Dec 13, 2012

Comics vs. The Ten Commandments

Ahhh, the ten commandments. You’ve heard of them, right? Yahweh’s ten immutable laws!

They're meant to be the divine words of god, handed down from on high by a perfect, unchanging, omnipotent godhead who chose them as the ultimate rules for human life. In fact many Christians claim that the ten commandments are the basis for Western law and morality. They're absolutely perfect!

Now ignoring the fact that actually Hellenic law and morality is as much the basis for Western law and morality as anything else, I think there's a case to be made that the ten commandments are anything BUT perfect. In fact I think you can prove that comic books offer a more interesting, complex and practical guide to moral thought than the ten commandments could ever provide.

Hey, why don't we do that right now?

The first problem with the ten commandments, of course, is that not everyone agrees on what those commandments are. Catholics, for example, don’t even bother with the graven images one. So for the purposes of this article let’s use a comic as our source for scripture.

You might be able to detect some evidence
that this is a second-hand copy on the cover.
(Classics Illustrated #135, writer Lorenz Graham, artist Norman Nodel.)

Hooo yeah! Let’s get this thing underway.

So here are our commandments, thanks to Classics Illustrated and Mrs Warner.

Good god, who can even read all that? We
need to break this up into bite-sized chunks.

Now to an atheist like me the first four commandments are kinda stupid. After all, being given orders to honour a god that doesn’t exist is just silly. To Christians on the other hand, these commandments are downright fundamental. After all if god isn’t there, how is there any weight behind his other orders? It’s a good point, so let’s take a look at the first four laws, and their… uh… merits.

First there's these three:

Three times the bragging for your pleasure!

 Then there's this monument of a thing; how he ever fit it on a stone tablet is beyond me:

Yahweh really wants you to remember that sabbath!

Y’know, re-reading these things,  I think they actually sound like someone I know…

(Fantastic Four Annual #2, by words Stan Lee, art Jack Kirby, inks Chic Stone.)

No, no… wait… maybe it was someone else?

(Forever People #3, story and art Jack Kirby, inks Vince Colletta.)

Yeah… there’s my immediate problem with these four laws. They’re the words of a tyrant.
Our modern society rejects and condemns these sorts of tyrants. Doctor Doom and Darkseid, no matter how cool or interesting they may be as characters, are in fact the villains. They’re murderous monsters who demand that you obey them because they are MORE POWERFUL than you. But, dude, I don’t live in that kind of country.

In my country we live under common law, not the law of the iron fist. Doctor Doom, Yahweh, Kanjor Ro. They’re all just bullies telling us we should obey them because they’re so awesome. And Yahweh doesn’t even have a bloody Gamma Gong to make him cool.

The other thing that’s interesting about these commandments is the sense of insecurity in them. Y’know, dude, if you didn’t tell people not to use your name in vain they might never even think of doing that.

What about the demand that you not have any other god above poor old Yahweh? That seems an odd demand for someone claiming to be the only god out there. Oh yeah. He’s not the only god is he? There’s ones like this.

Hela: frickin' AWESOME.
(Thor #361 (1985), story and art by Walt Simonson)

And guys like this.

Hercules: Also awesome.
(Incredible Hercules #128, written by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente,
 art by Dietrich Smith and Terry Pallot)

Heck, nowadays there’s even NEW GODS who are freaking awesome. Like, I dunno… these guys.

(New Gods #10, story and art Jack Kirby, inks Mike Royer.)

I can actually see why Yahweh is threatened in the face of that kind of awesomeness. I mean look at those other guys? Can't you now appreciate why he’d want to have rules in there saying that you’re not allowed to admire the awesomeness of other gods? I mean look at Yahweh's sort of manifestation...

Woo! Go Yahweh. You're
my hero! Pffft. just isn’t as impressive by comparison, is it?

Okay, so that’s the first four commandments dealt with. Let’s try a slightly trickier one, shall we? The fifth commandment:

I'm not sure that promise of long life is very realistic
either, just so you know.

