Sunday, April 02, 2006

Justice, Truth, and the American Way

"Truth, Justice, and the American Way" has long been Superman's motto, another inheritance from his ventures outside comics and into other media.

Like many superthings, this motto has to some degree been generalized to the DCU as a whole. In that context, the common view is that the pillars of the DCU, the "Big Three", the Superheroic Trinity, each hew most to one of the three principles. Wonder Woman represents "Truth", Batman "Justice", and Superman "the American Way".

But I don't see it that way at all.

I suppose people associate Wonder Woman with the idea of "Truth", because of her magic lasso. But I always remember that the lasso was not part of Wonder Woman's armament; Marston added it later, and it gave Diana control over the person ensnared, not merely the ability to force the truth from them. It was just another of Marston's "dominatrix" props. Sigh.

I've read as many WW stories as most people have, and my impression is that they seldom involved any sort of "search for the truth" (except, perhaps, where the enemy is hiding). I'd be hard pressed, using evidence from her adventures, to depict her role as "Seeker of Truth". She is, at heart, your standard monster-bashing classical adventurer, not an Oedipus-the-detective or Oedipus-the-suffering-sage.

Wonder Woman, as her Countdown storyline showed, is about "Justice" and by that I mean, not the "show them the system works" justice of a Commissioner Gordon but the "I'll just tie you to this here anthill and walk away" justice of a Jonah Hex. Not due process; not trial by jury. Old-fashioned neck-snapping Justice.

To me, it's Superman who's about the Truth. Does that seem off, given that a huge chunk of super-storytime has focused on efforts to keep his civilian identity secret, even from his closest friends? Perhaps. But Superman's story (as Johns and Busiek are recently reminding us) is really Clark Kent's story. Clark Kent is Superman's "truth" he must protect. Clark Kent, the crusading reporter, whose job is to unearth truths and expose them for the world to see. Clark Kent's life is devoted to pursuing, and sharing, the truth.

And Batman?

C'mon! A wealthy industrialist who embodies the American ethos of social Darwinism? Who still chooses to use his power for the benefit of society? Who, through his indomitable spirit, turns his own personal tragedy into a public good? Who believes in family, redemption, and public service?

Citizens, Batman is the American Way.


Bill Meisel said...

Was Marston really into S and M? (I mean does anyone really know, or is this after his death psychoanalyzing)?

[This isn't a joke post; I really am curious and don't know.]

Marcos said...

Yes, Marston was really into S&M. And polyamory (he had a mistress who lived with him and his wife; not clear if she was actually their mutual mistress...) and other libertine sexual ethos...

Tim said...

Whenever comic book geeks get into this particular kind of discussion, blood gets drawn faster than at Thanksgiving dinner with the Sean Hannity loving in-laws. So first, thanks for inviting me into your house here, and know that I respect you:

