When Everyone’s Right, When They’re All Wrong
Travis Hedge Coke
Two people can disagree over something without either of them being wrong. People say things they believe that are not objectively true. People say things they know are bs. Sometimes, everyone involved is, even if not wrong, going about it wrong. Sometimes, everyone knows a thing that is said is untrue, but let it stand out of respect, out of fear, or because it is a joke.
Somehow, superhero comics culture has developed large subsections who cannot countenance the above propositions. A lot of superhero fans need a clear villain, a clear and totally in the clear hero. If a criminal bastard does something nice, we start to hear “antihero” from these people, but also, if a character wears black or smokes, we get “antihero,” because, apparently, wearing the wrong color negates your actual actions. Some superhero fans require a clear and objective caption stating that a lie has taken place or a misunderstanding has occurred.
This is not just superhero fans. But, I’ve found that most non-superhero addicts can generally accept, for example, two sitcom characters disagreeing without either being a horrible bitch or “the badguy.” Antagonists aren’t all “evil,” nor are friends who are criminals or cruel, “antiheroes” in terms of most tv, most movies, most entertainment. Catwoman has to be an antihero, for some fans, because she can’t be a villain who does good things, or just a thief who isn’t a complete monster. Same for Spider-Man supporting character, Black Cat, who has on occasion gone straight while still stealing and benefitting from criminal activities she hid from her current boyfriend or legit business partners. The categorizing into Heroes and Villains has not, it seems, served to keep the ranks of characters clear, but to muddle everyone, since rarely is someone purely good or bad enough to just be forever and only one or the other.
For example, on occasion, Doctor Doom has done something that benefitted someone else other than just himself. He has, though, also committed multiple murders, kidnapped, assaulted, conquered, and generally been deep and steeped in supervillainy. The urge to justify this as “he knows better” is not borne out by the stories, themselves, in which his actions generally just hurt people worse than if he’d left them alone, and even when he achieves some fascist, enforced “utopia,” it collapses. Two weeks of everyone obeying the law or dying is not a utopia. It’s &$^@ing scary. But, Doom’s smart, so he must be good, because he’s right about math things (unless the math things are things that will blow off his face).
Too many superhero fans will latch onto the one time a character is right about one thing, and extrapolate, then, that they must always be right about most things. A position that nothing in reality has ever reflected.
The Joker, in The Dark Knight or in any comic you’ve ever read is not “right about things.” Maybe the Joker is more right about things than Batman (he’s not), but he’s still not right. They can both be wrong, and in a real world scenario, they are. A real life Batman would not be helpful. A real life Joker… that kind of death toll isn’t good for anyone.
What these pontificators usually mean is that they agree with one thing the Joker said, or a generalized position where he for five seconds stood or claimed to stand. The Dark Knight’s Joker is a constant liar and manipulator. He says he doesn’t make plans, but all he does is plan. He talks about anarchy, and has fits when his schemes don’t go according to plan. He’s a bullshitter. It’s what makes him effective and fun to watch, really. That and nurse outfits and frustrated-doggy gestures.
Right now, in comics, Lana Lang and Lois Lane are not pleased with one another, as Lois outed Superman’s secret identity and turned his life - and the lives of many close to him - all topsy turvy. Now, this is Lois’ job. She’s a journalist. This is a major story with exceptional ramifications. Of course she went to press. It’d be dodgy if she didn’t. But, Lana’s not a journalist. Clark isn’t a story or a factoid. He’s a childhood friend. Journalists, ethically, shouldn’t sit on secrets that can potentially hurt lots of people. Childhood friends, though, are often accustomed to keeping their mouth shut. Any smalltowner knows that there are things you know, sometimes criminal or big things, about your neighbor that you never talk about. Keep your mouth shut.
Neither of them is wrong, from their perspective, considering their ethics. And, neither position is socially unacceptable in the society they’re both living in, either. But, their equally-valid positions put them at loggerheads.
Romcom fans don’t have this hangup.
“You love me!”
“The hell I do!”
Romance fans don’t suddenly panic. “O!M!G! Which one is right?”
