Issue Forty-Two - Summer 2023

Hooray for the Underdog

By Shari Lane

As a writer, I think a lot about what makes a hero—or a villain, for that matter. And it’s not just about developing character and story arc; stories, for me, are a way of making sense of the world. So in pondering the concept of heroism, the question isn’t whether a particular character dons a brightly-colored cape and reveals heretofore unknown super powers, but rather whether a real person voluntarily helps others, even when that choice may involve sacrifice and/or risk.

Which brings me to the idea of the underdog.

If you’re of a certain age, you may remember a Saturday morning cartoon about the mild-mannered superhero called Underdog.

Speed of lightning
Roar of thunder
Fighting all who rob or plunder
Underdog! Underdog! Underdog!

The concept of heroism in the quiet and unprepossessing—this made quite an impression on me. There was nothing special about me as a child. I was bright but not brilliant, poor but not destitute, and I was neither beautiful nor exceptionally talented. In a world that idolizes the Übermensch, I was bound to feel that it wasn’t enough, that I wasn’t enough. Along comes an ordinary dog, a mutt, a character who makes his living shining shoes. And who just happens to turn into a superhero whenever evil threatens.

It was life-changing.

As an aside, I now know there were plenty of problems with the show. It was created to sell breakfast cereal, for one thing. Also, Underdog got his superpowers by popping pills. And then there was the collateral damage that attended Underdog’s every rescue. When confronted with the chaos he’d created, he’d say dismissively, “I am a hero who never fails; I cannot be bothered with such details.”

Nevertheless, the idea that anyone can be a hero, and can contribute in a meaningful way to their communities, that is a marvelously timeless concept.

I’m taking you with me on this journey down memory lane because I believe literary magazines like SHARK REEF are just such Underdogly heroes.

We live in a time of book banning, when AI is threatening to usurp the essential role of creativity, and words are used to engender hate and promote bias as much as to expand understanding and empathy. It sometimes feels as though, in some mainstream literature, writers are rewarded for predictability, homogeneity, and even mediocrity. Also, reading intellectually or emotionally challenging work is, apparently, losing its appeal in the face of memes and clickbait and other pathways to an instantaneous dopamine rush. “Is Literature Dead?” asks a 2018 article in The Paris Review, and then the article’s writer essentially concedes the fight.

Faced with such challenges, what can a mere literary magazine do? Largely operated by people who give their time freely, midwifing literature and art into the world, many if not most literary magazines lack the insistent pull of social media and online headlines.

But I do not believe the battle has been lost, and I believe we are making a difference. The staff at SHARK REEF and other literary magazines regularly undertake the superhuman task of finding and showcasing hidden gems, bringing out stories that expand our perspectives, poems that challenge us and force us to evolve, essays that probe what it means to be human. And our following and readership is growing, which means writing and readership are still very much alive.

So here’s to the tireless, unpaid editorial and publishing staff at SHARK REEF and other literary magazines, and most of all here’s to you, our contributors and readers. As we face the naysayers and the gatekeepers, let us join in a rousing chorus:

There’s no need to fear—
Underdog is here!

Further reading:

“We believe that small literary publishers play a vital role in our culture by connecting the greatest diversity of distinctive writers to equally diverse communities of readers.” From What We Believe, Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (“CLMP”) Community of Literary Magazines and Presses

Literary magazines “exist to showcase writings (and artwork) that would otherwise not find an audience in mainstream, commercial publishing.” Writers’ Relief.

Book Bans Are on the Rise, by Franco Ordoñez, NPR (June 8, 2023)

Is Literature Dead? by David L. Ulin, The Paris Review (August 27, 2018)

And in case you’re curious:

Underdog cartoon: Wikipedia article about Underdog.

Lyrics to Underdog theme song

Copyright 2023 Lane