Culture  /  Book Review

The Vigilante World of Comic Books

A sweeping new history traces the rise of characters caught in a Manichaean struggle between good and evil.
Jeremy Dauber

For those of us who grew up enjoying (and have grown old romanticizing) the bright, resplendent four-color pleasures of comic books, it may be time to admit we’ve been had. It may once have seemed that comics offered intelligent young men and women an escape from the awfulness of middle-American life. But seeing today how thoroughly those serial fantasies have infiltrated every aspect of modern culture, it’s beginning to look as if comics largely reinforced our worst impulses and instincts.

From their early days, comic books taught kids about a Manichaean universe in which subterranean, irrational, and irredeemably evil forces continually threatened society’s superficial order. The popular, early detective strip Dick Tracy envisions criminals as creatures from the “lower orders,” such as a “tramp” who flagrantly steals rides on trains (and murders the hard-working guard who tries to stop him). Later they develop into genetically twisted, born-bad mutant-freaks such as Mumbles, Pruneface, Flattop, and the Mole—a rogues’ gallery often referred to as “the Grotesques.” Their collective homicidal methods include stabbing, shooting, immolation, and freezing people to death in refrigerator cars or scalding them in steam baths. To stop these evil-mutant types from taking over the world, Dick Tracy and his square-jawed fellow cops meet force with force, firepower with firepower. And they always, always win. As one newspaper editorial replied to complaints about the violence in Dick Tracy: “The sooner a child finds out what kind of world it is, the better he or she is equipped to get along in it.”

What children “learned” from early crime comics was that people with lots of money were at the endless mercy of people without any. From the time The Batman first appeared in Detective Comics in 1939, his enemies were, like Tracy’s, noted for their disfigurements—such as the Joker, Two-Face, and Clayface. And in a typical story, “crime” was something usually committed by people with nothing, against those with too much—often by means of jewel-thievery and house-breaking, or by robbing banks and trains. In The Batman’s first appearance, Commissioner Gordon enlists Bruce Wayne to investigate the murder of “old Lambert … at his mansion”; and “victims” of the next two issues include both the Van Smiths and the Vander Smiths. The Batman routinely hangs men outside high skyscraper windows or pummels them senseless in order to obtain confessions. No Miranda rights for these creeps. They were born bad and deserved everything they got.