The Comics Code Authority had a hand in shaping the moral codes of our favorite superheroes. Because of the CCA, heroes like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man refused to kill and always operated (to some extent) within the law. Good always had to triumph over evil, and a respect for the law and order establishment had to be encouraged. This was all to prevent "corrupting" the impressionable minds of children. These days though, lots of adults are superhero fans, and we're aware that the establishment is in serious need of reform. Do superheroes still need to respect the establishment? In a time and country in which mass shootings are the norm, and in most cases the criminals responsible die in the act, do superheroes still need to refuse to kill the bad guys no matter how heinous their crimes? Creators have felt the need for heroes to retain their moral imperatives, but their justification for these beliefs becomes thinner over the years, as more fans seem to see the moral imperative as a hindrance instead of an asset. Public ideas about where perfect north is on the moral compass have changed.
Mythology illuminates mankind's ideas about religions, values, and cultures. Most people have a passing familiarity with the mythologies of classical Greek and Roman canons. They played a role in how western civilization developed. While those mythologies still resonate today, the new mythology for the modern world is superheroes. These are the new myths that tell us about ourselves as a society and reflect our values back to us, and these myths have been shaped by the CCA for decades. But as kids become adults and discover that reality isn't black and white like it was in the comics of our youth, we find ourselves at odds with the hoary values of 1950's CCA. We're not naive anymore. Shouldn't our superheroes wrestle with adult complexities in an adult world?
Yes. That's why the superhero moral code is so important. In an age of moral relativism, our myths can still anchor a "perfect north" for our moral compasses. Just because we're adults doesn't mean we can't hold ourselves to a standard that's higher than where we're at. But, you might be thinking, how can we seriously evaluate complex, real-life problems like law and order and the sanctity of human life by comparing ourselves to imaginary people who live in imaginary worlds? Aren't their circumstances specially crafted by writers so that the heroes can have the luxury of high moral standards? Let's examine a few popular heroes and see how their moral codes are still important touchstones for readers even without the CCA.
He's the reigning champ of anti-heroes without scruples. He's also an extremely black and white character who sees the world in only two shades: good and evil. He reminds me of Chris Kyle, except that Frank Castle recognizes on some level that he's evil. Castle knows that what he's doing is not only criminal, it's morally wicked – and he doesn't care. Punisher lives every moment under a few fatalistic assumptions, mainly that he's as good as dead and that he's as good as damned. Anti-heroes are defined as anyone who fails to measure up to the heroic standard, but the "heroic standard" is a fuzzy concept. What makes Punisher an anti-hero by our standards in modern-day America is that he has no regard for human life, or at least any human life that he deems criminal. He's ruthless. Merciless. Essentially, he's another villain that needs to be stopped, but we root for Punisher. Why? Is it because we pity his loss? Is it because we as law-abiding citizens have no need to fear his wrath? Is it because he's so creative in the ways he offs bad guys? Or is it because Castle realizes that the American justice system is so inefficient and corrupt that his brand of vengeance is the only kind of justice that the most powerful criminals will ever see?
This is why Punisher reflects the most opaque tones of our society. He represents hopelessness. Everything is so corrupt that the only way to stop monsters is to become monsters ourselves. The ends justify the means, no matter how badly it erodes our souls. For some reason, it draws a lot of fans. Perhaps there are a lot of people out there who are so despondent and grim that they think the Punisher is the only hero in comics who reflects "realism." Are misery and merciless vengeance the only real values left for Americans? I don't think so, but Punisher fans I've talked with dismiss me as being naïve. To them, moral codes are a hindrance to justice. Justice, to them, has nothing to do with being "good" or "right" and everything to do with being fair, e.g., those who commit horrible atrocities forfeit their basic human rights and will not be coddled by bleeding-heart liberals. But people who believe murderers should be murdered are no better than the murderers, and by their own standard, they forfeit their basic human rights. Get the picture?