I like your subversive positing of Batman as the real American Way model, although it becomes more blackly humorous the less you sugarcoat it. An incredibly rich guy who vengefully solves street crime with physical violence because his parents were killed by street violence. Which some argue has its roots in the social system that causes some people to be amazingly rich and others to be poor and desperate. That is a take on the American Way worthy of Upton Sinclair.
But I don't think the overcoming tragedy story or the "Privileged embracing public service angle" are either as peculiarly American as the immigrant New Dealer cum crusading journalist. Maybe during the day, the Wayne businesses make Gotham a better place, but we very rarely see that (and why would we want to). We know he funded the Thompkins clinic but then someone sacrificed Leslie to give Batman a straw man speech. Who knows when we'll see another example of actual community service in Gotham. So, I think he's an American Way, but the person I think you're trying to shape him into is closer to the Howard Hughes-esque Iron Man than to the old pulp avengers.
As for WW, if you want her to be about justice, well I can't argue, because I've always found her personality as difficult to come to terms with as Donna Troy's backstory. Seriously, she starts off as a weird combination of a positive role model for girls/prurient bondage fantasy/comment on non-violent problem-solving in a violent genre. Through an indescribable series of twists and turns and committee thinking, she became the stone-cold shitkicker hitting things with axes. Finally, (and "Ultimate Daredevil/Elektra" aside, I do like Greg Rucka) she becomes everything at the same time and also a chance for classics geeks (again, respect) to enjoy a new layer of inside jokes almost as obscure as those of LSH fans (respect). You can't say she's just cheesecake because what she is placed to represent is too important. You can't say that she's some great feminist commentary and ignore the Adam Hughes pin-up covers (which I loved). People could be satisfied with fun superhero comics from her, but for some reason they aren't. She's not the first female superhero, and I don't think she's the best. To me, the ultimate comment on Wonder Woman is that she is so inhumanly powerful, but still has this chameleon-like personality that reflects the gender politics of decades of mostly male creators. I'm not suggesting that she's particularly good as Truth mind, you. I'm sorry to say, far too often she's been a very vague message, dressed in hangups, in search of a character. Those times I like her best are when people stop worrying about her place in the cosmology and and have a man with the head of a Domino tie her to a nuclear missle.

Mallet said...

I like the idea that Batman is the American way. After all he was the one re-building coast city right? His company always seems to be buying up the run down factories of Gotham (of which there seems to be an infinet number) and starting them up again. Plus he does what he does at night not really for himself. Sure it's cathartic for him but he's driven by the fear this could happen to some one else.

He's all about concern for others even when he is a selfish jackass. Hell thats what led him to create brother-eye and his protocols from Tower of Bable. What happens when the JLA are taken over, whose going to save everyone?

Like I said though, they do have there soothing aspects for him. He doesn't have to worry about mind wipes or being betrayed, because now he can stop him. But the root cause for his actions is the safety of others.

As long as Captain Marvel in all his wonder still represents Hope, I'm all good.

David J Oakes said...

Damn you, Scipio.

It's bad enough that DC is pimping "The Trinity", hard, making my Hegelian synthesis of Jungian Archetypes look like just more band wagon jumping. But then to have you put forth a well reasoned thesis on the trinity, making me an also ran. Not to mention doing so by rotating the entire philosophical framework 120 degrees, yanking out my my comfortable perch of metatextual elitism...

Damn you, Scipio.

I am now obliged to make my own claims, of Batman as Truth (The Detective), Superman as Justice (consider his first appearance, where he subverts Law to save an innocent man), and Wonder Woman as The American Way (The Superpower that fights for Peace and/or the guardian of the shores of the Promised Land). Whose world is turned upside down now, you you... Existentialist!

(Of course, the real argument is that, like Wonder Woman, each is capable of filling more than one role. As characters they are resilient enough to embody different Ideals at different times, and yet still remain true to their own existence. Maybe Captain America has that kind of longevity - and don't think I am not holding you responsible for that visual pun, Mr. Garling - but is anyone debating the metatextual evolution of Spider-Man?)

Scipio said...

"have a man with the head of a Domino tie her to a nuclear missle."

Here, here!

"Yes, Marston was really into S&M."
Well, technically he was into B&D (Bondage and Discpline). It's an important distinction, both in analyzing the metatextual evolution of Wonder Woman's symbolism and in on-line personal ads. Trust me.

"I am now obliged to make my own claims"
Your own analysis is equally defensible, David! Part of the richness of the characters. But call me an "existentialist" again, and you'll find your personal health is NOT so defensible, LOL!

"don't think I am not holding you responsible for that visual pun, Mr. Garling"
I have absolutely no idea what you are refering to, sir. None.

Scipio said...

"is anyone debating the metatextual evolution of Spider-Man?"

BWA-HA-HA-HA! That's the funniest thing I've heard all week... .

DCUBoy said...

I agree with everything you said except that Bruce Wayne is not a social darwinist. If he was, he would not be helping people less fortunate than him out all the time.

Kurt Busiek said...

