Nothing ruins a good time like a lecture. There you are, enjoying the derring-do’s of your favorite costumed vigilante and before you know it you realize that the hero in question has switched out his cape for a cassock. You’re being preached to, and all you wanted was to see some robots or soulless clones get hacked up, blown to pieces by some brilliantly colored concussive blasts, or otherwise pummeled into oblivion for being undeniably evil. The last thing you wanted was to hear about corporate corruption or marriage equality, but here your are being force fed just that.
It’s not that one should expect mindless entertainment from comic books. The existence of this blog is proof that the superhero genre has transcended its simplistic origins to become a legitimate literary medium capable of stimulating serious discussion, but part of that mantle of artistic maturity is careful execution of message. If done right, the audience will come to associate that mindless, soulless cannon fodder with the indicted behavior without even being told explicitly to do so. True art demonstrates its truth rather than stating it, and demonstration is infinitely trickier than simply trotting out behaviors and characters with which the author disagrees and casting them in a bad light.
All authors have ultimate control over this lighting, so to speak. All are faced with the difficulty of setting up scenarios where their morals are vindicated without rigging the outcome, of making a foregone conclusion seem like happenstance. To a certain extent this deception is inherent to all fiction, and clearing this hurdle is pivotal to gaining the moral high ground necessary for a sermon to carry any weight. It’s hard enough to convince even a receptive audience of something they don’t necessarily want to hear. For a reticent crowd, one’s message must be airtight.
The skeptic will seize on any loose thread and unravel a less than skillfully executed argument, reducing the message to more of a liability than an asset. The very aspect of a story that is supposed to enrich and reinforce its entertainment value becomes a strike against it as a whole, detracting from any enjoyment or artistic merit. For a moral to avoid this pitfall it must be organic to the story. Morals should flow naturally from the plot and not the other way around. Far too often in comics, though, it seems like the plot is a product of the intended message.
Mutants, for example, are inexplicably greeted with intolerance despite their largely academic distinction from other widely celebrated meta-humans, simply because the intent of the X-Men franchise was to highlight discrimination. Lex Luthor rises to prominence in business and politics due to his staggering intellect unbridled by conscience, rendering his considerable business acumen and his charitable contributions merely part of an elaborate smokescreen, because no one could possibly amass such a fortune and such influence through legitimate means.
This tendency to put the cart ahead of the horse does more than just slather the moral on thicker than a very special episode of Full House. In many cases it undermines the integrity of the message. When characters and situations are dictated by a predetermined ethical framework, the piece becomes more a reflection of the limited worldview of the author than an honest critique of our world. Nothing is proven if the ethical experiment is rigged from the start. To derive anything useful, anything applicable to our daily lives, we must be presented with as close a facsimile to our world as the story can allow.
While it may seem like a tall order to make a world populated with nigh invulnerable, soaring paragons of truth and justice closely parallel our own flawed, complex world, a sober perspective would go a long way to bridging the gap. In the real world, violent situations can’t always be diffused without taking the life of the perpetrator. In the real world, corporate tycoons aren’t always hiding some sinister agenda for world domination. In the real world, our differences stem from substantive disagreements rather than blind xenophobia. To continually insist otherwise and to parade tailor made situations as proof thereof goes beyond simply straw manning an argument. It relies on circular logic.
Superman never kills because there’s always another way. There’s always a way around killing because Superman doesn’t kill.
This is not to say that social commentary is off limits. Certainly artistic innovation would preclude the umpteenth purse snatcher or bank robber, and a natural avenue for a genre that hinges on justice and injustice is exploration of those gray areas that seem to pervade our world. The problem arises when those gray areas are depicted in the stark contrast that is a staple of super hero fiction. Real life character flaws are distilled into one dimensional, villainous traits. To compensate, these lines are intentionally blurred. Villains are given sympathetic back stories and relatable motivations. Heroes are given addictions and other personal demons.
To the credit of comic book writers, these nuances show an understanding that ultimately those gray areas are made up of nearly imperceptible points of black and white, but the fact remains that the very uncertainty over which is which is at the heart of any controversial subject they chose to tackle. To use the omnipotent power of the author to extricate those points as one sees them does little to illuminate the issue beyond a blanket indictment. At the end of the day, when the villain lays vanquished and/or imprisoned and the hero retreats to his sanctum, we are left to associate any homicidal actions with other questionable practices. We can say that Lex Luthor is despicable, but we can’t make any useful generalizations about his real world analogues despite the author’s ambitious moralizing.
Successful inclusion of morals requires more than subtlety. It requires that one’s case be defensible beyond the narrow situation one has crafted. It requires an exhaustive effort to hold one’s ethics to the scrutiny they are sure to encounter upon contact with one’s intellectual opponents. Most importantly, though, it requires that one’s concern for message not entirely eclipse the carefree escapism that makes us pick up comics or go to the theater in the first place. Storytelling is a never ending battle between style and substance, entertainment value and significance. We as spectators benefit from this struggle no matter which side triumphs in a given story, as long as that victory isn’t too lopsided.