I grew up on comic books. By this, I don’t mean that I grew up standing on piles of them (although, now that I think about it, I probably did that a few times); I mean that I grew up reading them. I thrilled to Superman reversing the earth’s rotation in an effort to turn back time to stave off disaster. I loved it when Batman crashed through a window to save a sleeping couple from a would-be marauder. The X-Men kept us safe from the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. The Avengers did that when Hydra and AIM came calling. The Justice League? Always on watch. From space. Seeing all.
I was a kid. I never asked why.
They did it because they were “good guys” (and by “guys,” I mean some of them weren’t). They were genetically driven to do what was right, which always happened to coincide with my desire to sleep safe and comfy in my bed at night.
As I grew up, I began to understand that human interests are sometimes at odds with each other. Two different people can both want the same thing, a thing they feel to be “good,” and if one of them gets their good thing, the other will be hurt. I began to understand that morality, that ethics, were relative.
And it seems superheroes grew with me.
I’ve always regarded Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) as the first morally ambiguous comic book. The truth, of course, is that it was the first morally ambiguous comic book that I had read, or more accurately, that I was old enough to interpret as morally ambiguous. This wasn’t the Batman I remembered. More importantly, it wasn’t the Gotham I remembered. Its inhabitants had matured, and darkly. They were decent men who got hooked on drugs. Nice women with shoplifting habits. They were adults, and flawed, like I was going to become.
Fast forward to today and comics like Ultra and Mark Waid’s Irredeemable and Incorruptible. In Kirkman’s Walking Dead and Ennis’ Crossed, it’s the uninfected, not the infected, that you really need to be watching out for. Zombies are predictable (as are the depraved Crossed). They hunger and sate their appetites as animals do, and can be held no more accountable for their actions than a dog or cat can.
Waid’s superhero tales ask the same question that Moore sketched around in his treatment of Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. Superpowers are isolating. They necessarily create a chasm between you and the humanity you are supposedly sworn to defend. And when that gulf becomes so wide that you no longer recognize them? Can’t identify with them? In Incorruptible, he asks the same question from the opposite side. What’s really in it for a super-villain? Nobody is really evil for evil’s sake outside of political campaign speeches.
The question, finally asked and more and more loudly, is WHY?
Why defend humanity from ravening aliens and bands of super-powered criminals? Why use your powers to enrich yourself outside the law? Why bother to even get up in the morning when you can do anything and see anything and be anything?
Why? Y, The Last Man. Ex-Machina. Transmetropolitan. DMZ. The Boys. Marvel’s reboot of all the old franchises in their Ultimates series.
The why is big and loud and important.
And fascinating. Because there is no easy answer. Because whatever shreds of an answer we can find lie in the way people treat one another. Because human interaction is the most interesting thing in the world, and the deckplate for all great stories.
Stan Lee was thinking about it when Uncle Ben told Peter Parker that with great power came great responsibility. The genre has been exploring it ever since.
It’s an exciting time to be a comic book fan.
As a security contractor, government civilian and military officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from Counterterrorism to Cyber Warfare to Federal Law Enforcement. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
All that conflict can wear a guy out. Thank goodness for fantasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dungeons and Dragons and lots of angst fueled writing.