Monday, June 18, 2012

Spider-Man and Superhero Torture

Various folks in the comics blogosphere have been talking about a recent Spider-Man issue where the titular hero tortures Sandman for information about Doctor Octopus and the Sinister Six, by allowing Silver Sable to pour on him and threatening to destroy the single sand-grain which contains his consciousness.

I'll admit that the scene didn't even register with me when I read the issue, but I've been pretty cursory when it comes to my comic reading lately. But I agree that it's a pretty indefensible scene.

Okay, not entirely indefensible. "Ends of the Earth" isn't over yet, and there's the chance that there will be some fallout from this (though sadly, it doesn't look like a big chance). The charitable view is that Peter's been put in a position where the distrust of the global community and his own certainty that Doctor Octopus is one of the baddies, is forcing him to take desperate measures that he wouldn't otherwise take. I'm reminded of "Maximum Carnage," of all things, where Peter was almost driven to let Firestar kill Carnage. He calls her off, but it's a difficult decision, and as Peter is the Marvel Universe everyman superhero, it's not surprising that he'd make mistakes and struggle with the difficult decisions, as anyone would.

Unfortunately, I don't think this is being portrayed as Peter struggling with a difficult decision. It's Peter allowing someone to torture his enemy for information, and bluffing that he'd allow it to go further. It's especially problematic given who he's torturing. The Sandman isn't just some run-of-the-mill villain. He's a former Avenger. In fact, he used to work for Silver Sable, who's pouring the acid. Sandman's not a good guy, but he's not relentlessly evil or insane; there is literally no reason that Peter shouldn't be able to reason with him.

But he doesn't reason, he interrogates. And in a storyline that's been all about Peter Parker using his brains to outsmart and out-tech the enemy, this doesn't feel like a use of his intellect. A smart guy like Peter should know that torture doesn't produce reliable results. A smart guy like Peter should appeal to Sandman's humanity and general decency and his own intellect. A smart guy like Peter shouldn't be resorting to this base thuggery.

And yet...

And yet I have a hard time finding the major difference between Peter's actions here and the steps that Batman takes on a regular basis to extract information from criminals. Is there a difference between "acidboarding" and dangling a criminal off a rooftop or breaking a few bones to find out where the Joker's hideout is? Or for that matter, Superman jumping off a building with a criminal way back in Action Comics (vol. 1) #1? Is the main difference that Batman's character is built around inciting fear, while Spider-Man's is not?

We accept, as the central conceit of superhero stories, that there are some people in these fictional universes who we allow to have privileges and freedoms that we do not permit in the real world, specifically to act outside or above (and sometimes against) the law in order to achieve a greater good. If, say, a real-world police officer went after criminals the way that Batman does, we would censure him for excessive force, false arrest, and violation of any number of Constitutional rights. We would strip him of his badge and possibly lock him up, no matter what greater good he may have thought he was serving.

And yet, we allow Batman to do that within the context of his fictional world, and Superman, and Spider-Man, and Wonder Woman, and every other superhero. In fact, in many cases, we would consider them deficient if they didn't act above, outside, and sometimes against the law. It is a bad thing when Peter Parker tosses his tights in the trash, when Superman hangs up his cape, because we feel they are shirking their responsibilities.

In part, I suppose this is because these superheroes typically have greater abilities than mortal humans, they have more power to do good than the average people, even than the real-world authorities, and so we expect them to do a commensurate amount of good.

In part, it's because the superheroes, in the context of their universes, are necessary in ways that they are not in the real world. They are required to work for the greater good in part because there is a greater evil. The police can't stop the Joker or Brainiac, the army can't take down Dr. Doom or the Skrulls, and so we leave those extraordinary jobs to the extraordinary individuals who populate those fictional universes.

But I think we also accept this in part because we know, based on the conventions of the medium, that the heroes are right. We often have even more information than the heroes do, and given our status as well-informed outside observers, we can tell that the hero is on the right side and working toward a greater good.

And I think that presents a problem when we have larger-than-life heroes employing tactics that, in the real world, are problematic at best and morally reprehensible at worst. Based on the story, we know that they're right, they're working for the greater good, but we also accept that there are lines--sometimes wholly arbitrary ones--that heroes shouldn't cross.

The other problem is one of outside applicability, the "Jack Bauer problem." When the torture debates were raging in the political arena a few years back, one scenario that kept popping up was the typical action movie one--there's a ticking time bomb somewhere in the city, and the hero has a terrorist/henchman/whatever in custody who knows where the bomb is. He just has to extract the information somehow, and as time slips away, the honorable methods just aren't working quickly enough. The only choice is to torture the villain, so he'll give up the information.

