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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, October 24, 2014


Whenever you hear a public discussion of comic books, you will hear sooner or later an advocate of the industry say with a triumphant smile, "Comic books are here to stay." I do not believe it. Someday parents will realize that comic books are not a necessary evil "which, but their children's end, naught can remove." I am convinced that in some way or other the democratic process will assert itself and crime comic books will go, and with them all they stand for and all that sustains them. But before they can tackle Superman, Dr. Payn, and all their myriad incarnations, people will have to learn that it is a distorted idea to think that democracy means giving good and evil an equal chance at expression. We must learn that freedom is not something that one can have, but is something that one must do.-- Frederic Wertham, SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, p. 395.

"I held the plane long enough for the crime leader to jump. He chose to die rather than submit!"-- Wonder Woman, SENSATION COMICS #21.

I've answered Noah Berlatsky's offhand condemnations of the Superman character in respect to two of his three objections. I've pointed out that Lois Lane treats the hero like crap more often than the reverse, and that Berlatsky's "bullying" charge only works if one ignores the text completely, to say nothing of giving Wonder Woman a pass for the same behavior.  I haven't dealt with the third charge: that Superman "occasionally engages in extra-judicial killing."

I'm aware of only one story in which the Man of Steel appears to have deliberately killed a couple of criminals, though the story-- which I mentioned in this essay-- doesn't decisively state that the characters involved have died. Just to give the apparent killing context:

Of course, Superman/Christ is not a perfect fit, if for no other reason than that Superman's adventures are a lot less about "turning the other cheek." Nevertheless, the dominant image one gets with Superman is that of a god striding among mortals, a god almost constantly forbearing to strike with full force even against the evil.
I say "almost" because at times even the creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster yielded to the temptation to let their hero be as wildly violent as the Greek Heracles. In ACTION COMICS #25 (1940), the hero is rushed by two men-- one of whom, admittedly, has the power to freeze the Man of Tomorrow via hypnotism-- and Superman throws a plane at them.
Yes, that's right. THROWS A ****ING PLANE AT THEM! (You don't see the bodies get mangled by the impact but the villains aren't mentioned as having survived, either.)

Wonder Woman is also acting both in self-defense and the defense of others in SENSATION #21 when she too commits plane-icide, holding the propeller of the villain's plane so that the plane-body spins in a circle and finally crashes.  Wonder Woman's villain-murdering is accompanied by a little more rationalization, but at base the two feats are covalent.  Both are "extra-judicial" insofar as neither hero is legally empowered by any real-world government. Berlatsky claims that Wonder Woman is more responsive to authority-- albeit one of a religious nature-- because the Amazon is occasionally seen talking to Aphrodite.  But would he validate another of Jerry Siegel's creations, the Spectre, because that hero also had his "talking to God" moments? I sincerely doubt that the Grim Guardian would get the same benefit of the doubt.

In the end, while rationalizations both intrinsic and extrinsic to the narrative are natural enough, they're beside the point. Adventure-tales frequently conclude with a villain's violent death not because the stories are coded to incite vigilante violence, as Wertham clearly believed, and as Berlatsky may or may not believe-- but because the villain's death provides closure. For serial entertainments it must be a temporary closure, of course, for another threat must appear on the horizon with the serial's next installment-- and of course, the more popular villains have a habit of bouncing back from their apparent deaths. This supports my frequent assertion that escapist works are understood by their audiences to be "vacations from morals," where villains either die, so that they're never thought about again, *or* they simply appear to die and then pop back up with some piddling excuse.

For an extreme moralist like Wertham, there could be no such vacations into the world of fantasy. The above paragraph from SEDUCTION's last chapter-- not far from his famous closing lines, in which he hypocritically exculpates inattentive parents from blame re: their children's corruptive reading-choices.  I am still amazed that the good doctor justifies his recommendation for not just censorship, but the eradication of an entire genre, as part and parcel of "the democratic process." But then, Wertham has unilaterally decided that all depictions of violence are indicators of a bent toward fascism-- and though he harps most on comics due to their largely juvenile readership, he makes the same objection with regard to other media. He may have sincerely believed that he was able to parse out "good and evil" so completely that he need not extend to "evil" the courtesy of "an equal chance at expression."  SEDUCTION certainly does not manage to solve the problems of identifying good and evil; philosophically it's exactly on the level of a SUPERMAN comic book.

For me, the definitive statement on society's need to provide that "equal chance" appears in the works of John  Stuart Mill, as per this famous quote:

“...the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.” 

I can't be positive as to just what Mill meant by "character of mind," but I would gamble that it means looking at a given subject from more than one mental angle.  Thus, if one looks at SUPERMAN, WONDER WOMAN, and THE SPECTRE expecting to encounter incisive thoughts about the nature of good and evil, one is bound to view them as deficient while one is in this "character of mind." However, if one can move one's mind into the "character" of the purely visceral, then it seems obvious that these "crime comics" were meant to satisfy this type of entertainment. And the radical element of the mythos of adventure is that of the *agon,* a crucial battle in which the stakes are often those of life and death.  And the most visceral way of expressing such a combat is one in which the hero not only thwarts the villain but kills the evildoer, whether in defense of self or in the defense of others.

Yet even within the bailiwick of those who provide the visceral entertainments, we see instances in which real-world morality asserts itself.   Experienced comics-fans will know that the Golden Age Batman used a gun once or twice in his earliest years, and that later DC's editors forbade their popular hero from carrying firearms. I can imagine a scenario in which 1940s DC editors "had kittens" when they saw Superman apparently slay two crooks by hitting them with a plane. It seems unlikely that the editors of that time-frame would think the incident would harm young minds, but they may have been afraid of catching crap from kids' parents about such incidents. I'm not sure when DC Comics began to promote the idea that "Superman never kills," but this trope was very likely an attempt to make Superman seem safe for kids.

Of course, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were all pikers in terms of dispensing lethal retributive violence. That's why I find it so comical that Berlatsky would object to Superman's "extra-judicial killing" as if these few deviations from the hero's more societally responsible exploits were an indicator of the character's capacity for "bullying." Such minor sorties into extreme retribution cannot begin to match the body-counts racked up by characters like the Punisher and Deathstroke, or even some of the more violent heroes of the pulps, like the Spider.

I have no idea whether or not John Stuart Mill would extended his antipathy for censorship to comic books, had they existed in his time.  But the logic of his argument should extend to even the most violent modern media. Violent comics, movies and video-games are meant to give their audiences a vacation from the workaday world- a world where most people are aware that things don't work out as neatly as they do in fiction.

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