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A Comic Book World

Robert M. Price

One of the most interesting quips in the hilarious movie Men in Black is where J tells K that the public must at all costs be protected from the knowledge of extraterrestrials among them, since, if they knew everything that was happening around them, they’d never be able to sleep peacefully again. They would come to realize, but probably not to accept, the fact of their precarious position in the scheme of things (symbolized brilliantly at the end of the sequel, where an opened door reveals our whole stinkin’ universe to exist within a bus station locker in another, larger universe!).

And this raises the question of whether the world would continue pretty much normally in comic books if people knew what the stories show them learning about metahumans, oft-returning super-villains, and incessant invasions from other dimensions. You see, the comic writers need the world, whether the fictive New York of Marvel Comics or the Gotham and Metropolis of DC, to seem like our world, so we can identify with the heroes and their exploits. The pathos of threat and tragedy would be lessened if the danger were not to our own flesh and blood. Superman rescuing space aliens is just not the same as his rescuing a soccer mom from a carjacker, or from Luthor’s giant robots.

But would the world and society be at all like ours if people had witnessed the events of repeated Galactus encroachments, Kree and Skrull invasions, the depredations of Brainiac, Thanos, Mongul, etc.? Had they lived through the Infinity Gauntlet, the Crisis on Infinite Earths, and so on? Not a chance. No way.

For one thing, there would be constant vigilance and constant terror. Just look at the shock-waves unleashed by September 11, 2001, and that was “just two airplanes.” Suppose Galactus’s or Brainiac’s ship had appeared in the skies? Orson Welles, move over! Agent J was obviously right. And you couldn’t even comfort yourself with the thought that the superheros would surely make things right, since they seem to win it every time only by the skin of their teeth! Of course, it has to be that way for purposes of narrative tension, but we are asking another question about narrative, namely that of verisimilitude, equally important.

Another problem would be that of advanced technology. I think one of the clever things about Star Trek: Enterprise is the initially uneasy relationship between the earthlings, impatient to be off into space, and the patronizing Vulcans, who do not believe we are ready. So they withhold needful technology from us, creating a lot of ill will. The same thing, it seems to me, would happen in the universe of comic books. Wouldn’t the public sooner or later demand that Tony Stark, Reed Richards, and so many other geniuses drop the repulsor rays and start working on improved medical technology? Remember when the Martian Manhunter told the paralyzed Oracle, Barbara Gordon, that he thought she must resent him and his team-mates for not using their expertise to find a way of healing her? That’s what I’m talking about.

In Alan Moore’s wonderful two-part story, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” we learn that for a decade or so Superman had stayed out of the public eye, mainly doing space exploration work for NASA, hand-delivering space probes and satellites and stuff. But, when you think about it, why bother with all the expensive technology? Why not just interrogate him about all the worlds and galaxies he’s visited in person? Hell, just give them a library card to the Fortress of Solitude for Pete’s sake!

Have you ever chewed over the old stumper: if Jesus were supposed to have literal omniscience like his heavenly Father, why the heck didn’t he save missionaries a lot of trouble by inventing the airplane (or for that manner, the Star Trek teleporter)? Why didn’t he invent modern medicine and medical technology? He sounds like he’s bound by the Federation’s Prime Directive of Non-Interference, only in his case, interference would seem to have been the whole point of his visit! It’s the same with the superheroes.

Why don’t they act like the Kanamits from the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man”? The issue has actually come up in the four-color pages once or twice that I know of. Long ago, the great “Imaginary Story” of Superman Red and Superman Blue opened with the elders of Kandor calling Superman on the carpet for not solving all the world’s problems. It was time, they said, for him to trade places with one of them and let somebody else have a whack at it. Instead, he asked for one more chance and put on a helmet designed to increase his brain power, which it did. But it had a side-effect: he split into two Supermen. Together the new Dynamic Duo did cure all the world’s ills. They wisely recruited Lex Luthor (after slipping some super-fluoride into the oceans so as to wipe out all evil from humanity, including Lex!), and old baldy found a cure for cancer in half the time it would have taken Leonard McCoy had it been some Andromeda Strain popping up on board the Enterprise!

More recently, the White Martians story arc in Grant Morrison’s Justice League cast the Martian honkeys in the role of the Kanamits when they disguised themselves as the Hyper Clan and seduced the earth’s population by making deserts bloom, curing diseases, etc. People demanded to know why the self-absorbed Justice League had never done these things for them. And it’s a darn good question! Why clean up after the disasters that plague mankind if you can prevent them? And there are three answers that the comics offer.

First, to beat this Kanamit thing a bit closer to death, remember the premiere episode of the Justice League cartoon? It was a clever combination of the Hyper Clan White Martian story with the premise of the movie Superman 4: The Quest for Peace (itself a kind of remake of the old Superman versus Atom Man). Superman went to the United Nations and announced he would rid the world of nuclear weapons. He pretty much did it. Then it developed that the politician who suggested it was a White Martian spy who had duped Superman into getting rid of earth’s defenses, to make the Martian invasion easier! There’s reason number one! If you place all your hopes in the hands of powerful but still fallible mortals, you’re taking a big risk! Suppose they make a super-size mistake? Yikes.

Second, to go back to Superman 4, the Man of Steel learned something of a different lesson. He had undertaken to disarm the world by destroying their nukes, but he finally realized that just wasn’t his prerogative. He had to let the human race make its own mistakes and live with them, or they would never reach their full potential. I think of the SNL skit where Superman (Jerry Seinfeld) is interviewed by Larry King (Kevin Nealon), who points out that the citizens of Metropolis are complaining he hasn’t done anything about the garbage since the sanitation workers went on strike. Superman replies indignantly, “Hey, I’m Superman! I’m not pickin’ up the garbage!” And it wasn’t really Superman’s dignity that was at stake, but rather that of Metropolis: the more dependent they grow, the more childish and petulant they grow. It is no favor for Superman to encourage that attitude in people. And in case you hadn’t noticed, this is one of the major answers to the question of why God does not interfere to fix our mistakes. It is called “the Free Will Defense.”

Third, think of the great Justice League episode in which the Justice Lords, the JLA’s counterparts on a parallel earth, are sort of like the Crime Syndicate anti-heroes of Earth 3, only they are well-meaning fascists, not petty crooks. The junta of the Justice Lords is the result of a systematic undertaking to solve the world’s problems. Just one thing: that’s going to mean that you also rule the world. That’s always the temptation of fascism: in a time of crisis, people are willing to trade their freedoms for security. Leftists in America post 911 imagine that the Patriot Act is such a trade-off, but they are wrong this time. In my view, their leaders, Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, etc., are like the politician taken over by Martian conspirators in that Justice League cartoon, softening us up for the depredations of our enemies. But the issue, the ever-tempting devil’s bargain of exchanging freedom for security, is real enough.

The comic book writers have to adopt some kind of rationales like this if they are to keep setting their stories in a world that will seem familiar to us, not some futuristic utopia. But, come to think of it, the reasons make a bit of sense, too. And that’s equally good writing.


Copyright©2004-2013 by Robert M Price