The Comic Book Geek Revolutionaries
Okay, I'm not a total Comic Book Geek; I did score 82% "comic pure," which does not make me a Comic Book Geek by any stretch of the imagination. But clearly, there is still 18% "comic corruption" in my soul. And when that impure aspect of my character—let's call it my "Comic Book Geek Self" (CBGS)—does a mind meld with my "Scholar Self," I end up producing such essays as this one.
I sometimes wonder how many radical libertarians began as Comic Book Geeks. I know a few myself who have long struggled with their CBGS's; such gents have only encouraged me in my Comic Corruption. Well. Actually. These gents don't struggle at all with their CBGS's. They completely embrace their Inner Geek. Some more flamboyantly than others. When a guy like Roderick Long devotes a whole webpage to Anarky, it's one thing. But when a guy like Aeon Skoble writes more than a few articles and even edits a book on an animated television program (i.e., The Simpsons... i.e., a cartoon!), one must take notice.
If one were to measure one's revolutionary quotient by the presence of an Inner Geek, however, Aeon might be called Our Fearless Leader. His interests extend from comics to comedic artists, but underlying all of this is a profound appreciation of the important link between philosophy and popular culture. He has written pieces on Seinfeld, Forrest Gump, and The Lord of the Rings; he even wrote a superb Spring 2003 paper for the American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues, entitled "A Reflection on the Relevance of Gay-Bashing in the Comic Book World." He's straight and "Married With Children," however. Not that there's anything wrong with that! He has a wonderful family, a great wife, and two adorable daughters (see those pics at the bottom of his links page). And he certainly has his priorities straight: He's a Yankees fan and has even written a piece on baseball and philosophy! And, by now, he's probably blushing reading all this praise.
As it happens, I recently got him to inscribe a copy of a new book entitled Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way, edited by Tom Morris and Matt Morris. Aeon has a fine essay in the anthology entitled "Superhero Revisionism in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns." He argues that these two graphic novels, the first written by Alan Moore, the second by Frank Miller, "invite us to completely rethink our conception of the superhero, and ... to reconsider some of the fundamental moral principles that have traditionally underwritten our appreciation of superheroes."
Many sophisticated elements of comics today that we now take as givens—the way they raise questions of justice and vengeance, their exploration of the ethics of vigilantism, and their depiction of ambivalent and even hostile reactions toward superheroes from the general public as well as from government—are largely traceable to these works.
What follows is a discussion that references everything from Death Wish, the 1974 film with Charles Bronson, to Friedrich Nietzsche. The article motivated me to finally read Watchmen from cover-to-cover before I even attempted to digest Aeon's points. I found Alan Moore's graphic novel, featuring the character Rorschach, quite provocative on many levels. I agree with Aeon when he writes:
One of Moore's epigraphs is the famous aphorism penned by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you." ... Moore and Miller are asking us to look into the abyss, and then to use it as a mirror for seeing ourselves more clearly.
Aeon points out further:
The superhero's most fundamental attitude seems to be that, contrary to Locke, it's everyone's right, if not duty, to fight crime, and to do whatever we can to seek justice for ourselves and for our communities. Spider-Man famously realized that "with great power comes great responsibility," but [Moore's character] Rorschach shows us that the "power" to fight crime is largely a matter of will, or choice, which seems to create a greater responsibility for all of us.
Aeon suggests that Moore puts his finger on certain troubles inherent in the "Superhero" mind-set:
There are many important ways in which we can be led by Watchmen to rethink the superhero concept: Could anyone ever be trusted to occupy the position of a watchman over the world? In the effort "to save the world," or most of the world, could a person in the position of a superhero be tempted to do what is in itself actually and deeply evil, so that good may result? Is the Olympian perspective, whereby a person places himself above all others as a judge concerning how and whether they should live, a good and sensible perspective for initiating action in a world of uncertainty? That is to say, could anyone whose power, knowledge, and position might incline them to be grandiosely concerned about "the world" be trusted to do the right thing for individuals in the world? Or is the savior mindset inherently dangerous for any human being to adopt?
I found these questions to be significant especially in the light of my earlier reading of a book recommended to me by Joe Maurone: John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett's work, The Myth of the American Superhero, which deals with certain quasi-"fascist" elements at the base of the "American Monomyth" (discussions of the Lawrence-Jewett book can be found here).
Aeon rightly attaches crucial importance to these issues:
Questioning the concept of the superhero ultimately involves questioning ourselves. And the main question is not whether we as ordinary people would be prepared to do what a superhero might have to do under the most extraordinary circumstances, but rather whether we are in fact prepared to do whatever we can do in ordinary ways to make the world such that it doesn't require extraordinary salvation from a superhero acting outside the bounds of what we might otherwise think is morally acceptable. Against the backdrop of some bleak and nihilistic statements about meaning in the universe and in life, Alan Moore seems to be making the classic existentialist move of throwing the responsibility of meaning and justice onto us all, and showing us what can result if we abdicate that responsibility, leaving it to a few, or to any one person who would usurp the right to decide for the rest of us how we are to be protected and kept safe.
All excellent points.
It's interesting to me that Aeon focuses on this tension between taking individual self-responsibility and abdicating that responsibility to perceived superiors. It might be said that the same tension exists in the dynamics that propel social change. Whereas it might be true that the Philosopher Kings and Queens have a way of establishing broad and influential intellectual movements in history—their ideas slowly filtering through many different levels of social discourse, including popular culture—it is also true that popular culture itself has a way of altering consciousness and fueling broad-based social change.
Indeed, one might say that there is a reciprocal connection between the forms of popular culture (films, TV shows, comic books, etc.) and the "consciousness-raising" necessary to all social change. As Aeon puts it in his Spring 2003 paper, "all social problems depend for their successful resolution on grassroots-level changes in people’s thinking, a shift in general perception from the bottom up, as opposed to edicts from the top down. ... Comic books both reflect trends in social change and help foster social change."
This doesn't mean that a Watchmen movie is going to usher in a political and social revolution; but it does mean that the forms of popular culture can have an important effect on social and political attitudes ... and realities.
Like I said: We "Comic Book Geeks" are revolutionaries at heart.
In any event, pick up one, or all, of the books in which Aeon's terrific work is featured. You won't be disappointed.
Update: Praise God! Aeon has finally posted (as a PDF) his APA article, "A Reflection on the Relevance of Gay-bashing in the Comic Book World."
Comments welcome. Mentioned at L&P.