When I was growing up, there was a Merrie Melodies cartoon that seemed to be in especially heavy rotation. It was called ‘A Day At the Zoo’ and featured a lot of the nonstop punniness, weird logical trips, and random references that served to make me the insufferable man I am today. You can view it below, or on YouTube by clicking here.
Back? Good. What I want to talk about is the running gag (though I love those pink elephants) in which Egghead (who is the design precursor to Elmer Fudd) displays impressive levels of both dumb- and jackassery by harassing a lion who clearly wants to murder him to death. At the end, we discover the lion finally got to eat him.
And even today, I feel like applauding. Forget the whiny ‘a man is DEAD!’ crap you get often when karma takes down a grade A asshole in real life, this is one we can enjoy without hand wringing, even if Egghead is still clearly alive in there (but note that this is literally his last appearance in a cartoon). He did something ludicrously stupid in purposefully angering something that can kill him and nature took its course. Bravo.
The reason isn’t some kind of sociopath or anything, it’s just that 1) he’s fictional and 2) the cartoon has systematically removed all the sympathy we have for him. He’s just a big ball of terrible doing something that clearly means he really, really wants to die.
What does this have to do with anything? Believe it or not, this is a rant about the common citizens in comic book universes.
Here is my primary postulation: In both the DC and Marvel Universes, almost no one not directly tied to a superhero or a member of a superhero’s supporting cast deserves to be saved.
Harsh, I know, but hear me out:
While any given book in one of the mainstream universes can have any tone, the editors control the over all atmosphere. And since they think that most of their audience is hugely cynical, they strive to make their worlds appear ‘realistic’, which to a cynic means ‘everyone is secretly awful’. Ultimate Marvel, at the turn of the century, brought this to it’s logical conclusion by making all but like three of their characters utterly worthless human beings who happened to be on our side. Before that, outside of the mainstream, the Authority and everything written by Mark Millar ever.
But in the main universe, there’s a problem. Ostensibly, you’re aiming at the teen market (hah), so you, so you have to limit your use of rape, cannibalism and spousal abuse (unless you’re writing Spider-man). So how do you make everyone terrible? Luckily, the X-men have shown use the way: bigotry.
You see, for a very long time, the X-men have been seen as an allegory on Civil Rights, first fro black people, and more recently for homosexuals. But in comic books, subtlety is not a thing. While the early years of civil rights were violent and often with government sanction, racism isn’t like PvP flag in video games. Not every racist you walk past instantly tries to kill you. Believe me, I know.
Your average racist is as cowardly as they are ignorant and socially brainwashed. They aren’t going to risk jail leaping upon the first person of a different race in a blood rage, even if they were up for murdering people just because they don’t like them. No, even the bold ones will just shout epitaphs from across the street, tell you to leave wherever it is, and tell their daughter not to date you. The really dangerous ones have some power and will deny mortgages, pass laws to disenfranchise your vote, and engage in racial profiling (which can and has lead to innocent people being beaten, shot and killed, not to mention disproportionately jailed).
These are subtle, but realistic things that happen every day to millions of people and yet, most of us wouldn’t be okay letting them die horrible deaths because they’re real people. And more importantly, despite what a lot of people cynically believe, they are a minority themselves.
Not so in the Marvel universe. How often have you seen Beast of Nightcrawler get pulled over for a minor traffic infraction and then get a whole bunch of tiny, obscure infractions stacked on top of them by a cop, just because they’re mutants? Okay, now how many times have those two along been shot by police who they were helping?
And how often did anyone that wasn’t a mutant or connected to mutants in some way care even a microscopic bit and file police brutality charges? If you said anything but ‘never’, you’re not remembering anything that actually happened in the books.
In the MU, any given person is ready at a moment’s notice to either commit violence on mutants or call other people to do it for them. The best a mutant child can hope from their parents is to be disowned (it happened TWICE in Academy X alone), and just as often, their parents will try to kill them, up to and including killing a pregnant woman to take out a mutant baby.
One episode of the 90’s X-men animated series showed Leech stealing some food, only for someone to notice his skin was green, at which point, every single person on the street put aside whatever they had planned for the night to form an angry mob to hunt down and kill a little boy. No one even cared that he stole something, but god damn, he was green.
And no one cares.
There’s no NAACP for mutants. Hell, there’s barely an ACLU of anyone in these worlds, seeing as how the government, state or even towns can just pass whatever laws they want with no challenges besides maybe a popular vote.
