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Thinking Comics with Danny Fingeroth

John Shelton Lawrence asks analyser of comics and the former editor of the Spider-Man range of titles what makes a superhero, philosophically speaking.

Many of us who grew up with comic books noticed those books growing with us. A literate observer of those transitions is Danny Fingeroth, who began his comics-centered life as youthful fan, became a creator as a young man, and has recently emerged as an important interpreter of the medium. His first job at Marvel assigned him the humble task of ‘translating’ comics for the UK market – making ‘color’ into ‘colour’, ‘center’ into ‘centre’, ‘while’ into ‘whilst’ etc. He left such mundane tasks behind when he became editor for the Spider-Man character and consultant to the Fox Kids Network for Animated Spider-Man. During his Marvel years he earned writing credits for Avengers, The Deadly Foes of Spider-Man, The Hulk, Iron Man, as well as the entire fifty book run of Darkhawk (1991-1995). His awareness of principles and choices in the world of superheroism has permitted him to become an interpreter for grown-up audiences who want a better understanding of the narrative meanings of the comics world. His interpretive books are Superman on the Couch (2004), Disguised as Clark Kent (2007), and The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels (2008, illustrated by Roger Langridge), which includes a new thirty page graphic novel written by him.

Readers who look at superhero comics will immediately notice the constant physical conflict between extreme-bodied protagonists. But beneath the surface violence, the dialogue expresses moral perspectives that often go beyond the trite ‘crime does not pay’. The good-evil polarities are often ambiguously shaded. We see heroes tempted to do ill (The Punisher constantly goes over the edge) and the villains sometimes wonder whether to switch sides (Rhino wants to get out of his thuggish roles, and even prevents the murder of Spiderman). In the spirit of post-World War II existentialism, Marvel’s heroes conduct their lives in extreme situations that require hard choices. As Fingeroth told me, as a writer for youthful audiences he has always sought to convey that ‘actions have consequences’ and that heroes, unlike villains, are persons who channel the impulse for revenge into doing good. He admits his conception of this is at odds with some comics characters aimed at an older audience, where the violence has become “more extreme and vivid.” Before exploring Fingeroth’s ideas, I will set the conceptual stage for the philosophy of superheroes.

The Cultural Reputation of Superhero Comics

The Superman of my 1940s childhood was rendered sketchily with colors seeping into pulpy papers. Child-friendly dialogue swiftly moved the plot: “I swore I’d make you pay!” says a swindler as he hoists a knife. “Don’t do it, it’s murder!” replies the intended victim, just before Superman breaks the blade with “That’s no way to solve anything!” The Saturday Review of Literature’s drama critic John Mason Brown sneered in 1948: “The comic books… seem to me to be not only trash but the lowest, most despicable and most harmful and unethical form of trash.” (‘The Case against the Comics’, p.31)

Today’s comics, with sometimes eloquent dialogue and artful rendering on glossy paper, defy such ridicule. Consider Spider-Man’s words as he muses at the ruins of the World Trade Centre: “the sane world will always be vulnerable to madmen, because we cannot go where they go to conceive of such things.” (The Best of Spider-Man, #36.) Also listen to the character Dream from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: “One of you has my helm; my mask of pure dream. I crafted it myself, from the bones of a dead god.” (Sandman #4, ‘A Hope in Hell’.)

Their rising aesthetic stature has helped comic books attain legitimacy as territory for philosophers. Recognizing familiar moral, social, and ethical themes embedded in their narratives, philosophers are now writing textbooks that incorporate their students’ experience of popular culture (see my review ‘Pop Culture and Philosophy’ in Philosophy Now #64). Other books include Tom Morris’s Superheroes and Philosophy (2005) and Jeff McLaughlin’s Comics as Philosophy (2005).