This may be good for narrative (though I think it's awfully lazy), and it works in the context of the action flick. But it works because of factors that do not exist in reality. We know that the prisoner has the information because we saw him get the information, but the hero didn't see that (if he did, he wouldn't need to torture him, only to remember what he saw). We know that the torture will produce reliable information because otherwise they wouldn't waste screen time on it (unless the point of the scene is to show that torture produces unreliable information, but then we usually have a very different film).

In reality, we have none of those assurances. We don't have the luxury of an omniscient camera that periodically peeks in on the villain's hideout. We don't have the luxury of being assured that any methods used are reliable and useful, because otherwise they'd be edited out. We don't have the narrative certainty that the good guys are good guys and the bad guys are bad guys. And so we can't apply these fictional tactics to the real world, not if we expect to keep the fictional morality intact.

And so when Spider-Man uses real-world(ish) torture in that typical fictional scenario, we're left with the conflict between the real world and the narrative world, a conflict that primarily exists because the narrative world wants to emulate the real world. I don't know how exactly to solve this conflict, not in a way that's actually applicable in any kind of universal sense, but I think a good step would be to keep the moral paragon characters from engaging in torture. It's a thought, at least.

Monday, June 11, 2012

DC's Third Wave

So, DC has announced a spate of new titles coming this fall as the New 52 hits its one-year mark and celebrates by pretending it's 1994 again and giving every series a zero issue.

On one hand, okay, I'll admit: the Zero Hour zero issues did get me to check out a bunch of new series back in the day (Batman titles, Superboy, Justice League of America, JL: Task Force, and probably a few others), but I can't say that I actually stuck with any of them. Maybe that's not true for everyone, though.

That said, I'm not nearly as excited for these four new titles as I was for the Second Wave. Here's the list, with my thoughts:
  • Phantom Stranger: Boy would I like to be excited about this one. I like Phantom Stranger, and Dan Didio, despite his past history and editorial position, just came off OMAC, which was a great series. That said, I think giving the Phantom Stranger a definitive origin--especially one that makes him out to be Judas Iscariot--was a terrible mistake, and this comic sounds like the epitome of editorially-mandated books, existing only to lay foundations for the upcoming Trinity War nonsense. I might check out the first issue, but I doubt it at this point.
  • Sword of Sorcery: Not keen on the title, but I'll give any Amethyst comic a shot, especially with '80s cartoon writing icon Christy Marx at the helm. I really hope there's a push, either by DC or intrepid fans, to get this comic into the hands of young people.
  • Talon: On one hand, I'm really enjoying the Court of Owls storyline. Scott Snyder is rocking the house on Batman and Swamp Thing, so I'm seriously tempted to buy anything he's involved with, even if it's just co-plotting. On the other hand, I don't have any real interest at all in the adventures of a Talon super-soldier fighting back against the Court. I'll probably check out the first issue of this, but it'll have to be pretty amazing to keep me interested.
  • Team 7: You might recall that I gave every Wildstorm-relaunch title of the New 52 an honest shot. None of them remain on my pull list. I've learned my lesson, both with Wildstorm properties and teams of miltary-related metahuman-types (Firestorm, Men of War, StormWatch).
But the more interesting thing about this is that the adherence to "New 52" means that four titles are probably ending to make way for these new four. Possibly more; is the National Comics anthology series a New 52 title? Justice League International is already gone, which leaves three more on the chopping block. I originally started writing this post to speculate on those three, but since I started, the official word has come down. The ending books are:
  • Voodoo: Which I dropped like a hot iron after an abysmal first issue. Glad to see it's going away.
  • Captain Atom: Which is disappointing. Despite my trepidation with J.T. Krul, I was really enjoying Capt. Atom and its take on the semi-omnipotent superhero. But it was on the bottom of the heap, so it's not surprising to see it going away.
  • Resurrection Man: Which I'm disappointed by, but not too much. I really wanted to like this series, but it never really found its feet, and never really explored the depths of the concept. With a character like Mitch Shelley and a whole new world to explore, this book really shouldn't have languished so much in lightning powers and Mitch's past. It would have been nice for this to be a gateway into the New DCU, but instead it set up grand cosmic stakes that it never could cash in on.

So I'll likely net negative-one title. Not bad, since I've been looking to drop some books anyway, but it's kind of a shame that this world can support three Rob Liefeld titles and not a single Resurrection Man.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

eBayer Beware: Plumcircle, LLC

As you know, I've been selling some stuff on the eBay. Thing is, I've also been buying some stuff, scratching that Marvel Comics itch I've had since seeing Avengers. And I've found some great deals, between eBay and Amazon and a few other places.

