Comic Book Morality

It’s true: there’s a simplicity to seeing Doc Doom or Lex Luthor as bad and Superman or the Fantastic Four as good. There’s no argument there; we’re talking about villains like Magneto who named his team the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Admittedly, the best villains, like Magneto, grew and changed, often into moral visionaries, revolutionaries that heroes put down in order to restore the status quo or because of some moral remainder, such as the killing of innocents to accomplish a dream.

Fuck them. And fuck that black-and-white shit. No hero but the psychotic thinks himself a hero or a villain. Ask the firemen who saved lives in the World Trade Center by directing human traffic, impotent in their mission to put out a fire eighty floors above.

But watch Superman again. See that wonderfully naive “I don’t lie, Lois” one more time. A man who doesn’t lie. Imagine that. And isn’t that what makes someone — isn’t the being honest, trying to help people with powers that could just be used for profit or sex — what makes Superman a super-man? It doesn’t take heat vision.

Super-hero tales are morality tales. As in the recent Spider-Man movie, they call us to make moral judgments. Do we save the girl we love or the small group of people, all of them with loved ones? Do we justify what we want to do — save the girl — by saying that it’s payment, that it’s corrupt but that it allows us not to sit around on our asses, crying and unable to help others who amount to more than a busload?

Ultimately, most super-hero tales fink out, letting the hero do both. But we have to contemplate these situations because they happen in real life. Rarely so dramatically, but they’ll happen. They happen every time we do something we shouldn’t, whether as simple as spending money frivolously, rationalizing that we can live our lives better, be better husbands and wives, better fathers and mothers, better people. And isn’t this the same thing as politicians who rationalize the special interests, the maintenance and lubrication of the status quo, as necessary to maintain the power with which one can effect positive transformations, no matter how small compared to what they really think right?

Try not to hurt people. Try not to be petty. But, like Superman with an alter ego despite that it means ignoring pleas for help, don’t utterly deny and debase one’s self. And be honest. This is a pretty good moral system. It actually works pretty well.

Our fictions influence our morality far more than any systematic dogma, far more that our religions or our laws.

There is a moral beauty, a moral purity, to Superman. Forget the American way, whatever that means, however ignorant that must strike us of CIA- or Communist-sponsored juntas half the world away, civilians lying buried in mass graves. Truth and justice. Not just justice, but truth. There is a moral remainder in lying even when it’s to a villain, even when it’s necessary and for a greater good. There is a moral remainder in civilian casualties, in abortion — even if the bombings, these surgical strikes, are necessary.

People tell me that I listen to them, that I look them in the eyes. I’m not a brawny guy, but I’ve put myself in harm’s way instinctively in order to protect someone who’s being beaten. People seek my opinion because they believe, based on my conversational bluntness, that I’ll give them an honest response.

This isn’t not always easy, especially when you’re talking to someone you love or don’t want to lose. Qualify, by all means; know when something need not be volunteered. But also know that, if someone would want to know something, hiding the truth is as much a lie as saying the words, a sin of omission and not commission but, for all the emotional shielding this may provide, the same in its effect.

These are not always easy. But just as we know that fictional heroes, without being love, are better, as a person and as a soul, for continuing to do good, to find and speak the truth even while it hurts, we must know this about ourselves. The world does not always reward the truth; some truths, too ahead of their time, are rewarded with silencing, their tellers with murder. But overall, people will appreciate the truth, appreciating knowing rather than being kept in the dark, appreciate the kindness and the help, the engaging them as people, as humans with hurt and souls that compare to one’s own. And we know, whether these rewards come or in what form, the path of truth and justice is better, and more admirable, than paths easier in the short run but disastrous to the soul and often in the long run.

Let us therefore be inspired by our super-hero moralities, by the glory of Superman’s honesty, by our heroes’ self-denying engagement of their own psychological and emotional problems, by the simple desire to help, which can fill the soul with a reward deeper and more grounding than others.

There are remainders. Every life, every person, is a prime number, impossible to divide otherwise. But there is a joy, a beauty, a closeness to happiness in seeing the smile of someone helped, in the lessening of one person’s unneeded suffering, in the passion of a person’s honesty and emotionally revelatory nature.

I cannot run at speeds beyond those of sound, nor melt bridges back into place, nor fly above this world and its concerns.

But I want to be a super-hero.

The world would be a better place if we all read super-heroes, superb exemplars to later challenge and re-examine but whose basic tenants, whose basic moral fixture, will remain with us forever.

It is hard at times, but less difficult than many paths. And it has its rewards, often personal, rarely financial, often spiritual, rarely sexual. But it is a good way, a basic map, to respecting yourself in the morning, to being able, fundamentally, to live with yourself.

It takes a lot of time and energy to lie and keep lies straight, energy I no longer have. But it takes courage to tell the truth, to say what another person needs to hear and to put one’s self aside enough to confess one’s selfishness.

All this can one learn from four-color fantasies, complete with capes.

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In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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Also by Julian Darius:

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New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics



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When Manga Came to America: Super-Hero Revisionism in Mai, the Psychic Girl


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Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan


The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made: Understanding Jack Kirby\'s 2001: A Space Odyssey


The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil


Everything and a Mini-Series for the Kitchen Sink: Understanding Infinite Crisis


Revisionism, Radical Experimentation, and Dystopia in Keith Giffen\'s Legion of Super-Heroes


And the Universe so Big: Understanding Batman: The Killing Joke


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1 Comment

  1. Ben Marton says:

    Amen, Brother.

    I was reminded of the absolute life-affirming necessity of simple virtue the other day when I stood, exasperated to the point of silence, before a local comic book vendor who declared her hatred (yes, she used that word) for Superman upon the basis of his being ‘too perfect and too nice.’ Admittedly, when one is attempting to defend unalloyed goodness to a reader who claims the Joker, Harley Quinn and Deadpool as her favourite characters, the adjective ‘Sisyphean’ does spring to mind.

    But then I am back seeing it for the first time:

    Lois: “Who…are you?”
    Superman: “A friend.”


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