A friend from my MFA program tweeted this, and I clicked on it, and I loved it. I mean, I really loved it.
Can someone please do classical statues dressed as superheroes? I want to see that very bady.
Comic Books Teach Important Lessons
Comic books have grown up, as you can see. Nowadays, cutting edge stories by superstar writers and artists are taking on some of the most vexing issues in our society. In truth though, comics have always been about teaching acceptance, mutual respect, and the need to live in harmony with our environment and the creatures we share the world with. Not to mention that we should never judge books by their covers, or people by their outward appearance.
With all of that, the single most important lessons that I learned from comic book superheroes is to never give up, even when the odds are stacked against you, the way they were stacked against Bruce Wayne at the start of Scott Snyder’s run on the new 52 Batman.
I remember teaching a class and an SAT essay prompt came up, something on the order of: “Is it better to hold fast to a dream that seems doomed to failure, or to give up and try something else?” In a room of non-readers of American comic books, I was met with the universal belief that (while any fool knows it really depends on the plan in question) it’s better to try something new.
Maybe they knew something I didn’t. Or, more likely, they hadn’t been trained to see things that I way I saw things, by a lifetime.
Plans that matter deserve full-on obsessive dedication.
If I were able to teach my son only one thing, I’d teach to figure out what he loves as early as possible, and then spend his time getting good at that thing. Nothing better than doing what you love for a living. I’d also teach him to exercise, study martial arts, eat healthy food, and practice random acts of kindness…and in a sense, most of these lessons come from comic books, too. Except maybe the eat healthy food part.
Dedication leads to victory. When my Dad was alive, he used to tell stories about his football playing days at Hofstra. He asked me if I knew what the guys did when they huddled up on the field. “Plan the next play?” I said. “Pep talk?” I ventured. Dad shook his head. He showed me his spotlessly clean and manicured fingernails and said, “No, we compared the amount of enemy skin and blood we had collected under our fingernails.”
That’s dedication. Comic books taught me about dedication. So, I was wondering how this happened, and I very quickly used the Internet to pull together a few examples of some of my favorite moments related to this theme.
None of these images or the words they contain belong to me. I borrowed these from all over the place. They don’t really appear in any particular order, here. The one thing that unites them is that I remembered them during a brainstorm lasting only a few minutes. In other words, these moments live inside me and are never far from me. For better or worse. To all the fabulous comic creators whose work didn’t make this hastily constructed list, I apologize. I’m sure an old friend of mine could easily remind me of a few moments that I talk about all the time but failed to include here. My apologies. I didn’t meant to leave anyone out (fifty things I left out spring immediately to mind); rather, I just wanted to get this post up and done in a reasonable time frame.
So, without further adieu, here we go.
MOMENTS OF GREATNESS
Thor vs. Arishem of the Celestials. This happened in Thor #300, the end of an awesome arc that included an adaptation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle to comics. I didn’t care much about that. I cared about how big Arishem was, and how–despite the size difference–Thor never looked small. And he kept on getting back up to fight for what he believes in.
In general, Thor is a great one for teaching the “never give up” lesson. It’s ironic. Thor is a god, and as such one of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe. At the same time, though, the battles he faces are usually of cosmic proportion, as was this fight against the Celestials. God or not, he’s always out-classes, and always has to dig deep to get the job done. And he does.
This is another Thor moment. Thor takes out Orca the Killer Whale after a pep-talk from Moondragon. This happened in an issue of Avengers, when the team was taking on the Roxxon Oil Company: a bunch of corporate stink-bombs and ass-monkeys. Orca basically beat the crap out of the Avengers, including Thor. Moondragon, a sexy bald female telepath, had to remind Thor that he was…well…a god. Stop holding back. Be what you are. What an amazing lesson for a young person, and for a young writer. Depending on the depth of foregoing character development, the moment when the hero stands up to finally kick some ass can be extremely powerful.
From the top of the power charts to the very bottom, we come to Captain America. I still remember the thrill of reading a “What If” comic that asked, “What if Captain America became President?” Well, I’ll tell you. After fixing just about everything, the Red Skull kills a slow and chubby President Steve Rogers who hasn’t had time to keep up with his physical training regimen. It happened in a What If comic book, and I couldn’t find an image from the ending. All I remember is how certain I was that the swearing in of Captain America as President Steve Rogers was a great and wonderful thing. Why? Simple. Cap believes in the ideal behind the dreams that built America. He doesn’t represent the reality of how complex and difficult it is to govern a country, much less a super-power. But if someone is going to have to dive into those complexities, it should be someone who will never, no matter what, compromise the ideals behind the dream. How we might possibly find such a person from inside a political system as complex as ours is the kind of question that could drive you mad, or that could drive you to get into a good college and study politics and economics. And that’s powerful.