But one of the best sellers I've found on eBay for low prices has been a group called Plumcircle, LLC, who also have an Amazon Marketplace store (which, as it turns out, I'd ordered from before without realizing). The first thing I ordered through their eBay store was a copy of the second Waid/Wieringo Fantastic Four volume, listed as "Very Good" condition, which on eBay translates to:
A book that does not look new and has been read but is in excellent condition. No obvious damage to the cover, with the dust jacket (if applicable) included for hard covers. No missing or damaged pages, no creases or tears, and no underlining/highlighting of text or writing in the margins. May have very minimal identifying marks on the inside cover. Very minimal wear and tear. See the seller’s listing for full details and description of any imperfections.

This is what I got:

Needless to say, I wasn't super-pleased. So I contacted the seller, described the crumpling and creasing and tearing, and asked if I could work an exchange (since they had multiple copies for sale) or, failing that, get a return. I got a response the next business day that was very apologetic, and that they'd sent out a new copy that the customer service rep personally checked out to verify its condition. I received the book, was happy, and left glowing feedback.

And proceeded to order another four books from them, one through the Amazon Marketplace. The Amazon one, Incredible Hercules: The New Prince of Power arrived without any incident, and I look forward to reading it. Yesterday, I received two of them: The Thanos Imperative and Atlas: Return of the Three-Dimensional Man. Thanos Imperative had some creasing on the cover, but it was fairly minor and easily overlooked. Atlas, on the other hand...

It's a little hard to tell from the pictures, but the crease there on the front cover runs its entire length and is throughout the book, and the second creasing higher up split the spine. I don't expect perfection from stuff I buy online, I really don't, but I do expect "like new" to mean:
A book that looks new but has been read. Cover has no visible wear, and the dust jacket (if applicable) is included for hard covers. No missing or damaged pages, no creases or tears, and no underlining/highlighting of text or writing in the margins. May have very minimal identifying marks on the inside cover. Very minimal wear and tear. See the seller’s listing for full details and description of any imperfections.

So now I was in the uncomfortable position of looking like a colossally stupid scammer trying to get free comic books from an online merchant. So I sent this message:
Two of my orders from you guys arrived today; one was great but the Atlas book had some pretty severe crumpling/creasing along the corner and cover. I hate to say this, since I had the same situation with my first order, but I can provide pictures if you want support. Is there a chance of replacement, or should I start the return process?

Thanks! I hate to be a squeaky wheel, but obviously I wouldn't keep ordering from you if I weren't pretty satisfied.
And it was the truth. I think you can really judge a business by how they handle complaints and errors and so forth, and I was very pleasantly surprised with how easily my Fantastic Four problem had been handled.

And then this is what I got back:
We have issued a full refund.

You state you are satisfied, but it must be with just the price since you have stated your dissatisfaction with the condition of our books, 2 out of 4 purchases. I'm going to guess you are a collector & might be better off buying these books in a local store so not to have to worry about bumping & bruising causes by shipping.

Thanks you for your orders.
It's true that the prices were a major consideration. It's also true that for most of these orders, the shipping has been free, so I got what I paid for in that regard, I suppose. I'm not thrilled with passing the buck onto the Post Office, though it's certainly possible that this is damage from shipping. However, it's weird that damage from shipping would tear a cover (FF) or crease the center of a cover (Thanos) without damaging the thickish plastic bubble-wrap packaging. It's also weird that I've had problems with 2/6 orders (3, I suppose, if you count Thanos, and I guess there's still the opportunity for the Black Widow trade to be damaged) from this company, but no problem with any of the other merchants I've been ordering from in the last few weeks.

It's also weird that two items shipped from the same place in the same very short span of time that arrived on the same day (rubberbanded together, no less) would arrive in such disparate conditions. But I guess that's possibly what happens when you take no care whatsoever to make the packaging for a paperback book rigid or difficult to bend, up to and including not putting a "do not bend" stamp on the outside.

But I resented the implication that somehow I was at fault for deigning to think that an item described as "like new" should be, you know, "like new." So I admit it, I turned on the snark in my reply.
Five purchases, actually; I also ordered from your Amazon Marketplace store. The price was certainly a factor, but the shipping speed, the nice packaging, and speed/care with which my previous problem was dealt with, also left me fairly satisfied. I am something of a collector, but I have a hard time believing that only a collector would be unhappy when the item they've purchased "like new" arrives anything but. Thank you for the refund; once the last book arrives, I won't bother you with my business again.

Maybe I overreacted. Maybe they under-packaged. Either way, I doubt I'll be buying from them again.

