Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism/Comic Books

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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  • Watchmen was written as a deliberate Deconstruction of more idealistic comic book superheroes, the idealism of superheroes, and the superhero genre in general. It shows what would really inspire people to go out in ridiculous, often-times skimpy uniforms and beat the crud out of other people, and one of the characters quite intentionally crosses the line separating idealistic superheroism from deluded vigilante action.
    • Alan Moore later felt that, partly as a result of the popularity of Watchmen, later superhero comics completely missed the point and focused too much on the wrong things, going too far to the other side of the scale and forgetting to retain some level of idealism and fun in the process. In an effort to remedy this, he created Tom Strong, a more idealistic superhero series, in order to even the scales a bit. He also did a landmark run on Supreme and wrote 1963 in a further attempt to reverse the trend.

Alan Moore: "Having deconstructed everything perhaps we really should be starting to think about putting everything back together."

  • The Punisher is a cynical character in a shared universe; his "rightness" fluctuates wildly depending on where the series he appears in falls on the scale. In his MAX series, a more adult comic, there is little question to the effectiveness of his actions, and his antagonists are usually consistently Complete Monsters (The Slavers), but in the mainstream comics, he is often shown in a less favorable light.
    • Throughout the events of Archie Comics Meets The Punisher, Frank monologues on Riverdale's inability to deal with the scum he handles on a daily basis, while at the same time wishing he could have grown up with the quiet, friendly lifestyle that they enjoy.
  • JLA Classified # 3. Superman tells the International Ultramarine Corps (a pastiche of cynical superhero teams) that "These 'no-nonsense' solutions of yours just don't hold water in a complex world of jet-powered apes and Time Travel," and gives them the chance to go to a baby universe troubled by "cynical" problems.
    • Heck, Grant Morrison in general seems to lean towards the idealistic side of the scale. Final Crisis especially slams hard against the idealism side by the very end what with the representation of the dark, cynical kick comics had been on being defeated by (essentially) the manifestation of the upbeat, optimistic, and fantastical comics of The Silver Age of Comic Books.
  • Often, who's writing for a character in a comic book determines where on the scale that character falls. In some books, Batman is one step up from the Joker. In others, he's almost as much of a boy scout as Superman. Since the writing duties of a comic series can change from issue to issue, this can be slightly disorienting, as the reader doesn't know from one Story Arc to the next if the book's star is going to be a jerk or a hero. In this scenario, it's also a form of Writer on Board. This also applies to any long-running TV series with frequent writer changes and a dramatic bent.
    • This is best represented by one topic on the Wizards of the Coast forum where someone posted detailed arguments for Batman's alignment. As it turns out, a good argument can be made for all 9 possibilities.
    • The Superman/Batman series manages to successfully show both titular characters on their comparative scales and makes a point of showing neither as more correct than the others. At one point, Batman states that Superman's selfless idealism is the reason why he should be considered a hero. If Superman ever let himself sink to Batman's cynicism, it wouldn't be pretty. However, it has also been stressed that, of the two of them, Batman is the more alien of the pair, mostly because of his cynicism.
    • Oddly enough, whenever he's by himself (in the incredibly Crapsack World of Gotham), Batman tends to be less of a cynic, but becomes much more of one when he's around other characters and has to fill that niche.
    • Still, Batman takes Thou Shall Not Kill very seriously, believing that no matter how many innocent lives a villain has taken, and no matter how likely he is to repeat his actions, it is still wrong to kill them, for reasons we all know. Wouldn't an emphasis on morality over effectiveness place Batman farther toward the Idealistic end?
  • The scale is examined very effectively in the Superman comic "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice And The American Way?" Of course, being about the original Cape himself, the conclusions it raises fall squarely on the idealistic side of the scale, but it's a well-written story nonetheless.
  • For a good long while, a major selling point of the Marvel Universe in general was that their characters were more realistic (read: cynical) than in The DCU; of course, they were often just as implausible in nature, but Marvel's characters often possessed more character flaws and personal issues than the idealistically "perfect" heroes in DC. These days, given forty odd years of Character Development and competition since Marvel first hit it big, this distinction isn't quite as significant as once it was; unfortunately, both companies have a tendency to instead plunge into whichever side of the scale that will make their characters more angsty.
    • Still, in general the DC universe hits so far on the idealistic side of at least one issue that the sliding scale might as well be on a rubber band; Killing Is Always Wrong. Any character willing to kill, no matter how noble their intentions, no matter how justified they seemed, not even if they didn't know or control what they were doing, is going to get smacked down for it eventually... or, at the very least, have it brought up constantly and/or be vilified by it for everyone else. More often, any non-villain willing to kill is simply portrayed as an out-and-out homicidal maniac willing to burn someone alive for jaywalking.
    • The formerly-Canon version of Superman has killed precisely once, during The Dark Age of Comic Books, in order to Shoot the Dog on three Kryptonians from an Alternate Universe. Since then, writers have either ignored this, or have him regard it as a mistake that made his self-imposed prohibition against killing even stronger in response. As of current canon, Superman has never killed anyone.
    • Wonder Woman on the other hand in modern times is a classically trained warrior who is ready to use deadly force if necessary. For instance, former ally Max Lord gains mind control powers and uses them to make Superman try to kill everyone; when Wondy asks him what will make him stop, Max tells her to kill him, and she does. The event is broadcast worldwide to the public by Max's spy cameras and severely hurts Wondy's reputation.