Defining the Superhero

The oldest strategy in systematic philosophy is to start with a clear definition, but the recent philosophical attention to superheroes has not cured the usual definitional disarray for this domain. The Oxford English Dictionary treats ‘superhero’ generically: “used to designate a person, animal, or thing which markedly surpasses all others.” The Compact OED slightly improves on this slim characterization with: “a benevolent fictional character with superhuman powers.” The word ‘benevolent’ would prompt scowls from the Hulk, the Punisher, and other angry heroes who sulk along the boundaries of the heroic.

Writers dissatisfied with these thin dictionary performances might agree to say that a superhero is a fantasy figure with extraordinary powers who redeems threatened communities. This formulation has the advantage of encompassing outsized heroes back to Gilgamesh, Herakles (Hercules) and Beowulf; yet it fails to mention some distinctive features of the contemporary genre. A lazier solution is to give ostensive definitions: to point to a few leading members of the class, such as Superman or Wonder Woman, and say “This is what we mean by ‘superheroes’.” I have done this myself – but always with twinges of guilt about the neglected complexities. A typical intellectual nag for me in this regard is Gina Misiroglu’s Superhero Book: The Ultimate Encyclopedia (2004), which weighs in at 672 pages and 1.5 kilos (paperback edition). Among many other rarities, it mentions a short-lived Matter Eater Lad and the Legion of Superpets. Don’t expect to see them on the big screen soon!

Challenged by the infinity of superhero hordes, scholars have nonetheless improvised categories for discussing them. The most ambitious single effort at definition to date is probably Peter Coogan’s Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre (2006), which offers an entire chapter on it. His paragraph-length condensation is worth full quotation because of what it tells about the demands of nuance in the face of so much variety.

“Superhero: A heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; with superpowers – extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical, mental, or mystical skills; who has a superhero identity embodied in a codename and iconic costume, which typically express his biography, character, powers, or origin (transformation from ordinary person to superhero); and who is generically distinct, ie can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc) by a preponderance of generic conventions. Often superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of which is usually a closely guarded secret.” (p.30)

Coogan’s collection of meshing gears will strike some as stretching beyond definition into description.

Danny Fingeroth’s Conception of the Superhero

As a seasoned practitioner, Fingeroth is wary of articulated, bullet-proof definitions of the Coogan flavor. Even a single company like Marvel has an endlessly rich pantheon, which makes the knowing generalizer cautious. Eschewing the capture of their group essence in a definition, his principal interest lies in symbolic values. For him a superhero has “strength of character,” “skills and abilities normal humans do not,” “some system of (generally-thought-to be) positive values, and a determination to… protect those values” and since “every decent villain thinks of himself as the hero… the superhero… has to represent the values of the society that produces him.” Also, “the hero does the right thing” because “he knows what the right thing is.” (Fingeroth’s parentheses, italics, and boldface, Superman on the Couch, p.17) Since superhero missions change over time, Fingeroth leans toward flexible characterizations that heighten our awareness of emerging social realities. The changing roles result in changing ascriptions of heroism.

The above listing of traits launches us into a turbulent sea of abstractions, or ‘essentially contested concepts’ as W. B. Gallie put it when describing the elusiveness of linguistic consensus on cultural topics. Consider these issues: Is Fingeroth’s phrase “values of the society” a fiction that conceals the diversity of the conflicting interests and views of subgroups? Don’t some groups celebrate military values while others valorize disobedience to any kind of hierarchy? This point is conceded by Fingeroth’s phrase “(generally-thought-to-be) positive values.”

Regarding the knowledge of “the right thing” the superhero is supposed to know, Fingeroth’s own Darkhawk character often agonizes about the rightness of his decisions. In an early battle in his crime-fighting career, he is a callow adolescent trying to discover his powers and limits. His tactics against the terrorist leader Psi-Wolf result in the death of Dr Vonya, whom he was seeking to protect. Afterwards, Chris Powell/Darkhawk expresses these regrets: “[I] thought no one could stop me. That all I had to do was want to do the right thing – and the right thing would get done. With no harm to anyone but the bad guys… Am I – despite my good intentions – a worse menace than those I fight?!” (Darkhawk #18, Aug 1992, p.30). Thereafter he recurrently worries about injuring bystanders.

