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Selective Morality in Comics: From Bat-Torture to Kid Sidekicks

There’s no question that when we read a comic book, we step into a different world. That’s the point. Things that aren’t possible in the real world work like a charm in comics. Things that would look silly or creepy blend in with an exaggerated comic book world. Things make sense, there.

And while the practical aspect of superhero comics — or lack thereof — has been ridiculed many times, lately comic book superhero morality has been questioned as well. The truth is, comic book superheroes didn’t just evolve a certain mode of dress or grow a rogues gallery, they established a fictional morality that went along with their world. Over time, this moral world has changed, and splintered, but it still is their own.

One of the most interesting morality clashes I’ve seen is the difference you see between the same character in different media. “The Dark Knight,” the film, intentionally dealt with issues being discussed today: invasion of privacy, the torture of prisoners for information, and the balance of security and liberty. In the film, Batman tortures an incarcerated Joker to get information. It’s shown as a moral digression, one which is echoed later in the film when Lucius Fox leaves Wayne Enterprises after finding out about a covert surveillance program.

But in the comics, Batman has been torturing people to get information out of them for decades. He terrifies them, beats them, illegally imprisons them, and it’s standard procedure.Even when engaging in more benign behavior, superheroes do some unsavory things, mostly because of the way they were “raised.” Back in the days of World War II, and later, with the Comics Code Authority, superheroes were portrayed a kind of support staff for the established heroes of the time. Superman and Captain America battled Nazis. Batman and Robin worked with the police — always seen as righteous and in a position of authority suited to the CCA — to catch dastardly criminals.

As styles changed, and people wanted a darker and more realistic portrayal of crime, superheroes started solving murders by investigating suspects and looking at financial records. They acted as police detectives, and when they caught the suspect, they invariably turned him over to the authorities, along with the evidence they collected. From breaking into his house. And tapping his phone. Without a warrant. So superheroes act as, basically, agents of the government who torture, who have no regard for the right to privacy, and who don’t answer to the rules they enforce.

And we wouldn’t have it any other way. If we wanted more detail on police procedure, we’d watch one of the six different “Law & Order” episodes currently being broadcast to our TV, or read a book about the evolution and decline of privacy laws. This isn’t about being correct, it’s about bringing down evil-doers, and so we will turn our heads away when we hear of a police officer charging in without a warrant on a show about corrupt cops, but when Batman goes through every file in a mobster’s office and has Robin dangle someone over a building, that’s him being the world’s greatest detective.

Then there’s the entire idea of the kid sidekick. It made sense, morally, when comics were being marketed to children. A child never thinks they’re a child. They think they’re just short, and having adventures just like adults is their privilege and their duty! Then they grow up. Everyone has the pang of realizing that they started reading comics when they were a few years younger than the sidekick, and now they’re older than them, and have they ever saved the world? No. But while it’s hard to realize the passage of time, it’s worse to see that sidekick grow up and get a job and watch their mentor die of old age. So kids in comics are continually put into situations of abject horror, sexual inappropriateness, and extreme violence because that’s what a twelve year old wanted to think they were ready for when they were sixteen and that’s what the part of a forty-year-old that’s still stuck at sixteen wants to read about. The morality of the situation is buried under nostalgia and tradition.

I think the biggest quagmire of morality comes, though, when heroes use their powers for punching, instead of the limitless things that would make the world a better place. I know this is the constant complaint of the annoying comic-book pedant. Bruce Wayne is a billionaire genius with a limitless power to innovate, and yet he spends it all on computers with ears on them. Reed Richards and Sue Storm are, at this point, pretty much the same. The X-Men could, collectively, rule the world economically through their incredibly powers, and Tony Stark — well. Maybe just leave Tony out of it.

It’s annoying, and it’s also the truth, and it’s also, potentially, an incredible story. Superheroes change the world for the better, one mind-bendingly brilliant idea at a time. Imagine a book that takes an idealistic view of organized social change. One in which Magneto uses the metal holding up buildings to rearrange cities in order to create a more effective infrastructure, while Xavier, Emma Frost and Daken used their collective mind-and-mood-wrangling powers to broker a peace between nations and Storm drew up new weather patterns for the world which would minimize drought, floods and famine. Meanwhile the Fantastic Four are solving the energy crisis and Jubilee provides fireworks for the official World Peace day at the end. It would be a thrilling, unforgettable story, especially if enough research went into it to make it intelligent.

And then what?

The last, and most crucial stumbling block between real morality and comic book morality, is comic books are serialized. Of course we could say that real life is serialized as well, but since we’re stuck with that, no one has to make us interested in buying it. Sure, Kal-El could give the immeasurable technological advances of his Fortress of Solitude to the world, but after that? Change “Action Comics” to “Competent Administration and Fair Patent Law Comics,” and set the rest of the series inside an office?

That’s the conundrum that keeps superheroes fighting their own petty battles in their corrupt systems. If they were morally correct, if they made the right choices, if they decided to be the change they wanted to see in the world, what would happen next?

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