Today is the second anniversary of my first Comic Book Justice post, so it seems fitting to mark the occasion with a return to blogging after my four-month absence.
One of the things that has kept me otherwise occupied during the last few months was making preparations for a rather elaborate party (comic book-themed, of course) to celebrate my 50th birthday, which was in June. Thinking back on my first half century of life, I can’t help but feel nostalgic about my earliest comic book reading days, and reflect on what comic book stories—particularly ones about superheroes—have meant to me during the more than 40 years that have elapsed since then.
That’s why I’m starting this series of posts on my personal view of the history of superhero comics and their reflection of our society’s ever-evolving sense of justice.
On a winter’s day in 1976, my brother Steve and I walked down a staircase into an underground bazaar of antique dealers hidden beneath Prince George’s Plaza in Hyattsville, Maryland. Like a pair of young explorers venturing into an uncharted land of imagination, we discovered the wondrous realm of “Crazy Al’s Memorabilia Shop.” Scarcely able to believe our eyes, here was an entire store—only slightly bigger than a walk-in closet—entirely devoted to the sale of comic books. To us it was a musty treasure-trove of adventure, fantasy, horror and, as the name “comic book” would imply, even humor. But out of all the stories there were to choose from, nothing touched us so deeply or thrilled us so much as the action-packed tales of superheroes.
We dreamed of possessing their powers, their unfaltering confidence, their control over a world we couldn’t quite understand. They were our protectors, our wards against the forces of evil. When I was too afraid of my recurring nightmares to go to sleep, and too scared of the shapes lurking in the darkness of my room to lie awake in bed, I would close my eyes and silently recite an alphabetical list of superhero names until I passed safely into slumber.
But they were more than just protectors. They were teachers. And the lesson we learned from them was that justice conquers all. In their world the guilty were always punished, the innocent were always saved, and the righteous were always invincible. Gleefully dropping skyscrapers on super villains or hurling common thugs through plate glass windows, these “super cops” overpowered all those who threatened what was good and wholesome. Back then, the comics may have been in color, but morality was black and white.
Yet, as my appreciation for what is now more respectfully referred to as “graphic literature” has expanded over the years—along with my comic book collection—so has my definition of justice. I now see law and order, or at least blind obedience to them, as part of the problem rather than the solution. Today, there are a number of perfectly legal enterprises that could easily be seen as serious crimes: the rape of the environment; the theft of workers’ pensions; the extortion of citizens’ rights for promised homeland security. But when it comes to injustices like these, few superheroes show the same courage and determination to correct them as many of the real people who follow their fictional exploits. You would think that, given the hundreds of mild-mannered comic book citizens who regularly receive superpowers from alien gadgets, magic artifacts, and incredible scientific breakthroughs, by the sheer law of averages, the superhero bug would have bitten at least one fictional member of the NAACP, Greenpeace, National Organization of Women, the Human Rights Campaign, Amnesty International, or even the AFL-CIO. If their world were plagued by the same problems as our own, superheroes could act out very different power fantasies than the ones imagined by most adolescent comic book readers.
Wonder Woman could use her golden lasso of truth to expose the hypocritical, self-proclaimed guardians of morality who seek to deny her mortal sisters around the world their economic, political, social, and reproductive rights. Superman could use his nearly limitless powers to prevent unlawful acts of international military aggression committed by both Third World dictatorships and Free World democracies. Batman could use his unparalleled deductive skills and vast technological resources to bring to justice corporate criminal masterminds who profit at the expense of the environment, their workers’ safety, and the life savings of their investors and employees.
Despite these missed opportunities, I have not lost my nostalgic attachment to superheroes, just to their narrow focus on conventional crime. And as I learned more about the history of superhero comics, I discovered that, not only did the earliest caped crusaders once share my more expansive sense of justice, they were also descended from a literary lineage of costume-clad revolutionaries that was more than six hundred years old.