Notice how he injects a little bit more self-aggrandising into this one too. Damn Yahweh’s insecure. So here’s the problem with this rule. What if your father is, I dunno… Fu Manchu?

Y'know come to think of it, the bible is generally
pretty quiet on how to deal with yellow peril villains.
Doesn't even suggest making them green.
(Cover by John Buscema and Al Milgrom.)

Shang-Chi struggled with this idea quite a bit during his career actually. He owed a lot to his father – his father had trained him, and nurtured him to become an evil warlord too. But Shang-Chi found another path – one that wasn’t leading him down the road of pure evil, but which was leading him into repeated conflicts with his nigh-immortal father.

This idea that you need to choose the path that is right, not the path that your parents pick out for you is completely at odds with Yaweh's supposed divine law. Would Christians consider Shang-Chi noble or just if he became a murderous assassin, just like his father wanted? I don't think most of them would -- and yet that's just want the fifth commandment is asking you to think.

What about the specifics? Are adopted parents or step-parents exempt from the law? Or do you have to honour them too? What if they’re a crazed puppeteer out to try and kill your boyfriend, like, I dunno… this guy?

Yes, I edited the panel layouts on Jack Kirby art. I'm horrible.
(Fantastic Four #8,words by Stan Lee, art by Jack Kirby.)

 What if your relationship with your parents is even more complex? Captain Atom is a fantastic adult, complex comic that explores these sorts of relationships in great detail. Because he was thrown 18 years through time, Captain Atom lost his family, and his children were raised by another man -- General Wade Eiling. Eiling and Atom are in a highly antagonistic relationship, and the two children are caught between the two of them. This is made all the more complex because Atom was a convicted murderer.

So if you have two fathers who are completely at odds with each other, who do you honour then? Who do you choose, Captain Atom or General Eiling?

Does cutting your hair when your father likes it in a different
style count as dishonouring him? What's the tipping point for
dishonour? Is wearing purple slacks dishonourable? It should be...
(Captain Atom #8, Writer Cary Bates, Penciller Pat Broderick.)

Considering how long he spent explaining the whys and wherefores of keeping the Sabbath day holy, or about making graven images, it’s kinda striking how little time Yaweh spends on the later commandments and explaining how they work.

This is complex stuff, guys. Sure, the comic book scenario is fanciful, filled with time travel and dark government conspiracies, but the core problem of having to choose between parents is a very common one for children in our modern society. The commandments were written a very long ago, and are just not complex enough to deal with modern family dynamics.

What if your mother becomes a vampire at the hands of Deacon Frost? Is staking her through the heart considered honouring her or dishonouring her? This is important stuff. Heck, what if your Aunt, who is effectively your mother figure, is dying. Is it okay to make a deal with the devil to save her? Is that covered under honouring your mother and father? If it is, does that mean god approves of One More Day?

If Yahweh approves of One More Day I think my work here may already be done.

Detailed laws for a complex world!

Man, really? This is all you give us. Thou shalt not kill? That’s a really absolutist sort of proposition. Surely the morality, legality and consequences of killing need to be a little more complex than, "If you kill, you go to hell."

Imagine this scenario -- you're attacked by a man pretending to be a priest or a monk. The man tries to stab you and you somehow manage to turn the tables on them and incapacitate them. The man is now at your mercy, completely bound and helpless. This guy is a ruthless killer who was willing to stab you to death for the money in your pockets. In fact, you're positive you're not his first victim; there's been others. Is it okay for you to kill this man so he won't ever kill again? Is it okay to kill a helpless, bound man just because you know he's a killer himself?

Well, we all know the answer to that -- of course it's not okay. You call the police! You don't take justice into your own hands!

But what if the same scenario took place several hundred years ago, would it have been okay to kill this fake clergyman then? Can't imagine that scenario as easily? Well here's a visual aide:

Man, that "Next Week" caption is hilariously dark.
(Prince Valiant #319, by Hal Foster)

A "Hermit" in this sense is actually kind of a proto-monk.
(Prince Valiant #320)
Notice that the story actually pauses to comment on the relative morality of Prince Valiant's actions. In this day and age, obviously what he does is wrong. But back then, when there wasn't a clear judiciary to handle these situations he was just doing what he had to do. It's still killing, in fact it's downright murder. If you doubt it's murder, look at the snarling, malicious face of Valiant in the 4th panel in #320. But despite this the comic tells us we can't judge the prince's actions by our own modern standards of morality.