Up until the Civil War event (which you might remember caused me such rage that it spawned this very website), there was an even stranger phenomena where people seemed to instantly know if your powers were a natural mutation (in which case, you are an abomination unto the lord that must be purged), or the result in science meddling in God’s work to a hideous degree (in which case you’re awesome. Can we have your autograph, and would you like to come to our church social?). With the notable exception of Spider-man, citizens of the MU could look at any given superhero and instantly know if it was socially acceptable to try and murder their children.
Weird, considering the reasons given for mutant registration (which is always to make sure the Sentinel robots know where to find them when it comes time to murder them all) is that mutants are dangerous. Even the ones who are just funny looking, or have the power to heal, or are brains in jars. Especially the ones whose only power is to negate mutant powers. That’s the kid you totally need to kill first if you’re afraid of mutant powers.
Civil War made this even worse, of course, making it so everyone hates all superheros and if given a chance will bust a bottle upside their head. Which brings us back to poking the lion. TVTropes, of course, has a name for this: Bullying a Dragon.
Pretty much anyone will go after any mutant/super-in-general and despite the ‘they’re dangerous’ argument, lots of these people are only as dangerous as you or I are. So maybe we can assume that comic book citizens are just extra aggressive and not suicidally stupid… except these same people will watch Cyclops put a hole through a city bus by looking at it and still think ‘yeah, my puny flesh and bones are stronger than that engine block’.
They’ve attacked Wolverine right after they just watch him got a few rounds with professional fighters and heal from it. They’ve broken bottles on Johnny ‘I can convert you into ash and a delicious bacon scent’ Storm. In one particularly huge case of being an ungrateful wretch, Elixir once healed his friend (who was injured in an attempt to murder an innocent mutant by taking her human father, who didn’t even like her, hostage) only to have the guy immediately threaten to tell noted mutant hating cyborg Donald Pierce about him.
I just want to break that one down for you. This guy and Elixir (who was his friend at the time) helped kidnap a girl’s father to lure her into a trap where they would kill her. When they threaten her, her friends and one of the only people who was nice to her growing up with guns, she whips their asses with her powers. Then, upon discovering that his friend used his mutant powers to save his worthless life, this chump not only insults the guy, but threatens to get him killed on top of going back and trying to kill the girl who already handed him his ass again.
And I have to reiterate, none of this is really looked down on in universe. It’s slightly better in the DCU, but not by much, witch people always ready to believe the worse in the people who saved them time and time again.
Clearly, on top of being despicable for their bigotry, these people want to die. They yearn for it. They beg for it. They do everything in their power to tear down the thin human line between them and utter and horrific annihilation from every corner of the universe and beyond. And if they can’t, they will swarm every person with the power to kill them until one of them finally loses it and send them to sweet release in a barrage of laser fire out of their nostrils.
Bizarrely, while this is often the back story of many a villain , it’s terribly rare that anyone will mess with an actual villain after they wreck their bullies with hellfire.
And they’re fictional, so I don’t have to pretend to feel bad for having the following revenge fantasy: An Elseworld where, after an especially public and nasty episode of anti-super lemming impressions, Galactus shows up. Except this time, Reed Richards steps out on the roof of the Baxter building, and upon hearing the iconic ‘I HUNGER!’, says ‘Yeah, look. Just give me a day to pack up my lab and family, hotfoot it over to Shiar space, and this baby’s all yours. Be sure to start with New York. They’re high in the vitamins recommended for today’s cosmic entity on the go.”
And then Galactus eats Marvel Earth, thereby creating the greatest happy ending since they lived happily ever after.
All of this is being written with the backdrop of the Descendants Universe entering a mega-arc that includes the bigots rising out of the woodwork following Braddock Island like they did after 9/11 and the 2008 election. Rust Buckets is showing some of those idiot murderers MU style because it is entertaining, but this article is a contract with you, the reader that in the middle of fantastical and hyperbolic plots, I will not forget either how real racism works, or that the world needs not to be full of horrible people who deserve to die in order to make you want the heroes to save the day.
Things will be subtle. Things will be gray. And above all, only the most truly troubled or stupid individuals will poke the lion.
P.S. Magneto was right, by Scott Summers is still a git.
P.P.S I know, ‘Elseworld’ is DC. I like the term better than ‘What If…?’