CRIME AND NO PUNISHMENT
By "John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL"
There's a Spider-Man story, and no, I can't remember the issue number right off hand, but it's drawn by Steve Ditko, so it must be from the early Silver Age. In this story, we see this burly, vaguely thuggish looking guy with a big valise, standing on a hill, looking down at New York City, saying something to himself like "Now that I've served my sentence, they HAD to give it back to me! They had no choice! It's not illegal to own a strange costume! So now, I can get my revenge!" The guy, as it turns out, was a loser named Abner Jenks, AKA The Beetle, and he was about to embark on a particularly witlessly conceived scheme doomed to not only failure, but ignominious failure resulting in him winding up right back in prison again.... for another short period, prior to the Collector getting him out again to add to his 'collection' as resident supervillain. (I did not make any of that up, either.)
However, the peculiar idiocy that leads once beaten super-villains to expend huge amounts of their energy trying to get 'revenge' on the hero who has already crushed them into gravel once, and whom we all know is just gonna do it again in another 22 pages, is not the subject of this particular essay. No, this particular essay concerns itself with the fact that that most peculiar breed of fantasy criminal, the super villain, is rarely punished for his crimes in any particularly onerous way by the criminal justice system of the metareality he inhabits, and even if he does not grab the Penguin's laser monocle and use it to carve a hole in his own prison cell and escape, rarely serves any particularly lengthy sentence.
In fact, given the collapsing entropy involved in the Marvel and DC internal timelines, we'd have to assume that realistically, from the time the Beetle was originally put in the jug back in early 1963, to the time he was released in, I believe, 1965, he actually only served maybe six months.
Six months! For a guy who dresses up in a costume that makes him as invulnerable as an armored tank, gives him super strong, elastic finger pincers and the power of flight, and who employs these vast abilities in violent crime. What the hell is he doing getting out of jail in six lousy months, and what insane impulse could possibly have possessed the corrections officers to give him his super-suit back?
Cunning, or lucky, escapes, and ridiculously short prison sentences, are a staple of superheroic fiction. The ludicrous legal concept explained by ol' Abe in the opening paragraph, in which "It's not illegal to own a strange costume!", even if the strange costume is clearly meant to be employed as a weapon, also seems to be a constant part of the backdrop of most superhero universes. And, in point of fact, escape, or release from prison, with its concomitant return of all super villainous chattels, aren't often even necessary for the average supervillain, since sometimes they escape at the end of the drubbing the superhero gives them, and as a general rule, when they don't escape, the superhero leaves them tied up and hanging from a lamp post for the cops to cart away.
Realistically, if a police car pulls up to a corner and finds three guys hanging from a lamp post there by some sort of strange sticky rope, chances are, the cops aren't going to arrest them. Even if there's a jewelry store within ten yards with a broken window and a shrilling alarm. It is, after all, not illegal to be found by the police hanging unconscious from a lamp post. You can't even charge them with loitering if someone has tied them up. Even if these guys are dressed in Beagle Boys costumes complete with domino masks, you STILL can't lock them up because they happened to be found unconscious and immobilized near the scene of an apparent crime. The best you could hope for is to run them in and check for outstanding warrants, and even that could be foiled by the greenest Public Defender, if any of these goons had the presence of mind to ask for one.
And these are thugs, burly guys in relatively normal clothing (as compared to, say, the Porcupine's, or the Melter's, or Captain Cold's outfits) whom the superhero generally surprises in the middle of an obviously illegal act, and who, therefore, have actually committed a crime. In the case of most supervillains... any supervillain, actually, that the superhero has encountered before... often times, the hero doesn't even see them committing a crime. If you're Daredevil, and you're swinging around Manhattan, and you see Electro lurking suspiciously on a rooftop, you don't follow him around surreptitiously taking pictures until he does something illegal. You immediately leap upon the miserable malefactor and pummel him insensate, after which, you dump his unconscious body on the top of the first squad car you find and swing on home, fatuously congratulating yourself on a job well done.
Given that Daredevil is actually criminal defense lawyer Matt Murdock, he should know better. Unless Electro has just escaped from prison, or is in the middle of a crime spree, he's just going to be kicked loose as soon as the public defender shows up and points out sarcastically to the arraignment judge, if not the precinct sergeant beforehand, that dressing up like a lunatic and lurking on rooftops is not against the law, that clearly this masked vigilante Daredevil is a public menace, and his client will be suing the city for $20 million for false imprisonment .
Actually, thinking about it, even if Electro was in the middle of a crime spree, meaning, some guy in a similar costume had committed previous crimes that he had not yet been caught and tried for, any public defender would still have a good chance of getting him sprung if Daredevil had not actually caught him in any illegal act... as is fairly common when superheroes see supervillains whom they know from past experience to be dastards.
