A blond, square-jawed man is splayed on the stone steps of the New York Federal Courthouse. Blood runs from his mouth. The white star on his chest is spattered. He is muscular but limp. Two figures crouch over him: a man in a black leather jacket, sunglasses and a baseball cap, and a woman in a black and white paramilitary uniform. The first swears. The second cradles the downed man’s head, screaming ‘no’ and whispering, ‘Oh God, Steve.’
There is no divine miracle for Steve Rogers. He dies of gunshot wounds, still in handcuffs. Placards are on display nearby: ‘Free Captain America’ and ‘Cap Traitor’. Captain America is arrested by his own government and assassinated outside an iconic house of law.
It is testament to the power of contemporary superhero comics that this scene, in Ed Brubaker’s Captain Americano. 25, actually moved me. I was surprised. To me, Captain America’s name and uniform had always suggested a blithe nationalism: a superpower patting itself on the back, and selling this conceit to children. In this, I was one of Aristotle’s doctrinaire thinkers, ‘whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of the facts … too ready to dogmatise on the basis of a few observations’.
Of course there were good reasons for my scepticism. During the Second World War the superhero in the stars and stripes was indeed a morale booster for the United States. The cover of Captain America no. 1, published in December 1940, had the Captain punching Adolf Hitler in the mouth. Tellingly, America was not yet in the war.
The comic was a hit, selling more than a million copies—more than Time magazine. The story itself, told over the issues, was quintessentially American: a good-hearted but scrawny poor boy from the Lower East Side, transformed into a goliath by modern science—the science of a German defector, no less. A few had gripes, but Captain America successfully portrayed America’s ideals of freedom, muscular courage and technological supremacy. A great state, with enviable pectorals and enriched uranium.
After the war, Captain America’s popularity faded. It was not until the sixties, as the United States sent more troops to Vietnam, that the superhero came into his own: a conflicted patriot in a less idealistic age. With the usual tricks of fantasy—suspended animation, a souped-up genetic code, good luck and a powerful will—Captain America was discovered literally on ice, and brought back to life in a new America, no longer united by the threat of the Axis.
As Sean Howe notes in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Marvel was itself conflicted during these decades: between artistic independence and the corporate bottom line; between ‘master fence-sitter’ Stan Lee and his more politically committed junior colleagues. National and professional faultlines appeared as thin cracks in the superhero’s psyche. ‘This is the day of the anti-hero—the age of the rebel—and the dissenter,’ the Captain broods in Stan Lee’s Captain America no. 122, published amid social unrest in 1970. ‘It isn’t hip—to defend the establishment!—only to tear it down!’
Part of Captain America’s new persona is classic ‘fish out of water’ guff: witness the curmudgeonly Captain in The Ultimates, grumbling about belly button rings and ‘potty-mouth stuff’ in films, or looking baffled by taken-for-granted popular culture (‘Who’s Bruce Lee?’). But more importantly, the superhero has become a symbol, not of dim nationalism but of the tensions in the United States. ‘In a world rife with injustice, greed, and endless war … who’s to say the rebels are wrong?’ asks a disaffected Captain in Captain Americano. 122. ‘I’ve spent a lifetime defending the flag and the law. Perhaps I should have battled less and questioned more.’
For some, Captain America stands for flag and constitution; for others, personal code and ardent individualism. For example, as part of Mark Millar’s gritty Ultimates team, the Captain is sent overseas to invade and disarm sovereign countries. He is a blunt tool of the government, and is attacked as an amoral stooge by Thor, the Norse god and Norwegian anti-capitalist leader. ‘The son of Odin’, says Thor in the first volume of The Ultimates, ‘is not interested in working for a military industrial complex who engineers wars and murders innocents.’ Not your average superhero banter.
But in Millar’s storyline for the Civil War series, Captain America is one of the ‘rebels’ he sympathised with in the seventies, fighting—literally and figuratively—against his own government. He refuses to work for the White House, voicing concerns about its values and ideals. In one typically blunt exchange, he tells government agent Maria Hill that superheroes need autonomy, not political directives. ‘Don’t play politics with me, Hill. Super heroes need to stay above that stuff,’ Captain America seethes, ‘or Washington starts telling us who the super-villains are.’ This conflict is what culminates in the Captain’s arrest and assassination.
Both series, Civil War and The Ultimates, were written during the George W. Bush years, and the politics of the day is straightforwardly part of the drama. Captain America, as a symbol of the nation, contains multitudes. ‘What I found is that all the really hard-core left-wing fans want Cap to be … giving speeches on the street corner against the Bush administration,’ said writer of Captain America no. 25 Ed Brubaker, ‘and all the really right-wing want him to be over in the streets of Baghdad, punching out Saddam.’ Captain America’s vilification and capture are an outcome of classical political debates: liberty versus loyalty to the state, conscience versus patriotism, privacy versus national security. He is a traitor to some, a hero to others. And in the Marvel universe, many on both sides are happy to kill the Captain, or have him kill, to reflect their vision of the United States.
