While preparing my nearly-monthly update to my personal blog, I noticed that Wiley has made my Superman and Philosophy chapter, "Moral Judgment: The Power That Makes Superman Human," available for free at its website.
In this chapter, I explain how Superman's powers don't make him immune to the need to make difficult moral choices that can't be solved by simple rules (much less super-strength). For examples, the chapter draws Superman's execution of three Kryptonians villains (including an alternate version of General Zod), which led to his self-imposed exile from Earth, as well as his more recent walk across America in the "Grounded" storyline (which I discussed previously here and here).
At The Atlantic today, Noah Berlatsky of the Hooded Utilitarian argues that Superman has not wandered far from his historical roots in racist fascism, which is even more reason to be concerned that anti-gay writer Orson Scott Card is writing Adventures of Superman. I won't comment on his spurious links between the Ku Klux Klan and Superman, much less his statement that "even at this late date, it's just not that hard to look at Superman and see the outlines of the KKK." (For a better look at Superman and the Klan, see this piece by Carol Borden at The Cultural Gutter, and for commentary on the links between fascism, Nietzsche, and Superman, see the chapters in part three of Superman and Philosophy.)
Berlatsky's main substantive points seem to be that 1) Superman is a "violent vigilante" and 2) violent vigilantism invariably and inevitably becomes directed towards the powerless in society. The first point is merely asserted but not elaborated on, as if readers would take this for granted. I think both aspects of this characterization of Superman are mistaken: he often uses force, certainly, but never disproportionately, and always to assist law enforcement when he can rather than subvert it. Batman has been known to cross both of these lines and has been criticized for it--see Colin Smith's review of the recent Batman #17, for example--but Superman has always been a clear counterpoint to this.
As for the second point, it is indeed a common storytelling device in comics for heroes to go mad with power, succumbing to the Ring of Gyges and abusing their fantastic abilities. This is an everpresent issue for Superman, the most powerful of heroes while at the same time a visitor to our fair planet. But this is a feature rather than a flaw: it allows the ongoing creators of Superman to depict the human (and Kryptonian) struggle to retain one's ethics against the pull of self-interest, especially as the power to pursue the latter grows. This highlights the importance of Clark Kent's upbringing in Smallville, where the Kents instilled a solid moral code in Clark to counteract the temptation of using his powers later. Of course he may let his resolve slip and use his powers for himself or causes he comes to believe in. But because he's a hero--because he's Superman--he won't.
So yes, a writer such as Orson Scott Card could use Superman's power to further his own agenda. But let's keep the focus of our collective disgust on Mr. Card, not on a superhero that, for 75 years, has shown us consistently how one should use amazing power for the good of others despite every temptation to do the opposite.
Reed Richards (aka Mr. Fantastic) is often portrayed as clueless when it comes to the more romantic and emotional aspects of his marriage to his wife Susan (aka the Invisible Woman), but once in a while he shows his feelings as only one of the smartest people in the Marvel Universe can. In yesterday's Fantastic Four #4, Matt Fraction and Mark Bagley devote an issue to showing us just how romantic Mr. Fantastic can be. (Spoilers after the fold.)
As everyone in the comics community knows, Amazing Spider-Man #700 and Avenging Spider-Man #15.1 come out today, and the transformation revealed in Amazing Spider-Man #698 is confirmed: Otto Octavius, aka Doc Ock, is now aka Spider-Man, having successfully switched minds with Peter Parker in a well laid-out plan over the last year (in our time). Peter made a valiant effort to reverse the switch, but Doc Ock anticipated his every move, and at the end of the main story in ASM #700, Peter (in Doc Ock’s body) breathes his last breath.
I was both impressed and disappointed by the way ASM #700 played out. I thought Dan Slott’s script was very well written and paced, with more than a few moments where I thought Peter would pull it off… but then Doc Ock would one-up him. But I was disappointed that the story ended with little more than a confirmation of what we learned in ASM #698. In ASM #699, we saw Peter, trapped in Doc Ock’s failing body, being the brilliant Peter we know and love, crafting a plan and setting up his return. Since we were promised an ever bigger surprise in #700 than we got in #698, I expected Peter to defeat Doc Ock and reverse the switch, only to have something else—or someone else—step in at the last moment and foil things up, and then that person would be the Superior Spider-Man starting next year. For me, the surprise ending was that there was no surprise: Doc Ock is (still) the new Spider-Man (for now).