Captain America doesn't wait to see the Red Skull pull out his Nazi death ray and actually shoot someone; when Cap sees Skull, he lunges forward, does a double front flip, and kicks him right in the head. This would seem to mean that even if Cap manages to capture the Red Skull at the end of the fight, well, if he didn't actually see THIS particular guy in a green jumpsuit and a red skull mask commit a crime... how is he going to arrest him? It's not a crime to dress like a supervillain, and in most cases, it's going to be very difficult to prove that the guy inside the costume is actually the same guy in an apparently identical costume that committed previous crimes.
All of which is by way of me making the point that most supervillains and street thugs caught by superheroes probably never even go into the system at all.
Superheroes are drive-by kinda guys. They see a crime, or, often, just someone they recognize as a criminal. They swoop. They pound. They immobilize the now unconscious alleged felon(s), hang a sign around his, her, or their neck saying something corny like "Compliments of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man", just so the cops will know which particular dangerous costumed loonie beat the crap out of THIS bunch of average citizens and left them handcuffed to a fire hydrant, and then, they head back to the Baxter Building and ball the Invisible Girl. (All of them. It's not something Reed likes to talk about. Later on in the Silver Age, though, it wasn't actually Sue Storm any more, it was a line of licensed LMDs that looked like Sue Storm, marketed by Stark Enterprises. Reed was very grateful to Tony for the whole idea.)
Now, many could make the argument that, at the start of the Silver Age, which was, arguably, the time at which widespread superhuman phenomena first began to appear in both Marvel and DC metarealities, the legal system simply was not adapted to supervillains or their peculiar activities. And it's a tempting argument, in that it superficially seems to make sense.
Sure, no one gives Al Capone back his tommy gun after he's served his sentence, but a firearm is an obvious weapon, and here in America, we have gun control laws, and the conditions of parole agreements forbid parolees to own guns anyway. The particular costumery of the Blue Beetle, or the Viper, or the Mirror Master, or, I don't know, the goddam Titanium Man, arguably, are just clothes, not obviously weapons, and therefore, could not be legally confiscated by the authorities.
Furthermore, cops as a general rule do not work to prevent crime, and rarely come upon it while it is being committed, while, on the other hand, superheroes constantly somehow manage to be in exactly the right place at the right time to interrupt a jewel heist or a bank stick up. Therefore, the law is not set up to deal with crimes that have been interrupted before they are actually committed.
Since many superheroes do actually simply jump all over people who, basically, have done nothing more than loiter suspiciously in odd clothing, and most of them don't hang around to fill out reports or testify in court, you'd have to expect that, therefore, most supervillains won't actually go to jail.
That this is, on even a second's rational reflection, utter nonsense, is as obvious as it is unimportant. Superhero comics take place in a fantasy land where the instant one puts on a costume and starts vaulting from rooftop to rooftop, one gains a mystic aura that simply attracts violent lawbreakers. If you leap over to the kosher deli on 56th Street in your tights and cape, the Scarecrow and the Plantman will be robbing it. Swing by Franklin Jewelers downtown, and Mr. Freeze will be swaggering out the front door with a big, suspicious looking valise in the hand that isn't carrying the cryo-pistol. Drive your jet powered Hero-mobile past the First Federal Bank and by God, the Kangaroo is bounding down the front steps with a big canvas moneybag over one shoulder.
This happens all the time in metarealities, and, being that it does, supervillains do get captured and occasionally even charged with actual crimes. It therefore shouldn't take long for the legal process to be amended to reflect these realities. Let's remember, when Nicole Brown Simpson was killed, new Federal legislation to protect battered women was pushed through Congress in a matter of days.
It really shouldn't take a particularly long time for new laws to be put on the books. Some fairly logical modifications to the legal system in a superheroic metareality would be:
* * * Cops can take it as reasonable grounds for arrest if they find people knocked unconscious and/or tied up in close proximity to an obviously interrupted crime, and as such, can hold said alleged perpetrators long enough to at least check them for outstanding warrants.
* * * Super powered criminals, upon release, shall be subject to lifelong probation, and one of the conditions of said lifelong probation shall be, they're not allowed to ever dress in anything remotely resembling their former villainous garb again, and if their villainous garb actually confers to them dangerous superhuman capacities, they don't get it back, either.
* * * Advanced technology confiscated from super powered criminals will not only not be returned, it will either be turned over to various scientific organizations for study, or used by the cops to equip a paranormal branch of the police especially assigned to supervillain oriented tasks.
* * * Super powered criminals who escape from lock up more than once may be confined, upon recapture, in a manner that might otherwise be considered cruel and unusual, such as, in permanent fetters, in permanent solitary confinement, perhaps even under permanent medication, sedation, or even anesthesia.
