Friday Musings on Comic-Book Morality

Going to be a short one this week, because yesterday we had some news that made the column I was working on suddenly feel trivial and stupid.

I rarely talk about my family here, because.... well, because I rarely talk about my family anywhere. We don't get along. There's a lot of bad history there, a lot of stuff I did years ago that was crappy and a lot of stuff they did in return that was just as bad, and neither side ever seemed to be able to let anything go long enough to achieve a lasting peace. We'd have moments where it looked like we'd all settled down and were ready to act like a real family, and then somebody would give in to the temptation to remind everyone of the Bad Old Days, and off we'd go to the gladiatorial arena again.

I've talked here before about how, growing up, comics were my refuge, my safe place. Later that expanded to include all of the arts and reading in general, but it was always comics and superheroes where it started.

This was something we fought a lot about too.

Granted, my folks would pick a fight about anything, but comics were always one of their go-to places to start criticizing. Superheroes were violent. They were worthless. They were juvenile. Etc. Peggy Charren and the children's television activists had nothing on my mother when she was on a tear.

But here's the weird thing I realized yesterday. As much merit as those criticisms may have had -- and let's be honest, there's a lot that's been indefensible about superhero comics and pulp fiction over the years -- there's one thing that none of these people ever realized.

When I was a little kid, yeah, it was all about the escapism. But I think, unconsciously, for me it was also all about the morality.

I lived in a world where all the adults around me were doing cruel, vengeful, amoral things to each other. People who lied all the time, who were not ever trustworthy, whose hypocrisy was so blatant that even at age five I could see it plainly and it bothered me.

But Spider-Man and Batman and Superman... they never did that stuff. They did the right thing even if it cost them. For no other reason than that it was the right thing. Because there is such a thing as right and wrong.

As corny as it sounds, I think there's a lot of merit to that world view. It has served me well. I'm not trying to hold myself up as some sort of paragon here -- far from it -- but I'm telling you, experience has shown me that in the long run, trying to live your life with an eye towards behaving with common decency to one's fellows simply works better. When I've failed to do that.... when I have waffled on issues of ethics, when I've been self-centered, when I've chucked my morals for the sake of looking out for number one, it's gone sour. Every time.

I finally figured it out twenty-some years ago and cleaned up my act for good. Oddly enough, that, more than anything else, exacerbated the hostilities between me and my family. (I'd thought being respectable would actually win their respect, but it turned out, not so much.)

We did the dysfunctional dance for a decade or two and a few years ago I gave up, largely because it became obvious no one was ever going to change and I didn't see any reason for my wife to sustain collateral damage in a war that had been going on for long before we'd ever met, that she'd had nothing to do with.

My mother passed away a few days ago. We had been estranged for years, so no one else in my family bothered to give us the news until yesterday when I had to sign some stuff for the funeral home. Despite being the family pariah, I guess I'm still legally the next of kin.

All I could think was... now she'll never know.

Mom spent her life snarled up in lies and grudges and vengeance, over stuff that, a lot of the time, had been perpetrated by people who'd died years ago. Didn't matter. She still carried all of it with her. It was the main thing we always fought about, how useless that was. And it looks like she took that world view with her to the grave. She never knew how much different, how much better everything could have been for her. For us all.

I have to be fair. I often felt bitter and vengeful too. I'm not good at letting go of old grudges either. I'm a little bitter right now, writing this. But the difference between us was that I'd learned how destructive that kind of thing can be. Where'd I learn that?


I keep thinking of something Mom said to me once when we were going at it over some stupid family thing.... "Good God, Greg, your view of the world is so binary."

I suppose it is. But the thing is... it works. There's such a thing as right and wrong. That kind of binary seems to do okay for me. I can manage with that. When I keep it in mind and act accordingly, life goes pretty well.

I don't know why my Mom always thought that worldview was so embarrassing and wrong, but she did, and now I'll never know.

But even so, things worked out okay, pretty much. I landed on my feet. I even found a way to make the comics thing sort of pay. It's a good life.

I'm just sorry she never wanted to take part in it. Chances are the rest of my relatives down in Dysfunction Junction never will want to either.

The weird thing was, I was the one everyone was sure would come to a bad end, and I think I did all right. I didn't have competent parents, so I took my morals from the role models I did have, and never mind that they weren't real.

I don't think I'll ever get over the irony that those hated, violent, worthless comic-book superheroes actually ended up serving me really well.


I hope you all forgive me if I turn the comments off on this one; I'd rather it just stand by itself.

And I'll see you next week.

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