Yes, Steve Rogers was something of a glib conservative icon—and still is, at times. Witness Cap in Ultimate Captain America no. 4, fighting the Vietnam-era Captain America Frank Simpson, spouting nationalistic platitudes while he knocks Simpson’s teeth out with a steel chain: ‘Peace and security don’t come easy … and wars are never pretty, no matter what era,’ says Cap. ‘But we do what we can, for the greater good.’ Yet even in this story, doubt remains. It ends with the Captain reading the Bible to a hospitalised Simpson, right after his partner Hawkeye asks if the Ultimates are doing the devil’s work, rather than God’s.
Among the ricocheting shields and sledgehammer blows, Captain America offers a recognisable portrait of strife: ethical, political, existential.
This use of conflict is not limited to Captain America—it comes with the genre. Superhero comics are primarily action stories. There is little point having a divine hammer if one cannot, like Thor in Fear Itself no. 5, smash Hulk into space; little point having Olympian-level stamina and skills if one cannot, like Batman in Year One, punch a cruel SWAT officer through a brick wall.
This is partly about page-turning. Superheroes sitting at cafés chatting about Sartre’s ideas of consciousness or Amin’s contribution to development theory are superheroes few will read. Daredevil’s roundhouse kick (‘CHOCK’) and Wolverine’s claws (‘SNIKT’) keep the heart beating while the eyes move from panel to panel. And as with Hollywood blockbusters, the most superficial comic issues are simply excuses for superhumans to blue—nuances of temperament and plot are ditched for punching, slicing and telepathic blasts.
But in the better crafted comics, violence is more sophisticated. It becomes meaningful: extreme ideology, existential ambivalence, political ambition, childhood trauma. While all narrative involves some conflict—if only between groping expectations and indifferent reality—superhero comic books can make this conflict their chief animating principle. Hulk’s tantrums and Captain America’s shield have a double role: to entertain and to exemplify virtues, ideals, values. That comics are illustrated is crucial to this. How violence is initiated, undertaken, resolved: these are more than simply tropes to excite and amuse—they are part of comics’ visual language, in which human psyche and society are expressed.
Just as importantly, there is conflict within the ‘canon’. There is no one Captain America, for example—there are several, written over seven decades. The subtle conflicts that play out in psyche and society are painted, pointillist-style, in many deviations: Captain America as loner and team-player, outcast and celebrity, rebel and stooge. Likewise for schizoid Batman, haunted Wonder Woman and every other superhero—their violence (that is, our violence) is many-shaded.
Some personalities are unsettled by these variations.1 Italian author and publisher Roberto Calasso, in The Forty-Nine Steps, cites Plato, but here the philosopher stands in for all literary conservatives, longing for the canonical story:
[W]hen Plato simultaneously condemns mimetic poetry and Homeric myth, which is metamorphic and epiphanic, it is because a serious, invincible threat comes from these tales and forms. Unlike anyone before him, Plato was seized by a sort of giddy terror at the proliferation of images.
A canon offers calming security for anxious readers weary of flux. But part of enjoying comic books is becoming accustomed to narrative abundance; not baulking as authors rewrite the origins of Green Lantern’s ring or the Joker’s smile. As we turn to a few examples of comic book conflict, it is worth keeping the ‘proliferation of images’ in mind. Comic books are like modern myths, and any one myth ‘is always a tree with many branches’, said Calasso recently in the Paris Review. ‘Unless you take into account all possible variants, you don’t truly understand it.’ This essay is held up by a few thin branches.
Something deceptively light to begin. In Mark Waid’sDaredevil vol. 3, no. 2, the titular hero—real name Matt Murdock—faces off against Captain America, who wants to arrest the costumed lawyer for his earlier crimes.2 Treating the confrontation like a court case, Murdock makes an objection, then asks for a continuance. All the while, the two superheroes are fighting: Captain America has Daredevil’s cane, while Murdoch has the Captain’s iconic shield. Using the shield as a counterweight, Daredevil somersaults, jumps and spins like an acrobat.
The illustrator, Paolo Manuel Rivera, often portrays the conflict as a series of circular forces, with the half circles of the Captain’s blows criss-crossing Daredevil’s black and burgundy arcs. Daredevil is agile and acrobatic, a master of precise evasion. The fight ends in a draw, as does the argument. ‘Matter’s tabled, but not settled,’ says the Captain. ‘I’ll take the win,’ replies Daredevil. His physical prowess mirrors his legal skills: this is a rhetoric of combat.
