There is a growing confusion of what to make of the archetypal Hero / Villain dichotomy in the postmodern world. As the moral distinctions begin to dwindle between good and evil in an age of anti-heroes, many of the capes are being hung up, and traded for guns and machetes. What Alex Ross brings to the table, alongside Jim Krueger, is reminiscent to Ross’s profound work almost a decade earlier, Kingdom Come, which touched on the importance of idealism in the ravished Earth-22 DCU continuum. Here, however, a new philosophical battle is presented, one that sets out to clarify the subtexts that establish the “hero” and “villain” categories. At the outset, much of Geoff Johns’s retroactive continuity program of the modern DC Universe is ignored in favor of a Silver Age universe, which is immediately significant for its emphasis on the moral-centric praxis of the heroes in question. Strangely, despite all this, it is the villains that carry the most persuasive agency in their actions, particularly Lex Luthor, who insists that the Justice League of America has seemingly ignored the issue of suffering in the global community, and therefore have abandoned their mission. Not limited to the pandemic of developing conflicts in war-torn locales, issues such as low standards of living, insufficient medical aid, and drought appear and are addressed by the very criminals the Justice League has endeavored to suppress. Of course the story goes deeper, though it is clear that philosophical issues such as the Problem of Pain and the minutia of civic ethics are the real characters at work, distinguishing the Hero from the Villain in this unfolding drama.
Today, the significance of Justice should not be lost on us as philosophers, sociologists, and economists alike, still working off the paradigm of Late Modern Idealism, dispute the responsibility of the citizen in respect to government. Crudely put, certain sects of society, particularly concentrated in the realm of social workers and liberal elite, argue that in principal, the “Justice League” should be free, while Neo-Conservatives and Libertarians, influenced by Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, argue for the self-preservation of the citizen’s autonomy and self-industry, and therefore conclude that the “Justice League” as a concept should be protected and kept out of the hands of the parasite. Much of Ross’s work here is an analogue of that wider debate, where Luthor and Brainiac hatch a plan together to humiliate the world’s heroes by insisting that, with the vast resources at their disposal, they have failed their task of assisting humanity in their duties. Clearly, these are valid points. However, as with all utopias, they come at a cost. Of the primary arcs in Justice, three in particular stand out, each fleshing out this greater mega-theme.
Arthur Curry’s historically titular presence in the JLA is significantly articulated in this work, which deserves some recognition. In Justice, Aquaman’s essence is lesser than the archetypes that proliferate the DCU, more resembling an individual in conflict at the heart. Like John Constantine, or the New 52 Green Arrow, Aquaman is a man between worlds, a creature of great wonder and mystery, tied to the duty of protecting his sovereign nation Atlantis. But he is more than that, being a husband and father who wonders if he can truly protect his homeland when he has been charged with protecting the life of his wife and son. The dichotomy drawn between Aquaman and Black Manta is stark, but supports the arc and greater message of the work as a whole. Aquaman feels as if he is an outsider, and yet he is called to be the sovereign of his underwater heritage. He is ruled by a noble sense of service, one that transcends his identity as “Aquaman,” whereas his nemesis Black Manta is ruled, perhaps enslaved by his own hate for the oppressors of his own people, assumed to be members the colonial African diaspora of the transatlantic slave trade.
The greater diatribe in Justice is, “Can man be free of social and geopolitical strive, and still be free?” Arthur’s past, of being alone and isolated in the middle of two geographical extremes, both imbued with opposing ideological capacities, haunts him, but has served as a poignant moral tale, ultimately building his character and leading to his induction into the Justice League as an arbiter of peace in an ever nationally diversifying world. Black Manta endeavors for this same goal, but on his own terms, and by whatever means necessary. The irony of Black Manta is his need for retribution and justice against those who enslaved him when his only means of making this possible is by enslaving the very people he wishes to avenge, therefore making him a tyrant out of a liberator for his brethren. Demanding justice served, Black Manta renders injustice, thereby corrupting the ideal of Justice at the core.
When viewed in tandem with the promises of the Legion of Doom to the beleaguered peoples of the world, Hal Jordan’s arc in Justice establishes a morality tale against the ideological consequences behind leveraging personal Will. In the Green Lantern Corp, Will as an abstract concept is made into a physical reality through the ring’s power. This, is many ways, parallels the power of Ambition in the Legion of Doom. In company of Lex Luthor, Batman in Chapter Twelve finally hears Luthor’s ulterior motives for partnering with Brainiac, which is substantiated by nothing more than the company line of Darwinian Eugenics. Luthor’s Ambition, in comparison to Hal Jordan’s Will, both become the praxis for change in the physical reality, but with the exception of motive. The antithesis of Will is Fear, because it dissolves the resolve that allows Will to act. In Luthor’s case, Ambition is countered by Paranoia, which differs from Fear in that Paranoia is reactionary, that is, a response rooted in uncertainty. Bizarro’s untimely genesis is the fruits of Luthor’s Paranoia, who in creating him, made his delusional perspective of the metahuman, as “dangerous” and “the other,” manifest.