The problem with approving of the Punisher is that we will ultimately succumb to his nihilism. Yes, the system needs to be reformed, but not a single one of us is fit to supplant that system by ourselves. If this is how we want our society to be – vigilantes deciding who is good and who is evil and executing the wicked – then we are all dead meat. Don't forget that Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, and Elliot Rodger executed people whom they believed deserved it. This is what Punisher's mythology reflects: the danger of slipping into nihilism. He's not to be applauded for having the guts to do what needs to be done, but to be observed as a cautionary tale.
Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, is a hero who has always strived to live by a strong moral code. No matter how many times it would have made sense to kill one of his foes, Parker never crossed that line. I read an interesting discussion online recently about Superior Spiderman #4, in which Spider-Ock decides to murder a mass-murderer named "Massacre," in spite of the pleading of Peter Parker's ghost. Octavius, ever the classical empiricist, determines that Massacre cannot be rehabilitated and that sparing him and handing him over to the authorities will only begin an endless cycle of needless death. Thus, Octavius chooses to end that cycle before it can begin. While on the surface it seems reprehensible, later on in the series, readers learn that after Octavius takes over as Spider-Man, crime rates drop across the city. Even J. Jonah Jameson praises the ruthless Spider-Man. The conclusion to this one should be obvious because Octavius eventually reverts to villainy. Yes, his method for dispatching Massacre was efficient, in the same fashion as Punisher, but it also demonstrated that all of Octavius' decisions are ultimately self-serving. Octavius' idea of law and order was tyrannical. What might have begun with the intention to help others eventually led him to make decisions that merely accomplished goals, not help people. Parker wants to help people, and that often means capturing trouble makers who cause trouble for the cops because his abilities lend themselves to that kind of task. Peter Parker never loses his compassion for others, even villains, though he has come pretty close to crossing the line a few times. Octavius was an effective crime fighter, but he had no compassion for others. Law enforcement are (supposed to be) public servants. No one can be a servant without compassion for others, which reminds me of the shortcomings we're having in the real world with our police officers, but that's a topic for a different blog.
Batman muddies up the whole equation. In one sense, he can serve as the perfect example of what's wrong with our justice system. Arkham has a revolving door for lunatics. They go in, get out, and kill more people. The GCPD never comes close to finding them; their detectives couldn't find Waldo in a family portrait. It's always up to Batman, who often seems like the only one who can manage Arkham and its lunatics. Evidence to build a case for murdering Arkham inmates can be found by a close reading of the Batman story cycles. The Joker is the perfect example of this. He always escapes, and he always murders innocent people. Half the time Batman doesn't even recapture him – he usually disappears in a helicopter crash or falls off a waterfall or something. At some point, we have to wonder in the same way Octavius did, "When will it end?" If Batman would just break his one rule and kill the Joker, all of his future victims would be spared. Recall the classic line from Frank Miller's opus Dark Knight Returns, in which he refers to Joker's victims as "people I've murdered by letting you live." It seems like a pretty solid case – just kill the crazies and this won't happen anymore. But we need to take a step back and put this into context.
The whole reason this cycle of escape-kill-recapture even exists is because Batman's rogues are incredibly popular. If the logical thing happened and Joker or Two-Face died, then the writers would lose fan favorite characters. They'd have to resurrect characters a lot, which would be terrible. It wouldn't have to be, of course, but DC will probably never adopt my continuity idea. So the demand of the market has created the circumstances around Batman's world of madness. And what makes it maddening is that Batman and his rogues have done this dance so many times that even they have begun to question why they keep doing it. He's developed a bizarre intimacy with his greatest foes, an intimacy that he doesn't have with Dick or Tim or Alfred – and it's weird. Additionally, Batman's world does not accurately reflect what happens in real life.
Like I mentioned above, most real-life lunatics often die in the course of committing their crimes. Others who do get caught go to prison and they don't come out. Timothy McVeigh never escaped to challenge his arch-nemesis one more time; he just went straight to the execution chamber. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been sentenced to death, and he's not going to escape. James Holmes and Dylan Roof are awaiting trials, and they're not going to escape either. You might be thinking "You don't know that, though." True, I can't see the future, but prisons in real life aren't like Arkham Asylum or even Blackgate Prison. Those places have more breakouts than teenagers on prom night. If they were real institutions, they'd have been shut down long ago and better ones put in their place.
