Ethical criticism, as I define the term, centers around the idea that great literature always has an ethical component superior to what is found in "non-literature." This superiority may range from the expectation that literature should actually give viable moral guidelines to the reader to the less ambitious feeling that it should simply be capable of presenting interesting moral dilemnas. Though no one can prove such things, I tend to believe that ethical criticism is probably the means by which most non-critics judge works for literary worth, if only because the ethical criterion is the one most students learn at the secondary educational level, when teachers are trying to explain why literature that isn't necessarily "fun" possesses "literary merit." I suspect that whenever comics-readers speak highly of both WATCHMEN and SQUADRON SUPREME as works with "literary merit," they are doing so with the ethical criterion in mind, given that both works are dystopian stories about the abuse of power by superheroes in what purports to be the "real world."
In the first part of MERIT RAISED I wrote that I considered one of these two meritorious and the other not so much, but I like to think that my likes and dislikes are appropriate according to the literary mode of each work. I might simplify by saying that if I labeled WATCHMEN "drama" and SQUADON "melodrama," I would still confer "literary merit" on both if both were good examples of those respective modes-- but SQUADRON doesn't get the nod because it's "bad melodrama." (Of course, as I've been using a lot of Frye's more complicated terms lately, the above simplification doesn't really describe what I'm getting at.)
In "Notes Toward a Superhero Idiom," I mentioned that the Moore/Gibbons WATCHMEN conforms to the literary mode that Frye terms "irony," which stresses protagonists lack significant "power of action." And though WATCHMEN's characters possess any number of extraordinary abilities, for the most part none of them has the slightest idea what to do with them. Merely following the form of irony, of course, does not automatically confer literary merit (though I'll allude to some critics who think so). WATCHMEN is superior because the Moore/Gibbons characters fully embody ironic commentaries on the nature of power, be it Rorschach's individualistic authoritarianism, Ozymandias' lust for godhood or Doctor Manhattan's alienation from the normal strictures of time and space.
Also, in "Notes" I alluded to the mode of the "high mimetic," in which the noble hero proper to the romance-mode begins to come under the onus of social critique. This would be the mode proper to SQUADRON, written by Mark Gruenwald and illustrated principally by Bob Hall and Paul Ryan (for simplicity's sake I'll refer to each work as if Moore and Gruenwald were the sole authors, respectively). Now, to be a meritorious execution of this mode, the author would have to formulate characters who possessed significant power of action and could use it to some positive ends, even if they were ultimately frustrated in their goals. But though this mode has been well executed in comic books (Miller's DARK KNIGHT, Busiek's ASTRO CITY). SQUADRON lacks any merit according to its mode. No ethical theme, not even one appropriate to simple melodrama, can be adduced from Gruenwald's slapdash characterizations of his well-intentioned totalitarian superheroes. Super-scientist Tom Thumb agonizes over the ethics of stealing a life-saving serum from a super-villain, the Golden Archer brainwashes his superheroine girlfriend into loving him, Hyperion fights his evil doppelganger-- all of these are executed with heavy-handed seriousness, and probably have even less ethical relevance than a commonplace superhero book lacking such an overtly-portentous theme.
The reason that I continually harp upon excellence within each proper mode is because ethical criticism has a "dark side" of sorts, which I term "ideological criticism." In this species of criticism, as exemplified by certain essays of Gary Groth, the Moore work would automatically be superior for critiquing the very idea of superheroes, while the Gruenwald work would automatically be inferior for taking superheroes seriously. And though I disagree with those fans who regard SQUADRON highly as any kind of ethical statement, I find the mistakes of ideological criticism to be far more egregious.
Returning to the overall problems of ethical criticism itself, while it is probably the "go-to" criterion for most non-critics, clearly ethics by itself is inadequate to describe the multifarous products of the literary canon, much less works aspiring to be part of that canon. (And if it were, then, then surely both WATCHMEN and SQUADRON might be disallowed as literature because studies of power-abuse in real-world circumstances would clearly take precedence over any works about superheroes.) In the next essay I'll deal with a form of criticism that evolved in opposition to the ethical breed.