This greater dialectic between Hal Jordan’s circumstance and Luthor’s position of privilege is what is at issue in Hal Jordan’s exile within the ring. Authentic community, as discussed in the work as a whole, is a recurring theme which stipulates that true community can only be truly realized in the context of independent collaborative effort. While the Legion of Doom collaborates to bring down the Justice League of America, it is only made possible through mind control, which is why the fragile alliance deteriorates so quickly. So, in Hal Jordan’s case, he recognizes the imminent pathological madness that draws near him, as he tries to Will into being a world of genuine autonomous community. In order to maintain his identity of “hero” Hal Jordan could never subject real people to Will, and when he attempts to do so, to avoid going mad, he recognizes the counterfeit quality of the reality, thus reverting to only living out his memories, which are solely authentic. Luthor’s own reality can only beget Paranoia in the process of attaining legitimate intellectual and utopian fellowship.
Furthermore, Luthor’s plight must be considered, before concluding the discussion of morality and Hero/Villain distinctions in Justice. He has a legitimate concern: why not found a Utopia? While many of the articulations of say, Metropolis, in the DCU already boast some semblance to a utopian society, the criminal presence in Central City, Coast City, Gotham, and Metropolis at the outset only appear to be in opposition to the heroes of the DCU in a symbolic capacity. This engenders an atmosphere of privilege and bolsters the American super-hero ideal and prosperity solely residing in America, while the rest of the world has deteriorated, or endures without First World aid. Now whether or not the reader ignores the implied racism of Luthor, who reaches out to the poor, tired, and hungry of the Third World, understanding them to be soon taken by Brainiac to New Colu to be assimilated, Luthor’s desire is ultimately to bolster mankind and bring them into an Age of Tomorrow, a new Renaissance. Yet, the means by which Luthor aims to achieve this is through a strict regimen of indoctrination and assimilation, similar to Brainiac, though without any invasive bio-mechanical integration. When considering the ideology of the Silver Age DC hero, coupled with the grander, historical vision of DC exemplifying the ideal hero, Luthor’s plan is a caricature of the reform capable of the Justice League of America. Much like the old adages of moral responsibility (i.e. give a man a fish…), encouraging a youth to walk the straight and narrow via the moral example of Superman, is a far better motivator than Luthor’s implied punishment of not receiving the bounty of the Utopian age. Luthor’s universe of easy and accessible health care and provisions also engenders existential selfishness, as seen in the small narrative of Somita, an Indian woman born without hands, who writes to her mother and father rationalizing her running away to join the new societies forged by Luthor and Brainiac. Her life has certainly been improved drastically, but at the cost of denying her eastern worldview and embracing a purely western one rooted in the value of the individual over the familial and social group. Though a micro-narrative in the greater corpus, the magnitude of Somita’s conversion is a marvelous statement against Luthor’s globalization, and can only be truly appreciated when read in conjunction with the works of Natsume Sozeki (Kokoro), Yukio Mishima (Spring Snow), and, later, Kenzaburō Ōe (A Personal Matter), whose protagonists reject the will of their families and friends to pursue Western ideals at tremendous costs.
Justice truly comes together at its denouement, the crux of its power from Batman’s final soliloquy. The great tragedies that afflict us make us who were are, insists Batman in sum, and this is poignant considering the hardship that the DC characters endure. With a heightened realism of physical expression conveyed through Doug Braithwaite, the emotive capacity of the Justice League is unprecedented. These are individuals with feelings, passions, weaknesses, who put it all aside to fight the good fight, to fight for justice and equity for all. This considered, they are also afflicted people, those who know the cost of injustice and oppression. They are individuals that embrace the hardship of the human condition as not an unexplained malevolent force, but as a tool through which their greatest potentials are realized. In a world of quick fixes and no-fault commitments, the Justice League stands for a greater ideal of endurance and sacrifice. This is something the Legion of Doom will collectively never realize. Is a world of tranquility and peace truly legitimate when it is enforced, and not voluntary? Is it authentic? It is the final splash panel that concludes the work, where, from the future, a band of heroes gather to watch the turning point of human civilization, when people took ownership of their hardship and forged a new world. Batman concludes guardedly that this could be possible. And like Kingdom Come, a decade earlier, it begins with Superman — humbling himself, putting on his glasses, and going to work.