Sometimes, I write for other blogs about other aspects of geek culture. This is one of those. If you’re interested, swing by The Promethean Playground.
Spoilers for New Avengers
What makes modern day comics so interesting in the “gray” areas in which they decide to tread.
In the medium’s early years of “flight and tights” stories, it was all about truth, justice, and the American way. Everything was black and white; you knew who the good guys and the villains were, and you knew the outcome every time…
The heroes would do the “heroic” thing, and win.
There wasn’t a discussion of the morality of the action. There didn’t need to be. Captain America just had to punch Hitler or Superman just had to save Lois one more time. This was the norm. No one questioned it either. It was a lovely naivete that we all accepted, and we enjoyed the stories that came with it.
Yet, as the years went by, comics grew up along with its readers. Nowadays, things are not so clean cut for our heroes. Yes, there is still Cap, Superman, and all the other classics, but they are put into situations that would never have crossed the minds of their original creators. They force the reader to question their own ethics and morality, and to examine these “heroes” in a different light.
This brings us to New Avengers…
New Avengers focuses on the Illuminati of the Marvel universe, a secret cabal formed to take care of the universe ending threats that may come upon Earth. Its membership includes Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Dr. Strange, Black Bolt, Namor, Black Panther, Captain America, and most recently Beast (who took the deceased Charles Xavier’s position.) These men shape the Marvel universe from the background, and safeguard existence without anyone’s knowledge.
Since its relaunch, the group has been dealing with “incursions” into our universe. These incursions are where a parallel universe starts overlapping with our own, and if not stopped, destroys both in the process.
The group spends the first couple of issues trying to find ways to stop this from happening; even to the point of using a reality warping deus ex machina (the infinity gauntlet) to “push” one of the encroaching universes back. Of course, this only works once due to the gauntlet’s destruction, and the Illuminati are left to wonder what they need to do next. This invariably leads them to a singular conclusion…
Destroy the other universes.
It is a terrifying thought, but a completely rational conclusion. If nothing is done, both universes will be destroyed; so why not destroy one in order to save the other? It is the classic ethical debate, the moral quandary that has been discussed by Ethicists and Philosophers for years. Do you kill the one to save the many? Do you let some people die, so that not all will? Yet, instead of reading it in a textbook, we get it played out in our comics…
This type of discussion forces the reader to confront his or her own feelings on the issue. As you read the page, you find yourself naturally drifting to one side of the argument or the other. As the reader travels deeper into the story, they too find our more about themselves in the reading.
How far would you go to save your planet? What lines would you cross to what you believe is right? We are able to live vicariously through some of our most iconic heroes as they play out their own answers to those very questions…
Sometimes doing things that we didn’t think they would…
This is what differentiates modern comics from most of the Gold and Silver age stories. Those were written to make you feel good, to experience a bit of escapism, and maybe some pro-America propaganda (lookin’ at you, Cap.)
Now, there are many mainstream comics out there that exist not only to tell a good story, but to make you think along the way. This, of course, leads to much more adult and darker story beats; not for the sake of being edgy but for greater narrative depth.
Long gone are the days of yore where your heroes were always the “good” guys. We live in a world where people get their hands dirty when trying to do the “right” thing; where even our heroes are living in shades of gray in the name of protecting all of us. Modern comics have given writers the opportunity to discuss these types of philosophical and ethical issues in a medium whose typical reader wouldn’t be normally interested in such discussions.
Because comics have “grown up,” they have become an open forum to discuss topics like racism, sexism, morality, ethics, sex, philosophy, religion, and so much more. Writers today don’t want your comics to just be about escapism, they want you to use your mind in the process.
The flipside to all of this is the fact that there has been an innocence lost in our comics. Now that we culturally have crossed some line, there is no going back to that old way of doing things. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just means things are different now, and different can be good.
The age of the morally ambiguous hero is upon us, and the stories that will come out of this will be incredibly interesting. Whether it is the questionable actions of the Illuminati, Superior Spiderman’s gang of spider-thugs, or the ENTIRE concept of the Suicide Squad; these stories would have been impossible to tell before; at least in their current form.
Only time will tell if we ever find our way back to the “flight and tights,” days, but until then all we can do is look back, remember who we were and wonder where our heroes are going next.