If there was a surprise ending to #700, it was the transformation of character Doc Ock goes through, first by instinctively protecting Aunt May from the Scorpion, and then after Peter uses the weak mindlink that he was able to establish with the gold octobot to force certain key memories into Otto’s conscious mind. After this, Octavius comes to realize why Peter used his powers for good and how precious life is, and at the end of ASM #700 he vows to become a hero himself. (Literally.)
Farewell, Peter Parker. Know this, I will carry on in your name. You may be leaving this world, but you are not leaving it to a villain. I swear. I will be Spider-Man. Better yet, with my unparalleled genius--and my boundless ambition--I'll be a better Spider-Man than you ever were. From this day forth, I shall become... the Superior Spider-Man!
He decides to be the Spider-Man the world deserves, not what he comes to see in Avenging Spider-Man #15.1 as the scatterbrained Spidey that Peter Parker was while trying to balance a personal life with superheroics. This is where Avenging #15.1 fleshes out Amazing Spider-Man #700, laying out more of Doc Ock’s thinking going forward after he comes to the realization of his heroic destiny. In that book, written by Chris Yost, we see Otto sizing up all the aspects of Peter’s life, from his costume and equipment, his relationship with MJ, his work at Horizon, and most importantly how he fought against Spidey time and time again—and how Spidey always won. It is then that Otto realizes that Doc Ock, for all his genius, was a “pontificating, weak-chinned fool,” and that he will not only be a better Spider-Man than Peter Parker was, but he will also be a better man than Doctor Octopus was.
It’s this transformation of Otto Octavius, with overlapping themes of responsibility, redemption, and renewal, that will have me buying Superior Spider-Man when it launches in 2013. I was planning to dropping Spidey after #700 and picking it up again after the inevitable Peter Parker Reborn event in 2014. But the premise that Slott has set up interests me, so I’ll see where he goes with it. (Hey, I’m as surprised as anyone!)
Some random thoughts:
1. The Superior Spider-Man is also the Brutal Spider-Man, as shown by how he takes the Scorpion’s jaw off while defending Aunt May, which adds a bit of Knightfall flavor to the proceedings. (The fact that J. Jonah Jameson takes a liking to this new Spidey is a bad sign in and of itself.) I imagine we'll see this impulse be tempered by friends like Daredevil (in whose book he'll appear soon) and various memories of Peter's as well (though certainly not this one).
2. I’m no neuroscientist, but as I understand it, intelligence has more to do with physical brain architecture than personality and memories do. Just in terms of the overly simplistic “software/hardware” analogy to mind and brain, switching personalities and memories between the two men would entail swapping “programs,” while swapping their respective “geniuses” would require more extensive rewiring of neurons and whatnot. (Note the subtle use of vernacular to distract from my whopping ignorance.) Of course, mental swaps are de rigeur in comics, so we shouldn’t nitpick, but since Otto makes such a big deal about how his genius surpasses Peter’s—although his personality resides in Peter’s physical brain—it raises the question anew.
3. Of course, we all know that we haven’t seen the last of Peter—the obvious way to bring him back is for his brain patterns to have been stored in the gold octobot when Peter tried to return things to normal at the end of ASM #700. (Hey, it worked for Tony Stark after his protracted self-lobotomy, right?) Any other ideas?
4. Doc Ock and MJ—eww.
But seriously, the first time he calls her “woman,” she should’ve known something was up, not to mention all his other odd behavior. It would have been appropriate if MJ could have saved Peter from Doc Ock at after realizing that something was amiss—but she'll have her chance once “Just One More Day, We Promise” happens.
It's been a long wait--for me, at least!--but the cover to Superman and Philosophy is finally available (and visible to your right). As I said on my personal blog after I first saw it, I love how it parallels the Batman and Philosophy cover in general layout and title font, since the two volumes bookend my tenure with the series to date.
Here is the table of contents--I'll share more about the book as publication approaches!
The Big Blue Boy Scout: Ethics, Judgment, and Reason
1 Moral Judgment: The Power That Makes Superman Human
Mark D. White
2 Action Comics! Superman and Practical Reason
3 Can the Man of Tomorrow Be the Journalist of Today?
Jason Southworth and Ruth Tallman
4 Could Superman Have Joined the Third Reich? The Importance and Shortcomings of Moral Upbringing
Truth, Justice, and American Way: What Do They Mean?