Darkhawk’s heart is in the right place of course. But Fingeroth’s dialogue itself conveys Darkhawk’s lack of knowledge regarding the right thing to do, and the outcome confirms his uncertainty. Thus Darkhawk, like Spider-Man, feels angst about who/what he is becoming and how he should wisely use the special powers accidentally bestowed on him. Decisions are also complicated by the moral ambiguities in characters such as the Punisher or Portal, who could be and sometimes are allies in crime fighting, but usually defy collaboration because they are predisposed to revenge.

Apart from such individualistic problems for attempting general concepts – a chronic difficulty for making a wide characterization in the face of rampant particularity – there is an additional difficulty in framing the superhero as a servant of society’s values. We need to also ask this question: Do we speak of ‘values’ as national ethos: professed standards such as respect for the rights of all and obedience to the rule of law – or do we speak of operative values: the principles inherent in what we actually do? One strong convention for American superheroes across many media is that their services are prompted by the egregious failures of the police, courts and elected leaders, and they often act in spite of such institutions. The Lone Ranger, possessed of remarkable marksmanship, is born when he strips off his badge and puts on a mask after his brother and other Texas Rangers are murdered by Butch Cavendish. Spider-Man is regularly castigated by the free press, and he is often sought for arrest by the police. The indestructible police officer Harry Callaghan of the 1971 film Dirty Harry viciously reenacts the Lone Ranger epiphany when he murders the Scorpio killer at a gravel pit. He throws his detective’s badge into a pond. In Harry’s morally polarized world there is ample justification for killing Scorpio – namely that the police or courts will allow additional serial murders until a cop with a visceral intuition of ‘natural justice’ tramples on Scorpio’s judicial rights. In this respect, Harry is similar to the Punisher, succinctly labeled in Superman on the Couch as “essentially, a psychotic criminal.” (p.133.)

To spotlight this peculiar anti-institutional phenomenon in popular culture, Robert Jewett and I developed the concept of the American monomyth – a recurring ritual narrative prominent in comics, television and film. Among its leading motifs are democracy’s failure to provide security, the corruption of its officialdom, and the passivity of its people, who suffer silently as they hope for a savior. To be sure, democracy is messily imperfect in its solutions and endlessly tiring for its agents. Yet the recurring theme of melodramatic rescue by superheroes seems to represent a moral holiday from democracy’s ethos of ordinary heroisms, which require that individuals work for institutions. Marvel’s recent Civil War series raised the civil obedience issue by playing with the idea of the Superhero Registration Act. Marvel tilts sympathetically in the direction of continued secrecy, as one might expect.

Superhero Categories

Reflecting his hesitancy about rigorously defining the superhero genus, Fingeroth’s interpretations focus on the species. Among the categories he develops in Superman on the Couch are the superheroes of Dual (and Secret) Identity; Orphans; Amazons; Thermonuclear Families; Teen Heroes, and the Angry Ones (my term). In a broad sense the themes he analyses these groups by are existential, in that he sees these groups of heroes taking distinctive approaches to defining their personal identities and social roles through emotionally challenging choices. Furthermore, they live in a world where fixed standards and authorities usually represent the wrong path. Yet, in spite of the absence of guiding beacons, and perhaps because of it, there appears to be an audience hunger for righteous causes, and the moral quest lies behind the physical battles. As Fingeroth commented in an email in response to my questions about superhero violence, “I was trained to write comics as a vehicle for a theme/moral/message/statement about the human condition, which is another way of saying ‘philosophy.’ Every physical conflict had to have some parallel philosophical conflict.” The philosophical conflicts are different for each species of superhero, and are worked out differently.

