Friday, May 22, 2009

Moral Clarity

In a previous blog, I spoke briefly regarding my father and his influence on my life, worldview, and early love of comic books. By emulating my father’s example, I grew to internalize the qualities of personal responsibility, fundamental decency, and hard work, not to mention a love of the arts. I am not just my father’s son, however.

Being the product of a very loving and stable nuclear family, I’d be quite remiss if I failed to acknowledge the instrumental role my mother played in shaping my personal and creative values. From my mother I inherited a thirst -- no, rather make that an obsession -- with moral clarity. Even as a small child, I was adamant about not only knowing what was right, but why it was right. Consequently, the issue of fairness became my constant preoccupation. No wonder my favorite comic book hero of all time is still Terry “Fair Play” Sloane, b.k.a. Mister Terrific, a.k.a. The Man of a Thousand Talents.

Family members constantly point out that my temperament falls more in line with my mother’s side of the family than my father’s side. I’ve always taken this as a compliment. What some may call impatience I deem forthrightness. Although I may be prone to flights of indignation, they tend to be of the righteous variety, not self-righteous. My father may have inspired and nurtured my love of comic books, but my mother’s influence gave that love expression and meaning.

My mom grew up a PK. For those of you not familiar with 20th century acronyms, PK stands for Preacher’s Kid. PKs, like Army Brats, live in a kind of parallel universe alongside the children of lay or civilian folk. My mother once described growing up a PK as living in a fishbowl. Every eye studies you, expecting you to be perfect, and then delighting when you fall. Some PKs “act out” against their parents’ authority and society’s expectations. Other PKs embrace their identities and follow in their parents’ footsteps. Much to her credit (and often to her dismay I’m sure), my mom zealously pursued the latter option.

My grandfather, the late Reverend Huber F. Klemme, wasn’t exactly your typical American preacher. From the onset of his ministry, he used his pulpit to address quite a number of controversial causes. Throughout the 50-plus years of his ministry, my grandfather remained deeply and unequivocally committed to the core principals of the Social Gospel movement: civil rights, social justice, world peace, and economic equality. Given the political climate in our nation during the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s & ‘60s, his unyielding stance invariably set him face-first against our culture’s prevailing winds.

During the 1930s, amid the first Red Scare, my grandfather proudly declared himself a socialist. My mother, a grade-schooler at the time, found herself in quite a bit of trouble when she informed her teacher that her household supported Norman Thomas for president over FDR. A short time later, my grandfather’s pacifist philosophy prompted him to counsel Conscientious Objectors during World War II. (Think about that for a moment-- not the Vietnam War, but WWII.) In the 1940s & ‘50s, he zealously advocated for civil rights and the abolishment of Jim Crow, long before public sympathy got swept up into the monumental social upheavals of the 1960s. My grandfather’s recognition of racial injustice and Black Achievement certainly rubbed off on my mother. Once, when another grade school teacher asked my mother to name a famous scientist, she responded with George Washington Carver. Obviously, the teacher wasn’t impressed, as she snidely dismissed Carver as “just an old nigger.”

As a teenager and college student, my mom proudly followed her father’s example, becoming active in a wide variety of social and religious causes. After graduating from Heidelberg College, she taught in the Cleveland schools for a few years before marrying my father and starting a family. Understandably, my mom was strict with my brothers, sister, and me. She suffered neither fools nor brats gladly. Each and every time I was punished, however, I not only learned what I’d done wrong but why it was wrong.

In retrospect, I think those hard object lessons probably spoiled me. From childhood on, I’ve always looked for the same clarity and consistency among the legion of authority figures I’ve encountered in life: teachers, bosses, policemen, elected officials. Needless to say, I am constantly disappointed and troubled in this regard. Perhaps this sense of anomie, more than anything else, explains why the world of comic book superheroes became so significant to me.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, both the comic books I read and the superhero stories I wrote all revolved around questions of right and wrong, idealism vs. pragmatism, selflessness vs. expediency, the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few. I may not have been familiar with Nietzsche, William Faulkner, and Ayn Rand way back then, but I still instinctively sought out those heroes whose conflicted hearts daily wrestled with both inhuman monsters and inner demons: the Specter, Mar-Vell, Hank Pym, Mr. Miracle. Reflecting these ideals in my own fledgling work, I created a host of similarly torn and wounded souls caught up in myriad morality plays.


One of my early, precocious efforts pitted arch-conservative Silver Streak against arch-liberal Wolf, two staunchly idealistic characters who would often lose sight of a common enemy while engaged in endless socio-political debate. A little later, I became fascinated with dangerous philosophical concepts like amorality and nihilism, which I explored through my Elementals, Flurry and Hellfield, beings who were literal, corporeal forces of nature. When I first encountered the Orwellian notion of thoughtcrime, I conjured up Hangman, a blind, deaf, mute telepath driven to pre-emptive vigilantism after experiencing a joyless childhood of sexual and emotional abuse. Oh, and don’t let me forget Buckshot and Slice, just two of the numerous antisocial juvenile delinquents recruited and reprogrammed as soldiers in Maniac’s hybrid army, Götterdämmerung.

At the beginning of Worlds Apart, the reader immediately gets punched in the face with a classic philosophical dilemma embodied by two superhero teams -- the Protectors and the Irregulars -- and an army of supervillains, Götterdämmerung. The Protectors, led by the aforementioned Silver Streak, represent the staunchest ideals of law and order. The Protectors possess an intractable code of conduct that defines Right and Wrong like two mutually-exclusive circles in a Venn diagram. Any action residing in the Wrong circle is prohibited whether committed by criminals or the heroes opposing them.

The Irregulars, on the other hand, view Right and Wrong as two intersecting Venn sets. Their leader, Wolf, places the Irregulars squarely in the overlapping portion where Right and Wrong meet. It is only from this position, with one foot squarely over the line, that Good can confront and defeat true Evil. Heroes constrained by their own moral limitations will invariably and tragically fail. In other words, the Irregulars fight Evil’s fire with an intense controlled burn, not a trickling garden hose.

The third element in this combustive formula, Götterdämmerung, seeks only chaos, depravity, and destruction. Unlike the typical supervillains routinely routed by the Protectors, Breakneck and his hybrid crew aren’t would-be world beaters or malevolent martinets. Rather they are sadistic rapists and genocidal maniacs, genetically re-engineered and psychologically reprogrammed into the ultimate agents of social terror and mass destruction.

I’m certain my mom won’t like the stage I’ve set in Worlds Apart. Her tastes run more to Murder She Wrote than Natural Born Killers. However, beneath the deranged exterior of Tony Lewis’ carnally crafted panels lies an interior dialogue I know she’ll appreciate. The opening frames pose the same fundamental, tripartite question she inspired me to consider when I was first in diapers: What is Right? What is Wrong? And Why?

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