The Hero Graphic

In 2008, street artist and graphic designer Shepard Fairey whipped up a quick poster of Barack Obama to sell on the street. He sold hundreds in a day, and used the proceeds to print ever more posters to sell and also to paste on walls himself wherever he could.

Yes, it was the classic Obama HOPE graphic. Fairey made variants that instead said CHANGE and PROGRESS; but HOPE was what resonated.  The image went viral quickly, especially digitally, and became the icon of the Obama campaign — officially, in fact, after Obama asked permission.

And so HOPE appeared in all the media, and of course as a t-shirt: an extremely popular one.  Fairey’s graphic HOPE became an icon: the Hero’s Graphic. Graphic designers have used its style ever since to present someone as HERO. Or SAVIOR. And sometimes, as CLOWN, or even PHILOSOPHER.

You see the Hero Graphic on a lot of t-shirts these days. Here are a few from my collection

Baseball is iconic by its very nature: the lonely pitcher hero on the plate with the weight of the entire game on his shoulders, facing down the other team’s mightiest batter… Or the desperate outfielder who rockets into the air to catch that fly ball that’s streaking for the fence, and thus saves the game for his team.

This particular icon, San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain, pitched the Giants’ first-ever perfect game, one of only 22 in the history of major league ball.  Twenty-seven at-bats, 14 strike-outs: no hits, no walks, no errors.  Nothing. Nobody ever got off home plate.

To the dedicated fan, a striking t-shirt with the Obama-style Hero’s Graphic is exactly what Matt Cain deserves.  And it’s a doozy.

This HOPE tee variant is my favorite, and not just because it’s so well done.  The man is Edward Snowden, a disillusioned NSA contractor who decided to show America just how closely the government was surveilling it and just how much its privacy was being violated. He leaked well over a million classified documents that supported his case.

The backside of the tee shows who issued it: the American Civil Liberties Union.

This tee shows the Hero’s Graphic in full force: the block-letter message reads PATRIOT. Snowden put himself in a tough position. But he was eager to face trial in the United States, if it was an open trial where all issues would be aired.

The real conflict lay between the government, which charged that Snowden broke government secrecy laws, and should pay; and Snowden and civil rights advocates, who claim that the government was doing something much worse. And should also pay.

In the end the government would allow only a secret trial; it would not show its hand to the public. There might have been good reasons, but that’s the thing about secrecy: you’ll never know. So Snowden fled to an insecure exile in Russia, where he remains.

Is Snowden a hero? The ACLU says so. Your opinion is yours. I think that Snowden did something hard, and is still doing it.

The HOPE icon — the Hero’s Graphic — became so popular that free HOPE-style photo generator sites arose on the Internet. Submit someone’s photo and a pithy headline, and the site will generate for you the Hero’s Graphic: false color, bold type, and all. Then you can put it on a t-shirt.

As shown above you rarely get a good image from these things;  but they’re free, and there you are.  The young woman on this tee apparently made vice president at her place of employment, and somebody thought that the feat deserved a heroic t-shirt.  And who knows? Maybe it did.

In the end, Obama achieved HOPE. I remember, back in ’08, watching TV feed of people in a downtown Denver restaurant watching Obama give a major speech on television. The entire place paused: middle-aged servers holding trays, office workers at their plates, cooks from the kitchen: they all stared silently, speculatively at Obama as if he just might be the way off the fear-driven treadmill that was their lives. There was HOPE there. Obama won because of it.

Obama kept HOPE alive, with a few policy wins; he made some things better, and kept other things from getting too much worse. But real CHANGE? Not as much. Real change requires altering the financial paradigm that rules us (money gets sucked upward into a few pockets). Obama tried to work within the paradigm’s rules; and the paradigm fought him every inch of the way

But the iconic HOPE style?  The Hero’s Graphic? I think that’s with us for awhile.  Icons, used properly, can be a good thing. As is hope. But remember again that much of what we HOPE for, is CHANGE.

Which leads me to the last t-shirt.

Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (played by Jeff Bridges) is one of the biggest losers in movie history. He’s barely employed. He lives for marijuana, bowling, and White Russians. A bathrobe and jelly sandals make a perfectly good ensemble for shopping at Ralph’s. He cares about the trival and doesn’t give a damn about the important. He’s a dead-end stoner. But he likes his life. And then bad guys interfere with it.

In the movie “The Big Lebowski,” the malevolence of the bad guys simply washes over the hapless Dude, leaving him unharmed. He doesn’t see its importance. He isn’t cowed by it. He doesn’t fear it, or even hate it. He just keeps on being him, no matter what happens. When all is said and done, he comes out unscathed. The Dude is no hero but, in the end, maybe he is. He carries on.

“The Dude abides,” says the mysterious stranger who narrates much of the movie, after the Dude stops by to say howdy on the way to getting back to his life. “I think we can all take comfort in that.” Since “The Big Lebowski”s release, “The Dude Abides” has achieved catchphrase status.

And now, in pandemic days, perhaps we should all be Dude-like : hang in there. Carry on. Persevere. We may not be heroes, but maybe, if we do it right, in the end we sort of are. All we must do or can try to do is to be like the Dude. And ABIDE.

Thank you, Dude. T-shirt still available at fine online t-shirt outlets.