Comic Book Morality

February 21st, 2009 by | Tags: , , ,

The latest issue of Batman/Superman has Batman announcing his absolute control over Gotham and much of the world.  This doesn’t surprise me.  Batman is self-righteous, is a control freak, is someone who balances, not always well, his sense of responsibility with his sense of entitlement.

What does surprise me, at least as far as the character is concerned, is that he does this after brutally beating Catwoman and Nightwing.  Considering the fact that the character is emotionally involved with both of them, that comes off as him beating his girlfriend and his son.

Why this sudden reign of terror?  Because he acquired the powers of Superman.  I’ve said before that Superman/Batman is the comic to watch, and I meant it.  I mean it now.  I just find it interesting that this comic follows a very common literary idea: excess leads to disaster. 

Superhero comics tend to display this idea a lot.  Besides Superman/Batman there’s the recent Gog storyline in JSA, in which the followers of a seemingly benevolent all-powerful entity were horribly shocked when the entity turned evil.  Smallville, the show, had a red kryptonite storyline which started with Clark Kent getting a little more confident about asking people out and ended with him almost murdering a girl for money.  The Spider-man movies showcased this principle twice.  The first movie had Peter Parker gaining a power that made him beat the hell out of several people and get into that famous last fight with his uncle.  It was only the death of his uncle, and the terrible sense of guilt that that imposed on him, that caused him to turn to a career in crime-fighting.  In the third movie the symbiote upped his power level again, and again he became a jerk until another emotional kick brought him down to earth.  And everyone remembers the Phoenix Saga.

There are usually factors that explain the character’s bad behavior in situations like these.  Later someone exposits that the substance was an intoxicant, or that the ‘creature’ fed on evil thoughts, or simply says that the affected character ‘wasn’t himself.’

There is always an explanation for each individual powerful character to turn evil, just like there is always an explanation for why the slightly slutty girl in horror movies has to die while her virginal friend lives.  Just like there is always an explanation in romantic comedies for why the perfect-seeming partner of the love interest is a bad person who deserves to be left for someone better.

However none of these explanations quite ring true, because these stories are not simply stories, they are morality tales.  These particular superhero comics are saying, over and over, that it is only our weakness that keeps us good.  Take away our limitations, whether they are physical limits, mental shortcomings, or emotional inhibitions, and we revert to our most base and contemptible selves.

Nevermind that Batman is established as one of the best martial artists in the DCU and has always had the ability to savage people who anger him, give him a little more power and he will mercilessly beat the woman he loves and the man he thinks of as his child.  Nevermind Superman’s limitless power and innate goodness, give him a drug that loosens his inhibitions and he’ll hire himself out as a hitman.  Hal Jordan and Jean Grey’s increases in power were so spiritually toxic that their souls could never recover fully and only their deaths would make the world safe again.

It’s funny that comics, which are clearly over-the-top power fantasies, should stress so consistently that power of any kind corrupts, and over-the-top emotions or ambitions always end in misery.  In part I think that this happens because of the need for a structured narrative.  There is the set up for the change, the first flush of new power and all its possibilities, the downward spiral, the low point, and the climactic battle to reclaim normality at the end.  It makes for a good story.

However, there’s more to it than that.  Nelson Mandela said, “Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”  With no offense meant to Mister Mandela, I think that that’s complete crap.  But perhaps, in literature, there is something to it.  What would happen if Gog had turned out to be every bit as benevolent as he’d seemed?  What would happen if Jean Grey hadn’t turned dark?  What would have happened if red kryptonite turned Clark Kent into exactly the kind of guy he’d always been, only more demonstrative and more confident?  What possibilities are out there for stories if we give up our atavistic fear of power?

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10 comments to “Comic Book Morality”

  1. While I do understand your point, the fact is, in my opinion, that power corrupts. We’ve been shown lots and lots of real-life examples, why should it be any different in comics?

    Your post did made me think, comics are pretty redundant with this kind of thing. I still remember the Infinity Gauntlet What If? where the Silver Surfer manages to steal from Thanos and then attempts to rewrite the universe better until he’s shown the error of his ways and then undoes everything to live alone with his beloved on a deserted planet. He gets more power and goes crazy. I loved that story but it would’ve been nice to see something different.