Even fans who love a serial murderer in a crime drama or horror flick are not really tempted to suggest they’re “the real hero” because they’re right about one thing or one time did a not-terrible thing. Jason Voorhees not murdering one person he stands in front of, for once in his entire weird unkillable life, doesn’t mean he’s not a bad man. There’s no One time Jason killed everyone at Crystal Lake and it was so peaceful afterwards, so killing everyone was his way of establishing peace and utopia. Even a happy-go-lucky kill spree like Sleepaway Camp III or a justified-by-personal-ethics killer such as the one in Dario Argento’s Tenebrae don’t confuse horror fans in this fashion in substantial numbers. But, superhero fans?
For superhero fans there must be a hero, and they must be ethical in all things, and there must be a villain, unethical and wrong in all things. Anything in between, to any degree, transforms them into the mythic catchall “antihero.” Lex Luthor didn’t betray someone one time? Antihero. Superman got a motorcycle you don’t approve of? Antihero. The Punisher was introduced trying to murder Spider-Man, but he thought Spider-Man had done a bad thing, so of course, what could he do but pursue him and murder him in the street?
“Antihero,” for too many superhero fans, means not having to decide whether they’re a good or bad person, but someone still has to be the only one who is right. So, Punisher is wrong in a story where he’s trying to kill Spider-Man, but he’s not a villain in the story, because in other stories, sometimes, he does halfway decent things. The Joker sounds almost analytical when he talks of anarchy and panic and plans and horror in The Dark Knight, so he must be the real hero, or just an antihero like Batman (who is not an antihero in any non-superhero-fan understanding of the word).
So, how did this happen? I can think of a few possibilities.
Serial villains, like being friends with a bad person, may just become so familiar we write off their flaws without thinking about it. Doom is not so bad because we’re used to him. Et cetera. Which, I think is what Erik Larsen was doing in Savage Dragon when the eponymous Dragon tolerated a genocidal cosmic conqueror, Mr Glum living in his house and palling around with his daughter, on the basis that Glum was short, silly-looking, and a fixture of the household.
There might not be a middle ground when it comes to how smart comics readers interpret. In terms of English-language nations, comics increasingly have three audiences: those who read single panel or strip comics without considering themselves a comics reader, and two groups (with overlap) who think about comics all the time but in disparate ways. They both analyze and consider, but Group A treats, in their head, the objective worlds abstract from the writers, pencilers, editors, et al. Group B sees the comics world as a construct continually and thoroughly authored. A is antagonistic, then, to even the word “deconstruction,” and often the word “political,” while B tends to break things down as a construct of authors and influences. Neither of which is objective enough to functionally interpret subtler character work or character-subjective perspectives on the fly.
The Comics Code, especially at its strictest, prohibited the consequences of violence and the presence, then, of more crippling forms of horror, the stuff that we most strongly react against. Zombies, vampires, torture, and the post-horror traumas were outlawed. Kidnapping, assault, even murder somehow, then, fail to really have any affect on characters’ lives in Code-approved comics for decades, leading to a culture of readers and authors who were entirely comfortable with a superhero team welcoming in “with suspicion,” a multiple murderer who had brutalized them or their friends on several occasions.
The niche of comics readers may be so small that even if someone is not interested in a brand, a “major” character, they’re going to be much more familiar with them than those outside of comics readers. Someone who primarily reads author-owned comics or hews to a genre like romance or horror still knows a ridiculous amount about Spider-Man or can name fifty Batman villains because it’s in the air when you’re into any comics in a serious way. Corporate superheroes and supervillains, whether you read comics with them or not, have become a communal glue, and they really are, at their heart, punchy criminals punching other punchy criminals, often in long, tangled strands of narrative loops, cycling through battles and lulls before battles that practically stalemate in a moral relativism that is about pitches of excitement alone.
The fightiness of not just superhero comics, but most English language comics, including the ever-popular smartie-in-a-world-of-dumb that is Dilbert, may facilitate a bully-brained antagonistic mentality to reading comics.
I can think of a few possibilities. But, I’m making them all up, some from facts, some from assumptions, but none with one real proof. I’m just suggesting, just guessing.