One of the perennial themes in superhero myth has been the problem of collateral damage. Our heroes defeat the villains and save the day (most of the time, anyway), but there is often a trail of damage, suffering, and sometimes death in their wake. Some of the greatest comics ever written have explored this theme: Kingdom Come, Marvels, Civil War, and many others. And that’s not to mention movies like Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Captain America: Civil War.
One might say that collateral damage is a tired old theme in comics, that writers and filmmakers have said all that can be said about it, and that it’s time to move on. And yet superhero myth keeps coming back to the unintended but sometimes catastrophic consequences of what our heroes do.
Critics and snobs might be tempted to say that comics constantly come back to the same theme simply because comics don’t have the depth to deal with the kinds of themes that more “sophisticated” or “adult” genres can handle. And to those people, I’d suggest that they read a book like Tom King’s Vision or Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye; then come back and tell me about the genre’s lack of depth.
The fact that comics so frequently take up the question of collateral damage struck me recently because of a story arc in Detective Comics by James Tynion IV called The Victim Syndicate. That arc deals with a group of powered people who take up villainy because they’re victims of collateral damage in fights between Batman and supervillains. They attack a police gala in order to draw Batman’s attention, and then they threaten to hurt or kill police officers and city officials unless the Dark Knight reveals his identity and gives up crime-fighting.
The Victim Syndicate pushes the very idea of Batman to its limit, raising serious questions about whether or not he even should keep fighting crime. Are good intentions enough when even the best of us make mistakes that cause others to suffer? Even though Batman has undeniably done a world of good for Gotham, the question is difficult enough that it nearly destroys the coalition of Gotham heroes that Batman has been putting together since DC’s Rebirth relaunch started last year. While the rest of the group manages to hang together through the chaos created by the Victim Syndicate, Spoiler ultimately turns against Batman and abandons the group.
While I have enjoyed every Rebirth title that I have been reading, The Victim Syndicate is one of the best story arcs from DC since Rebirth began. This is especially true when I compare it to the first Batman crossover series—Night of the Monster Men. In terms of scope—it took place across all of the Batman-related titles—Night of the Monster Men was much bigger than The Victim Syndicate, but the latter of the two is a much more interesting and emotionally affecting story. And that is in spite of the fact that The Victim Syndicate revisits an issue that has come up over and over again in comics: the problem of collateral damage.
There are probably a lot of reasons why The Victim Syndicate succeeds in spite of the fact that it covers some familiar ground. Detective Comics is one of DC’s premier titles, so it features some of the best writing and artwork in DC’s lineup. But more than that, The Victim Syndicate succeeds, I think, precisely because it takes up a question that has never been satisfactorily answered and probably never can be.
There is no escaping the problems of collateral damage and unintended consequences, and this is never more true than when we deal with social and political issues. Our society becomes ever more complex with the passing of time, and there seems to be no end in sight to that increasing complexity. Politicians pass laws and implement policies that are meant to do good for people only to find that they have effects that were nearly impossible to foresee. Protesters, driven by a real passion for justice, sometimes end up causing as much harm as the problems that they want addressed. Good nations go to war in order to stop rogue states from slaughtering their own people, and yet bombs kill the innocent along with the guilty. Police go to heroic efforts in order to protect the innocent, and yet the innocent sometimes suffer and even die.
And the hell of all this is that there will probably never be a real solution to the problem of unintended consequences in any level of society. We live in a world of unprecedented regulation, accountability, and bureaucracy, and yet there is still suffering. There will always be victims.
Near the beginning of Captain America: Civil War, Steve Rogers tries to comfort Wanda Maximoff after her actions cause the death of several Wakandan humanitarian workers: “This job . . . We try to save as many people as we can. Sometimes that doesn’t mean everybody, but if we can’t find a way to live with that, next time . . . maybe nobody gets saved.” Unfortunately, he’s probably right.
The trouble is finding out exactly how to live with it. As both Cap and Batman realize, it’s a lot easier said than done.