Some of those who take their comics seriously and think deep thoughts about them have remarked on the symbiotic relationship between super-heroes and super-villains. They do seem to form yet another Yin-Yang pair (and, as I’ve mentioned many times, we find such pairs many places in life). In fact, many see comics as nothing less than variations on the basic Yin-Yang of good and evil.
There are even those who suggest super-heroes create super-nemeses as necessary mirrors and justification for their existence. There is just enough truth to that to make it seem debatable, but the more common view is that both arise as natural symbols of basic good and evil.
Of course, there are two meanings to being responsible for something. One can be responsible for causing something, and one can be responsible for dealing with something.
Certainly the Batman (as the local superhero) is responsible for dealing with the Joker.
One has to resist the obvious question: Why doesn’t the Batman enlist the aid of Superman and his super powers to help? Or the super-speedy Flash or the super-powered Wonder Woman (or even Green Lantern)?
The obvious answer, as any Batman fan knows, is that the Batman has a strong “my city, my problem” ethic — and he gets downright hostile when crossed — but still. You’d think the JLA could permanently deal with non-super threats such as the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin.
Which brings us to the other sense of responsible: of being the cause of something.
In one sense, the Batman definitely is responsible for the Joker’s continued existence. Batman’s strict “no-kill” policy means he constantly jails a super-villain who always manages to escape and wreak havoc. The Joker is a known killer — he killed one of the Robins (and shot Barbara Gordon)! And it does seem there is little or no hope of rehabilitating the Joker.
If these super-villains are the avatars of evil, then rehabilitation would seem impossible. (The flip side is that the Good Guys, as avatars of good, should then be immune from corruption, and that does seem to be the case. Can you imagine if Superman said, ‘Screw it, I’m taking over. All your base are belong to ME!’)
One can certainly argue that, in letting the Joker live, the Batman is responsible.
Legal responsibility can depend on knowing a thing will happen and not preventing it. Had the Batman dealt with the Joker more effectively, (one of the) Robin(s) would still be alive, plus Barbara Gordon (the Commissioner‘s daughter) wouldn’t have been shot and confined to a wheelchair.
This raises a question often described as “fighting fire with fire.” Is it possible to combat evil with evil? Can we morally justify killing an unrepentant known killer if it will save lives? An immediate objection is that this requires predicting the future. We can’t be certain the Joker will kill again (a sudden heart attack might end the matter, or — against all odds and reason — it’s possible the Joker could repent).
We generally feel that, if our lives are under immediate and obvious threat, we are justified in responding with force. One consideration is the potential to respond with non-lethal force, but there certainly are “kill or be killed” scenarios. When a nation is threatened with deadly force, we often feel war is justified.
On the flip side is the view that such response cannot be justified, that it is better to be killed than to resort to killing. The hope behind such a view is that it will spread once killers see the futility of their actions.
I question whether such a world is possible. I question whether I would even want to live in such a world. It sounds very peaceful, but peace can be dull and stagnant, and I wonder if our aggressiveness — which drives our dark side — might not be a necessary part of our continuing development, a source of our strength.
If there is a reality to the Yin and Yang of good and evil — a reality we find reflected in our stories — then an imagined world without evil would be a world missing half of its reality.
There is also that, in the real world, one rarely finds pure evil or pure good. One key aspect of Yin-Yang is that each side contains a hint of the other. Further, the boundary between them is not a straight line, but a blend. Often the most interesting and useful parts of life are the parts that lie on the boundary between opposites. These can be extremely tricky areas to navigate, but they are often the best parts.
A bit of (sober) History: When Bob Kane (and Bill Finger) first created him in 1939, the Batman carried a .45 and didn’t have a problem killing bad guys who were a serious threat. It was only later that he adopted the strict no kill-policy.
Once it was decided that comics were for children and the Comics Code Authority was in full effect, there was a long period of enforced innocence in their pages. But as the century wore on, many began to question that innocence and to chaff under the restrictions of the Comic Code.
It’s not surprising that comics used to reflect the assumption (or wish, anyway) that good always triumphs. Our TV shows and movies tended to reflect the same desire. But in the last 30 years, comics have gotten much darker and more reflective of the realities of life and society.
A closing note: The post went longer than expected, so I’ll have to pick this up another time. I’d originally planned to examine the question of whether wealthy societies such as ours are responsible for terrorists (for such is sometimes their claim). The idea that our way of life justifies terrorism is like the idea that a wife or child can justify abuse. Which is to say: absurd.
But there is also the question of whether a criminal can justify execution or whether a nation can justify war. The disturbing thing is that the answer appears to be — at least sometimes, at least for some — “Perhaps.”
If you are attacked with murderous intent, is it justified to kill in self-defense? Perhaps. How about in protecting your family? Again, perhaps. You can even justify — perhaps — defending your country from threat, although it gets murkier when you consider protecting a “way of life.”
While the idea that nothing justifies “fighting fire with fire” makes life simpler, it does require being willing to sacrifice — even die — defending that idea. As mentioned above, life gets much more difficult and interesting on the boundaries.