Jumping a bit back up the power scale, we come to the moment when Spider-man beats up Firelord, a Herald of Galactus. If you don’t know Galactus, he eats planets. Firelord has the power Cosmic, which is a lot more bad-ass than the proportional speed and strength of a spider. Spidey is not the underdog here. He’s dead. He’s going to be burned to a crisp in a instant. Duh. But…Peter has heart. He has the same kind of heart Thor has. Like there was a giant slab of heart-meat out there, and somehow Peter and Thor ended up with the best cuts of all. Prime, grade A, heart. And like Spidey says, “I’m just too stubborn to know when to quit!” That’s a decent motto for one pursuing a lifelong dream.
Now, I should point out that the above image is also a great example of something impossible that comics got me into trouble by making me think was possible: You cannot have a detailed conversation with someone during your fistfight with that person. Maybe the most super thing about superheroes is how much thinking and talking they can actually get done in the midst of a fight to the death.
Tony Stark as Iron Man is one of those heroes that, despite vast differences from the average person, is still easy to connect with. Sure, Tony’s a wealthy billionaire industrialist genius. Sure Robert Downey Jr. is better looking than I am. But the truth is, Tony’s just a guy. He’s had some combat training from Captain America (they work together on the Avengers), but he has a bum ticker and he is just a normal man inside the suit. I could put on the suit. You could put on the suit. But if you did, would you dare take on the hulk? Iron Man knocks out the Hulk. He does this by channeling all of the power in his armor into a single blow. Then his armor seizes up completely, and there’s a chance Tony will die in there.
Don’t worry though. Ant-Man enters Iron Man’s armor to save Tony Stark, and everything works out OK in the end. It’s another great lesson, that no matter how strong the hero’s heart, no matter how stubborn and unwilling to fail, it’s still good to have friends who have your back. Friends can save the day when you’ve given all you’ve got, and for the time being have nothing left to give.
In addition to the above lessons, comics can also teach about respect. Comics also taught me that it’s cool to admit when your wrong. It’s cool to respect those who have earned it. It’s cool let someone else share the spotlight. Selfishness and self-centeredness are antithetical to the idea of Superheroes.There are countless moments I could point to where one superhero shows the proper respect for another, gives that other hero his or her props, but my favorite is from a crossover between Marvel and DC where Batman and Captain America square off against each other.
They’re closely matched, we learn, and Batman even has the courage and self-confidence to admit that maybe, maybe, Cap could take him down. But that’s just a prelude to the most obvious, simple, and far too often overlooked solution: Let’s work together. If only we could get governments to read more comics. In the end, cooperation really is the key to everything.
Comics also try to teach us how to deal with the darkest aspects of life. Betrayal. Death. Friends who choose the wrong path and need to be drawn back. And even self-sacrifice. In the X-Men, Jean Grey develops first into Phoenix and then into Dark Phoenix slowly, with lots of brilliant foreshadowing by Chris Claremont that gives us moments like this one, when Jean Grey uses the Phoenix Force to Hold Back Cyclops Optic Blasts…so she can see his face and they can have a nice make-out session on a butte somewhere in Arizona (I think.)Not only was this a romantic and sexy scene, but it also teaches foreshadowing. Jean Grey is casually holding back the heretofore irresistible optic blasts that Scott’s eyes are constantly generating. How can she do that? How powerful is she? If she turns evil, who could possibly stop her? And it’s done in a bikini, on a butte, in a blink. Of course, things get quickly worse. Mastermind of the Hellfire club is manipulating Jean Grey, and when the X-Men move against them, the Hellfire Club’s inner circle takes out the X-Men without working up a sweat. Wolverine ends up having his weight increased 1,000 times or something like that, and he plunges through all the floors of the club’s swanky mansion, and lands in a sewer. It’s a pretty thorough ass-kicking. But, comic book heroes never give up. Wolverine, with his healing factor and unbreakable bones, is the ultimate spokesperson of the stubborn, never give up attitude.
