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By Edirin Ibru

Don't Mess with My Genre

A fan of comic books wants to clean house.

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These days it seems everyone is stumbling across some sort of philosophical or spiritual truth buried deep within pop culture, a discovery which I have no problem with at all. In fact I'm glad. People are actually thinking about what they watch, read, and listen to, and may even be benefiting from these pastimes. You've seen the titles at the bookstore: Finding Religion in the Scream Trilogy, Family Guy and the Meaning of Life, Even More Matrix and Philosophy: The 5TH Edition …

All right, I'll admit I made those up, and not every book which claims deep philosophical insight into a popular medium is worthless. But when the subject being butchered is one I happen to hold dear to my heart, I simply have to speak up.

It should come as no surprise that comics have figured in the "philosophy of … " frenzy of recent years. But unlike sports and movies, for example—which have generated whole libraries of explication—comic books have a unique vulnerability. While sports may have roots in children's play, they are watched by millions of adults and are praised for bringing out the best in the human spirit. Movies have been recognized as artistically credible from the beginning, even if skeptics have argued otherwise. Comic books simply do not have the same sort of foundations to rest on. Anyone writing about comics becomes an ambassador for a genre dragged down by the stigma of its own past, and if he does his job poorly, the whole genre suffers.

Consider Who Needs a Superhero? by H. Michael Brewer, a benevolent attempt to make a case for comic books as credible works of art. Alas, in his quest to elevate the medium, Brewer staggers around searching for connections between comics and the Christian faith. At best, these stand as serviceable youth-group sermons; at worst, they will make theologically learned readers cringe. Superman is compared to Christ; Bruce Banner (aka the Incredible Hulk) is said to recapitulate humanity's internal battle with sin; the nature of the Green Arrow suggests parallels to an all-seeing, active God. Brewer's heart is in the right place, but his execution is lacking.

Books in the vein of Who Needs a Superhero? are inadequate not only in their uninspired arguments and often absurd comparisons but also in their dated portrayal of the comic book industry. As the core audience of the industry matured, so did the content of its stories. Simplistic plots and heroes in colorful spandex have mostly been traded in for darker and more complex material, while pre-existing characters categorized by earlier stereotypes are quickly being reinvented. This has given rise to star characters with acutely ambiguous morals—or with no scruples at all.

One such anti-hero is Marvel's Frank Castle, aka the Punisher. When the family man and Vietnam veteran witnesses the murder of his wife and child, he is transformed into a pitiless criminal killer armed to the teeth with more firepower than a police battalion. His mission is simple — destroy everyone associated with any underworld crime syndicate within reach, one bullet at a time. David A. Zimmerman, author of the praiseworthy Comic Book Character, describes such characters as "vigilantes who don't ascend to the level of hero."

Zimmerman couldn't be more right. The Punisher is as far removed from the likes of Spiderman as you can get. He uses weapons, kills, tortures, and has no problems plowing through law enforcement in order to meet his ends. Even Frank's costume contradicts the classic norm: a black shirt bearing a white skull, with the practical purpose of drawing an attacker's bullets away from his head and towards his Teflon vest. No capes, no masks, no gimmicks, and no feel-good morality.

But the Punisher only scratches the surface. In 1982, acclaimed British comic book scribe Alan Moore began work on Warrior (later to be re-titled V for Vendetta), which told the tale of a masked anarchist who changes the lives of all he encounters while fighting a fascist regime in future Great Britain. The work was written in deliberate response to the conservative Margaret Thatcher era of the 1980's and stood as a bleak vision of the future based on actual political events. In 1988, Vertigo Comics (an imprint of DC Comics) began publishing Hellblazer, a monthly series which chronicled the antics of John Constantine, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking con man, neck-deep in the world of magic and the occult. In 1991, Frank Miller released Sin City, which featured such characters as Marv, a violent borderline psychotic, and Miho, a woman best described as a prostitute/assassin. And, perhaps most popular of all, was former Spiderman artist Todd McFarlane's creation, Spawn. First printed in May of 1992, the series followed an undead CIA mercenary who agrees to serve in Satan's army in exchange for another chance with his wife and daughter on earth.

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