Dynamic Strictures, Moral Structures, Splodey
Travis Hedge Coke
There is difference between a likeable character, a relatable character, and a character we agree with. Much of the time, you’re not supposed to agree with Die Hard’s John McClane, but you are meant to relate to him and to like him. In most Conan stories by his creator, you aren’t supposed to agree with him or, necessarily, relate, but you should be entertained by him. The average character interacting with McClane will flat out call him an asshole in the movie, while the average character interacting with Conan in one of those short stories wears on their forehead, “Oh damn. Conan is still alive. And here. With me. Poop.” It’s a mix for any character, especially protagonists or major antagonists, sure, but one factor usually takes the fore and carries us along in our enjoyment of the character. It is not always about the intent, though, of those authoring a character (writers, artists, actors, editors, whoever and all), but our understanding of the character. I don’t know how much Steve Ditko or Roger Stern agree with Spider-Man or want me to like Spider-Man, I just know I find him more likeable than I am apt to agree with him. Spidey is usually wrong, and his wrongness increases the more he personalizes any matter.
The moral structure I see the world suspended in, that I understand to shape existence, is different than Steve Ditko’s. I love Mr. A. Mr. A is intense, direct, the comics and the character provide a wealth of depth and breadth for me, a power, but I don’t see heroism in Mr. A. I don’t agree with him, I don’t relate to him in any appreciable way. I find him entertaining in much the same fashion I enjoy watching fireworks or listening to John Zorn’s Masada 1. The meaning, significance, or consequences of Mr. A or his actions, the actions of others in a Mr. A story or the meaning of the stories, themselves, differ for me than they likely have for their author. This is not moral relativism as we commonly understand it, which is as a euphemism for excusing societal habits or expectations, but acknowledging that the metaphoric meaning behind a dynamic is only a metaphor, and that different societies do, indeed, have different expectations, people make different connections and have different responses regarding events or the positions people take than other people without either of those “people” being somehow less people-like.
The moral structures we agree with most are short-term structures. Most jokes are one-two punches, or at most three step violations of a moral expectation because that’s as far as novelty can stretch for most of us. When the hero gets just too tired to deal with a hypocritical villain any more and shoots them instead of arresting or restraining them, we can forgive it. When you tell the joke about the farmer who says to three young boys “go pick something from the garden as repayment for having sex with my daughter” and then he’s going to shove it up their back ends, you can’t go with more than three boys and you have to start with something small, like berries, or you’ve gone from a joke to gore-porn. The hero can’t just sigh and shoot every dude who stands in front of him menacingly before anything else happens. Fictional multiple murderers always vary up their method of killing, because after, say, two deaths, a single method gets tedious and with the novelty gone, so too, our indulgence.
Batman kills in almost every theatrical Batman movie. We, mostly, don’t care, because it isn’t highlighted for us. We are encouraged to watch the explosions he causes and not the deaths that most likely result. When he refuses to save his old mentor in Batman Begins, and lets him die, it is most clearly murder, as we know he can save him, we know that if a cop stood in front of someone they could save without appreciable harm to themselves and refused, the would face consequences for their inaction under most police organizations. Firefighter walks up to a fire, sees someone just inside where they could clearly get them, but that person is a criminal so they just throw up their hands and go, “well, fuck’em” and go for a beer instead. But, Batman does it just once, in a moment that is cathartic for the audience, so we, in the moment, are encouraged to overlook the violation of morality or (Batman’s expressed) ethics.
Remember when Tony Stark sexes that reporter in Iron Man and then, in the morning, he’s gone and Pepper calls her trash? People love that. Stark’s a mad player (until he gets all monogamous). Pepper has disdain for women who sleep with her boss (until it’s her). Rewards all ‘round. But, it only happens once. If Pepper spent the whole movie calling every woman who so much as looks over her boss, “trash,” or Tony was just bagging chicks left and right and the next scene, every time, is them with no Tony, it would be a very different movie. It happens once, we laugh or wince, and, as they say, people grow, people change.