Daredevil’s playful fighting style also speaks to his mental state. Possessed by the Beast, Murdock was evil. He lost his mind, as well as friends, colleagues and his legal career. In Waid’s telling, Daredevil has faced death and the annihilation of his life’s work, and can only reply with a kind of knowing lightness: what Marvel editors describe as a ‘blitheness of spirit’ and Nietzsche called the ‘gay science’. ‘Who knows how to laugh … and live well’, asked Nietzsche in The Gay Science, ‘if he does not first know a great deal about war and victory?’ Daredevil’s tricks, verbal and martial, are a version of this laughter.
From gallows humour to grimaces. In Doug Moench’s classic Batman: Knightfall no. 11, the supervillain Bane has Batman beaten. Hardened by a brutal childhood in prison, and pumped up on a super-steroid, Bane is a giant: absurdly muscular, cunning and merciless. Bane picks up the bleeding hero and breaks him over his knee. Batman’s spine is snapped.
Jim Aparo draws Bane as a hirsute monster, a bulk of rounded pink pectorals and biceps topped with black spiky hair, his trapezius muscles meeting halfway behind his masked head. Batman is a small draping thing, back arched in agony as Bane’s knee explodes with a sharp yellow star into the hero’s spine. Stark white lines sweep down, showing the lines of force. The frame of the panel is itself torn, with jagged triangles cut from the edges.
This is good superhero action, but it is also a depiction of Heraclitus’s aphorism ‘A man’s character is his fate.’ Batman asks for this. Bruce Wayne, the billionaire behind the mask, has issues. Traumatised by his parents’ murder at the hands of an alleyway thug, Batman is a guilty, obsessive loner who suffers for the sake of others. Scarred by his childhood powerlessness, but also furious at his loss, he takes responsibility for the whole of Gotham City. It becomes his city, in need of his paternal care. When Bane breaks Gotham’s worst criminals free, Batman sees it as his job to return them to Arkham Asylum. He refuses help, scrapping day and night with villains. Bane knows this, and simply waits. By the time Bane breaks into the Wayne mansion to finish Batman off, the monster’s work is already done for him, by Batman himself. He is dazed, weak, wounded. The superhero’s silent monologue makes the point:
Tottering on brittle bones and lurching through vertigo for months now … ears buzzing and ringing … everything too bright and glittery … even in the dark … passing blood for weeks … the toll too great, pride no longer an asset … only a prelude to a fall … and now … feel so bad … I want to die …
In this way Aparo’s panel sums up not just Moench’s storyline but also the whole Batman ethos. At the heart of this grieving vigilante is a wish—or a half-felt, vague but chronic longing—to stop living altogether.
This is also hinted at in Scott Snyder’s recent Court of Owls, in which a drugged, hallucinating Batman is slowly beaten and cut by the Talon, an assassin. The panels themselves are scattered messily across the page, each an asymmetrical shard instead of a nice neat square or rectangle. Let it end, thinks the half-conscious Batman. The pain. The fights. But a photo of his long-dead relative, killed by the Talon, pushes him to prevail. Bruce Wayne lives another day—but not for himself.
Batman escapes—Thor does not. Part of his character is sacrifice. In Matt Fraction’s Fear Itself no. 7, Thor is fighting his own uncle, the god of fear: the Serpent. The Serpent terrorises Earth, causing whole cities to turn on one another: there is looting and domestic homicide, houses and churches are razed. The monster feeds on this fear, growing stronger with each horror. Odin, Thor’s father, decides to destroy Earth to save his kingdom—without humans’ fear, the Serpent can be beaten. But Thor refuses to sacrifice his adopted planet. He takes an enchanted sword, Ragnarok, and confronts his uncle, by now a colossal dragon. High in the smoky air, Thor is thrown, burnt, crushed, but he eventually impales the Serpent’s skull. The dragon falls, as does his killer. Thor staggers towards Odin: ‘Father. Fuh … father, did I—’ Then he dies.
Those familiar with Norse myth will know this story, from the Voluspa. Thor kills Jormangandr, the Midgard Serpent, then takes nine steps and dies. Fraction’s retelling nods to this tale, but also includes the pantheon of Marvel superheroes—including Iron Man bickering with swearing ironsmith dwarves from Svartalfheim. (‘You and your wholerfzdingfdzcgedumbrsdu world deserves to get xfzchuinrazed.’)3
Stuart Immonen has drawn the Serpent as a whole page of green scales, coils, talons and teeth, and Thor as a tiny man on the monster’s head: crouched over his sword, red cape billowing. Even as he delivers this killing blow, Thor seems less a god and more a child: diminutive, precarious, vulnerable. Subsequent panels show the Serpent tumbling in the smoke, Thor just a falling speck with a cape. Fraction also writes of Odin’s grief—something missing from the ancient Icelandic poems. The final page shows Odin, a hulking old soldier in golden armour and fur-lined cape, cradling his dead son. A paternal pietà.
