Friday, March 23, 2007

Superheroes and Politics - Where's the Line?

Taking a break from grading, I read JLA: Superpower, a Prestige one-shot from 1999 written by John Arcudi that I picked up cheap the other day. Without revealing many details - it's worth looking for, IMHO - it deals with a very eager young hero, Mark Antaeus, who is invited to join the JLA after demonstrating his abilities and devotion. But while he does help the JLA in fighting supervillains and helping victims of natural disasters, he desperately wants to intervene in a political situation involving a murderous (ostensibly fictional) Middle East dictator. The rest of the JLA, while repulsed by the actions of this man, refuse to participate in an assassination attempt, but Mark says he does not plan to kill him, only remove him from power. Nonetheless, the JLA refuses to interfere in "affairs of state," after which Mark quits the JLA and takes matters into his hands. (Read the book for the rest.)

This raises a very interesting point: where does this prohibition on interfering with state affairs come from, and does it strictly rule out interventions to prevent eggregious human rights violations? (I assume the prohibition is based on the U.N., which I believe has a similar provision, chiefly against interfering in civil wars.)

One way to look at the JLA's position is that they respect sovereign nations' laws and policies, whatever their moral status. This reflects the jurisprudential doctrine of legal positivism, that the validity of laws stems (at least primarily) from their source or pedigree, not any independent moral evaluation. But critics of legal positivism - and Mark Antaeus, apparently - believe that there is a higher standard by which to judge governments' laws, a position generally known as natural law. Different natural law thinkers would claim different standards, but all would agree that whatever standard they hold should be used to evaluate even sovereign nations' laws and actions. For instance, human rights groups regularly criticize national governments for violating what they feel are essential human rights, regardless of their legality within each country.

We see this same theme played out in recent issues of Green Lantern, in which Hal Jordan regularly violates the Freedom of Powers Act, a law passed by a group of countries (not including the US) that prohibits the activities of superheroes within their borders. GL's argument is that the whole of space sector 2814 is his jurisdiction - he serves the Guardians of the Universe, not any one Earth nation-state. Just as the early natural law theorists, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, believed that God's law supercedes human laws, Green Lanterns enforce the Guardians' "law" over the laws of any one planet.

And finally, the philosophical battle in Marvel's Civil War can be stated in terms of this debate. Heroes on the Pro-Reg side may have chosen that side because they believed in the intent and prupose of the Superhero Registration Act, or perhaps because they believed that "the law is the law," provided it was instituted through proper legal channels ("primary rules," to use legal positivist H.L.A. Hart's term). (Strangely, Daredevil, who has always espoused a respect for law as law, was Anti-Reg, but maybe the choice was Danny's, not Matt's.) The Anti-Reg forces were opposed to the law because they felt it was wrong, that there were higher ideals threatened by its passage, however legitimate and democratic the process may have been. (This has shades of John Stuart Mill's concept of "tyranny of the majority" - Mill wrote that there are some rights that should be protected even against majoritarian democratic processes, such as those included in the Bill or Rights.) In this light, Captain America's surrender at the end of Civil War #7 can be seen as a concession to legal positivism, that the registration law passed "by the people" should truly be considered to be "for the people," and if his side wants to fight it, they should do so through the proper channels. (There are strong arguments for civil disobedience, of course, but they usually do not include destroying a city in the process, as the final battle in CW #7 was doing before Cap called it off.)

All of this can be summarized in the question: what is justice? Is it defined by governmental laws, or by a higher, "natural" law? Since superheroes are usually understood to be fighting for justice, one cannot avoid these issues, especially in today's more politicized (and philosophical) comics world.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Why is messing with Daredevil's mind so popular?

Just a thought - as I mentioned in my profile, I got into Daredevil last year after I read Brubaker and Lark's first TPB (featuring Matt Murdock in prison). Since then, in addition to keeping up with the monthlies, I read the last TPB by Bendis and Maleev (which tells how Matt went to prison), and then started reading the classic DD, starting with the three collected volumes of Frank Miller's work plus his "Born Again" and "The Man without Fear" origin story, Loeb and Sale's fantastic "Yellow," then "The Fall of the Kingpin," and "Fall from Grace" (featuring the hideous armored costume), plus assorted loose issues. (If anyone wants to start reading DD, this Amazon list is a great place to start.)

So then I started reading the current run, specifically Kevin Smith's 8-issue arc, which I just finished. I'm a huge Kevin Smith fan, mainly of his movies (snoochy-boochies!), but also his Green Arrow run, which is what pulled me back into comics several years ago. His DD story was just as good, and the art (by current Marvel EIC Joe Quesada) was incredible too - I highly recommend the TPB to any DD fan (warning: some knowledge of past DD lore is recommended as well).

