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.
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.
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.