Thor, in the Marvel universe, is a golden boy. Handsome, strong, stalwart, chivalrous and a bona fide god. But Fraction and Immonen have portrayed him as a brave but fragile son, someone to be protected and then grieved for. The point is not simply Thor’s childish rashness or narcissism, but a more general statement about heroism and loss. Thor is expected not only to die but also to be humbled: to become weak and broken. The thunder god preserves his dignity, but not his epic power and authority. For Thor, this is what it means to be ‘super’ in persona and potency: he has more to sacrifice. His family and comrades-in-arms have to accept this—to love Thor as a hero is to consent to his abject surrender.
Superheroes also force others to surrender—and sometimes cruelly. In Greg Rucka’s The Hiketeia, Diana of Themyscira—also known as Wonder Woman—is fighting Batman. She is protecting Danielle, her supplicant in the ancient Greek ritual of hiketeia. Prompted by the Furies, ancient spirits of vengeance, Danielle murdered the criminals who exploited and killed her sister. Batman is trying to arrest Danielle and hand her over to the authorities. Diana cannot break her vow—the hiketeia oath transcends ordinary law or utilitarian ethics. Batman cannot give up—he is, as we have seen, a manic devotee of secular justice. The fight ends with Batman face down in a puddle, Diana’s foot on his head: ‘Don’t. Get. Up.’
J.G. Jones has drawn Wonder Woman looming over Wayne, her red boots covering his neck and face. Foreshortening makes her striated torso—ridged triceps and forearms, armoured chest—as broad as Batman’s splayed body. His wrinkled cape blends with the rippled puddle. He is gritting his teeth and, as always, ready to keep bleeding. But Batman is finished, and was finished before the fight began.
Given Diana’s heritage, the hiketeia vow and the presence of the Furies, the dramatic parallels with Athenian tragedy are obvious: an atmosphere of necessity prevails. Wonder Woman had to protect Danielle and Batman had to try to arrest her—and Danielle had to kill herself to resolve this Aeschylean conflict between good and good. This involves the Heraclitean dictum noted earlier: the ‘fate’ of one’s character. But it also points to the kind of conflict portrayed by the Athenian dramatists: between primal vengeance and law, family and state, private oaths and public duties.
The Hiketeia refuses to resolve this neatly with, as in Aeschylus’s The Eumenides, a trial or god’s favour. Death cuts the knot, but life stays tangled. Batman will remain divided between retribution and civilised justice; Diana will remain a pagan wearing the stars and stripes of a secular, individualistic democracy. A similar message is given in Christopher Moeller’s JLA: A League of One, in which Diana knocks out, imprisons and deceives her own comrades in the Justice League, instead of explaining herself—better to protect them unilaterally from prophecy than give them their freedom (to die).
Because of her pre-modern sensibilities, Wonder Woman’s violence is not just physical. It is also a kind of existential violence, which refuses to recognise the possibility of doing otherwise. The psyche is freely defined by its vows, but these are treated as unalterable laws. Hers is the unique tyranny of the steadfast conscience.
The point of these examples is not that mainstream biff-and-bam comics are unique in their expressions of human friction. This is part of art’s bread and butter. The point is that superhero comics can be particularly nuanced in their depiction of violence.
Political alliances, ethical blind spots, existential leaps—these are expressed in the language of jumps, blasts and thumpings. This is articulate violence. Its motives can be myopic, fundamentalist, conceited or corporate. But it is no less meaningful for these flaws—a meaning yoked not only to words but also to illustrations, fonts and framing borders. Not quite ‘total art’, but certainly a versatile mixed medium that strikingly illustrates human strife.
Perhaps this is an old tale for comics fans, still shaking their heads at Captain America’s convenient resurrection. But for any purists who see comics as pulp for onanistic adolescents, it is one worth sketching.
- The antihero Deadpool, in Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe, discovers that he is a comic book character: one of many characters fighting each other, over and over, in the many Marvel universes. Driven mad by this knowledge, he decides to kill every single hero and villain (and their writers).
- Daredevil Matt Murdock was possessed by the Beast of the Hand, a demon from a ninja crime syndicate. He was cured by a chi punch from Iron Fist. Congratulations, fellow geek, if those two sentences make sense to you.
- Translated from Marvel’s made-up rune.