Things go from bad to worse as the battle with the Hellfire Club triggers Jean’s transformation from Phoenix into Dark Phoenix. This is bad. S he eats a planet with six billion sentient aliens on it. And her closest friends, the X-Men, have to stop her. This is another important lesson that comic books teach over and over again: If you’re losing a friend to darkness, you have to fight for that friend. That’s what Wolverine is doing, and he’s almost…almost prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.
He hesitates, though. He can’t kill Jean Grey. He loves her. If you’ve seen the movies, you’ll note quickly that these themes were brought into the films, although events were altered considerably. In the comics, the alien Shi’ar empire decides Dark Phoenix has to be tried and executed, and the X-Men end up defending her in a duel to the death with the Shi’ar Imperial Guard–a bunch of superheroes loosely based on, or creates as an homage to, the Legion of Superheroes.
The fight is great. One of the greatest comics of all time. As an aside, I need to point out that the writers decided, much to my chagrin, to remove the increasingly popular Wolverine from the playing field.
This is perhaps the second lowest moment in Wolverine’s entire career. He gets beat up by the referees, not even by members of the Imperial Guard. Just…despicable. Hated it. But the writers need to clear the stage for Jean Grey’s ultimate heroic sacrifice.
Jean dies, so that the X-Men, and uncountable innocents endangered by the Dark Phoenix struggling to take control of her, can live.
Magneto unceremoniously sucks the adamantium out of Wolverine. I view this moment basically the way I view New Coke. It’s one of those ideas that sounds great…until you sober up. The amazing thing about this moment is that the editorial team let it happen, and then let Wolverine travel through far too-many books with normal, breakable bones, and bone claws. I often say I’d love to be part of the kinds of creative conferences or brainstorming sessions that lead to approving ideas such as this one. Here’s how I imagine it:
“So, look, right, Magneto sucks all the adamantium right out of him, right?”
“So his claws are gone?”
“No, man, he has bone claws. You know, shit, when we first introduced the character, the claws were on his gloves. Then we put them inside him. Cool-factor very, very high. But we gave the impressions this was pure weaponization, that they were, like, blades inside his hollow forearms, right? But now, now we reveal they’re made of bone. They’re part of his mutant power-package, along with the healing factor and they hyper-senses.”
“OK, but like, what can you cut with bone claws?”
“Jeez, dude, that’s like asking what a triceratops could stab with its horns.”
“Um, no triceratops ever had to fight Ultron…”
“So what? When the claws break, we have them grow back. Healing factor! And wait…wait…wait for it…ready? OK, with the adamantium gone, his healing factor gets supercharged. It’s no longer all tied up keeping his body from rejecting the adamantium. So he heals better than ever.”
“Hmm…that is cool.” There it is. The New Coke moment. So another lesson that comics teach is that, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Still, I shouldn’t be too judgmental. Comic book creators are often called upon to reinvent iconic characters in ways that the established fan base will stomach, and that have the potential to attract new fans. Such was the case when J. Michael Straczynski was given the reins of Amazing Spider-man. JMS had convinced me he could write–and write really well–with his Babylon 5 television series. But I was still impressed when a stranger asked Spiderman a question he has never heard before. Brilliant. JMS reinvents Spider-man’s origin with one question.
Many people tend to think that comic books steer away from serious questions, but that is far from the truth. One of the issues comics have dealt with is the slow loss of one’s sanity, and how that can destroy a marriage. Yellowjacket/Hank Pym slowly loses his mind. Poor guy. Hank Pym, brilliant biochemist, invents all kinds of stuff including a means to shrink to microscopic size or grow to giant size, but he still loses it. Has a mental breakdown. AND…he whacks his wife. Domestic abuse is heavy, heavy stuff for a comic book to take on. But in just that same way that these impractical, impossible heroes can teach us about courage and honor, they can also provide us with glaring, four-color images of exactly what we never, ever, want to become.
Interestingly, Jim Shooter explained that this was not entirely intentional in a post on his blog, which I’ll quote here:
“In that story (issue 213, I think), there is a scene in which Hank is supposed to have accidentally struck Jan while throwing his hands up in despair and frustration—making a sort of “get away from me” gesture while not looking at her. Bob Hall, who had been taught by John Buscema to always go for the most extreme action, turned that into a right cross! There was no time to have it redrawn, which, to this day has caused the tragic story of Hank Pym to be known as the “wife-beater” story. … When that issue came out, Bill Sienkiewicz came to me upset that I hadn’t asked him to draw it! He saw the intent right through Hall’s mistake, and was moved enough by the story to wish he’d had the chance to do it properly.”
