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DC as Demo Crats

Robert M. Price

I have a confession to make. I have a special affection for “heroes” (I know some may challenge the designation, but that’s the whole point of the essay) like Rorschach, the Punisher, Supreme, and Superman the Last Son of Krypton. These are crime-fighters who seem to understand their role, the role of the executioner, as what Martin Luther called “the Left Hand of God.” Once a philosophy student of mine asked me a question of conscience. He had served his country in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and other theatres of war, and in the process he had had to kill quite a number of people. He did so without hesitation. But now he wondered what I thought: on the Judgment Day, would God hold it against him? Immediately I realized in exactly what theological situation I found myself. A la Jacob Neusner, I regard scripture as a fund of paradigms in which we may discern the likeness of our own situation and gain guidance. And I recognized my position as that of Krishna on the eve of the great battle in the succession war of the Mahabharata, where Arjuna, the pious general, whom the divine Krishna for the moment serves as charioteer, confides in the avatar his conundrum: he was beginning to think all the impending bloodshed would be a senseless waste of human life. Really, what difference could it make who won the war? At this, Krishna upbraids him, charging him not to swerve from the dharma assigned him. As a warrior, a noble member of the Kshatriya caste, his only concern now and ever must be to draw the sword and butcher the foe in the glorious battle to come! (Krishna tells Xena the same thing in the same situation on an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess) And it is this example, that of the merciless wreaker of bloody havoc, that this segment of the Mahabharata called the Bhagavad Gita, makes emblematic for caste duty, the destiny that is assigned variously to everyone. My duty at that moment, as the guru of my philosophy student with the bloodstained hands, was to assure him of the same truth of which Lord Krishna had assured Arjuna so many centuries before. And I did. I thanked him for shedding the blood of the enemy on behalf of the oppressed of other lands and for the defense of our own.

This is the Gospel of Ethan Crane, the sworn duty of the Eradicator Superman to use his power as Krypton’s Last Son to purify the earth. It is the terrible truth Rorschach learned from his long look into the abyss. But it is not the code of your average DC Comics hero. As you know, Superman, and even Batman, the supposed crazed vigilante, refuse to kill. The Silver Age Superman even swore to renounce his powers if he ever took a single sentient life (I assume he was not a surgical-masked Jainist, blowing all microbes and insects out of his path with puffs of his super breath). And of course, he finally did just that. In the finale of the epic of the Silver Age Superman (forgetting the Sword of Superman bullshit in the Bozo Age), namely Alan Moore’s wonderful “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” Superman had no choice but to destroy the mad Mxyzptlk by bathing him in the rays of the Phantom Zone projector—whereupon he promptly bathed himself in the power-nullifying rays of a sample of Gold Kryptonite. No more Superman! Okay, he deserved retirement. But ask those aliens whose world would be destroyed next time because Superman was not there to save it, and they might challenge the moral calculus of his decision. Would taking the life of an evil enemy really be so great a crime in its own right that forfeiting all future service to humanity would be requisite? We see the same point drawn very starkly in the “Hush” episode in which Batman very nearly beats the Joker to death for all his crimes (including crippling Batgirl and murdering Commissioner Gordon’s wife). Gordon prevails on him to stop short, lest he find himself having changed sides and become like the Joker by exacting vengeance upon the Joker. And this despite the fact that Gordon and Batman alike acknowledge that no adequate justice can ever be served the Joker given the present system. A justice system in which the Joker and his ilk are repeatedly shoveled into and back out of an insane asylum to kill and kill again is no justice system, and, remember, that is the very condition that supposedly drives our superheroes to be what they were first supposed to be. Remember, even the Golden Age Superman did not scruple to kill crooks or threaten them with death. And Batman? Don’t kid yourself. Or think of the horrors of the Spectre!

What happened? What made Batman into the “scoutmaster” as we call his 50s and 60s version? What turned Superman into the “boy scout” we still hear him called in derision? It was a little thing, I think, called the Comics Code authority. It was a piece of paternalistic liberal fascism. Kids can’t read Tales from the Crypt without getting warped? Then we better not show them any real criminal violence or justice either! Let’s come up with a safe substitute.

But such a cartoon universe of “justice” is essentially Toon Town, a world where colorful characters merely cavort and have the equivalent of Risk games. I recall a perfect illustration of the essence of the whole thing in a late 60s Mighty Crusaders issue, when a costumed hero and villain are apparently struggling to the death, whereupon the camera angle widens, and we see they are tumbling about on a kitchen floor, and the hero’s wife comes in with a bag of groceries and asks the boys to please play outside!

