In which the blogger starts steaming about a comic book that's long been chewed over and put away by other esteemed scribblers, including friends of this blog. His advice is that all that follows is naught but old news and spleen, and best avoided. But perhaps you might pop back another time, when the tone's more calm and topic fresher;
It's old news, of course. It happened, a few folks discussed it, there was a touch of raging and counter-spitting, and then the industry rolled right along. In Amazing Spider-Man #685, Dan Slott presented us with a scene in which Spider-Man and Silver Sable deliberately and savagely tortured The Sandman. It's a comic that I was reluctant to read, because, quite frankly, I just don't need to see yet another of my old childhood friends and inspirations transformed into one of the lowest forms of life that there is. But in the end, a possible assignment for elsewhere involved me collecting together various examples of Marvel's super-torturers from recent years, and obviously there was no avoiding Slott's Global Menace. What I hadn't foreseen is how profoundly disappointing it would be to read one example of torture-justifying super-book after another. I'd not realised quite how many of these consistently reactionary and thoroughly unpleasant polemics Marvel had produced, with all of them quite deliberately, it seems, taking an unambiguously contrary position to that spelled out in the Republic's Constitution.
One of the things that's most interesting to me about this toxic and stomach-turning business is how just about all of these despicable tales share the majority of the following features in common. In short, it seems that there's an established narrative which allows superheroes to behave as monsters and yet appear to be laudable, self-sacrificing guardians of security, order and decency. Indeed, Slott's script in Amazing Spider-Man #685 reads in places as something of an ur-text for this process, as a guide to how to corrupt comic-book characters while appearing to do quite the opposite. And so, these stories tend, as ASM #385 often does, to present us with the following;
1.) A certainty that the victim of the torture is undoubtedly guilty of the sin they're accused of and/or in possession of vital evidence desperately needed by the "heroes".
2.) A situation in which the victim could and should help if only they weren't so stubborn/evil/misguided etc etc.
3.) A situation in which the victim would never have suffered any harm whatsoever if they'd only behaved themselves and cooperated.
4.) The prospect of an imminent disaster so desperate, so appalling, so overwhelming and terrifying, that torture appears not only to be entirely justifiable, but unconditionally necessary. In fact, these stories are nearly always fixed so that torture actually seems to be a moral as well as a practical imperative.
5.) A situation rooted in the premise that torture both works and works relatively quickly, matched with the implication that the suffering it causes can be precisely limited and immediately treated. (In ASM #685, Sable and Spider-Man don't even discuss such matters, though time is spent talking nervously about the threat that the fiendish Sandman might escape, damn his sandy hide.)
6.) A situation in which the torture's been designed to be gruesomely compelling for the reader, because torture is, as Slott amongst many others obviously believes, an entertainment in itself.
7.) The clear suggestion that the heroic torturers are never sadists, incompetent or misguided, let alone evil.
8.) Information gained from the torture leads to decisive action which saves the day, because the torture, of course, always works and always works in an entirely productive fashion which allows the sins involved to be entirely eclipsed by the thought of all the children and puppies who've been protected.
9.) An outcome which either ignores any suggestion that the victim of the torture will suffer any lasting ill-effects or which actively implies that they won't.
10.) The sense that the hero or heroes who sanction and commit the torture will themselves suffer no lasting, dehumanising effects from their behaviour beyond a noble air of angst earned through the suffering which they - and not their victims - underwent as a result of the cutting and poking and burning and so on.
11.) The clear sense that torture is something which real heroes rise to, and which marks the truly super-heroic superhero as a figure willing and able to do anything in order to save the world once again.
Perhaps most sickening of all the many dubious aspects of Global Menace is the way in which Slott presents the bloody-handed Spider-Man as an entirely admirable human being fit to lead a superhero army in a "war" upon his enemies. "I have changed, but not that much." muses the young-ish Mr Parker, congratulating himself on the thought that he wouldn't have allowed the Sandman to be murdered. Well, torture's only torture, isn't it, and it was all in a good cause, whereas murder, it seems, would be the mark of a truly bad human being. If that beat of the story was designed to establish that Parker's a self-denying moral imbecile, and I doubt it was, then it only raises the prospect of when he's going to be tried and convicted for his crimes. Yet strangely enough, Slott seems convinced that Spider-Man remains not just one of the good guys'n'gals, but the guiding light of the costumed crimefighter's community. For in a later scene in which Parker marshals the various heroes remaining on planet Earth., Slott has him appeal for the support of his longjohned fellows from the international community of super-people with the following example of self-righteous speechifying;
"I'm asking you to take a leap of faith. To stack my character up against (that of Doctor Octopus) and ask -- "Who do you trust?"
