There was an interesting exchange in the comments to Patrick’s (awesome) Miller post over the weekend (all of the interesting is on KatherineMW’s part, of course) that strikes me as a good starting point for… well… *SOMETHING* about superheroes.

KatherineMW starts:

That’s what always bugs me about Batman.

There’s so many problems in the world that could conceivably be solved with nigh-unlimited money and research resources.  Many of them kill and harm more people than crime does.  Given that, being Batman is at least as much about catharsis as it is about heroism.

I rejoin:

How much heroism can be given by a comic, though?

Dig this: Bruce Wayne drops the cowl. He says “I’ve been neglecting my true job” and goes over to Waynetech and puts another hundred million in Wayne Medical. He commissions a team that figures out a cure for Type II Diabetes.

Compare: Bruce Wayne dons the cowl. He goes out and finds Joker threatening a Husband, Wife, and Little Boy. Joker laughs and says something about how shooting the parents might be the best thing that could happen to the tyke. Batman goes on to beat the ever-living itshay out of the Joker.

Which of these two comics would leave a better taste in your mouth after you put them down and then get ready to go run errands?

For me, I see deus ex machina *ALL OVER* the former. The latter? That’s a story I wouldn’t mind watching someone else tell.

And KatherineMW pulls it all together with this one here:

That’s sort of my fundamental problem with superhero stories.  They start with a dual requirement: they want to present some kind of moral story/message/fable, and they need to do it in a way that includes action, so it will be interesting to the reader.  As a result, we get a concept of heroism that revolves around punching bad people.

Your first option, obviously, isn’t an interesting story to read, especially not in comic book form, because it doesn’t include any action and conflict.  And it can be frustrating, almost insulting, to see ongoing real-world problems solved easily in a fictional universe (unless it’s science fiction and those problems just having been solved is part of the setting) – which is one of the reasons why a genre filled with super geniuses has increasingly high-tech war machines but hasn’t advanced technologically beyond the real world in any conceivable way (ReedRichardsIsUseless, if you read tvtropes).

The second option, we get a straightforward good-punches-evil story which more entertaining, although not something I’d get anything out of reading.  It also doesn’t quite relate to the point I’m discussing, because it’s not a story that requires Batman to have massive amounts of wealth backing him up.

Superhero stories (those that aren’t deconstructions) are about the character being a hero.  But can Batman be one?  For him, and for any other super-rich superhero, it’s so clear that what they’re doing isn’t about trying to do as much good as possible.  It’s about themselves and their own issues.   (It likely has a lot to do with being raised pacifist, but in any situation where there’s a choice between someone accomplishing some amount of good through violence, or accomplishing an equal or greater amount of good without using violence, I have a gut-level moral opposition to choosing the former.)

I realize that “Bruce Wayne funds a cure for tuberculosis” isn’t a plot for a comic book, or even a necessarily interesting story.  That’s my problem with the fundamental concept of the character: Batman, in context, cannot be truly heroic, yet the comic depends on treating him as such.  I don’t know if there even is a way to deal with the fundamental dissonance of the “hero uses massive wealth to fight criminals” concept in a way I’d find satisfying.

At the end of the day, the fundamental problem is the same problem that Genghis Khan told us about:

Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.

Superhero stories are stories about conquering the world. They’re not about the discussions of water rights, or sewage issues, or the problem of the easement with regards to the hospital’s new parking garage and how it sloops onto the playground of the elementary school next door. The escapism of comic books is, superficially, the escapism of a man who can fly, or one who can move at super-speed, or one who can use all kinds of gadgets. Deep down, however, the escapism is the escapism of having problems that can be fixed with a punch… of living in a universe where the most exciting thing that you could do is also the right thing to do.

With that said, however, I think that this also allows them to tell archetype stories (and maybe moral stories) that resonate for reasons that bring Jungian Archetypes to mind (and, once the sun is down and the fire has started, allows Jungian Archetypes to make strange sense that is (too?) easily waved away in sunlight). Stories of how the great heroes did not kill, how the great villains were thwarted, how good stood up to evil, and how evil was thwarted.

It seems like these stories are important ones for children to hear… but maybe I’m just saying that because I heard them.


Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to


  1. Have you read Ex Machina? That one is about governing, in part. I loved it and need to re-read it soon.

    • I haven’t. Maribou adored Y: The Last Man, though (and that was one of his too).

      I’ll ask my dealer about it.

      • I liked it better than Y (Y sagged a bit in the middle I thought and the ending was slightly unsatisfying) but Vaughan is one of my favorites, I’ll read anything he does.

  2. “Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.”

    Even though I always found Tolkein hard to read, this is also a point of respect. He let the hero conquer the kingdon and then spent 20 pages explaining how Aragorn ruled as king.

    • It’s been many years since I read it, but TH White’s Once and Future King was heartbreaking to me as a boy, in that it moved from such a light and funny story on the ‘hero’s education’ portion…but once Arthur becomes king and tried to hold things together and improve them, man, it’s just pain and tears all the way.