So yes, it would make sense to kill the Joker and Penguin and the gang because as long as they're alive, they're just going to keep killing, but real mass murderers don't cycle in and out. Hence, it's a good thing that Batman never breaks his one rule. If Batman stories reflected reality a little better, and captured villains never returned, then he would always be facing someone new. We don't question when he refuses to kill a new bad guy. We only question why he refuses to kill Joker and the rest of his rogues because they've given him such deep emotional scars that if we were in his shoes, we'd have taken our vengeance long ago. It doesn't make sense because it reflects the demands of the comic book market, not the real criminal justice system. Batman's moral code is important because to us, the world he inhabits doesn't make sense, but Batman never forgets that even he isn't enough to supplant the justice system. If Batman's world had a justice system like ours, Joker and Two-Face would have been executed long ago, or at least, they'd never have escaped. Batman is our plumb line through the madness that is his comic book world.
If Punisher represents the extreme of nihilism in our superhero mythology, then Superman represents the extreme of optimism, faith, and hope. Superman's probity makes a lot of people groan and roll their eyes. In terms of moral codes, he wrecks the curve. If we hold him up as the moral standard, then Batman's methods look brutal. Yet I suspect that Batman is actually held up as the moral standard by comic book fans, and next to him, Superman looks naïve and ineffective. I think part of this stems from a misunderstanding of Superman's actual role as a superhero. If Batman is the moral standard of comic books, then that means crime fighting is the measuring stick applied to Superman. As a crime fighter, he's admittedly not as good as Batman. That's because crime fighting isn't really what he does.
Superman is a public servant. Remember what I said about Spider-Man and compassion? Superman's got it in spades. He's a firefighter, a social worker, a crisis responder, and a protector. Don't forget that during his day job as Clark Kent, he's still advocating for the poor. He rescues people as his primary job day in and day out. He finds people who are in mortal danger and he rescues them with no questions asked. Batman does this too, but that's not why he put on his cape. In the same fashion, Superman will fight crime where he encounters it, but that's not the main reason he put on his cape.
Few of Superman's rogues are actually criminals. The biggies are Lex Luthor, Toy Man, and Bruno Manheim. Aside from these guys, Superman's rogues are extra-terrestrial threats like Mongul, Darkseid, Mxysptlk, Brainiac, and Doomsday. Superman would never haul Mongul into an MPD precinct and tell Dan Turpin to "book'im." That's absurd. Like a Kansas tornado, Darkseid and Brainiac are forces of nature that Superman must repel in order to protect innocent people. He doesn't use brutality and intimidation against them because 1. it wouldn't work, and 2. it goes against who Superman is. He helps people because he cares about them. He has no great tragedy or loss driving his decisions. There's no hunger for vengeance in what he does. He's just a good person, and a lot of people are too jaded to understand that.
Philosophers have argued for humanity to aspire to and pursue the greater good. Ancient Greek heroes did, and some failed miserably. Some of our heroes today try, and some fail miserably. But if we as readers settle for brutality, bitterness, and nihilism as the best we can hope for, the society we readers help shape will certainly slip into greater moral decay. Superman represents the morning star that we all strive to achieve; Spider-Man represents the every man who tries valiantly to attain that standard, in spite of his short comings; Batman represents the pessimist who compromises morality in favor of results but hopes that things will one day get better so people like him are no longer needed; Punisher represents men who have given up all hope, who scorn redemption, and are determined to be consumed by their own fatal destinations. As funny as it sounds, when I was a teenager, I took my behavioral cues from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Yeah, I wanted to be a bad-ass martial artist who slew space monsters with quasi-magic weapons, but in lieu of that, I strived to match the positive attitudes that Tommy and Jason always had. Is that such a bad thing to pursue?