Sunday, September 2, 2012


I always liked comic books.  As a kid in the 50's my favorite was Blackhawk, about an international group of combat pilots who battled evil from their secret base, Blackhawk Island. They were more human and interesting than Superman and Batman, who were  unbeatable and therefore boring. Besides, the Blackhawks flew cool jets.

In college I found Spider-man, then the rest of the Marvel characters. Never a real "fan," I enjoyed them from time to time for a couple of reasons. One, the characters were like real people. Clark Kent was someone Superman, the real guy, pretended to be. Peter Parker, skinny and geeky, was the real guy; sometimes he tried to be Spider-man, with varying degrees of success. That resonated. 

Two, Marvel characters faced real ethical problems. They had to make hard decisions. Sure, it was comic-book style. We're not talking Shakespeare or Steinbeck here. But still, it was better, more engaging, than Superman vs. Lex Luthor, whose conflict boiled down to "Good is better than evil because it's nicer"  as opposed to "Evil is better than good because it's more fun." You could almost root for Magneto, or feel sorry for Doc Ock. It was possible to empathize with Wolverine or the Hulk, whose biggest challenges were staying human, controlling the beast inside.

Fast-forward to the 70's and 80's. My sons had heard or read almost all the kids' books in the library. I wanted something interesting and a little challenging for them, and thought of comics. Cheap to buy, colorful, exciting, sometimes thought-provoking and with a more adult vocabulary. I started reading to them, doing voices and everything, sometimes with commentary and questions. As they became able to read for themselves I gave the comics as little weekly rewards, always reading them first and holding back any I thought too violent.
That was rare, though. Sometimes we'd talk about the stories and the characters' dilemmas.

I'm not sure exactly when the change began, because as my kids got older they were able to buy their own books, comic and otherwise, and didn't need supervision. I didn't read them on my own. Somewhere along the way the comics got...darker. Maybe Frank Miller and The Dark Knight had something to do with it, but there had to be a market the publishers were serving. The superheroes' lives got harder, sadder, and while they still came out ahead their victories became progressively more Pyrrhic. Even Superman wasn't immune; everyone got the Dark Knight treatment. Today's superheroes are tormented characters, their powers a source of both conflict and obsession.

"So?", you're asking. "They're comics, and movies made from comics. Get serious," you say.
I am. There's a point here, and it's this: The bad guys have all the fun. The heroes suffer, struggle, lose loved ones both figuratively and literally, finally end the menace at great personal cost and for their trouble are labelled "vigilantes" and "menaces." The super-villains, meanwhile, are having a fine time blowing up innocents while laughing maniacally.
Right up until the last moment, they're winning. In the modern comics, evil is a hell of a lot more fun, and if good is nicer damned few of the comic-book public and none of the government seems to realize it.

Now consider a kid. A boy, of course. It's always a boy. He might be smart, in a narrow high-GPA sort of way, but he has poor social skills. Physically he's unimpressive, uncoordinated, weak. He's a little creepy. He's a target, naturally, because kids are feral. Why do you think they call it a "pecking order?" He gets pecked, a lot. Nobody teaches him how to fight back, but nobody protects him, either. As a teenager girls ignore him or, worse, laugh at him. So he retreats, into video games, comics, the Internet. What's there for him to identify with? Not the heroes. They're good-looking, strong, and people like them, at least while they're being their mundane selves and not their super-powered alter egos. It's the bad guys. They're the ones revenging themselves on a world that never gave them the adulation they believe they deserve. Think of the Joker. Doctor Doom. The Green Goblin. Oh, and while he's at it the boy gets a video game/comic book concept of weapons, too. There's no one to disabuse him of his fantasies, or provide any alternative. So he ruminates, maybe alone or maybe with a kindred spirit he welcomes to his nightmare. Either way, the anger and the revenge fantasies get amplified, because rumination does that. *

Because he's always been "good"---no fights, no drug arrests, no formal contact with institutions--the boy has no flags on his record, so when he's old enough, he can buy guns.
If he's not, he can steal them, or buy them on the street. He knows how to make them go bang because everyone does, at least everyone who watches TV. He knows precious little else about them, but he doesn't have to. Pretty soon he's ready to be his own little Joker, at Columbine; Virginia Tech; Aurora, Colorado or wherever else there are a bunch of unarmed victims waiting to be sacrificed. There's no handy Spider-man on campus, no X-Men taking the night off at the movies; just the police, who are always too late. Maybe, with luck, there's one person with the courage and presence of mind to respond effectively, armed or not.** Mostly, there's nobody, and people die.

Are comics responsible, and should they be censored? No, and no. That's stupid. There have always been dried-up biddies of both sexes wailing for censorship,*** but comics are no more responsible for mass murders than Luther's 95 Theses are for the Thirty Years' War or Playboy magazine for millions of bastard children.  

Everybody wants simple answers. Don't expect them from me. Simple answers are the province of hack politicians, TV preachers and infomercials. My business is asking hard questions.

Here's a hard question: What are you doing about it? These kids didn't become murderers overnight. I'll bet substantial money that their parents backed off and let them stew, too embarrassed or timid to face the possibility that there was something seriously wrong with their son.  Their neighbors and the kid's teachers didn't want the trouble, and their school administrators were afraid of liability.**** The police aren't interested until there's an actual bleeding body, and are only too happy to hand off responsibility when they can. So what do you, a citizen, parent, teacher, cop, need to do? When do you stand up to take the heat? We all have to answer that question, because there are no superheroes to do it for us.

Batman retired.

* Trust me on this; it's my business. References on request.
**  For instance, Liviu Librescu, Virginia Tech professor. He died in the process.
There's also Leonardo Johnson, at the Family Research Center in D.C.; Kenneth Hammond at the Trolley Square Mall, Salt Lake City; Antonio Milow, Aurora CO church shooting. The killers in these 3 cases don't fit the topic, but the principle applies.
**** For example,


  1. Jack,

    I noticed this trend also. When Anthoney Hopkins got the Oscar for playing a serial killer. The celebration of dark, brutal acts on film and TV don't bother me nearly as much as how much they are celebrated outside of film and TV.

    I've stopped watching things like that.

    Mostly so that I don't have to partcipate in the real world chatter.

    Stopped watching the Batman stuff. Won't watch movies with serial killers as the subject line. Won't watch slasher flicks. Won't watch TV shows where someone has to be murdered or brutally victimized to move the plotline down the road for 45 minutes. They all smack of "cheap and easy". Lazy writers, directors, actors whose stories and plots all end up looking the same onscreen.

    There is enough "dark" in the world...why should I wallow in that and call it entertainment?


  2. The last one, The Dark Knight Rises wasn't even that good.
    I was disappointed. :( JY


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