So, after reading all this DD, I have to ask: is there any hero whose mind gets messed with as much as poor Matt Murdock? Never mind all the tragedy is his life - blinded as a youth, most every woman he loves dies (Kyle Rayner has the same problem over at DC, of course), etc. But most of best story arcs involve breaking the guy DOWN. Examples:

SPOILERS AHEAD: In "Born Again," Wilson Fisk (Kingpin) discovers DD's secret identity (through one of DD's lady loves) and then meticulously dismantles his life piece by piece. (DD returns the favor in "Fall of the Kingpin.") In the recent books, Fisk's wife gets him thrown in jail (with the help of a corrupt FBI agent), engineers Foggy's death, teases him with a woman that smells like one of DD's dead lovers, and then offers to make everything right if he gets her husband out of prison, the last thing he wants to do. In numerous stories since Frank Miller introduced her, Elektra dies and comes back, dies and comes back, dies and... you get the idea. (Seems it might happen again in a few months, based on Marvel soliciations.) And in Smith's arc, Mysterio - you know, Spidey's dome-headed foe - makes DD think an infant thrust into his care is of Biblical importance, everyone who doubts him is part of a grand conspiracy, and, to cap things off in true DD fashion, Bullseye, who Mysterio sent to fetch the babe, kills one of Matt's loves. END OF SPOILERS.

My question is: why is DD such an easy mark for these head games? Is he widely known to be that unstable? Is it the fact that he has a life to destroy, or that he actually commits to women? Sure, Batman gets messed with a bit - the whole Knightfall event, the death of Jason Todd, being framed for murder, the resurrection of Jason Todd - but I haven't read a Batman tale where he is completely broken down psychologically like DD routinely is. But Bruce Wayne is widely regarded as a mere ruse, and he rarely commits to a woman for more than one writer's tenure (with the exception of Selina Kyle).

Maybe it's a Marvel thing - their heroes have traditionally been more "damaged" (Daredevil - not simply the blindness, but having been deserted by his mother and then losing his father), misfits and outcasts (X-Men, Spiderman), flawed (Iron Man), or just jerks (the new Ant-Man) - ostensibly to make them more appealing to the all-too-human readers. (This fits in with the death of Captain America, who may have been all too perfect for the Marvel Universe.) But I can't be sure, because I haven't read enough Marvel (though I know Spidey's certainly faced his share of tragedy - the deaths of Uncle Ben of course, Gwen Stacey, and Aunt May several times over).

I'm anxious to see where Brubaker's headed with the next story arc, but please - go easy on Matt, at least for a couple issues. (After all, you got to kill Cap, and you have Iron Fist to mess with now.)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Call for papers: Batman and Philosophy (edited book)

Since this has come up in the comments, I'll just mention this here:

Call for Abstracts

Please circulate and post widely.

Apologies for Cross-posting.

Batman and Philosophy
Edited by Mark D. White and Robert Arp

The Blackwell Philosophy and PopCulture Series
William Irwin, Series Editor (

To propose ideas for future volumes in the Blackwell series please contact William Irwin (

Abstracts and subsequent essays should be philosophically substantial but accessible, written to engage the intelligent lay reader. Contributors of accepted essays will receive an honorarium.

Possible themes and topics might include, but are not limited to, the following:
  • The dynamic duo and dualism
  • The aesthetics of the Batman universe
  • The flip of a coin: Two-Face and determinism
  • Batman and the ethics of collateral damage
  • Batman and the ethics of vigilantism
  • Batman or Bruce Wayne: which is his 'true' identity?
  • “What’s it like to be a Batman?”: subjectivity and the mind/body problem
  • Appearance, reality, and the importance of masquerade
  • Gotham City, political corruption, and the need for heroes
  • Bruce Wayne and Batman, the morning star and the evening star: sense, reference, and the problem of naming
  • Batman and the ethics of child care
  • Batman and the recurring Messiah complex
  • Knowing Bruce Wayne and knowing Batman: propositional attitudes and substance dualism
  • Batman and the use/abuse of technology
  • Bats, confronting fears, and moral courage as a motivator for action
  • Heroes and obligatory vs. supererogatory acts
  • Batman’s deontological respect for Robin vs. a villain’s objectification of his/her henchmen
  • The death of god and the birth of god-like heroes in Western societies
  • Batman and paranoia: what kind of hero builds a satellite to spy on his friends?
  • Batman and Superman: Different means to the same end, or different ends altogether?
  • Batman and identification: can there truly be another Batman
  • Batman and dealing with the recurrence of death (parents, Jason Todd, Stephanie Brown)
  • Playing well with others: Batman and other heroes/teams

    Contributor guidelines:
    1. Abstract of paper (100-500 words).
    2. CV or resume for each author and co-author.
    3. Submission deadline for abstracts: April 27, 2007
    4. Submission deadline for first drafts of accepted papers (tentative): August 31, 2007
    5. Abstracts should be submitted by e-mail, with or without Word attachment.