But wasn't he governed by the same ten commandments as us? Did "Thou shalt not kill" really mean something that different back then?

Comics present a tonne of different examples of extremes in relationship to killing. Batman never kills, but that means that villains like the Joker are always reappearing and always killing again. If Batman were more like the Punisher you wouldn’t have all the mass murders by guys like the Bane or the Killer Croc. On the other hand, Captain America thinks that the Punisher is an animal – he doesn’t agree with his killing at all. And Captain America is awesome.

What if you're required to meet an external threat, does "Thou shalt not kill" apply then? I mean, what if you’re invaded by the evil Japanese or the evil Nazis? Are the Losers not supposed to kill anyone? What about the Leatherneck Raiders? How are they supposed to save the free world if they don’t gun down some Japs?

Thinking and reacting help you survive? See? I told you comics
teach you important stuff about life!
(Leatherneck Raiders #1, Writer Gary Friedrich, artist Dick Ayers.)

Some translations change ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to ‘Thou shalt not murder’. This introduces some nuance to the issue (like basically excusing the soldiers in war), but doesn't solve it completely. Remember back to our Prince Valiant example? Is what he did there murder or criminal justice? It would certainly be considered murder if the Punisher did exactly the same thing for exactly the same reasons.

It all comes back to the lack of detail in this commandment. Just changing "kill" to "murder" doesn't fix things because you still need to clearly define what murder is. That puts you squarely back in the realms of common law -- with its strong definitions that are constantly being carefully refined through the judicial process -- rather than divine law.

Okay, I'm moving onto the next one.

I'm betting Zeus wouldn't support this commandment. 

Generally this is a good social principle. It’s not nice to cheat on your spouse. I don’t think this is the sort of thing that should be enforced by law, though. I mean, think about it. If it was enforced by law then Commissioner Gordon would be in jail!

Not only that, what about more complex situations? What happens when you marry the clone of your previous fiancé, then your previous fiancé comes back from the dead? Is it adultery to hook up with your ex, or doesn't it count with clones? I dunno. I guess you need to ask Scott Summers on that one, because Yahweh sure doesn't have any answers.

What if a teen-aged girl rapes you  by mistake because she thought you were your son? Does that count as adultery?

Wondering why I called this rape? Then you've
probably forgotten what we said about Archie and kissing.
(From IDW's Archie's Sunday Finest collection
art and story by Bob Montana)

Hmmm… it probably does count if you enjoy it as much as Fred Andrews did here.

The complexity of real relationships and real lives just isn’t reflected in these stupid commandments. You can’t draw a moral code from them. From comics, on the other hand. you can learn real moral lessons not just based on what characters do, but based on your reactions to them. But it’s not just the stuff that happens inside the comics that can teach us. There’s more to it than that. Let’s take the example of the next commandment.

He forgot the part where it's okay to steal ideas
and culture from the Sumerians.

It seems to simple, right? Stealing is evil and nothing good can possibly come of it. It’s wrong to steal, and you should never do it. But… well… but what if Jack Kirby steals from Hal Foster?

Gone! Gone! The form of man! Rise the... uhh... Prince Valiant.
(From Prince Valiant by Hal Foster and The Demon by Jack Kirby.)
Yup, that’s right. Jack Kirby’s Demon is ripped off directly from a sequence in Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. It’s straight-up theft of Hal Foster’s visuals. Shit, Etrigan even has the same frickin’ shoes. In fact his origin as a servant of Merlin, and even some of the visuals and shadowing on Kirby’s art is inspired directly from Hal Foster’s original work. It’s a form of theft.

