Along with a new pair of shoes for my son came a small comic book printed on cheap junk-mail paper. A little odd for a shoe company for sure, but it was definitely popular with my son. It was also the first comic book he’d ever seen.
It contained three very short and, in my mind at least, dull and idiotic stories of fun-loving, hip superheroes taking on some or other supervillain.
What struck me most about these stories and, by extension, the plots I’ve encountered in most superhero movies (I’ve never read comics), was the exceedingly flat, one-dimensional nature of the characters. The heroes are unequivocally good, savvy, and beautiful while the villains are unrelentingly evil and ugly.
There is no negotiating. There is no realization of being mistaken. There are no apologies, no regrets.
It made me think about Washington, and the stalemate in American politics. The whole thing really does seem like a bad comic book story. And then I began to wonder how many comic books the politicians in Washington read as kids, and whether this had any sort of influence on their later behavior.
As a young boy, I read the Mr. Pink-Whistle series by Enid Blyton. This strange little man bounces about the neighborhood “putting things right”. The series was written in the 1940s and 50s, and some of it comes across as a little creepy in the context of today’s society (for instance, Mr. Pink-Whistle happily trots into children’s houses and bedrooms uninvited, avoiding other grown-ups by wearing an invisibility ring). But there is a particular theme that appears in almost every story: The person who caused the mischief sees the error of his ways and turns over a new leaf.
This is undoubtedly naïve, but is it more so than the comic book version of reality in which character is set in stone?
I find myself wanting to read Mr. Pink-Whistle to the dear Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill.
Sadly, the comic book interpretation of character seems to hold sway in many places. As soon as someone is arrested under suspicion of committing a crime, his face is splashed all over the news, assigning him to a knee-jerk de facto guilty verdict, and attendant vilification, before he has even stepped foot in a courtroom. Video games and movies, especially the violent kind, are hideously extreme in their portrayal of good vs. evil. Priests talk sadly about the evil that permeates the world outside the church’s door. Environmentalists complain about the Machiavellian evil of GMO companies and Big Pharma, while conservatives attack the evil mainstream media with their socialist-gay-liberal agenda.
It’s so easy to paint the “other” as wholly bad.
Someone in a forum discussion recently said to me that if my moral system cannot tell whether a person is good or bad, then I’ll never “join the ranks of the great philosophers”. I replied that great philosophers are not so naïve as to get into the business of assigning such simplistic labels to people.
Rather, I think it’s the other way around. It takes a certain moral laziness to call people “good” or “bad”, especially when the judgment is based on a single meeting or news report.
President Obama has lately been spending more time with the opposition, listening to what they’re saying. Sharing a meal. Having a beer.
Perhaps Mr. Pink Whistle won’t be needed after all.