Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Cultural Warfare - Comic Books

Every now and then it is good to check the temperature of the culture. Christianity should never change its message for the culture, but it should make sure it knows the culture so that it more effectively minister to its needs, as well as prepare for its attacks. There are lots of ways to get the feel for a culture, TV shows, movies, music, art, but in this installment, I want to examine the culture via the medium of comic books. Eventually I will wind this back to the church, but that is for a later post.

Why comic books? For a couple of reasons. One, comic books are for teenagers and kids. They affect the younger minds meaning that I believe they have a formative role. Two, Hollywood today is in decline. New movies rarely make the big bucks that people expect. The few exceptions are the movies made after comic books. This shows that comics do have a large following and it means that you can expect to see more and more comics make it to the films. Three, I grew up a comic book geek, so this stuff is interesting to me. Kind of sad, but at least I admit it.

I think it is important to get a brief history of comics because today’s culture is an anti-historical, death filled, culture. This is better illustrated with a brief overview. The Golden Age of Comics started in 1938 with the release of Superman. In this golden age several companies flourished and heroes like Green Lantern, Atom, Batman and Robin, Captain America, Captain Marvel, and the Flash were created. The heroes then were upstanding. They fought Nazis in WWII. They stood for ‘truth, justice, and the American way.’ The Golden Age ended in 1950 as many of the titles were cancelled. The Silver Age of Comics begins in 1956 when a new Flash is created. Sales go up and more heroes are created such as Spiderman, Thor, Iron Man, the X-men, Avengers, and Justice League of America. The heroes again were upstanding, but some had emotional conflicts and issues usually making them reluctant heroes or misunderstood heroes. Congress had established a Comics Code so that no gruesome or troublesome things could be depicted by comics. This was passed to prevent delinquency in children. The Silver Age ends when the code is lifted in 1971. The Bronze Age then begins where comics begin to try and be relevant to the culture and impact it for the greater good, but using real life troubles to do so. Deaths began to find their way into comics as a way to have superheroes grieve and make the villains seems worse. Although they never really killed the heroes, mainly they killed off lovers or family members. Fewer new heroes are introduced, but you see darker troubled heroes like Ghost Rider coming into existence and you see a large influx of minority heroes and comics dealing with drug use and racism. The Bronze Age ends in 1986 when the comic book industry turned yet another bit darker. This introduced the Dark Age. Books like Batman: the Dark Knight Returns and the Watchmen dealt with very dark topics and heroes became anti-heroes where they no longer worked with the law, but above it. People like Wolverine and the Punisher had no problem killing the bad guys. Again death in comics were on the rise, even killing heroes now as in 1988 Robin, Batman’s sidekick is killed by the Joker. By the way the villians during this period are often portrayed much more sympathetically. I personally believe the Dark Age ends in 2004. Obviously this new age is unable to be named at this point, but it is this new age, I want to discuss.

In 2004, a series was published called Identity Crisis where the major superheroes all agreed to erase a villain memory because he knew their secret identities and he raped the wife of one of their members. They of course covered up the rape as well. This is fairly graphic material and it was basically used to advance the action in a story line. During the seven issue series the formerly raped wife dies from an attack, the new Robin’s father dies in a hit, a few heroes die in battle, and in the end Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman all take a year off to find out who they are. Feminists protested loudly, but the bad things keep coming. Comics today routinely kill off heroes, even long standing heroes. Captain America a Golden Age creation was recently killed off after leading a revolt against the American Government. A series is now running called Death of the New Gods, where all of the characters of a Golden Age comic pioneer are being killed off. Minor characters without titles of their own die regularly. Death tolls and other unspeakable acts happen all the time, and now almost no characters stands up for the ‘truth, justice, and the American way.’ Marvel Comics just wrapped up a summer series entitled Civil War where the bad guys were other Superheroes, not villains.

What is the point of all of this? The point of this little history lesson is to see the motif found in the culture. A few lessons can be learned. In the modern culture, death is good, it is acceptable, and it is not shocking. Another point is that one can be heroic while participating in murder, breaking laws, and other immoral behavior. In fact, heroism is now the same as vigilantism. A final point and one that is very important, things that are old and stand for the way things used to be are hated. Hated. Old characters are being killed off and then reinvented in a new way. Characters that cannot be killed off for financial reasons are being reinvented so that they no longer reflect the value system of the old days. This is what kids are reading and being taught via comic books. Obviously this has a great deal to do with the church, but before we get to that let us plumb the depths of a few other culture barometers.