5 Clark Kent Is Superman! The Ethics of Secrecy
6 Superman and Justice
7 Is Superman an American Icon?
The Will to Superpower: Nietzsche, the Übermensch, and Existentialism
8 Rediscovering Nietzsche’s Übermensch in Superman as a Heroic Ideal
9 Superman or Last Man: The Ethics of Superpower
10 Superman: From Anti-Christ to Christ-Type
11 Superman Must Be Destroyed! Lex Luthor as Existentialist Anti-Hero
Sarah Donovan and Nick Richardson
The Ultimate Hero: What Do We Expect from Superman?
12 Superman’s Revelation: The Problem of Violence in Kingdom Come
13 A World Without a Clark Kent?
Randall M. Jensen
14 The Weight of the World: How Much Is Superman Morally Responsible For?
Audrey L. Anton
Superman and Humanity: A Match Made in Krypton?
15 Superman and Man: What a Kryptonian Can Teach Us About Humanity
16 Can the Man of Steel Feel Our Pain? Sympathy and Superman
17 World’s Finest Philosophers: Superman and Batman on Human Nature
Carsten Fogh Nielsen
Of Superman and Superminds: Who Is Superman, Anyway?
18 “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s … Clark Kent?” Superman and the Problem of Identity
19 Superman Family Resemblance
20 Why Superman Should Not Be Able to Read Minds
This blew me away this morning (courtesy of @the_stardust on Twitter): a picture from a protest against the emerging war between Israel and Hamas.
Not only is this an inspirational picture, it strongly evokes David S. Goyer's story from Action Comics #900 in which Superman intervenes in an Arab Spring-like protest by simply standing amongst the protestors in solidarity:
This story received a lot of press at the time for Superman's subsequent renunciation of his US citizenship (discussed here and in a chapter in the upcoming Superman and Philosophy), but I hope what Superman--and that real-life little boy--did to support the worldwide march toward greater human rights for all will remembered for much longer.
As you might have heard by now, in today's Ultimate Comics: Ultimates #15, Captain America is elected president of the United States in a special election. (He takes the oath in #16, shown to the right.) America is the real world may be divided ideologically, but the Ultimate version is divided physically, with various grouping of states separated from the union and under various forms of government or rule.
(MILD SPOILERS AHEAD)
One of these is the West Coast, which has begun protecting its borders from refugees from the warlike southwest region using drones developed by the late Hank Pym (and called, naturally, Wasps). After the drones go offline and starts killing indiscriminately, Cap defies orders to stay out of the West Coast and leads the Ultimates into California to battle the Wasps. Americans across the country are so impressed and inspired by the TV images of Cap that they vote for him as a write-in candidate in the special election, and at the end of the issue, Carol Danvers calls him on a payphone to tell him he won.
In a press release, Marvel Comics released three pages from Ultimate Comics: Ultimates #16, written by Sam Humphries and pencilled by Luke Ross, showing Cap's acceptance speech (courtesy of Bleeding Cool)--click to enlarge.
Whatever the differences in character or politics between the Captain America in the Ultimate Universe and the more familiar one from the mainstream Marvel Universe, this is Captain America who we know, love, and admire. As he says, "America is deep in crisis--we're divided, mistrustful, nervous, and scared." Appropriately for such times, Cap strikes a inspiring tone: "This crisis calls us all to do our best. To rebuild our fragile unity. To find the strength equal to our challenges." This is not a partisan message--it is a universal message, and one we hear all too seldom from our elected leaders or candidates for office.
Can Captain America heal the once United States of America in the Ultimate Universe--can he be Abraham Lincoln, as Humphries said to the Washington Post? I think it's a fairly good bet he will, but since this is the Marvel Ultimate Universe, there's no way to tell what the country will look like when it's over. The Ultimate line gives Marvel creators leeway to stretch the realism the mainstream Marvel Universe is known for, so the usual fan assumption of "things will always go back to the status quo" doesn't always hold.
What about America in the real world? As outlandish as it may seem, I think the character of Captain America, whether in the mainstream Marvel Universe, the Ultimate Universe, or the movies and animated series, can help bring the fractured interests in our country back together. As I've written before, he provides an example of principle over politics, exemplifying the founding virtues of justice and equality that all Americans can embrace in general, even if we disagree on how to understand or implement them. His ethics, so often caricatured as black-and-white, show us how we can and should act towards each other with both care and respect, so that each of us can pursue his or her own interests and dreams consistent with the rest of us doing the same.
It is interesting to note that Captain America dealt with presidential politics once before, as a candidate for a populist third party. This was also during an election year in the real world, in Captain America (vol. 1) #250 (October 1980), written by Roger Stern and co-plotted and pencilled by John Byrne. After an entire issue of deliberation and advice from half the Marvel Universe, in the end he declined:
In this case, he turned down the candidacy to maintain his idealism and avoid the compromises that come with any position of political leadership. He makes a terrific point: any leader must find a way to balance the myriad interests within society, and in order to do that, he or she always risks disappointing or alienating one group or another. Cap wanted to stay above that so he can remain a symbol of the American dream for all.
