Wednesday, January 05, 2005

# Posted 2:37 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

COMIC BOOK PHILOSOPHY: One of the things I got to do while on vacation was to waste my time doing things I would never do otherwise, like reading comic books. Mostly I read back issues of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four from the early 1990s which turned up during my parents' recent move to their new apartment.

While the comics themselves were enjoyable, I couldn't help but ask what kind of impact Spidey and the FF might have had on me back when I was 14 years-old. Are comic books good for your kids? Do they educate their readers, or just provide soft entertainment? Is there a political side to comic books?

Back in eighth grade, the books I had to read for English class included Lord of the Flies, Member of the Wedding and Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. Naturally, those books have a lot more to offer than Spider-Man. But most kids won't read great literature in their spare time, so you have to ask whether the things they actually want to read are good for them. On those grounds, I'd say that comic books are a damn good choice.

If there is one big idea associated with Spider-Man, it is that "With great power comes great responsibility." Although Spider-Man has changed a lot since his debut in the 1960s, that idea has been the touchstone of his outlook on life since the very beginning.

Whereas some might say that superhero fantasies encourage narcissistic and violent behavior, I was consistently impressed with how throroughly Spider-Man's worldview (dare I say Weltanschauung?) informs almost all of his adventures.

On the other hand, the constant repitition of the same moral drama can become boring and cliche for a 27-year old reader. Nonetheless, there was enough sophistication there to provide valuable lessons for a teenager. For example, Spidey constantly has to balance his commitment to the public good with his obligations to be a good boyfriend/husband (a theme that featured quite prominently in Spidey's recent film).

While I wouldn't describe Spidey's relationship with Mary Jane as either all that realistic or all that healthy, I think it does provide young readers with food for thought. From a feminist perspective, Mary Jane's semi-pornographic, Barbie doll proportions definitely send the wrong message, especially in combination with her passive role in most of Spider-Man's adventures. On the other hand, it's hard to get teenage boys interested in women who don't look like swimsuit models.

As for teenage girls, I think the situation may be somewhat hopeless. Even the solid minority of female superheros have Barbie doll figures. And if that isn't enough, the fact that everyone constantly gets beaten up in comic books probably won't win over too many fans in that demographic.

Another possible criticism of superhero adventures is that they provide a lot of moral clarity and very little nuance. To a certain extent, the first and foremost purpose of the comic-book bad guy is to serve as a punching bag. On the other hand, one of the most cliche moments in the world of comic books is when the superhero has to decide whether to punish the bad guys himself or just turn them over to the police. Although certain heroes, like the Punisher, reject the law out of hand, even darker heroes like Batman tend to place a premium on due process.

Thus, if Superman were president and Batman were Condi Rice, it's hard to say whether the United States would listened to the United Nations and stayed out of Iraq. Ultimately, I think you have to hope that kids will learn about foreign policy from somewhere other than comic books.

But I say that with a caveat: Over the past decade and a half, we have seen the debut of increasingly sophisticated comic books that can only be described as literature. Neil Gaiman's Sandman is the most prominent example, but there are many more. If you read The Nation and are a fan of Noam Chomsky, you can only hope that every teenage boy will read Alan Moore's The Watchmen, which demonstrates how certain superheroes have become the enforcers of the American government's imperialist plutocratic agenda. (Even so, for other reasons, The Watchmen is one of the best comics I've ever read.)

The bottom line is that if you can wrench your kids away from their Playstation or Xbox, you should give them a subscription to the Amazing Spider-Man.

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