Writer Wars Round 3: Comics and Philosophy: Issue One by Doc Rock
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Ethics and Power in Action Comics #1
A superhero comic is not a work of history, nor merely a fiction, but the exploration of very human experiences with the additional combustion of fantastical powers. The popularity of superheroes represents something about the public’s fascination with a character who possesses the ability act in dire real-world circumstances in unrealistically effective ways. Superheroes are super-capable people.
So, the superhero genre trades in the valorization of special powers, but does it actually trade in the heroic? Are superheroes demonstrating legitimately ethical behaviors worthy of an allegorical tale? Or is the superhero comic all about the fantasy of having control over an out of control world: power, absolute power, and nothing but the power? To answer this question, let’s look to the origin of the first comic book superhero: Superman in Action Comics #1.
The panels of Action Comics #1 (check them out here) offer a whirlwind tour of superior power in a mere thirteen pages. Superman stops an execution by barging into the sleeping governor’s home to provide exculpatory evidence. He actually breaks through a locked metal door to wake the sleeping man. Now we know he upholds the law (by breaking it). He stops a domestic violence assault in the act and returns the favor of violence against the abuser (by committing assault). Now we know he opposes violence against women but isn’t against dealing out violence himself. Disguised as Clark Kent, he goes on a date with Lois only to later stop her kidnapping as Superman. This is where the iconic image of Superman picking up the car comes from, as he harasses the harassers. Lastly, he goes on assignment as Kent to investigate government corruption, after which he uses his superpowers to investigate and intimidate the perpetrators (by kidnapping them) . . . to be continued . . .
The Superman of Action Comics #1 is strong, impervious, and chivalrous, but . . . ethical? The very first reveal of Superman states that, “early, Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind and so was created . . . Superman! champion on the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!” Superman possess the power to dominate and control we puny earthlings, but chooses not to do so. Rather, he is determined to use his powers to benefit the powerless, thus bringing a balance to the world. The superhero genre thus sets a realistic set of problems in orbit around a dynamo of power personified. This is why the reader can understand Supes as being a good guy.
On the other hand, Superman is not without his own personal struggles. His is a story about power in the face of alienation, the distance one feels between what they think they are and what they actually are. Of course, the true identity of Superman is literally an alien who falls to Earth, but the façade of Clark Kent hides the power underneath the mask from public view. The man who wears those unassuming spectacles is nonexistent, and the true identity, Superman, is virtually unknown. This portrays yet another of his powers: Superman is the strength of self-assertion in the face of an identity crisis. No one knows who he really is, and no one cares about who he pretends to be. He has no real friends or family (originally raised by “caregivers”), and likely has no idea where he comes from. Fighting crime is not just what he does, it is literally who he is, and since he is good at it, his struggle for identity is a resounding success. He effectively dominates all the problems the average person faces with devastating efficacy. So far so good, it seems.
But Superman’s tendency toward domination is a constellation of power and control over self, circumstances, or others. He is not a beacon of justice in these early pages, and we are not privy to his moral code. Rather, he responds to perpetrators in much the same fashion as their crimes. No doubt we are all familiar with examples of hypocrisy where someone doesn’t judge their own actions with the same severity as they judge others. But what about those who wish to end oppressive systems invariably by becoming oppressors themselves? So let’s get back to Superman’s slogan . . .
If your ethical principle is to “champion the oppressed” for example, and you conduct this by, say, beating up people for beating up other people, one wonders whether you project ethical behavior or, more likely, a valorization of domination. Remember: Supes breaks the law to fix an injustice, he abuses abusers, harasses harassers, kidnaps, intimidates, and generally oppresses the oppressors. So, is the Superman of Action Comics #1 actually demonstrating a moral persona for readers, or, rather, someone amoral, and above the law? Does this superhero represent a moral exemplar, or merely a fantasy about executing one’s own will?
Superman in Action Comics #1 represents a power fantasy, but he does not represent a moral allegory, and he is not an ethical figure. He overcomes the restrictions upon human abilities and powers no human ever really could, but his power is entirely self-contained in a reality that has no higher authority beyond his own. Superman lives in a reality without a moral code or an all-powerful god to contend with. This is why he can perform exactly the same actions as the bad guys without consequences. There is only a veneer of morality to his actions such that the presentation seems allegorical, but this is not grounded in consequences for the wielder of that power. Superman is the god with which the disobedient have to contend. His utmost superpower is the ability to invent his own morality with no one and nothing to challenge his authority. The fantasy he fulfills is being god, and definitely not being good. Thankfully, perhaps, he would develop into more of an ethical exemplar, but not without the fascination that the reading public has with power and dominance, über alles.