It’s Time For Comics to Move Past Vigilantes

We know too much about the nature of crime and the terror of real-life vigilantes to think superheroes need to beat up muggers to change the world

David Dennis, Jr.

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Photo by Serge Kutuzov on Unsplash

I was on my third run-through of the incredible video game Spider-Man, originally released for the PS4 in 2018, when it hit me. If you’ve played the game, then you know that about two-thirds of the way through the story, there’s a prison breakout. As a result, the streets of New York are terrorized by escapees committing crimes and firing bazookas into buildings. I didn’t think much of this plot development the first couple of times I played the game, but, this time was different. It was the Summer of 2020 — the Summer of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and protest and the mainstreaming of police abolition. I was experiencing Spider-Man anew against the backdrop of a reckoning with how this country interacts with crime, who is actually responsible for crime, and how we treat America’s prison population. It all left me unsettled. I kept thinking: wouldn’t most people who broke out of jail just…go home? See their families? Go to Red Lobster or something?

I understand why these plot devices exist in video games: video games have to manufacture villains to keep them interesting and keep the hero fighting, gaining new skills and badges. The exact same plot device fuels the entire Batman: Arkham game trilogy, for instance. Creating danger to justify the existence of superheroes is actually no different from the way the history of vigilante stories is about manufacturing crime — something inextricably linked to America’s history of oppression.

In 2016, in an interview with a Brazilian writer, comics legend Alan Moore connected the idea of superheroes to the very American nature of White supremacy. “Save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators),” he said, “these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race…In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.”

Birth Of A Nation’s premise hinged on the idea that if you freed Black people…

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David Dennis, Jr.

Level Sr. Writer covering Race, Culture, Politics, TV, Music. Previously: The Undefeated, The Atlantic, Washington Post. Forthcoming book: The Movement Made Us