Actually, I'd argue that Marston was into Dominance/Submission. B&D is a subset, and S&M is something else -- something else B&D is also a subset of, but not really the same thing.

But he was freaky, and it shows.


Iron Lungfish said...

Wonder Woman isn't Justice. She didn't snap Max's neck because she thought it was just to kill him (the way the Spectre would, for instance). She snapped his neck out of pragmatism, because she decided that was the best way to deal with him at the time.

Wonder Woman has never really fit easily into one of these categories, and the sad fact is that DC has never really let her become "iconic" in the way Batman or Superman have been. She's got the lengthy publishing history to make her recognizable (hence her status as one of the "trinity"), but she has no singular archetypal trait the way the others have.

but is anyone debating the metatextual evolution of Spider-Man?

Sure they are. Spider-Man is the prototypical everyman hero, the superman with the feet of clay. He's as archetypal a comic book figure as Superman and Batman.

Law Dog said...

"Spider-Man is the prototypical everyman hero, the superman with the feet of clay"

And a suit of 3-legged Iron Man armor.


I'm a bad person.

Iron Lungfish said...

"And a suit of 3-legged Iron Man armor."

Batman is the prototypical "dark hero"; he also spent a decade chasing pink aliens in rainbow-colored batsuits. Similarly, Spider-Man's current status as a mystically totem-powered servant of the spider-god living in Avengers Tower with a supermodel wife is a gross diversion from the core traits that make Spider-Man work, but like Electic Blue Superman and the Emma Peel Wonder Woman, this, too, shall pass. In the meantime, the fact that it is so laughable only highlights the fact that there is a cultural consensus on who Spider-Man "is," in the same way that there's also a consensus on Batman and Superman - which only underscores what I said.

Chris Arndt said...

Batman is truth and justice. He is almost an Ayn Rand archetype except for his altruism. He does hold standards of moral absolutism and will excercise utmost brutality in enforcing his moral-ethical credo. Yet: that credo includes never taking a life.

Superman is Batman with different weapons. Where Batman will use fear and psychology and even inflict simple pain to get a result Superman uses overwelming force to achieve his justice. He never bothers with fear or trauma when he can simply neutralize any threat or opponent. Gotham City has minimal crime because they fear the Batman. Metropolis has low crime because all criminals in that city have an underlying feeling of futility in their blood. Their relationship with Superman has no emotions. Ultimately there are those who feel no futility. Why doesn't Superman invade Suicide Slum or even do fly-bys? Why does Suicide Slum need a Black Lightning? Because Superman leave Suicide Slum to the hands of Black Lightning so he has time to save far-off lands from earthquakes and aliens and demi-gods. BL gives Superman time to have World's Finest Team-Ups.

Wonder Woman truly represents the United Nations. A fractured, barely-functional creation by committee. An amalgam of many disparate parts that fulfills temporary functions for fleeting moments in times and ways to distract people from the fact that ultimately in the longterm the structure and force is a failure. A fusion truly worse than the sum of its parts because whatever good qualities are brought forth by one contributor is diluted by so many others. Not only is it too many cooks, but even with as few cooks as there are the ingredients just don't mix. It's not a soup; Wonder Woman is now a screwed-up layer cake!

When Wonder Woman was almost perfect was at the character's inception and at that time she represented the American Dream. A force and ideal that properly, deliberately, and quickly identifies that the best way to end war is to join with the side of good and plainly, aggressively destroy evil. The best way to thwart Ares was to join American and assist her in defeating Germany so much earlier.

If the American Dream is a work ethic to slam evil and fight villainy before it brings upon more pain... to finish the conflict by defeating the enemy rather than refusing to show a bias... then Wonder Woman truly deserves to wear that American eagle on her breasts and those tight-fitting star-spangled panties.... or skirt.

Chris Arndt said...

Now how the heck does Spider-Man fit the role of everyman?

