Superhero metaphysics
October 4th, 2011
04:35 PM ET

Superhero metaphysics

Editor's note: Christian Sager is the creator of "Think of the Children" and "Border Crossings". He has also written essays about the comics industry, punk subculture and national identity.

Spoiler alert: This post gets all analytical about the meaning of comic book superheroes. To do so, it references situations from DC Comic's New 52 books. If you do not want to know what sort of things are included in those books, take a pass.

The first issue of “Justice League” begins with: “There was a time when the world didn’t know what a superhero was.”

After reading every first issue of DC Comics’ (which, like CNN, is owned by parent company Time Warner) New 52 re-launch, I found myself wondering if the world does know what a superhero is. Is a super-hero working class or a CEO? Are they activists? Survivors? Strippers? Police? A PR gimmick? Are super-heroes sexual? Can they be racist?

Even if you don’t read comics, the re-launch is a significant cultural event for 2011. It features 52 separate intellectual properties being pitched out of a major media corporation.

Which one gets a home run could be the next major motion picture or new weekly television series. These stories are part of our zeitgeist and they’re demonstrative of how our popular culture is both consumed and created.

There are themes that run through these books so strongly that they suggest the publisher attempted to identify with readers by making the New 52 topical and relevant to our contemporary world. Issues of media, class, terrorism and violence come up repeatedly in these comics.

Superhero 2.0
Social media and the evolution of news are a common theme through several of the new titles.

In the new DC Universe, villains film violent videos and post them online to become celebrities. Likewise, citizen journalists are constantly trying to capture superhero content for their YouTube or Facebook updates. Aquaman is rudely interviewed for a blog. In “Blackhawks,” a photo of one of their members’ circulates problematically online. The speed and fluidity of new media seems to really confuse these heroes.

Nowhere is this more evident than in “Superman.”

With the inevitable decline of print news, Clark Kent’s newspaper The Daily Planet is bought out. Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen now work for the ominously named Planet Global Network. Kent doesn’t like it because the station’s owners have immoral journalistic practices, like illegal wiretapping. We see scenes where the network takes public tweeting and cell phone videos just as seriously as it does its on-site reporters.

Not all of the new DC Universe takes this evolution of media lying down.

The United Nations forms Justice League International as a public relations endeavor. “Stormwatch” has a character named The Projectionist, who manipulates media to the team’s advantage. And Red Robin is this world’s version of Julian Assange “creating chaos by blogging and wiki dumping classified information.” He does this to combat the mysterious organization called N.O.W.H.E.R.E. who are said to “control the media.” N.O.W.H.E.R.E. is a great example of another theme present across the New 52, corporate villainy.

Villains Inc.
Batman owns Wayne Enterprises. Green Arrow runs Queen Industries. Mister Terrific’s company is Holt Industries. Aside from these examples, all other corporations in the DC Universe seem to provide cover for the villains of these comics.

For instance, the aforementioned N.O.W.H.E.R.E. is up to some shady stuff, including cloning their very own Superman to be used as a weapon. They’re described as a “clandestine international organization” whose “sphere of influence transcends business and borders, politics and technology.”

They’re not the only corporate villains in the New 52. Mister Terrific tangles with a British CEO wearing a super-powered exoskeleton, while O.M.A.C. attacks Cadmus Industries to steal information from their science lab.

The most obvious corporate conflict comes in “Action Comics” where Lex Luthor describes himself as a “disgruntled businessman.” He attempts to aid the U.S. military in the destruction of Superman, who’s presented here as a working class hero in jeans, work boots and a t-shirt. Superman, solidly against bribes and corruption, comments that he’s not sure the police even believe “the law is for both rich and poor.” DC couldn’t have known this, but Superman’s words strongly reflect the current protests and arrests in New York.

This distrust of the wealthy crops up in other New 52 comics as well. In “Batman” someone asks, “Do the rich really know the problems of their city? Do politicians?” Mister Terrific’s love interest Aleeka doesn’t trust his friend Karen Starr because she’s rich. Green Lantern Jon Stewart has a dramatic confrontation with building contractors who want to lower architectural safety precautions to keep their costs down.

Almost across the line it seems that corporations and the wealthy are guilty of something in the DC Universe, whether they’re trying to take over the world, hide the identities of their vigilante owners or build superhuman weapons of mass destruction.

