By Steven Martinovich
In an era where the liberal mantra of “the personal is political” has taken on an all-encompassing meaning, it should be no real surprise that the frothier elements of popular culture have also been hijacked to push a message. Even romance novels, that home of covers featuring shirtless men protectively embracing their conquest, are now no longer a refuge for those seeking escape from the 24/7 news cycle that relentlessly pummels society. And both in and outside of school, your children are under a barrage of messaging from the media they consume.
That messaging also includes comic books, once trash created to deliver advertising to children, but which have also long delved into weightier issues. The popular X-Men series of comic books, for example, have for decades been employed, sometimes subtly, other times not, to comment on issues ranging from war, immigration and gay rights, among others. And despite the apparent simplicity of characters like Spider-Man and Superman, there is actually a lot going underneath in their motivations and ethos.
Travis Smith’s Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes; 10 Ways to Save the World; Which One Do We Need Most Now? examines ten popular DC and Marvel comic characters, comparing and contrasting them in order determine who best exemplifies the attributes we need today. Smith argues that the superhero phenomenon, which has ruled the box office for the better part of a decade, should be taken seriously. More so, the heroes that we watch battle titanic, world-destroying threats, can actually be used by people as examples to live their lives in a more exemplary fashion. We might not be in a position to battle Thanos or Steppenwolf, but we can work towards a common good and a better society.
“[I]t’s not their superpowers that makes superheroes so super. It is their extraordinary character, their inherent qualities that make them heroic and render them worthy of praise,” writes Smith. “The powers they possess and the battles they wage can be understood symbolically, as representatives of the struggles we ordinary mortals face within ourselves and out there in the world, and the means by which we strive to overcome them or cut through them. Human ethics can be related in and through superhero stories.”
There is a single over-arching question that Smith poses in Superhero Ethics: Which of the colourful galaxy of superhero characters exemplifies the ethical virtues that we would want to display in our own lives? As Smith shows, it’s not quite the easy question that most would think. Wolverine is often seen as a savage character, armed with virtually indestructible metal claws and a hair trigger temper – and yet there is a nobility in his character as he always stands up for the helpless. The world’s most popular character Batman is widely admired for his single-minded quest for justice and yet one could argue Bruce Wayne has little faith in humanity and his application of violence only ever seems to spawn more violence.
Further, the ten characters Smith explores – which include The Hulk, Thor, Green Lantern and Mr. Fantastic – often embody different approaches to life. Is Captain America’s active promotion of his beliefs more or less effective than Mr. Fantastic’s reluctant interaction with the outside world? Batman and Spider-Man both feel a responsibility to their communities, but who is more effective at promoting the good? Thor and Superman are virtual gods on Earth but they have radically different ways of carrying out their missions of guarding against and battling evil.
Is Smith overthinking comic characters? You could probably argue that the importance of comic book characters has been inflated to the point where every wanna-be Joseph Campbell is claiming that Batman and Wolverine have become our new myths, replacing the ancient ones and even modern religions to a certain extent. Outside of some seminal X-Men story lines which could be taken as social commentary on some pretty big issues, it’s probably not unfair to consider most comic books and their subsequent movies as fun but facile – particularly the Marvel Comics Universe entries which have followed fairly predictable plot lines.
That said, comics have also long not been the purview of children alone. There are many highly regarded comic books, such as The Watchmen, the aforementioned X-Men and those from independent publishers which have tackled complicated issues in worlds that are less black and white than often found in DC and Marvel books. As Superhero Ethics shows, however, even those seemingly simple Marvel and DC characters do have varying levels of complexity not far off the old, original myths that only classicists are familiar with. And perhaps Spider-Man or Captain America aren’t so bad as role models after all compared to some mythical figures.
So who is the superhero most worth modelling behavior after? That is a question, of course, which depends on the reader though Smith does provide his own opinion at the end of Superhero Ethics. Regardless of your views on the matter, Smith has crafted a fun and stimulating entry on the question and Superhero Ethics is worth a read even if you’ve never seen any of the tidal wave of movies populating the cinemas. Superheroes may have begun life as a vehicle to sell garbage to children but these days they would appear to have a real role in teaching the average person about right and wrong. Given the world we live in that may need an Avengers and Justice League team-up to be successful.
Steven Martinovich is an avid angler and the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.