Inspired by my friend Colin Smith's post on his blog, Too Busy Thinking about My Comics, regarding our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man's questionable actions in Amazing Spider-Man #685, and then further spurred on by a vigorous debate with Spidey editor Stephen Wacker on Twitter this morning (joined by Colin and several other stalwart discussants), I need to put my thoughts on this matter down for whatever counts as posterity these days.
Although my comments will much be broader than this specific instance, here is the page-of-interest:
While Colin was firmly against what Spidey did in this issue, his larger concern (as I understand it) is with the lack of context and discussion of what Spidey did. No more reflection, no consideration of the principles or consequences involved--he just "did what he had to do." (Another concern of his was with the increasing proliferation of acts like this, one of which I mentioned in an earlier post, and is also related an another post on DC Comics' devolving views on killing.)
One issue that arose in the Twitter discussion this morning was selectivity when applying moral standards to characters. I was accused of sanctioning Batman's practice of child endangerment over the last 70 years, but not Spidey's recent transgression. I replied first that I wasn't sanctioning or condemning either hero's actions, and then elaborated on two points:
1) Batman's actions towards his various Robins have been discussed extensively in the comics--for instance, in Devin Grayson's wonderful Gotham Knights run, as well as Peter Tomasi's current Batman and Robin, which also deal with Damian's penchant for killing. (There is also a chapter titled "Is It Right to Make a Robin?" in Batman and Philosophy.) It is not the controversial nature of Spidey's actions, so much as lack of recognition of any controversy, that is distressing to me.
2) Batman and Spider-Man are different characters, with different moral codes, implying different limits and lines they won't cross, as well as different processes of judgment. The Punisher is different, as is Captain America, and Superman, and Daredevil. Even within the Batman family, we see Bruce, Dick, Tim, and Damian all making moral decisions differently--and the fact that we can read that in the comics, that the characters are so well-defined that these differences come out, is a testament to comics storytelling.
It is this second point about character on which I want to focus here: not only is the lack of reflection or context in Amazing Spider-Man #685 troublesome, but it seems out of character for Spidey to do what he did. (To be fair, he does acknowledge this briefly--see the panel in the lower right-hand corner in the image above--but then seems to dismiss such concerns.)
Despite this long legacy in the Marvel Universe, Spider-Man is perpetually represented as the kid among grown-ups, representing a still-developing moral idealism alongside the more solidified moral positions of Captain America and Iron Man. We see this when he sided first with Iron Man and then Cap during Civil War (which I described in my chapter "'My Name is Peter Parker': Unmasking the Right and the Good" in Spider-Man and Philosophy, edited by Jonathan J. Sanford, as well as in this blog post). He also serves as the point-of-view character for events like Civil War, and he has gained the status as the moral center of the Marvel Universe--not in the sense that he is always right, but rather that he hasn't got everything figured out, and therefore he considers his actions like a conscientious young person would. For example, he makes idealist pledges like "no one dies," which makes his all-too-easy acceptance of torture all the harder to reconcile with his character.
Torture is a hot button issue to be sure, and deservedly so. You could say it's the ultimate "trolley problem," in which grave consequences will follow if one adheres to cherished principles. Several years ago, I compared Batman's continued struggle over whether to kill the Joker to a trolley problem and to the contemporary torture debates. Among its other lessons, the trolley problem (which Spidey has also faced, of course) shows us the difficulty of adhering to moral absolutes. It is too easy to say "I will never kill" or "I will never torture," no matter how high the costs, until you're actually in a position--as a government official or superhero--to have to accept those costs on behalf of those who will bear them, in order to maintain your principles. (For a magnificant academic treatment of these issues, see Michael S. Moore's paper "Torture and the Balance of Evils" in his collection Placing Blame.)
For that reason, I am no moral absolutist when it comes to torture (or anything else). As a Kantian I am a strong devotee of moral duty and principle, but no matter how firmly we adhere to a moral principle, there can always be another moral principle can that be judged to be more important--and this importance can be based, in part, on consequences. But this is a decision that everyone has to make for himself or herself--including fictional characters like superheroes that find themselves in these situations much more often than the average Jane or Joe.
As much as I admire the character of Captain America, I find it more believable that he, compared to Spider-Man, would engage in torture, with a tremendous heavy heart, when he judged it to be necessary. Ideally, his struggle with such a decision would parellel America's struggle with it. It would rip him apart inside, representing a betrayal of his core principles of respect for human rights and dignity, and he would only do it if the costs of not doing it were unacceptably high, as in the "ticking time-bomb scenario." (He would not, however, be as flippant about it as he was in Secret Avengers #21, shown at the right.)
As I understand the character of Spider-Man, he would be far less accepting of the "inevitability" of torture in whatever few circumstances Cap would. Spidey would want to look for another way, not stopping until he found it, no matter what the costs to himself (as with his "no one dies" pledge). If anything, he may be guilty of ignoring the costs to others of sticking to his own principles in the face of the "Ends of the Earth," and a thought process like this may in fact explain why he resorted to torture in Amazing Spider-Man #685. But we don't know this, because it wasn't fleshed out (at least not yet). As it stands, it appears that Spidey adopted this morally extreme course of action too easily, and that seems out of character.
Why does this matter? (This question was at the core of much of the Twitter discussion this morning, and is a point I explored in my other chapter in Spider-Man and Philosophy, "The Sound of Fury Behind 'One More Day.'") It matters because the character of Spider-Man has been around for 50 years now, and for the most part has been defined very precisely, to the credit of the dozens of writers that have told his stories over the years. He has changed and he has grown, but organically within the stories, not suddenly or abruptly--except in cases like the deal with Mephisto in One More Day or the incident that prompted all this hubbub.
That rare cases like these stand out is because they are exceptions to the "rule," or in this case, the character that is Spider-Man. If you've read his stories long enough, you feel you know him and you come to care about him, despite his being a fictional character. (This is the problem with the ciphers walking around in familiar costumes in DC Comics' New 52.) Just as we call out our friends for doing this that are out of character ("this isn't you, Jimmy, it's not who you are!"), we can think of our fictional characters' action the same way--even moreso, actually, because fictional characters, no matter how complex, are much simpler and well-defined than people in the real world.
If comics publishers and creators want our loyalty to their characters, they have a responsibility to portray the characters consistently--and if they choose to have a character do something surprisingly, they should deal with it in-story so it feels organic. The backlash against One More Day is a obvious example of readers' feelings of betrayal at out-of-character writing based on editorial fiat. On the other hand, the frequent back-and-forth between Cap and Iron Man since Civil War, each calling out the other's hypocrisies, is fantastic, because it deals with issues of character and consistency in-story--between the characters themselves, even!
To me, and to many other readers, Spider-Man never seemed like a character that would accept torture as an acceptable means to an end. If that is a true representation of the character as he's evolved, then I hope the creators will draw that out--that could make for some thoughtful and enjoyable superhero comics. But I also wonder what other lines he refuses to cross, and that fills me with despair.