But… but... I just can't bring myself to think that this is wrong because... well... holy crap is Jack Kirby's Demon awesome! Kirby expanded on the powerful imagery he took from Hal Foster and created a compelling and interesting character that was something all its own. It wasn’t the only time he did it, either. He stole from movies, from novels, even from old sci-fi TV shows no one remembers like Star Trek.

Man. I wonder where that idea came from...
(Fantastic Four #91, written by Stan Lee, art by Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott)

Theft of intellectual property is a crime. But it’s a crime with subjective parameters. Why is it okay when Jack Kirby and Stan Lee steal from old sci-fi TV and not okay when Bill Mantlo does it? Well, mostly because Mantlo stole from Harlan Ellison, and Kirby didn’t. They both took what they stole and made something new, something exciting and original in its own right. Kirby was arguably better at it than Mantlo, but it’s the same principle.

"Hero"? Shouldn't that be, "Soldier"?
(Incredible Hulk #286, words Bill Mantlo, art Sal Buscema and Kim DeMulder.) 
 The difference in terms of how this theft is regarded by the public is entirely due to the fact that the owner of the original ideas got upset and demanded compensation for them in the case of the  Hulk story. Marvel printed an apology, giving credit to Ellison, but they never printed and apology for the earlier Skrull issue. There's no attempt to credit that idea to David P. Harmon.  How society responds to a theft is always subjective, and your moral response to it should be subjective too.

The red-faced apology for stealing from Harlan Ellison,
from Incredible Hulk #289.

If you put rubbish out on the side of the road and someone steals it, is that wrong? It's still theft, isn't it? What if you find ten dollars on the side of the road, should you attempt to find out who owns it, then turn it into the police if you can't? Most people wouldn't bother. But if it was a wallet with ten dollars in it, you probably would try and find the owner.

But, hey forget about the real world examples of where 'stealing' might be a subjective concept… what about other aspects of theft that might be illustrated in comics stories? Is it okay, for example, to steal to save someone’s life? What about stealing from evil people, is that okay? Superman regularly used his powers to extort money from evil bankers to give to the poor in the 1940s -- was he wrong to do that? What about the Phantom? Is it okay to steal gold from pirates to fund your endless war on injustice?

Even in the jungle Whitey gets all the breaks!
(From The Beachcomber by Lee Falk and Ray Moore)

What about people who benefit from stealing? Earlier in the commandments god rambles on about cursing people for the crimes of their fathers. Does that extend to things like stealing, or does it only count when you're talking smack about Yahweh?

Scrooge McDuck financed his fortune with golden false teeth that legally belonged to someone else. Does that count as stealing? Or was it theft when the descendant of the person who owned those teeth (admittedly thanks to a scam) threatened to take Scrooge’s fortune? After all, Scrooge might have staked his fortune with those teeth, but everything he earned after that point was thanks to his own blood, sweat, and tears. Shouldn't he be able to just pay for the price of the teeth, and settle the debt?

This always reminds me of that one Sesame Street skit.
(From The Horse-Radish Treasure by Carl Barks)

Duck law systems are very complex and the ins and outs of legal contracts can create all kinds of wildly unfair forms of completely legal theft. Where does the divine law of Yaweh fall on this? Is the outrage Scrooge feels at the unfairness of being bound by his ancestor's actions a morally defensible response? If so, why do the commandments demand similar bondage to the actions of long-dead relatives?

"Thou shalt not steal," is a shockingly simplistic response to an issue that has become more and more complex as society itself has become more and more complex. It might have made sense to desert dwelling shepherds, but it doesn't help deal with Wall Street. You need extensive legal definitions and parameters determined by a complex and intricate judicial system, not just some tyrant yelling, “NO!!”

Thou shalt feel free to lie about your people ever being
slave in Egypt though, if thou dost feel like it.

I have to admit, this commandment is my favourite one. It’s the only one that uses fairly specific language. The only way I can read this is that you’re not supposed to lie when someone else’s arse is on the line. That’s… actually a pretty fair concept. The idea that you’re not supposed to lie to get someone else in trouble with the law is in fact a pretty big thing in our society. When you lie in a court, for example, it’s called perjury.