Terror and war
It was only 47 minutes into my reading of the New 52 and I already felt immersed in a bleak world, where senseless, menacing acts happen constantly. If DC really did encourage its creators to set superheroes in contemporary society than it’s not surprising that a lot of these comics seem haunted by terrorism and the events of 9/11.

Here’s a sampling of plots from this first month of comics:

  • Terrorists blow up the Hall of Justice super-hero headquarters.
  •  A plane full of people crashes in “Resurrection Man.”
  • Terrorists in Kazakhstan get ahold of dangerous nanotechnology.
  • More terrorists hijack a chemical waste truck in “Superman.” Batman and Robin stop thieves from stealing irradiated fuel.
  • Dissidents in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Qurac want to execute a super-hero and hire Blackwater stylized mercenaries to do it.
  • Similar soldiers-of-fortune pretend to hunt for terrorists in Istanbul, but slaughter an innocent family and then kill numerous people at an American high school to get a nuclear super weapon.
  • Science terrorists use “monsters of mass destruction” to try to crash a plane into the Washington Monument.

If all of this really happened in September 2011, our society would be apoplectic at these horrific acts. So how does the DC Universe respond to all these terrorists and WMDs? Well, superheroes of course save the day a lot of the time.

We see Batman implementing facial recognition software into his crime fighting gadgetry. Even an alien in “Red Lanterns” recalls “the mountains of Afghan” when considering places throughout the universe where he should punish beings for their actions.

But DC’s governments and transnational organizations develop security measures of their own against these threats. The United Nations runs a covert operations team called the Blackhawks. The U.S. government uses death row inmates for secret missions in “Suicide Squad.” A U.S. military colonel sends assassins after Cole Cash in “Grifter” because he’s a former soldier seemingly gone rogue, killing a flight attendant and jumping out of a plane. The colonel wants Cash dead so the media won’t find out his background and assume he’s a homegrown terrorist. Finally, in “Men of War” we see U.S. soldiers sent against enemy combatants in an unnamed country with unidentifiable peoples and a vague objective.

It’s “DC Universe Presents: Deadman” where the depth of this theme really comes through. Deadman’s latest host is a depressed veteran who lost his legs to an improvised explosive device in an unnamed conflict. He wishes he had died, like the rest of his friends in the incident. Instead he’s haunted by Deadman, whose struggling himself with life, death and everything that comes between. It’s a nice use of this contemporary theme of war and terrorism, without resorting to hyperbole or excessive violence as a solution.

Seven severed heads and a partridge in a pear tree
In the first issue of “Animal Man” the main character has an internal conflict. He tells people he’s not interested in the typical super heroics of punching villains, but at the same time he finds himself craving action and … wanting to punch someone. It’s an interesting moment of contradiction, one that reflects DC’s own confusion about how to approach violence.

DC Comics was one of the last publishers in the industry to adhere to the Comics Code Authority, a regulatory system original placed on comics in 1954. But in January this year, DC dropped the code from their products. Now they have their own ratings system, which includes “Teen” and “Teen Plus.”

Nowhere in the comics could I find an explanation defining what the difference was between the two, which is interesting since DC responded to the recent Starfire/Catwoman controversy on their twitter feed with the following: “We encourage people to pay attention to the ratings when picking out any books to read themselves or for their children.”

Since I couldn’t determine the difference, I kept track of the violence and sexual content while I was reading.

Let me be clear that I am not a defender of the Comics Code or the censorship of comics. In fact, earlier this year I wrote a satirical horror comic about the events leading up to the code. I’m simply fascinated by the loose ratings here, especially when the publisher’s said goal is to bring in new readers, which could potentially include parents buying comics for their kids.

“Teen” books in September’s New 52 feature the following: Severed heads; mass murder; a naked man stabbing someone to death; someone willingly getting their face cut off; people shot through the head; a severed arm; someone boiled alive; a dead dog with its skin peeled off; a corpse crucified with rusty antique knives; hundreds of slaughtered aliens; a man cut in half; two men burned and mutilated; soldiers blown up by explosives; two severed torsos; a severed finger; the genocide of an entire alien planet; two dead aliens impaled on spikes; three people knifed to death on a train; one broken neck; one crushed skull; two cops have their throats slit; dozens of people are killed by a hail of arrows and bullets; suggested off-panel sex with an alien; severed horse heads; a severed centaur arm; three burning women dropped off the tallest building in Singapore; a murdered family; dozens of women killed in a highway accident.