  3. I think the initail premise is wrong. It is not a case of only one can be done. If Bruce has almost unlimited money, why can’t he do both? His money funds cancer, diabetes, and so on while Bruce punches bad guys at nights. The comic is about the punching while the other stuff happens in the background with brief comment about X charity ball Bruce needs to attend or a mention about what Waynetech Medical is doing in a board meeting.

    I could see arguing that Bruce would have been a better person if he devoted his genius to something that does not go boom, but that is often a failing of people. I think the comic often talks about how sane Bruce/Batman is.

    • There are opportunity costs for everything, of course… but a simple argument could be made that $100,000,000 could open a nice mediumish business that could employ 500ish people sustainably and create wealth, add value, reduce crime, and so on.

      • I think this IS a major failing of the comic series, as made painfully evident by the must more holistic way Nolan’s trilogy treats vigilanteism/crime/corruption/and urban renewal.

        This is more so, I think, a problem of the comic’s audience structure–older readers willing to dumb down, younger readers not willing to read something more subtle–and the political economy of how they are produced–constant editorial turn over as creative and marketing eat one another’s tails in an endless cycle.

        • What does this tell me?

          It tells me that the market of “people who collect comic books” does not support independent publishing. Much as they would like to think they do.

  4. I’m happily surprised you considered this worthy of a post; I thought I was just rambling in my reply, and having an incredibly difficult time getting my thoughts across.

    Deep down, however, the escapism is the escapism of having problems that can be fixed with a punch… of living in a universe where the most exciting thing that you could do is also the right thing to do.

    This is just a great expression of the appeal of superhero stories, and a great line generally.

    On the broader topic… Mike’s mention of the Lord of the Rings sparked a thought in me. The Lord of the Rings is quite possibly my favourite literary work of all time. It is, very much, a good-versus-evil story with strong moral themes. Yet its morality is rooted in the fact that the heroes do not win simply by beating up evil. Victory is gained not in battle, but in a long, weary struggle across a barren wasteland, with renunciation of power as its ultimate goal. Victory is achieved, in despite of the hero’s weakness at the end, not because of force of arms, not even because of force of will, but because of mercy; mercy granted against all reason and all logic and all pragmatism.

    Yes, there are battles, and those battles are tragic and glorious themselves, drawing from the epics of an earlier day, but they are not the moral core of the story, and the greatest heroes are not warriors, and the most admirable warriors do not love war.

    And this ties back to the escapism of rightness coinciding with excitement. Excitement is the dream of Eowyn, riding for death and glory against the forces of evil; it is courageous, and it may achieve great things, but at its heart it retains something of self-interest, and misunderstands that battle is not glorious for itself, but only for what it protects – and if good can be achieved without battle, so much the better. There is little of excitement in the weary trudge across Mordor (seriously, there isn’t, the chapters where Frodo and Sam are travelling through Mount Doom are deeply boring compared to most of the rest of the book); it is not something Frodo and Sam want to do, but something they recognize must be done.

    I find this ethos far more satisfying and compelling in a story – and more right, and more true – than seeing good triumph over evil through force of arms (or force of fists). Everything in our culture tells us to value the heroism of the warrior. I believe we would learn better from the heroism of the hobbit.

    • Hey KatherineMW, just wanted to say I enjoyed this insight into LoTR very much. I don’t know that I have ever thought of it this way. But I will now.

    • What I was thinking of, of all things, was the movie Gladiator.

      Remember the scene in the Senate where Derek Jacobi is talking about the problems in the Greek Quarter and Joaquin is sitting there bored? He was spinning a sword on its point. Joaquin wanted to be emperor… but, at the end of the day, he wanted to be emperor because, I dunno… it meant that he had achieved his father’s respect.

      It had nothing to do with actually emperoring.

      • Hey JB, OT, but I started on something for Sandman and rather than the ‘no spoilers’ thing rendering me speechless, as I’d feared, it’s instead sent me spinning in a couple different directions (restrictions as usual forcing creativity), and I haven’t even really gotten to the ‘meaty’ part yet.

        Would it be presumptuous to ask for a three-parter? If you want, I can e-mail you what I am thinking, and what I have so far, if you want to take a look before you answer.

        That way, if the answer’s ‘no, thanks, please keep it simple Glyph’ I don’t pour a crazy amount of time into it, and you don’t feel bad torpedoing it.

        • I’ll preempt the response and say go buck wild. More content is better.

        • Buck wild is correct. If you must have spoilers, and sometimes you must, I’d recommend rot13.

          That way people who are already neck-deep can read what you’ve said and argue it allowing people who haven’t read it yet to merely pay attention to the “SERIOUSLY YOU NEED TO READ THIS” and notice all of the gobbledygook comments that they are going out of their way to avoid reading.

  5. It’s always good to differentiate between “superhero comics” and “indie” comics. Jonathan Hickman is doing a lot of interesting stuff, and a fare amount of Image’s stuff tries to go deeper than the usual superhero conciet (problem, fight, mystery, fight, solve, fight).

  6. Could one say Deep Space 9 was the only one of the franchise about governing? And why it’s either the top or bottom of everyone’s ranked list?

    • Interesting point. I think you’re correct. Fwiw DS9 was great, in many ways the best of all the st shows.

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