I felt it was great that this came out the way it did. It added to the lessons taught by superheroes a glittering image, diamond in clarity, of what a superhero does NOT do. My Dad may have taught me not to hit women, but it was this moment that really showed me what an ugly thing spousal abuse is.
Sometimes, the most exceptional moments in comics are when heroes are pitted against each other through misunderstandings. One such moment is when Iron Fist takes on the X-Men single-handedly. Here he is, dealing with a very poorly dressed Wolverine. (Yes. That’s Wolverine.)That particular Wolverine costume was an absolute and total fashion disaster. One of the worst in comic book history. But…reading this led me to two years of Tai Chi and six months of Chinese kickboxing courses for me. I will always regret that I didn’t study more. Because, if you have the courage and the skill, one martial artist (without super-strength, as we’ll see again at the end here) can hold off the entire X-Men team. I think it’s a positive message about the importance of training the body as well as the mind. And it made for another very cool moment, and a far more important lesson. Wolverine extends two of his three claws, one to either side of poor Iron Fist’s nose. It’s pretty clear where the third claw will go. But it’s also a clear lesson that communication is the key to resolving differences. And that is a very important lesson for people to learn.
Sometimes, great comics go even further in teaching even more complex lessons, such as w\hen Batman and the Joker share “The Killing Joke.” One of the best Batman stories ever written, and I picked a panel here that reveals none of the story because if you haven’t read it, you should. It drives home just how close we are and always will be to the very things we hate. It drives home that love or friendship can exist on one face of the same coin that also holds hatred. It’s the jokes that strike closest to home that seem the funniest, and and learning that, on some level, we probably love anything that we think we intensely hate…that’s a heavy lesson indeed.
Perhaps the hero who has the most to say about courage is Matt Murdock, Daredevil. Matt is blind. He can’t see. True, he has a “radar sense” that somehow compensates, and his other senses are super-humanly acute, but still…this guy is blind, and he fights crime. And he’s blind, and he’s also one of the best lawyers in the world. Handicaps do not have to hold us back. And Matt is tortured by writers time and again. This confrontation with Bullseye is all about love. Bullseye takes something very precious away from Daredevil.
As goofy as comic books can get, they often turn deadly serious and offer lessons that only the wild world of superheroes can share in ways that won’t scar young readers for life, but will still give them chances to contemplate the heights and depths of human emotion.
So that’s it, a quick and almost random sampling of the first bunch of stuff to pop up in my mind from a lifetime of comic book reading. What accounts for the high concentration of stuff from the 80’s? Well, probably my age, but also probably because that’s when Marvel was doing its best, most memorable work. Although, I will say that post 2010, we’re again starting to see amazing work, so this may be the first decade in comics to top the 80s.
It’s a great time to be a comic book reader. I’ll close with one more blast from the past. A series of hilarious images that provide the strength rankings for Marvel’s most popular heroes, courtesy of Spider-man, who has his own take on all of them:
Sure, Spider-man overrates himself, and underrates the Silver Surfer and Powerman, but we can forgive a few mistakes for something this cute. Although many of the dialogue balloons here are charming and endearing, it’s Iron Man’s comment that I’ve remembered from the moment I first read it. He says that with a potent enough energy source, he can charge his armor to the same power level as the Hulk or Thor…for about two seconds. We saw that, when he knocked out the Hulk, almost at the cost of his own life. The line always comes back to me when a friend is moving house and I have to pick up something heavy (not my strong suit.) But beyond that, what’s the lesson here?
With a potent enough desire, we can all achieve anything we set our hearts and minds too.
This reblogged from The Passive Voice is another interesting addition to the ongoing debate/discussion. I wrote a very harsh Op-Ed for the NY Times (they didn’t run it) about this a couple of years ago, and it’s interesting how wishy-washy I’ve become on so many of the points I felt strongly about at that time.
How I got here I’m not going to try to explain. Not now. Maybe someday. Maybe in this essay I’m working on that should never see the light of day because my essays…well, anyway. This is just really charming, I think. And I think I saw every one of these movies. I think. I have to watch it again to be sure.