The Dual Identity type was firmly established by Superman, who perpetually struggled with himself about how much to disclose of his origins and powers. In the psychology of hiding, the veiled heroic identity invites a fantasy about myself, the reader, as source of justice and a person truly worthy of respect. According to Fingeroth the fantasy should be translated this way: “IF ONLY THEY (whoever your they may be) KNEW THE TRUTH (whatever that truth may be) ABOUT ME (whoever you believe yourself to be), THEY’D BE SORRY FOR THE WAY THEY TREAT ME” (Superman on the Couch, p.60, author’s caps and italics).

The hero of masked dual identity “doesn’t want to get used to being thanked” (p.49). Fingeroth suggests that the convention of disappearing from the rescued community allows the purity of the deed to stand alone. This escape-from-gratitude appeals to an audience wanting heroes who emphatically do the right thing for its own sake. This chimes with a fantasy of acceptance of you solely in virtue of your acts, independent of any origin you might have as a person with significantly different traits. Disguised as Clark Kent further suggests that especially during the 1930s – the time of Henry Ford, Father Coughlin and the Ku Klux Klan – Superman was a cry of Jewish angst about vicious discrimination against them even in America, the land that touted its respect for individuals [Superman’s creators are both Jewish – Ed]. In Superman one sees the ideal of social equality symbolically asserted on behalf of the Jew, and a model for claims that would later come on behalf of blacks, women, sexual minorities and other groups. Such subtle interpretation counters the notion that superheroes are simply costumed vigilantes. Fingeroth’s own Darkhawk character experienced an interesting identity epiphany in the final issue of his series. He discloses his dual identity to his girlfriend Laura, who initially walks away in shock. She later knocks on his door and tells him, “I thought about it… I can deal with it.” (#50, p.43.) Chris Powell/Darkhawk is then filled with exultation and celebrates his dual existence, no longer feeling alien in the android body that came to him by accident.

The Orphan trope is another identity fantasy, with roots as remote as Moses, Oedipus and Herakles. Having no or unknown parents suggests a symbolic intensification of the secret identity theme, but it also reflects an existentialist type of individualism: without families, “we are all alone. We fight our own battles, make our own rules, defy those who would destroy us” (Superman on the Couch, pps.70-71). Thus the orphan with superpowers becomes both the ultimate American individualist and a kind of Sartrean existentialist, making the self out of acts of personal choice that are ultimately unaffected by the judging gaze of others, unlike for normal humans.

In exploring the Amazons pattern, Fingeroth mentions Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), seeing it as the outcome of a gradual evolution in public taste for the female heroic. Buffy built upon the success of Ripley in Alien (1979), Sarah Conner in The Terminator (1984), and Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider games (1996-present). Such heroines have become liberated from earlier superheroine restrictions: “This new archetype is… allowed to cry and wear makeup and heels, and still credibly take on the most powerful forces of villainy. And she does not have to be evil to be powerful” (ibid, p.93, author’s italics). They are thus avatars for or representations of the feminism celebrated as a mainstream American social ideal.

In the Thermonuclear Families – those strange groups of powerful mutants such as the X-Men – Fingeroth sees a tension between desiring individuality while simultaneously wanting to belong to a group that affirms one’s worth as a member. This dual quest makes ‘a family of freaks’ possessing special powers attractive – especially if their powers result from a tragic, deforming accident: “You need a surrogate family, one composed of those the world has abused and persecuted the way you have been all your life. Especially in adolescence, the romantic notion of belonging to a persecuted minority … has great appeal” (Superman on the Couch, p.107). The X-Men, the Fantastic Four and DC’s Justice League fit this pattern. Fingeroth believes that the notion of wounded but especially talented individuals forced by fate to live together has special resonance as family relationships are fragmenting.

