Comic Book Politics
O'Neil:When discussing politics, ethics or anything of contemporary importance we easily fall into the trap of partisan bickering or steer the discussion in a way that supports our side. Fantasy has always been a useful device to avoid our real-world prejudices and hang-ups. We can't discuss our king or his court objectively, but the king of the Lilliputians is fair game. Our prejudices emerge when discussing the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but what about the Klingons and the Federation, will they ever learn to get along? In the year 2004 the United States is a military superpower very much like a superhero (villain?) running around Gotham City. There isn't a country in the world we couldn't destroy if we wanted to, but there are serious limits to that power as well. We can't be everywhere at once. And air power only helps so much in nation building or against insurgents. Nor can Batman stop every crime.
But if it were possible to strip away all this useless baggage, and examine the superheroes from the viewpoint of normal, rational human existence, you'd probably come very close to achieving the "literature of ethics" model that Henley propounds. It’s a good idea, and I think that some of the very best superhero books have approached this question in some way or another. Henley himself mentions the usual suspects - "Watchmen," "Dark Knight Returns," "Born Again," "Animal Man" - all works that I think do succeed in exploring these thorny ethical issues in some degree.
From Why do firemen do what they do? to Why don't the rest of us do what they do? to Why shouldn't the rest of us do what they do? and even How dare we not do what they do? Superheroes become a way of addressing these questions. If science fiction is the literature of ideas, the superhero story is the literature of ethics. Or say, rather, it should be. As "literature" need not mean "sober-sided drudgery," I would even say the formulation holds for kids' superhero tales.Fantasy provides external analogs of internal conflicts, and the subtype of fantasy about superheroes is a way of externalizing questions of duty, community, and self. How should the powerful behave? (Most Americans are, in global-historical terms, "the powerful" in one aspect or another.) These questions are salient whether you wear tights or not. They apply to you. Because most of us, certainly most of us in the developed world, have more power, wealth, or wherewithal than somebody. Certainly almost everybody reading this essay could, in principle, quit his or her present job and work pro bono for an African AIDS clinic while subsisting on donated food, or maintain a couple of homeless people instead of taking vacation, or -- join the volunteer fire department.
With the blog and the power of the internet we can all audit this fun class. I just ordered Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns from Amazon, myself. Here's the complete syllabus to this month long class:
Jan 3 Introduction: The Authority, from Warren Ellis to Mark MillarSee ya there!
Jan 4-5 Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller
Jan 7 Kingdom Come, Mark Waid and Alex Ross
Jan 10-11 Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Jan 13-14 V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd
Jan 17 Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson
Jan 18 Transmetropolitan: Year of the Bastard
Jan 19 Uncle Sam, Steve Darnall and Alex Ross
Jan 24-25 Cerebus: High Society, Dave Sim
Jan 26 Cerebus: supplemental reader - selections from the later story
Jan 27 Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi