments.  Last night, he released 100 songs in a 7-CD boxed set. Equally impressive, Howard’s music was performed by roughly 50 of the 70 musicians that he has worked with over this span.

Howard’s songs comment on the human condition in innumerable ways from heartbreak to folly, regret to redemption. His songs traverse the moral spectrum and enable us to connect, to consider where we might relate to the hero or villain in matters of life and love. Seeing Howard Iceberg and his current lineup of Titanics perform a solid set is life-affirming. To me, it’s heroism in action. The music gives meaning to a life experienced and not merely lived.

Even more astonishing and gratifying was beholding other musicians interpret and perform Howard’s compositions. Last night, I thought how contemporary musicians cover traditional songs in folk, country and other genres from previous generations. The original performers are long gone but the music lives on. Listening to The Wilders, Amy Farrand, Lauren Krum, the Tummons sisters, Gary Paredes, Dan Mesh, Mike Ireland, Kasey Rausch, The Splinters, Cody Wyoming, Bill Sundahl, Tony Ladesich, Scott Easterday and so many others perform Howard’s music reaffirmed to me how his music would endure. These beautiful songs will last beyond flesh and blood, beyond here and how. Comprehending how the work of a living legend (standing right next to you!) will endure beyond both the artist and his current audience is humbling and, frankly, mind-blowing.

Thank you, Howard Iceberg and the many Titanics throughout the city.

These Kansas City musicians go one step further. They exhibit the power to inspire – each other and the audience. Howard has inspired younger musicians like Kasey Rausch to take up the craft and use their innate ability. For non-musicians like myself, I am not likely to pick up a guitar, learn how to play it and write a song but someday I just might.

More accurately, they give me reason to write. They inspire my imagination. Seeing the individual and collective work of Kansas City’s creative community reminds me that I have that potential, no, that power to do so through the written word. So, I have surrounded myself with real life heroes that I love, admire and respect. And, in using my talent and abilities, taking responsibility for my power – not reluctantly but willingly – I realize that we can all be heroes in our own way. I am not a hero with a code name, cape and ability to defeat villains with extraordinary powers, but I can impact others with my words, ideas and self-expression. That’s an identity that I can live with openly.