* * * There should be some provision to allow superheroes to register their masked alter egos as 'official identities', allowing them to testify in court without revealing their real names. They might need to get a petition signed by several private citizens, and a judge, willing to vouch for their general law abiding nature, outstanding ethics, and sense of civic responsibility.
With ordinances like this on the books, all Abe Jenkins has to do is DRESS like the Beetle again and he's violated his parole and goes right back in the slammer... and that's assuming he goes out and buys another Beetle costume from the Fixer, because the criminal justice system isn't dumb enough to give him his old outfit back again. Similarly, once a guy like the Plantman, or nearly any member of the Silver Age Flash's Rogue's Gallery, has been behind bars even once, they don't get their cool little guns back that change the weather or transmute elements or control vines or whatever.
This would, it seems, only be common sense.
It's also worth noting that in point of fact, by AVENGERS #4, Marvel had clearly established that their "Age of Marvels" did not start with the Fantastic Four's space shot, but had rather begun a couple of decades before, with a whole bunch of Golden Age four color whackos. Thus, superpowered people in weird costumes rendering violence unto each other in city streets and on rooftops wasn't exactly a new thing. There should have been specific laws put on the books to deal with such things by the 50s, at the latest, and those laws should have addressed things like the relatively short sentences supervillains seem to receive, and the relative ease with which many superhumans escape conventional prisons, as well as the disposal of their high tech hardware.
DC's Silver Age had no heroic forbears once the Earth-1/Earth-2 dichotomy was established, but on the other hand, it had been around since the mid 50s, so, again, the legal system should have moved to reflect the presence of superhumans by the 1960s, anyway.
Still, for the most part, the Silver Age was an era in which the legal system remained almost willfully and volitionally incapable of dealing with superhuman criminals. Doubtless this was simply a product of general thoughtlessness on the part of writers and editors, coupled with the melodramatic need to bring back popular super-baddies to fight the heroes once again, if the fans demonstrated a desire to see such stories. If the last appearance of the Vulture had resulted in that particular wiley old bird being cuffed and led off by the cops, well, you'd have to either give him early release, or have him escape, if you wanted Spider-Man to fight him again before, say, ten or fifteen years had gone by.
This melodramatic necessity, upon being repeated several times for several different villains across a wide variety of comics titles rather quickly became ludicrous, and, well, led to this article. If you examine the Silver Age criminal justice system at both Marvel and DC in general, you see a generally absurd and utterly inadequate process, where superhuman bad guys pretty much come and go as they please.
Of course, this is all implied and rarely or never explicitly shown... and therein lies the origin of the problem. Superhero metarealities are, of course, in actual fact, elaborate works of fiction, and very few writers have the vision to actually sit down and consider the realistic consequences and details of day to day life in such a universe as presented by them in one particular melodramatic story that has its own particular plot requirements. If a writer wants to bring a particular supervillain back for a story, he's not going to concern himself with the social impact of what he's establishing about the criminal justice system in the Marvel Universe with one more casual escape or ludicrously early release on parole... he just wants to get the bad guy out of his cell for 18 pages or so, so the good guy can beat him into guava jelly again.
Still, the melodramatic and creative reasons for such only help us understand how the situation came to be. The fact remains that in a comic book metareality, especially during the Silver Age when nearly all heroes had a Code Against Killing, there's simply no real factor in place to prevent supervillain recidivism. They rarely actually do time, and when they do, they always either escape easily, or serve ridiculously short sentences, after which, the Warden gives them their supervillain gear back, along, presumably, with a nice handjob, and wishes them on their merry way.
Apparently, the only real punishment most supervillains ever received, at least, during the Silver Age, when there wasn't a Punisher or a Vigilante or a Scourge around to shoot them in the head, was the beating they'd get from the superhero when they were being subdued and captured... and, during the Silver Age, such beatings never had much in the way of actual long term effects. Hell, Superman was so skilled at using his superstrength by then that he could harmlessly knock the wind out of Lex Luthor with a carefully controlled flick of either pinky, or, alternatively, a precisely aimed gust of super-breath. Marvel superheroes engaged in absurdly violent fist and foot-fights with their villains, yet the end result was always an entirely unblemished, yet somehow completely unconscious, bad guy, a hero who at best was a little winded, and an admiring group of cheering bystanders.
Basically, for a super criminal in the Silver Age, there were no real consequences to their anti social activities. They got beaten up, and then they either got away to plot revenge, got hypnotized into forgetting the hero's real identity again and sent back to their multimillion dollar industrial empire, got immobilized and left for the cops (presumably to be released once the cops consulted with the D.A. and realized that it's not illegal to be attacked and beaten unconscious by a whacko in tights), or, on rare occasions, actually somehow got convicted of... something... and wound up in prison, until they either managed to escape, got broken out of jail by the Cobra to help form the Serpent Squad, or got some ridiculous early release after somehow convincing the parole board that THIS time, REALLY, they wouldn't go out and tie Carol Ferris to a chair in order to lure Green Lantern into a gigantic, bright yellow stamping press, oh no, honest, they were a changed man since they had accepted Highfather as their Lord and Savior.