Isn’t it Toon Town? There are battles, endless battles between the super-beings, but no blood shed! People are just “stunned.” Even when Superman and Doomsday kill each other, they seem to be merely a pair of Energizer Bunnies who have at long last run out of steam. And look at the resurrection rate in comics. Even in the rare cases where DC seems to have had the guts to kill a major character, he soon pops up alive and well through some contrivance or another. Okay, so far, they’ve resisted the temptation with Barry Allen (though nothing has stopped them from going back and chronicling various new “hithero-untold” adventures of Barry in the Silver Age!). And his replacement looked pretty much identical anyway! Supergirl was replaced by… Supergirl! Wonder Woman was replaced by Wonder Woman. And so on. We are here not far from Looney Toons: Daffy shoves a stick of TNT up Elmer Fudd’s butt, but in the next scene Fudd’s just a little singed! The DC Universe is Toon Town, isn’t it? You don’t really need justice in Toon Town, because there’s no real crime, no real damage that can be done. All the villains are little more than Mr. Mxyzptlk used to be: annoying pranksters.

The late 80s witnessed an attempt to move comics into the real world, and that’s when the justice issue became acute. Frank Miller understood correctly that the world is not Toon Town (even if “Earth 1” was), and that it is perverse moral instruction to portray the world as Toon Town in one’s depiction of the good/evil struggle. Miller understood that the Joker had to die, and so, in The Dark Knight Returns, Miller’s Batman killed him. Loeb and Lee’s “Hush” Batman should have killed him, too. Behold the tragic moral confusion of both Gordon and Batman: for Batman to execute the Joker would be on the same moral level with the Joker’s own multiple murders? That is warped thinking—and no good for the kiddies, if you ask me!

You will already have noticed how this is the major issue in the magnificent Kingdom Come by Alex Ross and Mark Waid. Wonder Woman (correctly, to my way of thinking) realizes that Magog, the killer of the Joker in this version, was right, and that Superman was wrong in prosecuting Magog for it. There is an apocalyptic war of good versus evil going on all the time, and in a war people die. You have to be willing to make sure it is the right ones doing the dying. Wonder Woman finally manipulates Superman into embracing the tactics of his arch-enemy Magog once the Gulag goes all to hell. But “luckily” Superman sees the light just in time, well, almost just in time. He tries to put on the brakes.

But the war is soon over, and everybody is getting along pretty well. Lex Luthor as Max Klinger. And what is the supposed solution of the problem of whether the metahumans, the Nietzschean Supermen, have the right to intervene in human affairs at all? The denouement of Kingdom Come, to me, is sickening. The super heroes are finally forbidden even to wear their costumes, these last abandoned to the status of nostalgia schlock in a restaurant. Some buffoon of a waiter wears Green Lantern’s costume, while the godlike Green Lantern himself now sits as one more ineffective politician among fellow windbags in the do-nothing United Nations. The tigers have been defanged, the dragons made lapdogs for their inferiors. The cringing slave-hoard of Lilliputians has finally worn them down. And you can tell they have worn them down, because the metahumans themselves have internalized the slave creed. They seem to think it better that they serve the common herd as beasts of burden in whatever tasks the mortals find non-threatening. Greatness always makes the weak, the slaves, the mediocre feel threatened, whereupon they proceed to enslave the great, provided the latter allow them to.

I find an acute correspondence between the sad outcome (as I see it) of Kingdom Come and the cowardly “internationalism” of neo-pacifistic Democrats today, with their sissy bleating about the supposed sin of “unilateralism.” They fear initiative, boldness, decision. They want a system in which no one may make a decision, like all bureaucracies where no one is in charge. It is the scourge of Collectivism, and among superheroes only the spawn of Ditko and his disciples seem to understand the danger. The one good scene in Frank Miller’s otherwise wretched The Dark Knight Strikes Again is the Chris Matthews Hardball show with the liberal Green Arrow and the ultra-Randian Question shouting rejoinders at one another.

Liberalism, with its opposition to capital punishment, promotes the confusion of Commissioner Gordon: to kill the Joker is to make Batman no different from the Joker. To kill Saddam Hussein is no better than Saddam’s own killings. Can anyone really think so? Liberal Democrats (and Greens, etc.) seem to think so. They seem to think they live in Toon Town, where we may safely parole and release serial rapists, molesters, and murderers.

The recent animated Justice League episode, “A Better World” would seem outrageously silly if we were not already so thoroughly embued with the capon liberalism of DC. The whole premise of the cartoon is that all it takes is Superman deciding the world has had enough of Lex Luthor (and hadn’t it?) and executing him—and what happens? The world is plunged into a totalitarian regime run by the former heroes! What? That is a natural progression only in the tear-clouded eyes of ultra-liberals who see no difference between the state’s right to exercise force on the one hand and fascism on the other! And how revealingly ironic it is that at the close of the very same episode Luthor, now pardoned by the government, inaugurates the plotline whereby he will become President of the United States! Good thing Superman didn’t kill him, huh?

Remember the crossover book which co-starred the Morrison JLA with the Wildstorm Wildcats? The DC superheroes assumed the stance of smug moral maturity as Superman and the rest “sagely” warned the new kids on the block that time would correct their judgment on the propriety of killing bad guys. But I think that is just the doting, dithering decadence of those who mistake our world (Earth Prime”?) for Toon Town. If you’re trying to set comics in the real world, then you’re going to need Supreme, the Punisher, Rorschach, and the Eradicator.


Copyright©2004 by Robert M Price
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