How's that for a super-person who's quite forgotten all that hot-air about "great power" and "great responsibility", and who seems to have utterly repressed the entirely compromising fact that he connived in the torture of the Sandman just a few moments before? (Perhaps he's had his ego boosted and his conscience softened by the adoration of his partner-in-torture Silver Sable, who's quick to declare "This man is a real hero.") I'm sure that Uncle Ben would be proud of you, Peter, as would all those great Americans who, during times of terrible danger, rejected torture in any shape or form. After all, what could be more humane and American that the embracing of values and actions entirely inconsistent with, er, being either humane or American? Perhaps, and this surely is the longest of longshots, Slott intends to show us Parker re-acquainting himself with the principles of his nation and the content of its laws with a glance at the life and works of its greatest citizens? Why not begin his studies with Washington's ethics and behaviour during the War Of Independence, or with the debates of the Founding Fathers and the content of the Constitution which they framed? You know, the ethos and laws of the nation of which Peter Parker is supposedly a citizen.
It's a despicable business, this exalting of torturers, this dehumanising of their victims, this trivialising of the effects of the torturer's principles and art. A culture which creates heroes out of such men and women runs the risk of encouraging a society in which torturing becomes not just a noble virtue and a heroically pragmatic necessity in fiction, but a fact of life. Culture does tend to impact upon politics every bit as much as the reverse might be said to be true. But then, we might argue that that's a process that's long been underway. And I'll certainly never be able to look at Spider-Man and Captain America, Silver Sable and Black Widow, Dr Strange and Cyclops, Wolverine and their various collaborators, and not think that these are people whose characters I very much do not trust. In fact, for all the talk on some people's lips that this is Marvel presenting adult characters debating mature issues, the truth is that the broad sweep of this material constitutes nothing of the sort. Satire gets lost, debate is almost entirely absent, subtlety, if it could ever be claimed to exist, is buried in the tidal wave of what's effectively pro-torture propaganda.
No characters suffer beyond that sheen of self-sacrifice for their immoral and illegal behaviour, no statements against torture of any comparable force are ever published in the company's books. Can anyone name a forceful, high-profile polemic directed against vigilantes and their torturing ways in recent years? Can anyone recall a J'accuse moment directed against the monstrous Rogers and Parker and their cohorts? No, there's no debate here, no balanced investigation of ethical options where the bulk of Marvel's output is concerned. Because, let us be honest, practically the entire super-population of the
Marvel Universe is a collaborator not just in the threatening and
scarifying of potential ill-doers, but their purposeful torture too. An entire line of characters rendered perpetually ethically toxic, and yet still their likenesses get stamped onto kiddies' underwear and lunch-boxes. Why anyone cares to think of the modern mainstream book as an unarguably liberal proposition in the face of this consistent denigration of the most basic principles of both human rights the law is quite beyond me.
There's only one place for torturers, whether they're super-heroes or not, and that's in jail. Damn them all, and a great deal more than three contemptuous harrumphs for those creators who through principle or carelessness infest our culture with the myths of the heroic and noble torturer.A great deal more.
Does that sound too strong? And yet turning one comic-book character after another into torturers and advocates of torture isn't important enough to warrant such a response?
Do these principles really not matter? Take a moment, ask yourself. Is torture something which really doesn't matter? Or could it be a moral and practical obligation on the part of the good citizen, even when unsanctioned by law and unsupervised by anything of the state? Is it truly a responsibility which no decent human being should consider denying? And if that's not so, then why is there so little of anything other than flag-waving for the cause of the torturers in Marvel's comics?
Yes, I know. This is the worst article ever written, and it's old-old news, and DC's as bad as Marvel, and it's only comics and only fun anyway, and I've ignored key texts, and perhaps Slott has or will challenge the ethics of 685 in a later issue, and comics shouldn't be judged on the meaning of a single chapter, and torture works and the nation's been saved by it, and yes I know that many comics have contained aspects of torture, and yes ASM #385 didn't show the day being saved yet, and I'm a commie and a peacenik, and who'd want to read about wimpy super-people anyway, and Spidey did it to save the world, and blah-blah-blah. You're right, I'm wrong, and - hurrah - that's that sorted then.