Sunday, January 11, 2009

Clear Evil? Sometimes. Clear Good? Not so much.

Writer Bill Willingham has gotten comic book fans riled and uncharacteristically political with his calls for an end to the "Age of Superhero Decadence:"

Folks, we’re smack dab in the midst of the Age of Superhero Decadence. Old fashioned ideals of courage and patriotism, backed by a deep virtue and unshakable code, seem to be… well, old fashioned.

Full disclosure time. I’m at least partially to blame for this steady chipping away of the goodness of our comic book heroes. In my very first comic series Elementals, first published close to thirty years ago, I was eager to update old superhero tropes, making my characters more real, edgier, darker — less heroic and a good deal more vulgar than the (then) current standard. Elementals was one of the first of what was later dubbed the ‘grim and gritty’ movement in comic books. And to complicate my confession, I’m still proud of much of that early work. At least my crass and corrupted Elemental heroes still fought, albeit imperfectly, for the clear good, against the clear evil.

Mr. Willingham,

I believe there is such a thing as pure evil. I've seen it. There are people in this world who do not have good intentions and that simply want to tear the world down. I thought The Dark Knight portrayed this aspect of the Joker well. However, while I do believe in evil I do not believe in pure, infallible good. The good make mistakes. The good make bad alliances. The good do the wrong thing.

Up until the 1970s, when Avengers storylines showed Henry Pym beating his wife in a fit of madness and Tony Stark succumbing to alcoholism, this aspect of heroism was extremely downplayed. A trip through early Superman comic books is a trip through the journeys of a colossally one-dimensional character.

This, of course, is a balancing act. Deadpool, the Punisher and some stories featuring Wolverine get very excessive at times in romping through extreme violence. Since comic books are read by children, they should cast images of morality. However, please don't fall into the world of one-dimensional characters. The greatest American icons, from Humphrey Bogart's love betrayed and apathetic Rick in Casablanca to Harrison Ford's money-obsessed scoundrel turned freedom fighter Han Solo in Star Wars, have been men of conflicted emotions who eventually wind up doing the right thing. Stan Lee was revolutionary in creating characters like Peter Parker (who failed to save his uncle from murder due to his own selfishness), Ben Grimm, Wolverine and Daredevil, who were all deeply flawed characters. That's what men are really like and that's what they'd still be like even with superpowers. Men are not really like Superman.

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