Send by e-mail to: Mark D. White (

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Mini-review: Wonder Woman #5 (no spoilers)

This one will be brief - this should have been Wonder Woman #1, or maybe even #0. I'm not ashamed to say my eyes teared up a bit near the end. A great story, done in one, and makes you believe in Wonder Woman again.

This is what Wonder Woman is about. This is who Wonder Woman is. (See my last post on character to see why that's a controversial statement.) Will Pfeifer set the bar pretty high for his successor, Jodi Picoult - let's hope she can meet the challenge.

Of course, this does raise a philosophical issue - how to balance all the good Wonder Woman has done with her murder of Max Lord? Of course, if you feel Lord's death was justified, there's no issue - next comic, please! But if you have a problem with Wonder Woman's actions, that's a true dilemma, considering all the good she's done, and will presumably continue to do.

One more thing - Heinberg who? Frankly, I don't care if his "Who Is Wonder Woman?" story never gets resolved. I think this issue settled the question once and for all.

Do Superheroes Lack Character?

One of the most interesting books I've read recently is Lack of Character by John Doris, which sets out to debunk a conception of human nature that is part of our everyday ideas about people, and is also popular with many philosophers.

Most of us believe that individuals have character--that they possess inherent personality traits, such as honesty, trustworthiness, or avarice, that play a large part in determining what actions they will take in various circumstances. A generally helpful person will do generous things for other more often than a less helpful person; a generally honest person lies less than a less honest person; and so on.

But Doris argues that there is no evidence that general personality traits such as these exist, and that our actions are actually determined almost entirely by the circumstances at hand. He cites voluminous amounts of psychological research to bolster his claim, including experiments demonstrating that people are much likely to help a stranger after they find a dime in a phone booth than if they find no dime. Studies such as these would suggest that seemly irrelevant factors (including seeing a pretty face, smelling a pleasant smell, etc.) are more determinant of our behavior than personality traits, supporting the case for situationalism. (Many philosophers have written responses to and critiques of Doris' work - a quick search on Google or the Philosopher's Index will find many.)

Besides the relevance this has for my academic work on the will and economic choice (including my chapter in Economics and the Mind), I think this is very interesting for the behavior of superheroes and our opinions of them. I'll pick two in particular: Batgirl (Cassandra Cain) and Iron Man.

Let's take Iron Man first - I'm no Marvel expert, I didn't read Civil War (except the last issue), but I've followed the events and reaction to them online since the beginning. The common feelings amongst fans is that Tony Stark is a - well, let's say schmuck. But his schmuckiness apparently varied within the series and the 734 tie-in issues, and I don't think yesterday's Civil War: The Confession cleared much up (no spoilers - see here if you want to know what happened).

But what I hear a lot is "Tony wouldn't do that," or "this isn't the Iron Man I know," or "now which Iron Man will be see in this issue?" Readers believe that there is one character named Tony Stark aka Iron Man, and that (fictional) person will behave certain ways in certain situations because of who he is. John Doris would disagree, saying that Stark's actions were all responses to the matters at hand in any given situation, implying that the character of Iron Man (or any hero/villain/bystander) actually has no character that transcends specific temporary circumstances.

Broadening our focus, many fans have argued that some Pro-Reg heroes really should have been Anti-Reg, or vice versa. (There was even a Newsarama thread about which sides the various DC heroes would have taken if there were a Civil War in the DCU.) So though they may not all agree, fans have very definite ideas about the personalities and character traits of their favorite superheroes, based of course of how writers have portrayed these characters over the years.

That brings us to Cassandra Cain, the latest Batgirl. Her fans went nuts when she reappeared OYL as a villain, leading the League of Assassins, framing Robin for her death, apparently trying to kill Supergirl, and then joining Deathstroke's Titans East team. "This is not Cassie!" came the collective cry, and websites sprouted out of the cybersoil to plead for - well, her character.