“Teen Plus” books in the same month featured: Soldiers in realistic combat; supernatural horror like vampires and demons; interrogation torture with blades, tasers and cattle prods; superheroes having sex; Catwoman in her underwear; strip teases; and a lap dance that ends with the patron being gruesomely murdered.

As far as I can tell the difference between “Teen” and “Teen Plus” is slim. The sex acts in the later books are more gratuitous, appearing on-panel. But otherwise the violence in “Teen” books is equal to, if not more graphic than the “Teen Plus” books.

I suppose a few conclusions can be drawn here. First, DC’s probably not concerned about any backlash, since teenage comics don’t seem to be regulated differently than their other comics.

Second, children must not be a target audience for this re-launch given the content.

Third, and finally, DC must have some market data that makes them think that their actual target audiences want this kind of content from their comics.

Given how much evidence shows that DC wants this re-launch to be culturally topical, it stands to reason that their research shows that their desired audience either identifies with or is de-sensitized to this much violence.

After my reading binge you might think that I wouldn't want to read comics for a while. In fact, I can't wait to read more.

If DC really is trying to incorporate contemporary themes into their comics, I think the effort will help answer what being a super-hero actually means. Hopefully these muddled representations are just growing pains, as the publisher strives to make comic books better, so that they appeal to more than just their current audience.

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Bubba

    My super power is going out to feed the cat on my back porch in my underwear at five a.m., and it would probably make a better comic book than some of this crud. My cat could be my sidekick. His power is sitting on my bedroom window sill and making hungry gurgling sounds so his heroic name could be Garglefield.

    October 6, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  2. Patrick O'Connor

    As someone who only got big into comics a couple years ago, I thought the New 52 has been fantastic. Walking into a comic book store, wanting to check out something fun and exciting, can be very daunting when one store might have 10,000 – 100,000 comics. It doesn't quite make sense to me to have issue 700 or 900 on a stand. I think the numbering should reset to #1 for every major event.

    October 5, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  3. T

    To DC Comics,

    Stop screwing up and put it (the DCU) back where it was. Especially Starfire, Barbara Gordon and Superman. Never EVER mess with classic heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

    A Fan of the Pre-Flashpoint DCU (or better yet, pre-FINAL CRISIS DCU)......

    P.S. WHAT were YOU thinking ????!!!!

    October 5, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  4. thejim

    Dan DiDio needs be fire for this abomination called the "New52"... The Superman Family all SUCK, and are only shadows of their former selves..Jim Lee's redesigns, just are plain horrible... The change in Starfire's character was unwarranted, and just plain awful... Plus if anyone missed the first issue, there is no jumping on point for new readers... There should have been no multi-part story lines for the first 6 months (at the very least) of this "relaunch"...

    October 5, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  5. Bubba

    Ugh. Sounds awful.

    October 5, 2011 at 8:44 am |
  6. Christian

    Someone should do a comic book version of the Infected books. I like them, even though their new. It would be cool to see them done in full color.

    The first one can be had free from the publisher, so don't just take my word for it.

    October 5, 2011 at 2:52 am |
  7. Chris

    Metaphysics are over-rated, epistemology is much more entertaining.

    October 5, 2011 at 1:15 am |
    • Capercorn

      But the go hand in hand in many areas! Philosophy of Mathematics for instance.

      October 5, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  8. Tonyatl

    DC comics will try anything these days to get readers. The relaunch should have consisted of every comic being made out of toilet paper, I could then get some use out of it.

    October 5, 2011 at 12:29 am |
  9. Alan

    Sheldon Cooper would beg to differ

    October 4, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
  10. Emelia

    As long as I get to see some guys kissing once in a while, this is alright with me. Bring on the gore!

    October 4, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  11. Capercorn

    Note: Metaphysics refers to the branch of philosophy which deals with the questions of "what is real."

    This is not metaphysics.

    October 4, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
    • NCL

      It seeks the arkai of "what is", not "what is real". The proper distinction is between being and non-being, not real being and unreal being.

