Criminal Motivation

Crime, as simply defined by Wikipedia:

1. An action or an instance of negligence that is deemed injurious to the public welfare or morals or to the interests of the state and that is legally prohibited.
2. Criminal activity and those engaged in it: to fight crime.
3. The habitual or frequent commission of crimes: a life of crime.
4. Any offense, serious wrongdoing, or sin.
5. A foolish, senseless, or shameful act.

In order for a society to be acknowledged, it must first define itself. A legal structure acts as the necessary adhesive to bind, strengthen, and most importantly, validate a given society. The society in question may be the ancient Roman Empire or a group of students that favor a particular brand of jeans. Either way, the principle remains the same: societies are forged from shared beliefs and strengthened by promotion of likeminded ideologies.

For example, let’s examine the group of students that favor a particular brand of jeans. If the students declared that only Brand A jeans were acceptable within their society, then anyone wearing any other brand of jeans would either be ostracized from the society, or forced to obey the ideological choices of the students and wear Brand A. The ‘declaration’ of Brand A becomes, more or less, the ‘law’ of the society.

The logic applies to each and every society, from the smallest of peer groups to the largest of political empires. For example, The Code of Hammurabi, created in 1780 B.C, was one of the earliest attempts at formalizing a set of legal declarations. The intent was to regulate the Babylonian Empire. A few examples of the code:

  • If a slave strikes its owner, his ear will be cut off.
  • If one over-floods a neighbor’s crops, then he shall pay the loss.
  • If someone strikes another man equally ranked, he shall pay one gold mina.

If one pays closer attention to what the Code offers as opposed to what it restricts, one can begin to see Hammurabi’s ingenuity. Hammurabi, in effect, promised to protect those people who followed the code. If you were a farmer and accidentally over-flooded the crops of your neighbor, it may seem unjust that you have to pay the loss. However, if you were the farmer whose crops were lost, by adherence to the Code, the law insures that you will be reimbursed.

What better motivation to obey the laws? Imagine the allegiance one would feel towards a ruler that guarantees the protection of the basic rights of the farmer. The interests of the farmer are the interests of the society, and when either one protects the other, an unspoken, binding contract is manifest.

This model can be applied to almost any scenario. Imagine for the moment that you’re a member of the Brand A jeans society. In order to insure that you abide the law of the society (wearing the jeans) while also keeping you happy, Brand A gives you a 25% coupon in order to make it easier to remain in the society. Likewise, the coupon then makes it attractive for others to join the society. The fact that more people are able to and remain in the society is testament to its validity. In essence, you benefit from the 25% off coupon while Brand A benefits by your continued allegiance.

In the most idealistic of worlds, whole populations would reap the benefits of belonging to a legalized society. Countries would create and maintain prosperous economies to ensure that the common citizen was rewarded justly for his or her own hard work. Laws would strengthen the society, bring the citizens closer, and promote further social and economic entrepreneurship. Both society and citizen would equally profit.

Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. Laws are not as immutable as they are made to appear. Rather, they are subject to broad interpretation. Depending on circumstance and point of view, the very same protections provided to one individual can be interpreted as harsh restrictions to another.

Thus, there are those within societies that interpret laws as being detrimental to their particular ways of life. Within the ranks of those disenfranchised, a smaller fraction exists that choose to willfully act in direct violation of the law. Those individuals are known by the otherwise ominous moniker: criminal.

Given the benefits of a lawful society, how does one become angry enough, daring enough, or desperate enough, to act in direct opposition? Is the society itself responsible for overlooking those people who would work against it? The exploration of the motivations and actions of the criminal requires an investigation of the moral and ethical dilemmas present in any given society.

For the most part, the bread and butter of the comic book industry is crime. This past September alone, DC and Marvel Comics shared a combined market share of just over 80%. Though both houses offer alternatives to the superhero genre, the bulk of titles published feature action packed stories depicting the classic struggle between good and evil. This only goes to show that crime, or rather, criminal activity, is being negotiated in the pages of the majority of comic books.

Why does crime play such a large part in the comic stories we read? How do we come to understand the characters that perpetrate such actions, and do we, as readers, identify with them?

Crime stories have been around since the Golden Age of comics. At one point, before the political hysteria of the fifties 50s reached an unfortunate crescendo, crime-based comic books outsold superhero comics by a wide margin. The illustrious popularity of crime-themed books, however, became the subject of much debate. Were comic books responsible for the disillusionment and cynicism of youth in the 50s? Could reading about crime actually lead one to consider perpetrating a crime? In the interests of preserving the industry, The Comic Book Code was created; its main directive to insure that criminal activity was depicted in a ‘proper’ light, the message being: crime never pays.

However, while DC and Marvel were censoring their stories to ensure their continued publication, the independently produced comic book came into existence. These books, featuring adult-oriented stories, became quickly popular and demonstrated that there was a viable market for adult themed books. This trend yielded new publishing brands that were designed to specifically appeal to the darker side of human nature.

Thus, some fifty years after the enforcement of the Comic Book Code, crime stories still feature as the majority in most comics. Villains still rob banks, take over cities, plot world domination. Mature-audience stories regularly feature extortion, embezzlement, rape and murder. Comic books have always reflected the real world, and whether readers are children or adults, our real world is certainly not devoid of villains.

This article will explore many of the moral ambiguities that feature in comic book crime stories. Moral and ethical dilemmas are rife in our society and force us to ask hard questions, both of ourselves and of the stories we read: do these crime stories function beyond the simple clash of good and evil? Do these stories operate as simple cautionary tales, or are there deeper subtexts at work?

We’ll look at crime stories in relation to societal context, exploring various ideas about the responsibilities of the comic books in those societies. Furthermore, we’ll look at varying notions concerning the responsibilities of those who read crime stories. How much responsibility is left to the reader in terms of condoning or condemning a criminal act? How do our own perceptions of crime and violence play into our interpretations? If characters are only depicted suffering for their crimes, is the notion of redemption then ignored.

Perhaps the greatest reason to investigate the function of crime in comic books is the immense popularity of the genre. If these stories are populated with reprehensible characters that perform unspeakable acts, why do we continue to read them? What is it about robbery, rape and murder that speak to us as readers? Why do we willfully explore the darker elements of human nature? Do we experience a type of catharsis as the characters enact their twisted plots?

Comic books are the perfect medium for this exploration. Stories are told across a vast spectrum of fully imagined and articulate universes. These universes are comprised of diverse societies which in turn cultivate unique characters. Those characters must struggle with, and many times against, the standing social codes of the community. And so it follows: for every Superman, there must be a Lex Luthor; for every cop, a robber; and for every crime, a motivation.

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Ted lives in Portland, Oregon.

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