A Clash of Heroes

Superheroes, philosophy, ethics, and politics



“The Batman Who Laughs”: The Monsters That We Could Be

In the Dark Nights: Metal tie-in “The Batman Who Laughs,” we learn the origin of perhaps the worst villain imaginable in the DC multiverse: a Batman who lacks all morality––or, more precisely, a Batman who has the amorality of the Joker.

img_0848“The Batman Who Laughs” opens in the past of Earth-22 (for those unfamiliar with the DC multiverse, it is composed of multiple universes designated by their Earths). The Joker has managed to pull off the murder of nearly everyone in Gotham, and he has Batman drugged and tied to a chair. He taunts Batman about the Dark Knight’s “one rule”––the rule not to kill––and with a gruesome description of Jim Gordon’s death. Enraged, Batman breaks free of his bonds and attacks the Joker, who promises that he will “never stop.” Batman breaks the Clown Prince’s neck––only to discover that doing so releases a poison gas from the Joker’s mouth, a poison that is specifically designed to target the parts of his mind that determine his morality while leaving his exceptional intellect intact.

In other words, it combines Batman’s most dangerous characteristics with those of the Joker. Continue reading ““The Batman Who Laughs”: The Monsters That We Could Be”


In Praise of Dead Political Principles

My Dead Politics

I try very hard on this blog to hide my own specific political positions. I’m never going to talk about my opinion about abortion, marijuana, immigration, or any other hot-button issues here. I avoid getting too specific for a lot of reasons, but the most important reason is that I want to be able to speak to people of as many political positions as possible. I don’t want this to be a progressive or conservative blog; I don’t want it to be a Republican or Democratic blog. That isn’t to say that there’s not a place for those kinds of blogs or writers, or that one can avoid political labels. But for my purposes here, I prefer to deal in the area of political philosophy, writing about abstract principles that can inform a person’s views on particular issues and about comics that explore consequences of political or philosophical positions.

I’m not always successful at hiding all of my particular opinions, of course. Frequent and careful readers will be able to guess at certain principles that I think ought to guide our politics: Continue reading “In Praise of Dead Political Principles”

There Is No “Them”: A Lesson from Civil War About Political Diversity

We all hear a lot about “us” and “them” these days. Donald Trump Tweets something vile or stupid, and this becomes evidence that “they” are also vile and stupid. “We” are the enlightened ones, and we can’t understand why “they” can’t see things our way—or maybe we can. After all, we’ve just said that they’re vile and stupid, right?

Or to put it another way, Roy Moore or Matt Lauer get accused of vile and reprehensible things, and suddenly we feel vindicated. This proves it, we think. They’re a bunch of lying hypocrites.

We like labels and categories in our culture, and for good reason. Labels and categories allow us to make sense of the chaos. Calling someone conservative or liberal can convey a lot of information about her very quickly, and since politics is so complicated and touches so many different issues, being able to quickly make sense of things by use of labels can be helpful.

But our culture is also increasingly diverse and divided, and not just in the obvious ways that the word “diverse” connotes in most conversations these days. Continue reading “There Is No “Them”: A Lesson from Civil War About Political Diversity”

What is The Punisher’s Place in Superhero Myth?

Frank Castle is one of the most challenging characters in comics. He touches on some of the most difficult subjects in American society and politics––damaged war veterans and guns––and he ought to make us truly uncomfortable. That’s what makes him such an enduring and compelling  character: he forces us to think about things that most of us would rather not think about.

Our reluctance to think about the issues that the Punisher raises perhaps makes it all the more important that we think about them. Continue reading “What is The Punisher’s Place in Superhero Myth?”

It Isn’t Your Job to Change the World: Detective Comics and Ideology

Polarization Leads to Ideology

The word “polarization” has been repeated in political discussions so much lately that it’s easy to get sick of hearing it. But we should be careful not to become numb to the problem. Americans (and much of the rest of the world) have become so radically polarized that it is hard to remember a time when we weren’t as divided as we are now. Everywhere we look––at football, movies, advertisements, comics, religion, Halloween costumes, and the list goes on––we see the evidence of our division. And we all lament the fighting, name-calling, and general incivility that results from our polarization. We all complain about the inability of a divided Congress to get anything done. But few of us notice perhaps the most dangerous consequence of our increasing polarization: the way in which it encourages ideological thinking.