    • There are a few authors who will completely ignore this principle when writing in the DCU; Frank Miller is probably the best-known example.
    • There is one current superheroine with which this completely does not apply: Manhunter. In her first appearance, she killed Copperhead and has never regretted it. In fact, even people who know her secret identity aren't bothered by it - probably because of the fact that Copperhead was a mass murderer and had just slaughtered a bunch of cops. She's even teamed up with Oracle, been the lawyer of Wonder Woman, and has consulted Batman and Superman for help before.
    • Similarly, the Marvel Universe seems to take All of the Other Reindeer as a guiding principle for their sustained "realism", and has since The Seventies. DC is leaning toward this of late as well. I understand there is prejudice in the world, but one may wonder how much distrust of the abnormal can lead people to abandon all ethics, principles, and even senses of self-preservation.
    • This "realistic" approach was even reflected in the settings of their stories; whereas DC's comics were (and mostly still are) set in fantastic (and fictional) locales such as Metropolis and Gotham City, Marvel set its comics in the very-real streets of New York City.
    • If anything, since the 80s DC has become more cynical than Marvel. And Marvel's New York is no more real than Gotham or Metropolis just because it shares its name with a real world city.
    • Dan Slott's Pre-Civil War work in Marvel falls on the idealistic side. He even has Nighthawk say that he keeps being a superhero because it's fun.
    • Brian Michael Bendis's Daredevil run, like Fist of the North Star above, presents a hero who is uncompromising in his idealism despite living in Crapsack World.
  • Judge Dredd falls squarely into the cynical side of the scale. Several storylines examine the scale, with the cynicism of Dredd and the Judges contrasted with the idealism of pro-democracy activists seeking an end to the authority of the Judges and the return to democratic government and the separation of powers to the world of Mega-City-One. After a democratic referendum, democracy ultimately fails, validating Dredd and the Judges' viewpoint. Even the most committed activists either resign themselves to defeat and give up in complete disillusionment, or become fanatical and ruthless terrorists, just as bad, if not worse than the Judges they despise.
  • Scott McCloud's Zot is a study in contrast between Zot's Earth of "far-flung future of 1965," an idealistic world with Crystal Spires and Togas, where everything's pretty much perfect except for some supervillainy that Zot always stops, and Jenny's Earth, our Earth, which falls into the normal realm of cynicism. In the first story arc, where Zot visits Jenny and he decides to go to a bad part of town and stop a purse-snatcher, not only does he get badly beaten, but there is a crowd of onlookers who do absolutely nothing. Even though this doesn't discourage Zot at first, after he fails to rescue some from a fire (it having been previously explained that Zot "never loses" because he believes he can never lose), he starts thinking that Jenny's Earth really isn't that good and leaves. Zot does eventually return, however, and his essential optimism and faith in human decency never seriously weakens, and even on Jenny's Earth is paid off, from time to time; similarly, Jenny's cynicism about the world, whilst justifiable and not invalid, can be misguided.
  • In the Idealism extreme, we have Piffany from Nodwick, who believes that everything is goodness and light, despite the evidence displayed by her fellow party members. Nodwick himself is justifiably much more cynical.
  • As a whole, Kurt Busiek's Astro City tends towards the Idealistic side of the scale, with heroes who tend to be noble and selfless models that the citizens admire. But just before you peg the series as hopelessly idealistic, some cynicism sinks in, such as the "shame" felt towards the Silver Agent (who was framed by the government and executed to show that they could control superheroes), the betrayal of El Hombre, and the entire Dark Ages story arc. Ultimately, though, idealism wins, and even former super-criminals can redeem themselves if they try.
  • Sin City is heavily cynical but so over-the-top that it's part of its charm.
  • Boondocks is a relentlessly cynical Satire comic about Black people and the unstoppable nature of corporate greed and Blaxploitation.
  • An excellent illustration of the divide between DC Comics and Marvel Comics comes in JLA-Avengers, where the two teams end up in the others' universe. Captain America (comics) sees the way DC's civilians celebrate their heroes and assumes they've set themselves up as tin-pot dictators; meanwhile, Superman sees how bad off the Marvel universe is and decries their heroes for being selfish and not helping the common man enough. The pair actually comes to blows over this (to the confusion of their respective teammates), and it's later revealed that the stress of their two universes merging is having a negative effect on the two men since they're so strongly tied to their respective worlds. The two manage to have an honest talk about the concerns of going too far or not doing enough, and when they part ways they agree that above all else, the important thing is that they try their best.
  • Kick-Ass is about as cynical as it gets, even more so than Watchmen. Dave is pretty much a loser, Big Daddy is a complete fraud, Hit Girl is lied to by her father about her mother dying, and not allowed to have a normal childhood, and everyone else except for maybe Dave's father is a scumbag of one sort or the other (Katie is a shallow bitch, Red Mist is completely unsympathetic unlike in the film, his father is a Complete Monster, etc). Despite all this, it's incredibly funny. Many people preferred the movie adaptation since it toned down the utter bleakness of the comic book, but taken on its own terms, the comic is a great Black Comedy.
  • One of the draws of the Green Lantern and Green Arrow series was this, Lantern as idealistic, Arrow as cynical. This is brought up later in Green Lanter: Rebirth, when GA tries to use GL's power ring to defend himself, only for Sinestro to smack him down and mocking his will as being too cynical to even get the ring to work. So, idealism isn't so bad...
  • The Walking Dead is an extremely cynical zombie survival story. When they talk about the walking dead, it isn't about the zombies but humanity who is simply circling the drain.