From the inception of the character he was a boy genius who created magic miracl unbreakble ultra-flexible adhesives and an ultra-versatile launcher of such materials constructed into a weapon-form and worn in a fashion as to be worn under a tight costume.

Said boy genius was enough of a chemist to reverse the Lizard formula. Spider-Man went into another scientist's lah and from scratch concoted a chemical that would turn a mutated reptile-form demi-god into a human being.

He has, at nearly every point in his continuity, at least two hot babe females "warm for his form".

When the character was created he was the fourth-strongest super-hero in his universe!

He feeds himself, his aunt, and pays all his bills just by snapping pictures of himself in disguise.

He sewed his entire costume.

Everyman my ass.

Chris Arndt said...

Spider-Man is the archetype of the young super-hero. because of the nature of super-heroes Spidey was an old soul. His alter-ego made jokes and wisecracks that Peter Parker could not make as himself. His pressures were always adult and a need for responsibility. Yet the character will never cross a threshold and turn 33.

He is the first and best of his archetype. Nova will always be cancelled. Kyle Rayner will forever be a cypher and Firestorm will always be recombined with someone else because the writer ran out of ideas.

As an "old soul" and being written like an old soul Stan Lee and his successors never had to really learn what made a young person tick, how exactly he would think, or what exactly he would say to be cool.

Peter Parker would (almost) never be cool because he is wrapped up in his own life, his own needs, and the needs of his family. Spider-Man would always be cool because he is confidence incarnate and sudden burst of hope and determination in the face of evil, threats, and general malevolence. The Spider-Man character and series worked because the character, when written properly, was driven by the plot. The plot determined what Spider-Man needed and Spider-Man's actions were determined by his responsibilities and what was neccessary to fulfill those responsibilities.

Most young heroes were all about "me" "me" "me". After his origin that was not Spider-Man's focus. Despite his desires, yearnings, hopes, dreams, and whining, the core drive of Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man is not and was not "me" but "mine".

It isn't limited to "power and responsibility". Don't even try to make it just about that.

"odjtoxm" sounds like a deadly poison

Scarlett Drake said...

In defence of Marston, when he passed away, his lover and his wife stayed together to raise the children. The children grew up and said they had little idea of what dad, mom and 'aunt' were up to, but they know they were the best three parents they ever had.

What I love about Marston is that he loved Diana and it shows. He had a dream about how to change the world and although it looks a little on the kinky side now, I think his desire to help the world shines through in Diana. He didn't want to beat up bad guys, he wanted to rehabilitate them.

Chris Arndt said...

Marston's Wonder Woman was indeed superhumanly powerful but since the creators at the time didn't have this strange and creatively stunted obsession with making Wonder Woman the equal of Superman (I am resigned to the current status quo Wonder Woman being equal in might to Superman...) they primarily went with Marston's vision of a woman who is at her peak potential primarily because she was trained to be that way.

Sure, she had her gifts and she was a superior form and had a superior form but she trained to be that way; the only training Superman ever really had was so he didn't normalman's head off when he took a swing at a guy.

Or that scene in the last episode of Smallville.... Clark was really really good so far as not putting his fingers into Lois's skull.

Chris Arndt said...

Basically I am saying that as long as you are trying to compare Wonder Woman to Superman and find her lacking and see that as an impetus to "fix her" or a reason to "make change" then you are not making "creative change".

Wonder Woman may fit in a particular she-Superman role (and definitely did so in a lot of seventies comics... just ask Dave Campbell... I mean she was a man baby) but that doesn't mean she should have bullet-proof skin and be the subject of "Anything Superman can do I can do better... I can do anything (almost/just as good as) you."

Her role as a the most famous or the greatest super-heroine should not be defined by Superman's powers or...

Ah. Who cares? I don't lose anything if Wonder Woman's sales drop.

Anonymous said...

With regards to your opinion about Wonder Woman embodying truth - Read the Justice League comic - League of One. The whole comic is based on the fact that Diana is Truth personified

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