So to those of you who buy graphic novels and trades on eBay or Amazon Marketplace, Plumcircle has excellent prices and free or very cheap shipping in most cases. They also have prompt customer service who will gladly issue you a full refund if you're unsatisfied. But if you care at all about condition, realize that you're rolling the dice.

So, anyone want a couple of damaged Marvel trades?

Saturday, June 02, 2012

My big comic sale!

Okay, so I'm moving in a few weeks, and I'm trying to unload some comics before I do so, so there's at least a little less to move. I've got 42 lots up now, and some are ending in just a couple of days. here's the full list, and these are the individual items:
Also some books
So go, bid, and help me move! And many thanks to all who plan to bid or have bid already.

Friday, June 01, 2012

What I've Been Doing

Since I'm going to post later about the giant house-moving sale I'm having on teh eBays, I figured I ought to blow the dust off the blog with something a little less shameless first. So, a brief update on my geekery, in my usual bulleted list format.
  • I've been playing a lot of Mass Effect, and just finished the bit with Kaidan and Ashley. Spoilers, I guess, but whatever. As I mentioned before, it's been a bit of a shock going from Bioshock, where your character was a cipher and you only had one choice to make (consistently) throughout the game, which had only a minor apparent effect on the ending, and no appreciable effect on the plot, to ME where I'm scrutinizing every choice and really feeling like Shepard is a fleshed-out character. I pick verbal options based on what I think Shepard would say, and that's pretty cool, because a different Shepard would understandably act very differently. I might someday have to play through the game as a total bastard.

    Anyway, it's interesting how easy that particular choice was to make, because the game had gone to such great lengths to make Ashley Williams out to be a totally awful person. I never used her in missions, so maybe that's part of it, but every conversation with her showed her to be a xenophobic asshat. She sacrificed her life for the crew--and for a bunch of Salarians--, and that's commendable. But in doing so, I think she made the ship a better place, because now there's no one that I consistently want to throw out of an airlock.

    Anyway, I'm excited to see where the game (and series) goes from here.
  • The only break I've taken from ME (aside from all the work I've been doing) was to play the new Batman: Arkham City DLC, Harley Quinn's Revenge. It was fun, even if I'm way rusty with my Batman skills, and I think my only complaint is that there weren't roles for Nightwing and Catwoman. I'm going to have to check it out now that I've beaten it to finish off the balloons and see what the free-roam is like. It'd be great if it meant I could free-roam as Robin, but I haven't seen that yet.
  • I've finally had a little time to read, and while monthly comics are kind of piling up, I've been making my way through some Marvel books I otherwise missed out on. I read through the pre-"Death" run of Brubaker's Captain America, and I'm taking a little breather before I plow through the Death/Man with No Face epic (and ultimately force myself to buy the rest of the trades). I've been reading the first (enormous) volume of the Busiek/Pérez "Avengers Assemble," which is pretty fantastic, if dense as all hell. I like the old-school feel of the storytelling, with mostly one- or two-issue stories that tie into a larger arc, and characters doing little recaps at the beginning. It's something that gets lost a lot in modern comics, and it's a little shocking to see that it was in full swing just fifteen or so years ago.

    It's also a reminder that, for all the flak DC takes about rebooting its continuity, Marvel has done the same thing multiple times. The difference is that Marvel tends to be less sweeping in its reboots, wanting to have some cake and eat it too, and I think that's a part of why they have fewer really successful reboots. DC's only had four that really changed things--the Silver Age "reboot" that showed Golden Age characters as comic books and reintroduced Flash, Green Lantern, etc; the Multiple Earths reboot that set DC's Golden Age on alternate Earths, allowing them to keep the history but setting it on a different Earth; the Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot that tried to merge everything into a coherent timeline; and the New 52. People always count Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis, but the changes offered by those were, at most, cosmetic--Joe Chill didn't kill the Waynes, Jason Todd was no longer dead, etc. Each instance saw some success, but ultimately complicated things as people tried to mine the pre-reboot past for continuity and so forth. Marvel's reboots--aside from the constant sliding timescale that means the modern history of the Marvel U is always about 10-15 years old--have been more piecemeal, trying to rewrite the histories of the main Avengers or Spider-Man (twice, at least) without altering the rest of the universe. And they've all ultimately been more-or-less undone (except One More Day/Brand New Day) and led to more confusion than they solved.

    So it's been interesting to see this book clearly set in the post-Heroes Reborn Marvel Universe, dealing with the fallout from that event and integrating the characters back into the universe, is what I'm saying, I guess.
  • I've also been reading the first volume of Agents of Atlas, and I think I'll be picking up other volumes soon. It's a ton of fun, and it's interesting to see these characters who aren't very familiar to me.
That's about all I've got for now. Check back later for details on my big eBay sale and tell your friends to buy my stuff!