The superhero universe is based on a thin premise: good and evil exist in easily identifiable forms. The superheroes are brightly lit beacons of morality bearing identifiable marks of their namesakes. While the villains, are cloaked in darkness, cast in shadows, and driven by the unattainable. Justice is always meted out in the realm of the superhero. Crime never pays. The good guys always win.
For decades, this thin premise suspended thousands of comic book stories and imagined a utopian universe, safe from harm. Even when the threats were real—Hitler, Japanese armies, the looming atomic crisis—Captain America, The Avengers, Justice League and others were able to embolden our patriotic senses, temporarily allowing us to identify with the greater force of good. But what happens when our sense of security is diminished and the lines between good and evil are no longer identifiable? What happens when heroes take on characteristics of villains, and perceived villains garner our sympathy? When, as authors Nickie D. Phillips and Staci Strobl note, “patriotism and nationalism are often merged with a nostalgic longing for an America of the past”?
The comic book medium as Phillips and Strobl point out through their research and evaluation of post-9/11 comics, is slow to respond to change. But the terrorist attacks in 2001 can force even the most rudimentary medium’s hand and produce a reevaluation of its form. Not to suggest that comic books are rudimentary, rather their stories are drawn with a heavy handedness. But the intense focus and undivided attention that Phillips and Strobl dedicate to their exploration of comic book crime is worthy of the most devoted fans’ attention. Phillips and Strobl read and dissected over 200 titles and thousands of individual comics in the quest to answer a series of questions pertaining to the psychology of criminology in post-9/11. Their thesis is wide, yet direct:
Our exploration of how the medium conveys criminality is grounded in cultural criminology… [V]illains become important cultural artifacts in understanding popular ideas about why individuals engage in criminal behavior. Given that most people in the world do not become experts in criminal behavior and criminology, popular media representations about the causes of criminal behavior become important possible influences on the public’s attitude about criminal offending.
Comic Book Crime reads less like an exploration of criminal psychology and more like a biting critique of how poorly mainstream comics previously reflected growing cultural issues of their time. For the most part, Phillips and Strobl direct our attention to consistent themes in comics: misogyny, gender bias, vigilante justice, poor ethnic representation, and, most telling, a complete inaccurate representation of the criminal justice system. Comic book institutions like Arkham Asylum (the prison from the Batman series) and Marvel’s Ryker’s Island facility, perpetuate a fictitious and dangerous stereotype of criminal institutions. Namely that, as Phillips and Strobl state, “prisons are notoriously ineffective in their efforts to incapacitate… Prison breakouts and riots occur on a regular basis, implying that incapacitation through incarceration is simply a foolish and downright dangerous policy.”
Granted the realm of comics is a larger-than-life entertainment platform where the thrust of the story arcs are driven by the clash of superheroes and villains. And comics where conflicts are exaggerated (i.e., traditional superhero comics published by Marvel and DC) outsell nuanced independent comics largely due to mass appeal. But if comics are distorting our world view through misinformation, should we be concerned? Phillips and Strobl won’t state it outright; rather, their stacks of research (including personal focus groups and message board discussions—the type of millennial research we should be seeing more of) allow us draw our own conclusions. The research points to indicates that should be concerned about a lack truth in comics.
Comics are more than just simple escapism; in a post-9/11 realm, comics are cultural artifacts that speak to many people on a basic level. What’s more direct that continuously exploring the fight between good and evil?
Comic Book Crime is an important book devoted to a medium that has long been dismissed, despite its crossover appeal. Comic book fans will immediately recognize story lines and identify with key moments in comic book history that Phillips and Strobl rightly investigate, such as the death of Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man and Alan Moore’s groundbreaking work on Watchmen and Batman: The Killing Joke. Much has already been written about these key points in comic book history, but rarely from the angle of criminology and criminal psychology.
If there’s fault to be found in Comic Book Crime it comes from the authors’ dog piling of examples in each chapter. Many chapters read like a laundry list of every example the authors’ could locate to reenforce their studies. PopMatters readers—savvy and educated and interested in a broad range of topics in culture—are the perfect audience for Comic Book Crime; it might be considered ‘too academic’ for most comic book fans, and yet its subject matter might be scoffed at by the less-than-accepting realm of academia. For smart readers like us, Comic Book Crime is long overdue. It’s a thrilling look at comics from a new perspective—and it’s better than most superhero films.