Why did the Captain America in the Ultimate Universe make a different choice? Perhaps he felt that if he didn't accept the position of president of the United States of America out of a desire to avoid political compromise, all Americans would lose given their advanced state of national decay. Perhaps he felt that serving as president was the only way he could preserve the American dream in that reality, both through his actions and his example. The Cap in the mainstream Marvel Universe was not "ready to negotiate... to preserve the republic at all costs," but the Ultimate Cap did not feel he had that option, and "decided to answer the call of the people" in a time of near-collapse of that republic.
But in both cases, Cap emphasized that it is up to the American people to take care of themselves however they can, whether through private or public cooperation. In 1980 he told the American people, "you need to look within yourselves to find the people you need to keep this nation strong... and God willing, to help make the dream come true!" and in 2012 he told them, "America has asked me to lead them. I ask America to look within themselves."
In whatever form he takes, Captain America always stands ready to help, fight, and lead--but he demands that we all pitch in too. Ultimately (pun intended), perhaps that's the message we can take from this latest comics development and apply to the real world, especially when each of us votes in November for the person we think can best lead us out of our current economic malaise and identity crisis. In other words, who will be our Captain America?
All in all, Green Lantern Annual #1, written by Geoff Johns and pencilled by Ethan Van Sciver and Pete Woods, is one of the most exciting books to come out of the DC New 52 so far. Faint praise, perhaps, but this felt like the build-up to Johns' previous GL events like "Sinestro Corps War" and "Blackest Night," and that feeling has been sorely missed over the last year.
I don't think there will be any major plot spoilers in this post aside from what already appeared in the online preview (the first six pages on the comic). I will show a couple images from later in the comic, but nothing really revealing--but be warned in any case. SPOILERS!!!
As you may have seen from the preview, the Smurfs Gone Wild have decided that the threat to the universe lies not in emotion in general, nor in individual emotions, but in the very willpower that powers the Green Lantern rings--or, as they put it, free will.
We need to be clear on they mean by "free will." He does not mean it as the term is used in metaphysical debates over free will vs. determinism. That sense of free will describes any being's ability to be the "uncaused cause" and "first mover," to be able insert his, her, or its decision-making power or agency onto a world of physical cause-and-effect. It is not up to the Guardians or anyone else to eliminate free will if it exists--it either does or does not. And if there is no free will, no one has it--including our Guardians.
No, what they mean by "free will" is true choice, agency, or autonomy, the ability to make choices independently of external (and possibly internal) authority or undue influence. Free will in this sense can exist regardless of whether metaphysical free will exists, since this variety of free will operates on a psychological level, not the level of elementary particle physics. Even if we are not truly "in control" of our thoughts and actions in a deterministic universe, we will still "make" choices independently of others' choices--in the end, they simply are not our choices at all. (For more on the various meaning of free will, see this article at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)
Basically, the Guardians don't like that their Lanterns think for themselves, for then you end up with rebels like Hal Jordan and Guy Gardner. (In fact, the middle Guardian above sounds a lot like the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg--he probably thinks the Lanterns drink too much soda too.) They want mindless creatures that will do their bidding--hence, the Third Army. And they're purty, too:
(I would have thought the word "assimilate" had been trademarked by the Star Trek people by now, but I guess not.) These soliders (for lack of a better term) have no mind, no identity, no free will. They will not make their own choices, they will not question the orders of the Guardians--they will be tools, pure and simple.
This story seems like a natural progression for Johns' broader Green Lantern arc, and I'm interested to see how it plays out. I do hope the Guardians eventually return to being good guys, if imperfect ones. Jordan and Guy Gardner disagreed with them often, of course, but at bottom they all sought the good, only disagreeing on how to pursue it. I hope Johns redeems them, or some of them, at the end of this storyline--but if the rest of New 52 universe is any guide, I'm not holding my breath.
I can't end this post without a couple panels from this comic that I found hilarious. First, we have the long-lost Guardians of Middle-Earth:
I guess they're the Lords of the... nah, too easy.
In the scene below, Hal and Sinestro have to combine the last flickers of energy in their rings to summon Sinestro's power battery. I guess Hal was a fan of the old Superfriends show, but Sinestro is none too happy with it.
Green Lantern powers, activate! Priceless.
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.