Monday, June 22, 2015

Comics teach morality

I remember watching a documentary on comic books years ago, and one of the creators that they interviewed (I want to say it was Harlan Ellison, but nobody get mad at me if he never said anything of the sort.) made a statement about how kids get their morality from comic books. I thought that this was a strange thing to say, but the more I thought about it, the more it resonated. In fact, I think that I'm definitely an example of that idea, and I'm not sure that I would have the same moral center that I do if it weren't for all those superheroes.

Before I continue, let's make one thing clear. The biggest influence on my morality was my parents. No doubt the society in which I was raised played a big part as well. Oh, and I think that Star Wars might have had something to do with it as well. Still, I was raised with Bible stories, and I can definitely say that my morals never came from that particular book of myths nearly as much as the modern myths published by Marvel and DC Comics.

I could probably come up with several examples of this, but the one that resonates with me more than any is what I learned from reading comics with The Punisher. For those who are unfamiliar with the character, he's not exactly a "superhero" as he not only doesn't have powers, but he uses guns and kills every villain who gets in his way. He doesn't bother tying them up and leaving them for the law. His solution is a bit more permanent.

I was first introduced to the character back when I was in seventh grade, in issue 285 of The Amazing Spider-Man. It was the middle of the "Gang War" storyline, where various mobsters and their supervillain henchmen were battling it out. To make matters worse, here comes this dude with a bazooka and all kinds of guns, ready to put a quick end to it by blowing every last one of them to smithereens. Instead of thanking the guy for his speedy resolution, Spider-Man tries to stop him, likening his methods to putting out a forest fire with a flamethrower.

I was intrigued with The Punisher, and I followed his adventures into his own solo series. I understood that his kind of justice would never work in real life, but there was a visceral thrill in watching a guy take matters into his own hands and cutting through the corrupt justice system. In other words, his methods do work, but they only work in a fantasy world.

Still, the stories that always resonated the most with me were the ones where he was put into direct conflict with one of the more traditional superheroes, usually Daredevil. There was one crossover where the two of them punched each other over the fate of a guy who was poisoning over-the-counter drugs. It was a fun issue with a lot of great "tough guy" lines from The Punisher. I remember it by heart when the killer protested that he had "rights" to only get the response, "You've got rights. You've got the right to go splat when you hit the pavement. You have the right to bleed into the gutter."

Before The Punisher could toss the guy off the roof though, Daredevil stepped in and the two had it out. There was also a brief exchange of ideas. Of course, it's hardly a deep analysis of the moral issue of what methods we should take in dealing with society's criminals. However, it illustrated what made guys like Daredevil and Spider-Man less miserable people than The Punisher. They understood that you don't get to be the good guy when you don't hold yourself to a higher standard than the bad guy.

How does this continue to affect me? Well, I'm the kind of guy who cares about what's true and what isn't. There are many things that I speak out against, and usually my biggest complaint is with the lies that people tell. I often say things along the line of, "If you have to lie to make your point, maybe you don't have a point that's worth making."

And I find myself getting even more upset when people whom I see as being on "my side" of various issues engaging in the act of lying to further a cause that I believe in. One of the most egregious examples of this, as I've noted before, is the movie Zeitgeist. I still see my fellow nonbelievers cite this movie as an example of how to debunk Christianity. (I think that Bill Maher's Religulous repeated a lot of the inaccuracies that the film noted as well.) I also really need to stop seeing the whole "The Jesus story is a ripoff of the Horus myth!" meme going around Facebook.

The point is, I think that my side has a strong enough case on its own. No need to repeat nonsense. But when you point that out to some folks, they don't seem to care if they're repeating something that's untrue. Just like The Punisher, the ends justifies the means, and it doesn't matter so long as it's a "win" for their side. I have such a hard time with that because one of my major issues with religion is that I think that it's dishonest. You can't fight dishonesty by engaging in more of it.

I could list other examples of this happening with other issues. Thankfully, I can find lots of other folks who feel the same as I do. (Notice that the link I provided that debunks Zeitgeist is from an atheist website?) Still, I feel too often that for too many it's more important how you line up with the tribe and if you can score points against the other side whether honestly or not.

This is also why I scratched my head in disbelief when I heard people defend things like the Patriot Act and government overreach after 9/11. I actually heard somebody say that we need to make some sacrifices in order to "preserve our way of life". So, we need to sacrifice our way of life to preserve our way of life? How the hell does that make sense?

Is it possible that I would have this same regard (maybe even obsession) for intellectual honesty and fairness if I had never read comic books? Perhaps. But I gotta admit, I often think about Daredevil and The Punisher fighting on a rooftop when these sorts of issues come up.

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