I’ve noticed this sort of general debate in the comic book fandom about what characters and moral storytelling does and doesn’t make good superhero fiction. To oversimplify it we could call it the ‘Superman vs  The Punisher debate.’ Some people like their heroes to be tortured and violent and others like their heroes to be supreme examples of what we should strive to be.

The ultimate morality

Which trigger do you want your hero to pull?

All the grey areas in between (and even, sometimes, the elemental example characters themselves) inevitably get swept up in this debate by one writer or another. Some people write batman as a hard nosed but fair force for justice and others write him almost as a sociopath, for example.

If I were to put into words where I fall in this debate it would be somewhere in the middle. I, as a very flawed individual, relate more to flawed individuals. Still I want the flawed individuals I relate to to WANT to be good like I want to be a good person. The search for nobility and truth in a world that seems to have so little of it is what makes for a good heroic story to me. Facing personal demons and a harsh environment to try to do what is right.

My problem with the side that revels in violence to ‘evil’ is that I personally don’t believe in good and evil. I just believe society and people in general punish acts that are destructive and hurt other people’s lives.  The ‘bad’ guys in comic books are often times the most sympathetic characters in the story despite breaking those laws (particularly batman villains). They are often times people that society or humanity has in some way left behind, consumed by their own inability to cope with the reality of their lives.

Daww. Poor Joker

Even the Joker has a heart breakingly human motivation to him if you believe Alan Moore....and I do.

I think that everyone feels cast aside like that at some point or another, so I really can’t get behind a guy who kills anyone who does wrong because even the worst person you can think of had an emotional arc that led to them doing what they did.  The catharsis of punishing someone who ‘deserves’ it is only there when you don’t connect it to all the times you have been unfairly punished by someone who believed you ‘deserved it’.

My problem with the side that focuses only on clean as a sheet heroics and icons of justice and decency is that it is the moralistic equivalent of a supermodel. A model is designed to be so perfect it makes you feel bad about not being perfect, thus you swear off of cake (or in this case, selfishness) entirely to try and reach a standard you can never obtain.

Often times in real life you are not given a choice. You will be put up into a situation where you have to choose between a selfish act that is right and a selfless act that is wrong, or your selfless attitude will be exploited by someone else to their benefit. Selfishness is not in itself evil. The problem is being unaware of the negative effect your actions may have on others, not in the act of caring about your own needs.

These two heroic archetypes have their place and have both produced plenty of compelling stories. There is room enough in the realm of fiction for all shapes and sizes of characters. Still I probably won’t use too much of them personally and am aware of how easily such a character can ring hollow if not done right. Even the most elemental of archetypes needs to be carefully planned to have nuance and self awareness in order to not seem like the writer has no grasp on the complexity of the human condition.

In creating characters for my own fiction I think about what makes me who I am, why I am flawed and what makes people in general flawed. Then I make characters who are flawed in ways I relate to but want to be something more then they are and struggle for that goal. Attempting to overcome your own imperfection in order to do what is right is the most heroic sentiment of all in my opinion.