    I do agree that instead of telling stories like this, they could show the contrary. Maybe power doesn’t ALWAYS corrupt(but does much more often than not). It’s an idea to exploit.

  2. Oh man, if only you’d read New X-Men. Grant Morrison digs right in to what you’re talking about and does something I think you’d like to see. I wrote a piece on it almost two years ago now (holy crap) called Is ALLNow Love. Here’s a salient quote, though:

    The Phoenix entity has a long comics history. It’s reached cliche status now, and it usually signals that something terrible is going to happen. Jean Grey could unmake the universe one day due to it… until now. She’s embraced her wings, strange eyes, and brilliant mind. It’s a new era. Hiding who you are in an attempt to fit in is the wrong way to go about things. Repression is wrong.

    It’s hinted here that Jean only lost control because she was afraid and ashamed of her powers. Scott suggests that she go back to strict self-control, but what he’s suggesting is really self-limiting. It’s hiding all the things that are you in an attempt to fit in and be safe.

    There’s an old saying. “Scared money don’t make money.” If you’re too afraid to take a risk, you aren’t ever going to get anything. Jean has taken a risk and embraced who and what she is and look- she’s better for it. “Do I look like I’m losing control?” She is in complete control of everything now. Herself, her powers, and her confidence.

    Jean’s got Phoenix-level power throughout New X-Men and it doesn’t corrupt her. If anything, it shows just how pure and wonderful she really is. Of course, then Marvel put out a couple of series showing the Phoenix as a deadly entity again, but for a while, NXM had a good take on it.

  3. “Nelson Mandela said, “Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” ”

    one of my favorite quotes, but Nelson Mandela didn’t say it. it’s actually from the book “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles” by Marianne Williamson

    it often get’s attributed to Mandela in error 🙂

  4. Wasn’t there a What If? (What If blink had lived, I think?) that had Blink get access to unlimited power? And she created a golden age on Earth? I sort of recall a comic like that.

  5. Onion- Blink tried to create a utopia but her attempts to alter time created rifts where people were moved through time and that caused paradoxes that threatened reality.

    Olivier- Superman has incredible power. He’s never corrupted by the power. All the times he goes “bad” someone or something is screwing with his head.

  6. I don’t think the problem is a fear of power, but when a character is essentially omnipotent, how do you challenge them? A few writers up the ante, but the majority seem to be happiest with moderately-powerful good guys fighting moderately powerful bad guys in a primary-colored slapfight.

  7. @Jason

    You know, I never could remember what happened in that book.

  8. Honestly, this sounds terrible and I’m glad I dropped the series, which I did about the time that Superman’s dad gave Batman’s dad technology from Krypton and founded the Wayne family fortune.

  9. @Pat!: Damn! Google lied to me! Well, thanks for setting me straight.

    @Jason: Superman does only go bad when someone is screwing with his head, but that’s what I meant by having excuses. There is always a reason for it, and yet it keeps happening, and each time people talk about the ooooo scary power he has. How many times has Robin gone evil? Or Beast Boy?

    @Paul Wilson: Well, it doesn’t have to always stick. Imagine if Batman got the treatment of loosening his inhibitions. What if that didn’t make him more violent? What if that made him more demonstrative with his family, more willing to negotiate with criminals and therefore a better strategist, more able to get along with JLA. Then is wears off and Batman is left knowing that he could be a better leader/family member/friend/crimefighter, but he hack that particular level of emotional honesty. We’ve seen a ton of stories about how Batman’s unforgiving nature leads to disaster. How about one which shows how a change for be for the better, not just insure against the worst?

  10. Due to your review, I picked up the book – I found it pretty interesting, instead of repulsive!

    Of course, longing for Selina to get a smackdown for so long has probably biased me. Then again, Dick is my favorite character and while I felt for him, it didn’t make me admire him any less, and since his nature is more like Clark than Bruce in so many ways, it’s doubtful even this will weaken his admiration for Bruce.

    I like that this explores the subject but I don’t think you have to be nonhuman to cope with excessive power. Superman isn’t good because he’s not human, he’s good because he had good parents. Granted that Bruce didn’t have the same benefits, I can’t see him being the type to brutalize the family he does have. Knowing this is an elseworlds sort of thing, though, I can’t get too worked up one way or the other I guess.