Why do comic books so often focus on behavior that’s socially irresponsible? Conan the Barbarian beheading all of his enemies while mostly naked women debase themselves for his gratification is behavior that I hope we’d all agree is entirely unacceptable in real life. It’s also about as far from reality as it can get for most of us, in much the same way that slaying a dragon or piloting a space shuttle is completely alien to most comic book readers, and the argument can be made that it’s harmless escapist fantasy, just like the latter two examples. The difference is, while conquering a monster that’s threatening the nearby village serves a larger purpose (ostensibly, protecting that village), dealing out violence as judge, jury, and executioner only benefits one person.
Comic books certainly have a long history of displaying objectionable material. The earliest example that comes to mind is the “good girl art” of the 1950s, a style which prominently showcased scantily clad women for no real purpose other than to stimulate male readers, and thereby increase sales among the target demographic. In 1954, Fredric Wertham published the controversial book Seduction of the Innocent, which opined that comic books were a leading cause of “juvenile delinquency” and led to the eventual foundation of the Comics Code Authority, a body which regulated material in comic books and censored violence and sexuality. From the ‘50s onward, the CCA kept mainstream comics kid-friendly, but starting in the ‘80s, publishers began to move away from the restrictions of the code, until it was abandoned entirely early this century. I still read an article almost every week bemoaning offensive content in comic books. There’s even an annual conference, the Rocky Mountain Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels, dedicated to the discussion and study of violence in comics.
Readers seem to gravitate toward characters who aren’t wholly good or bad. Morally grey heroes like Marvel’s Wolverine and Deadpool are certifiable fan favorites, while others, like Superman, are even criticized or resented for being “too good”. Some creators have speculated that anti-heroes or “dark” characters, heroes with a looser moral code, simply allow for more drama. I think that morally ambiguous characters are probably more relatable to the average reader. None of us is wholly good all the time. We all mess up, we all do things that we know aren’t right, and we all have darker impulses and fantasies that we know we can never act on. Comic books fulfill those forbidden dreams by allowing us to see what might happen if we acted on those impulses, without fear of consequences for ourselves.
Finally, I think that comic books are simply mirroring some of the debates we see in our own world. As part of the industry’s move away from the code, there was a trend in comic books a couple of decades ago that saw titles like Marvel’s Punisher and DC’s Vigilante, along with many others, featuring protagonists who dished out extreme violence to every criminal they encountered. This spawned an argument over whether it was better to end a threat, thereby ensuring the criminal could kill no one else, or if that simply lowered the hero to the same level as the evil they’re battling. I think that these titles were likely inspired by older characters from other mediums, like Conan the Barbarian, who never shied away from violence when they deemed it appropriate. Other characters, though, fall to the other extreme. Fans often ask, “How many lives could Batman have saved by now if he’d only finished off the Joker years ago?” This closely reflects the real-life argument over the validity of the death penalty, and that’s just one example. Other comics have also explored issues that we’re not always comfortable discussing, such as drug abuse or racism.
It’s important to remember that comic books are not real life, but are, in fact, art. Sometimes, art doesn’t do anything but entertain us, make us laugh, or take our minds off of our troubles for a few minutes. But art can also make us think, make us act, and even change the world. How we react to the art is what really matters.
I'm a lifelong media junkie, with a special love for comic books and geek culture. There's a fine, blurry line between a good time, and art that actually means something. I'm interested in exploring the ways that both sides of that line impact our lives, and the things we can learn about ourselves and each other.