A little background - Cassie was spawned by the unholy union of two assassins, David Cain and Lady Shiva, to be the perfect assassin. Shiva disappeared, and Cain raised Cassie from birth, teaching her not to communicate in verbal language but instead in body language, eventually being able to anticipate an opponent's every move. Her first "job" was as a small girl, and after she recoiled at the reaction of her target's face as she ripped his throat out, she fled Cain's home and wound up in Gotham City, becoming an information scout for Oracle (aka Barbara Gordon, ex-Batgirl) during "No Man's Land" (post-earthquake Gotham City). After proving her skills and heroism (character trait!) by saving James Gordon's life, Batman and Oracle agree to make her the new Batgirl (giving her the costume ever so briefly adopted by the Huntress in the spirit of "striking fear into the hearts of evildoers").

Throughout the No Man's Land event, assorted appearances in the various Batman titles, and her own series (which lasted 73 issues), she was consistently portrayed as unfailingly heroic and absolutely resistant to killing, the latter as a reaction to her upbringing by David Cain and her single experience as an assassin. But after Infinite Crisis and the "One Year Later" jump, Cassandra Cain reappears in the pages of Robin, leading the League of Assassins and apparently having gotten over the whole "aversion to killing" thing.

Fans have either denounced this turn of events as a betrayal of her character, or have tried to reconcile this change with events at the end of her title's run: her home city of Bludhaven was destroyed by the Soceity during the Infinite Crisis, she did kill her mother, Shiva--but hung her over a Lazarus Pit, practically ensuring her resurrection--and Cassie taking a dip in said Lazarus Pit herself, which has been known to make people cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. In fact, her justification for killing Shiva was Shiva's promise that if allowed to live, she would kill again. Plus, Cass was exasperated over the senseless slaughter of the residents of Bludhaven, and the villains in the Society who simply kill and kill again. But that would justify her turning into a Punisher-like vigilante, not a villain--nothing seems to explain that.

None of this matters, Doris would say. Circumstances for Cassie simply changed, and that is enough to explain her behavior. And as it turns out, one circumstance in particular actually seems to have explained it all, though certainly not to everyone's satisfaction: Deathstroke drugged her. That's it. Problem solved. (Apparently, we'll see exactly when and how this happened in one of the World War III issues coming out the same week as 52 Week 50.) (By the way, SPOILERS for Teen Titans #44: Robin administered an antidote to Deathstroke's drug, so now Cassie is "cured": except she still wants to kill Deathstroke. (Gotta tweak that formula a bit, Tim.) END SPOILERS)

So it seems that along with our natural aversion to dropping the idea of personality or character traits for real-world people, we also don't want to abandon the idea that superheroes have character as well. We feel we know these "people," that we can understand and to some extent predict their actions. We don't like to think of anyone as just as automaton with buttons to be pushed to elicit certain types of behavior - well, Paris Hilton maybe, but not most people. ("Press button 1 to say THAT'S HOT, press button 2 for drunken dancing.")

We want to regard people, especially heroes, as steadfast against the pull of temporary circumstance. The concept of a hero is meaningless without a concept of character. Stand up, don't back down, don't give in, unless you consciously and deliberately decide to. Sure, Captain America surrendered in Civil War #7, but he also gave his life to save a US marshall from sniper fire when he died in Captain America #25.

If that doesn't restore your faith in character, then nothing will.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Welcome to The Comics Professor, my first foray into the blogosphere!

I'm here to discuss one of my favorite topics - comic books - with an occasional philosophical spin. Whenever I get a chance - which, despite the common belief about lazy college professors, will probably not be often - I plan to review a few new books, discuss some favorite old ones, and sometimes just go off on current developments in the comics world.

I was a comics devotee from childhood until sometime in high school (the last comics I bought before I quit were The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns), for reasons long forgotten (though my first guitar may have had something to do with it). But I rediscovered comics a couple years ago when I walked into a newly-opened local comics shop, and I felt like I'd reconnected with a long lost friend (with a mask and a cape). I've always been loyal to DC (my favorite since I was a kid buying 40-cent books off the spinner rack at the local soda shop), but the last few months I have been buying a few Marvel books, especially Daredevil (Ed Brubaker hooked me, and Frank Miller sealed the deal).

My philosophical interests lie primarily in moral/ethical philosophy, which of course is at the forefront of most major story arcs these days, such as Tony Stark's actions in "Civil War," Wonder Woman killing Max Lord in "Sacrifice," and - I have to assume - whatever Black Adam's going to do in "World War III." (It can't be good.) Rest assured that my reviews won't all be philosophical - if a book is just good fun, like Brave and the Bold or The Spirit, that's fine too! But I hope that some philosophical touches here and there will set this blog apart from the thousands of other comic book review blogs you could be reading.

So enjoy, and let me know what you think!