Thursday, September 3, 2009

Comics just aren't black and white anymore...

In the vastness of The Cosmos there are billions and billions of comic books....(Sometimes I really miss Carl Sagan!)

As comic books have evolved from an entertainment pointed towards 8-12 year old children to a much more adult audience, the themes and story lines have taken a more “realistic” and often much darker tone. Back in the 1950’s or 1960’s Batman would chase down the Joker, who was planning theme based robberies, usually involving some oversized props. After a fist fight, Batman would toss Joker into jail, share a quip with Robin and go on to the next eight page story. No one died, the bad guy was caught, and all was right with the world. Under the Comics Code Authority there were not really too many other directions you could go as a story teller. As a response to Dr. Wertham’s witch hunt in which he accused comics of contributing to juvenile delinquency, in his book Seduction of The Innocent, the comics industry divested itself of blood, death, vampires, werewolves, real crime stories, sexuality of any kind and moral ambiguity. In comics of the age, the good guy was always good and the bad guy always bad. Elected officials and business owners were always pillars of the community and Heroes NEVER killed villains. Villains could TRY to kill heroes or their friends and family but did not succeed. And the number one rule of the Comics Code was “Thou Shalt Not Get Away With It” . In short, the bad guy always got his comeuppance.

The seeds of change began with The Amazing Spiderman #96-98, which led to the revision of the code that would ultimately lead to it’s demise as a censorship body. Previously, the Code forbade the depiction of the use of illegal drugs altogether. However, in 1970, the Nixon administration asked Stan Lee to publish an anti-drug message in one of Marvel's top-selling titles. Lee chose to feature a story depicting the negative effects of drug use. In the story, Peter Parker's friend Harry Osborn becomes addicted to pills. While the story had a clear anti-drug message, the Comics Code Authority refused to issue its seal of approval. Marvel nevertheless published the three issues without the Comics Code Authority's approval or seal. The issues sold so well that the industry's self-censorship was undercut and the Code was subsequently revised.
Not long afterward The Green Lantern/ Green Arrow “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” arc in DC, in which Oliver Queen’s ward Speedy becomes a heroin addict received a letter of commendation from then Mayor Lindsay of NY, and the Code was effectively dead. These stories opened the door to the story that would effectively end the Silver Age of Comics in Spiderman #121 and 122, The Death Of Gwen Stacy.

These industry shaking events occurred during the early 1970’s but the Comics Code Seal stayed around for many years after that and for the most part comics would go along pretty much as they had in the 60’s and 70’s. Marvel gave us characters with dimension and DC’s Batman began to grow up but for the most part, the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad.

The seismic change that we are still feeling today actually came in1986 from the less likely to rock the boat DC comics. It was in ’86 that DC published both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. In one fell swoop, comic readers were confronted by “heroes” who were homicidal, suicidal, sociopathic and borderline psychotic. In short, they were real people. There would be no going back from the changes these books wrought on comic books. We would never look upon our “heroes” in quite the same way.

Today comics take on and whole litany of controversial topics. Racism, sexuality, drugs, civil rights, homicide, genocide and more are all discussed in what many people still consider “kiddie” books.

Currently DC is running a Justice League Mini-Series called Cry For Justice which takes on the question of how far a hero can go in dealing with Villains. When is it allowed, if it ever is, to use physical coercion or lethal force? For Hal Jordan the answer seems to be that, in the wake of the death of Batman and the Martian Manhunter during The Final Crisis, that time could be now. In issue three we see Jordan torturing a captured villain by having the Atom shrink down and stomp around in his head, while the other heroes look on with tacit approval. It is a scene lifted right from 24 and Hal might as well be Jack Bauer in this moment. But is he wrong? Does he go too far? The information he got might save lives. Doesn’t that justify his actions?
The Joker has killed THOUSANDS in the course of his many rampages. He and Batman go through a macabre dance of murder, capture, escape and repeat. Bruce knows that no matter how many times he throws him into Arkham, The Joker will escape to kill again. The Joker cannot be cured. He is not motivated by profit, revenge, politics or sex. There is no possible rede3mption for him. Joker is a force of nature and a monster in the truest sense of the world.

As Alfred says in the film “Dark Knight”;

“Some men just want to watch the world burn”

Yet Batman does not kill Joker when every instinct, every rational thought tells him over and over that killing him is not only necessary but RIGHT. Batman knows that to some extent, he shares the guilt for every murder that The Joker commits. He, Bruce Wayne, Batman could have stopped the Joker and saved hundreds, even thousands. Is he wrong? Is he weak? Or has Bruce made the determination that he does not have the right to act as jury and executioner?
Does Batman secure his status as hero by not killing while Logan becomes merely a vigilante because he does kill? And what about Frank Castle who kills more or less indiscriminately based upon his own identification of someone as being “dirty”. Is he just a mad dog, or the next step in our evolution?

There are many people who will take the position that in order to protect the many sometimes drastic actions have to be taken against the villainous few. That the Dr. Dooms have chosen their paths and deserve whatever they get. Wolverine would probably say that you need someone to do the hard, necessary, dirty jobs that no one else can do. There is an argument to be made for this position to be sure.

Other people will say that any civilized country is based on the rule of law. That fundamental to that rule is the right to due process. That it is not the place of the police force, and what is a superhero if not a super powered cop, to act as judge and executioner. An argument can also be made for this logic as well.

There is no easy answer to this. In the real world, the answers often lie between extremes. But the fact that the question is raised is an example of how much comic books have evolved into a legitimate form of adult literature.

The question of lethal force is just ONE of the deeply complicated issues being discussed openly in the pages of comic books these days.

Sometimes those questions are not even discussed overtly in a given story. In a bold move, even today, Detective Comics now features Kate Kane, Batwoman, a character who is openly gay. AND the fact that she IS gay does not define her character. She is a hero, a human being and a woman who just happens to BE gay. This is tremendously forward thinking and courageous on the part of DC. And the very existence of this character implicitly endorses her worth and her rights as an individual without ever actually SAYING so on a soap box. It is not unlike Avery Brooks as Captain Cisco on Star Trek Deep Space Nine. He was a black Starfleet captain and the lead character. But it was not about a black captain. It was about a captain who just happened to be black. He was defined by his courage, compassion and the strength of his character, not by his ethnic background. It was groundbreaking then and it is now.
Comic books have come of age.

And that's 30!


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