As an English professor, I’m fascinated by the way in which we use words, and I’ve commented here before about the way in which we sometimes misuse words. We have a lot of words in English that can be easily misused and misunderstood, and “ideology” is one of them. So let me be clear about what I mean by “ideology.” When I say that polarization encourages “ideological thinking,” I don’t mean that it encourages people to be committed to a set of principles. What I mean by “ideology” is an unquestioning commitment to a theoretical view of the world. An ideologue has so deep a commitment to his theory that he conforms to it and promotes it even when the reality of the world contradicts that theory and even when it requires him to coerce others to that theory. For example, even though Leninism might work well on paper, it fails when it’s applied to real societies made up of flesh-and-blood people, and one can only maintain a Leninist system through coercion and totalitarianism. Continue reading “It Isn’t Your Job to Change the World: Detective Comics and Ideology”

Marvel’s Legacy and The Legacy of America

***Some spoilers for Marvel Legacy.***

Unsurprisingly, Marvel Legacy is a solid book. It’s pretty to look at, and Jason Aaron is a talented writer. Legacy teases some interesting new directions for Marvel, promising to honor the legacy of the Marvel Universe without undermining the newer characters.

It’s hampered a little by the shadow of DC’s Rebirth one-shot, which delivered more story and more text in a book that was half the price of Legacy. As I read Legacy for the first time, I couldn’t help thinking that it felt a little thinner than Rebirth, that it isn’t just shorter and more expensive than Rebirth, but that it spreads its story more thinly than Rebirth does. (Of course, it might have felt this way to me because I know the history of the Marvel Universe much better than I do the history of the DC Universe. Rebirth feels dense to me in part because it deals with history and a few characters that I don’t know that well.) Continue reading “Marvel’s Legacy and The Legacy of America”

Talk: The Killing Joke and Censorship

***The following post is the text of a talk that I gave at the college where I work. This lecture was part of a series celebrating Banned Books Week.***

Welcome and Introduction

Thank you for coming. I want to preface this by saying that in this talk I’m going to discuss topics and show you images that some people might find disturbing or offensive. Many people have the mistaken impression that comic books are primarily for kids, and they’re often shocked to find that some comics deal with very mature themes. My topic for today certainly does.

The book that I’m going to discuss is a comic book called Batman: The Killing Joke, and its author, Alan Moore, is no stranger to banned books. Moore is most famous for writing a graphic novel called Watchmen, which has been banned more than once. Other books by Moore have been challenged or banned, as well. Continue reading “Talk: The Killing Joke and Censorship”

iPhones and Cosmic Cubes: Building A World Where Reality Can Be Altered By Anybody

Yesterday, Apple introduced their new lineup of iPhones, and while everybody seems to be focusing on poop Animojis, the new iPhone X has more serious implications to think about. (And yes, I’m going to bring this post back around to comics; just give me a minute or two).

Search for “iPhone X” on Twitter and you’ll find a lot of oohs and aahs, but you’ll also find a lot of people making fun of the phone’s new “Animoji” feature, which lets users animate emojis using their own faces. The phone uses its forward-facing camera to read the user’s facial expressions and movements and animate an emoji to mimic those expressions and movements.

It’s a neat feature, but it’s admittedly hard to take poop emojis seriously. After Tim Cook introduced the new phone at their event on Tuesday with Apple’s famous “One More Thing,” it must have felt a little silly and anticlimactic for folks in the audience to watch someone animate a poop emoji with his face. But the silliness of Animojis hides both how revolutionary it is for regular people to be able to own that kind of technology––and also just how frightening the pace of technological advance has become. Continue reading “iPhones and Cosmic Cubes: Building A World Where Reality Can Be Altered By Anybody”

Iron Man & Ironheart: Technology Will Never Perfect Us or the World

I’ve been looking forward to Marvel’s Generations series since it was first teased with the Alex Ross promotional art back in the Spring. Billed as a series of stories that would bring together new generations of heroes with their progenitors, Generations promised a welcome relief from the darkness that has permeated the Marvel Universe for the last year and a half.

So far I’ve only read three of the six Generations issues: The Unworthy Thor & The Mighty Thor; Banner Hulk & The Totally Awesome Hulk; and Iron Man and Ironheart. I was a little disappointed in the Hulk issue, but I enjoyed the Thor issue, which was fun and ended with a pretty big revelation about Odin’s history.

But for my money, Brian Michael Bendis’ entry is the best of the three that I’ve read: it’s a pleasure to read and look at; it provides some fascinating tidbits about the future of the Marvel Universe as well as what’s in store for Tony and Riri; and it provides enough fodder for philosophy nerds like myself to chew on without overwhelming fans who just want a good superhero story.

***Full spoilers for Generations: Ironman & Ironheart follow.*** Continue reading “Iron Man & Ironheart: Technology Will Never Perfect Us or the World”

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