      The latter seems to imply something like the Cartesian distinction between primary and secondary qualities, where res extensa, basically matter, "is real" but secondary qualities, like senses and emotions "are not real".

      Because non-being by definition cannot be, everything that can be spoken has being. The question for the ancients is what is being in the highest or most persistent sense. Nothing is dismissed as simply "unreal".

      The consigning of the apparent world to the realm of the unreal, a sort of forgetting of being, is supposedly rooted in Christian theology.

      October 4, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
      • Lemeep

        "Cartesian" and "res extensa". Seriously? Why do some comic book people try and make themselves out to be these super intellectuals or philosophers simply by replacing common terms with uncommon language?

        Pseudo scientists do this all the time. Other professors and "Doctors" in irrelevant fields always do this to justify their existence to themselves. And people just trying to sound smart without being able to back it up with smart behaviour.

        My point? Use plain English! You can sound smart, with plain words, that everyone can understand by being sufficiently rational and logical in how you put your point of view across.

        October 5, 2011 at 3:34 am |
      • Capercorn

        Please, please please go read some Wittgenstein.

        Saul Kripke is also good. Either way, Ordinary Language = Best Language in philosophy.

        October 5, 2011 at 10:42 am |
      • Bubba

        Oh, gosh, you read some Derrida. Let's make Derrida into a comic book hero. Twenty pages of the same scene from different angles, no action or dialogue. It could be called SITTING IN A CHAIR COMICS. Or maybe you should be reading Michael Chabon instead, or Jonathon Lethem.

        October 6, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • Metaman

      Metaphysics also ask the question, "What is it like?" It deals with how people understand the world. So the author's use of it here is perfectly warranted.

      October 4, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
    • Chris

      I too was foolish enough to think they might have actually meant metaphysics, at least some fictional form of it. Nope. They meant advertisement.

      October 4, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
  12. SilentBoy741

    Making the New 52 topical and relevant to our contemporary world means that they will be dated and irrelevant within a year.

    All of the story lines look like they're "Ripped From Today's Headlines!" - a sure indication of a deficit in creativity.

    October 4, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • creaturz

      Sickening is the idea the comic books are so one sided. How they dare not reflect the true criminals of our time. Perhaps it is because, as of yet, those criminals are still free to destroy.

      October 4, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • gremlinus

      Yep. It's a trite example but take the X-men. They skillfully found a way to address discrimination while keeping it timeless. Today's writers have zero creativity. That's why they end up ripping off the movie stories a few months after they come out. Or have to rely on rehashing old storylines from a couple of decades ago. This is the biggest slump i've seen in 30 years.

      October 4, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
  13. the dude

    so does this mean we will get to finally see an issue of wonderwoman where she will have a upskirt pic posted on hollywood tuna? or vivid aquires a night cam porn video of batgirl with any drummer from any band, where she proceeds to successfully star in the reality tv show "keeping up with the girls of gotham" only to become worldwide famous for having no talent? or superman flies in to save the day, only to spit on the paparazzi, which subsequently blows a hole in his chest but for lack of evidence is released, and goes into hiding only to get a book/movie deal 3 years later.... BOUT TIME... count me in! even if this all seems a bit familiar.... hmmm

    October 4, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • JeffinIL

      Duude! Awesome snarkasm!

      October 4, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
  14. Merrin of Giles

    They just HAVE to revamp comics huh? I have been reading comics since I was a kid. Still do. Why on earth they want to mess with them and bring them "up-to-date" is beyond me. They were meant for entertainment. Nothing more.

    October 4, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • Mark M

      I'm sure your grandfather said the same thing when they featured the first TV in a Gasoline Alley comic strip. Comics are still the same, just updated with the relevant themes and current technologies, etc. It's still entertainment – relax!

      October 4, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
    • Bubba

      LOIS: "Superman, help me!"
      SUPERMAN: "Wait, I'm sending a text."

      October 6, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  15. Miguel the Bat

    I love the New 52. I can't get enough of it. Wednesday is like my favorite day of the week. I get out of class head to my local comic shop and buy comics then read them then spend the remainder of my afternoon reading them all.

    October 4, 2011 at 6:06 pm |

    hmmm it sounds like all the old ideas rehashed again...

    October 4, 2011 at 5:28 pm |