There is a piece of received wisdom evidenced in the California sector of the 70s New Hollywood, Lucas and Spielberg and such, that is: Don’t finish an argument. Finishing an argument is like taking a joke past three steps. It’s definitive and requires us, the audience, to make judgment. Pop stories don’t want you making judgments while the story is in play, because some of you may stop right there and then.
Back in the 90s, Marvel and WildStorm both did stories about superheroes confronting domestic violence, in Wolverine and Gen 13. Marvel went the weirdest route, basing the dynamic in “heroes don’t use powers or force on non-costumed people,” and the X-Men restrain Wolverine from dealing with a man who is in the process of brutalizing his family because he’s a normal human and their neighbor. Woo. Great ethics there, Marvel. In the WildStorm comic, a guy who is abusing his significant other and hitting on her hot cousin in a generally creepy way, is intimidated into retreat by said cousin, the newly-superheroic Caitlin Fairchild. Realistically, both of those situations could, without the superpowers, happen. There are people who will tell you to ignore what your neighbors do on their property, because it’s none of your business or it’s a family thing. There are people who don’t care what anyone else is going to say, and take action to correct things as they see fit. There are douchey guys out there just being violent jerks and some of them have families or girlfriends, who have people near them who just won’t leave, or haven’t yet. Nothing in the interactions, themselves, in either comic is truer or falser, but one moral structure agrees with me immediately and the other, the one from Wolverine, is immediately unlikable for me, and whether it is agreeable depends on how it eventually pays out.
Whether or not the final consequences can make something all better for you, is always going to be up in the air. Most people like surprises in their entertainment, twists, revelations of motive or when it becomes apparent the evil villain who’s been succeeding for most of the story suddenly has their punishment, but these can be dragged out too long, too, and if the audience does not have the patience, or they aren’t being rewarded enough, the audience will leave and all is lost. The serial nature of many comics complicates this balancing act. Do you wait until the end of an issue? End of a collection? When an artist or writer leaves? End of the series?
People can, and do, get locked into serious habit, picking up issue after issue, in the hopes it will one day become the comic they want, that it will exhibit the moral structure they want placed on it. If you read enough Spider-Man comics, one day, all those magnificent women will realize Parker’s not worth it. Surely. So you have to keep reading. And when it does not happen, you keep reading for when it does. Batman, one day, will be healthy and stop saving lives in a cape and just be a super-rich CEO who sleeps at night and gets up in the morning. There are people who will read those characters to the end of their days under the assumption that one day, their moral structure will be proven out in these fictional dynamics. To a lesser degree, this is something we all do, otherwise we’d give up on a romance after the first two times the characters meet and don’t hook up.
But, neither the moral structure you are hoping for in Web of Spider-Man issue 27 or the one Dwight Zimmerman or the inker, penciler, colorist, or publisher intend is entirely “real” or “true.” They are all manufactured. The events, characters, relationships, the causes and effects in Web of Spider-Man #27 are all manufactured, from Parker to Headhunter to the streets Parker swings over and the weather that touches those streets. If there is an objective moral structure, it is not yours or mine, it is not Dave Hoover’s or Jill Thompson’s or Caitlin Kiernan’s. If there is an objective reading of Web of Spider-Man #27, none of us can accomplish it. The best we can do is to feign objectivity with best interests in mind, or to acknowledge the limitations of our subjectivity and try, simply, to enjoy the comic as we understand it or to put it down if we do not enjoy it. We can praise, we can criticize, but an author considering an action in fiction as right that we consider wrong does not make it either except in our understanding. If the action fails to achieve what the character desires it to, it may be a poor choice, an ill-advised action, but wrong? Even the intentions of the character are artificial, manufactured to entertain us, to communicate to us.
Fiction can direct our attention, it can implore us with reason, structure, emotion, but fiction cannot control or regulate us. And, it cannot establish itself as reality, any more than your perceptions, looking out your window onto a street make up all the reality of all things going on in that street, in the buildings along it, the sewer beneath, the sky above it, the world around it and all the parts of the world that will pass across that street or connect to it in some fashion at some point. Objectivity, if it is truth, requires a total lack of judgment especially of that most pernicious sort, the judgment of what is worth paying attention to, what is worth highlighting or can be removed, and that is something we just cannot do. Besides, if we could and did, it would be overlong and boring.