The theme of the Teen Hero is the key for Spider-Man, who self-consciously advertises himself as ‘Man’ even though a mere teen. Fingeroth has a compelling suggestion about why this neurotic character would eventually become as important a model superhero as Superman. He believes that “the trick with selling fantasy to children and teenagers is that no one wants to experience entertainment about their own group or younger ones. Everybody wants to see what the next stage of life will be like, to have a foretaste through the stories they consume” (Superman on the Couch, p.144). The young know what they are with some dissatisfaction, and wish fervently to know what they will become. Peter Parker/Spider-Man, as an eternally transitional teen, is endlessly tortured by poverty, abusive bosses, rejected affection – yet he has the courage to keep hoping that life will become less precarious, more enjoyable. Furthermore, his mask allows him to project a manhood that he has not yet achieved. The continuing irony in Peter Parker’s life is that regular success as a secret community benefactor does not create the satisfaction he wants for his private life. In this regard, Spider-Man shares much with the X-Men, Harry Potter, and Frodo in Lord of the Rings.

The Angry Hero was a topic that initially drew me to a Fingeroth story as I pondered the Hulk’s persistent outcast status. The Hulk appealed to my biases as an older person concerned about global conflict, in that the Hulk’s storylines played with some important Cold War themes during the character’s early days back in the 1960s – militarism, the global danger of weapons and the symmetry in perceptual distortions concerning and from adversaries. For instance, even though Hulk and Abomination are adversaries, they recognize the similarity of the angst imposed upon them by their extraordinary powers and destructive emotions.

These were serious topics rendered for a young audience. But Ang Lee’s film Hulk (2003), which I saw as a timely metaphor for the American invasion of Iraq (good intentions/miserable outcome), lacked the box office momentum shown by the films Batman (1989) or Spiderman (2002). Even teens told me that Hulk was a terrible film and seemed to scorn me for liking it…

Hulk’s character is problematic for an American audience that expects heroism in cleaner packages. He was a throwback to the old Herakles and his uncontrollable appetites, rages and feelings of guilt. The teen Herakles even killed his music teacher by smashing him with a lyre. His famous twelve labors were not the selfless deeds of a savior, but imposed acts of expiation for killing his own wife and children. The uncontrollable Herakles could not be a mass market movie success without a moral makeover by a studio like Disney. Similarly, Banner’s/Hulk’s existential discomfort with his uncontrollable condition evoked fear and pity as much as admiration. He has a right to exist despite the hostility of a world that refuses to understand him; but he’s too scary to be around.

In considering figures like the Hulk, Fingeroth notes “the engine of rage and entitlement” that differentiates figures such as Daredevil, Batman, Elektra, the Punisher and Wolverine from the centered and friendly ‘do-gooders’ such as Superman. In addition to indulging the reader’s fantasy of unrestrained rage, the angry superheroes gain their idealistic dimension by seeming to fight, as Fingeroth suggests of Wolverine, “for every persecuted mutant.” “He kills for our sins. And it is good.” (Superman on the Couchp.136).

The Larger Conservative Pattern Of Values

Given the comic book emphasis upon authentic selves created through choices made in crusading activities, one might suppose that the resulting ethos is anarchical. Yet, with many others, Fingeroth sees the superhero as reactive and conservative rather than proactive and revolutionary. It is the villains who have schemes to change things. This is the standard setting that has permitted caped and masked characters to make their transition into blockbuster movie venues. There are comic and movie currents which run against the reactive stance – Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, for example [see film review] – but such deconstructive stories are for an older elite who enjoy playing with the archetypes. And Fingeroth believes that this sort of postmodern irony about the superhero as pathological is eating away at the reader base. For him the survival of the genre with a mass audience depends upon a “superhero who has no axes to grind, no agendas to put forth and pursue” (Superman on the Couch, p.162). In this regard, Fingeroth would argue that the spirit of the superheroes is that of conserving democracy, rather than that of anti-democratic vigilantism: “We don’t want to be relentless crusaders against evil. We just want to go to work and enjoy our time with friends and families. We will take up arms if need be, but the values our best selves hold to are those of fair play and equality under the law” (p.167). That makes the superhero more like us, and hence a better representation of real moral dilemmas, where good intentions cannot ward off the grievous consequences of our acts or omissions.

© John Shelton Lawrence 2009

John Shelton Lawrence has coauthored The Myth of the American Superhero and Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil.

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