Spidey you horrible man!
(She-Hulk #4 (2004), written by Dan Slott, art by Juan Bobillo and Marcello Sosa)

My problem with this commandment is a fairly minor one. It really should read, “Thou shalt not bear false witness for or against thy neighbour.” Lying to get someone out of trouble with the law is just as bad as lying to get someone in trouble with the law. It's a small niggle at best, but that's the real advantage of being an atheist. Because I see the bible as a collection of stories, and not the immutable law of god, I'm able to absorb and use the good parts and simply throw out all the crap.

 but the fact that I am able to rewrite Yahweh's supposedly perfect laws to make them better is kinda sad. Doesn't give me much confidence in his abilities as a supreme being.

Well we’re at the end now. Let’s take a look at the very last commandment, and it’s a doozy.

His ass? Is this one of those anti-gay
sections of the bible?

Yahweh sure as shit loves his pointless lists, “Nor anything that is thy neighbour’s,” kinda covers all the other stuff here, mate. Oh well.

This is basically the most bullshit of the commandments (well the ones that aren't just about how awesome Yahweh is, anyway). Thou shalt not covet? So if I see someone else with an awesome Phantom hardcover I’m not supposed to want one myself? What if it’s the Phantom Sunday strips in full colour? That shit is freaking awesome. No? Not allowed to covet it?

Basically – Yahweh hates the entire comics industry. In fact he hates all forms of advertising and modern industry! In fact he hates capitalism itself! Yahweh is a dirty communist is what I’m saying. You know what that means, don’t you?

Communists are all liars! So says Iron Man -- picture of honesty.
(Tales of Suspense #46, written by Stan Lee and Robert Bernstein, art by Don Heck)

Maybe it's because I live in a capitalist country, maybe it's because I've read too many Stan Lee comics, but I don't think I have to listen to a dirty Commie about how to structure my financial system!

Coveting other people’s property, their wives, their ox, their servants, etc. can lead to problems, of course. If you take it too far, and devote your life to wanting other people's things it can lead to depression, and even crime. Especially if you're a beagle.

(From Only a Poor Old Man, by Carl Barks.)

But the fact is that coveting makes our economy work. Without coveting why would anyone even buy a Richie Rich comic? And come to that, if coveting someone’s wife is evil, then that means every comic that ever sold on the hotness of this lady was wrong:

Or at least all the stories and art created after Peter and MJ got married
are evil and trying to condemn people to hell for her hotness.
(Amazing Spider-Man #350, art by Erik Larsen and John Romita Sr.)

Which, I guess, brings us back to the idea that Yahweh probably really approves of One More Day. That story's saving people's souls!

It’s okay to want something someone else has. That’s one of the driving engines of our economy. This absolutist law is just freaking ridiculous.  Clearly the problem isn’t coveting, it’s not being able to separate reality from fantasy. Saying or thinking,  “Man that’s cool, I wish I had one,” isn’t a frickin’ crime. Y’know, unless you believe in the laws of Yahweh.

In the end that’s all it comes down to; do you believe the bible and the commandments are just stories, or do you believe they're divine truth? If they're just stories then this article is pretty unfair. Comparing a tiny piece of a book to (potentially) all comic books ever written is a wholly lop-sided comparison. But  if it's the divine word of Yaweh then shouldn't it stand up to any possible scrutiny?

(Transformers UK #180, cover by Lee Sullivan.)
But... it's not really the divine word of god, is it? It's just some old stories. The comics are stories and the bible is a series of stories, too.

Stories are great for modelling behaviour and for allowing you to imagine scenarios before you experience them. But in the end they’re just stories and Yaweh isn’t any more relevant in the real world than Spider-Man. Yahweh has nothing more to offer the reader than any other piece of fiction ever written, despite all the people out there telling you that the bible is some sort of divine truth.

In fact he may actually have less to offer the reader than Spider-Man. At least the stories about Spider-Man are entertaining.

Except One More Day. That story can go to hell.

--Andrew S.
(Just for the record, plenty of people have stolen from Kirby, Stan Lee and Bill Mantlo over the years, too.)

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