Honestly, it's no wonder virtually every supervillain immediately puts their spandex, capes, and buccaneer boots back on and heads right out to rob more liquor stores with their experimental laser goggles. Why shouldn't they? The worst thing they can expect to happen to them is that Captain Marvel will drop out of the sky and beat them unconscious, and hell, in most plots, that won't happen until they've managed to successfully rob three or four jewelry stores. If they're smart and hide the loot after each robbery some place the hero can't find it, then once they escape prison again, they'll be rich and can retire.
I suppose, though, that I have to admit that while this was a curiously surreal aspect of Silver Age superhero comics, it wasn't really a problem. If Silver Age superhero comics had a discernable 'problem', it was that, like Walter Hill's wonderfully made movie THE WARRIORS, they inclined their audience towards thinking that interpersonal violence, in the form of fist fighting, was really cool and fun. The notion that supervillains never actually really get punished for their crimes, though, is something that never occurred to me as a kid.
As a child, I always knew that if I ever gained super powers, I'd be a superhero, and I never even really considered being a bad guy. Clearly, it wasn't out of fear of prison, mostly, I suspect I, and most normal comics fans of that age, simply couldn't stand the idea of our hero's disapproval. Having Superman or Captain America mad at us would have been unbearable.
Plus, for all that the supervillains don't ever seem to really get punished, they don't seem to have any fun, either. They don't have girlfriends. They don't have buddies. On the rare occasions they join teams of their fellow supervillains, they fight all the time and they can't trust each other, and it's not like in the Avengers where Hawkeye might take a swing at Captain America once in a while. In the Masters of Evil, if you piss off the Executioner, he's not going to cold cock you, he's going to decapitate you with a big damn axe. The Secret Society of Super Villains is even worse; there, the Joker might off you just for kicks, or Kobra might do it because he's coldly decided you're a threat to his authority. Brrrrrrrr. Nah. As a kid, I didn't notice or care that supervillains never stayed in jail long; all that mattered to me was, they didn't have very much fun, and the superheroes didn't like them.
As a general rule, then, when we look back over the Silver Age from an adult, analytical perspective, we can see it as an era in which the criminal justice system itself was as ineffective against supervillains as the law enforcement system was. The police were clearly shown to be inadequate to battle super-villainy, for the obvious melodramatic reason that if the cops could handle super powered bad guys, it would give superheroes little justification for their existence. The criminal justice system was equally hapless in the case of these weird and iconoclastic offenders, however, that was never made quite as obvious or blatant.
There were some isolated exceptions to the general 'crime and no punishment' rule of the Silver Age, especially at DC. However, these occurred when the hero tended to discard the conventional legal system and just deal with the bad guy himself. Superman and his Phantom Zone projector was perhaps the most egregious example of this, although it should be noted in the Big S' defense that he only used the Zone to imprison Kryptonian bad guys, arguably too powerful for any other dispensation, and whom an equal argument could be made were legally under the authority of Kryptonian law and judicial punishment, anyway. (Who appointed Superman the Last Sheriff of Doomed Krypton is an interesting legal point, but, well, I suppose we can just accept that HE did, and leave it at that.)
Still, if there was one group of Silver Age criminals who actually DID get punished with long (actually, indefinite) sentences in what had to be pretty much unending psychological torment, it was the Phantom Zoners. As a kid, I never had any great difficulties understanding why they did not want to go back to the Zone ever again, and I always shuddered a little bit when they got sent back anyway. I mean, sure, they deserved it, but.... Brrrrrrrrr. And, clearly, these were criminals well outside the normal system's ability to deal with, so, all told, this was clearly a case where justice had been done, albeit, not in a conventional manner.
Over at Marvel, Spider-Man's treatment of his arch nemesis the Green Goblin was another long running exception to a great many rules. Norman Osborne seemed to have a villainous tradition of discovering Spidey's secret identity... something that, in any other character, meant a quick death via fatal accident before the end of the story... using it to terrorize Spidey and his supporting cast, and then, in a 'final confrontation' with Spider-Man, somehow getting amnesia and forgetting all about his villainous career... until next time.
The second time this happened, it was due to Spidey's deliberate infliction of traumatic amnesia on Osborne, using one of Osborne's own psychochemically active 'pumpkin bombs'. This was not done as an actual punishment, but it was, in fact, one of the more effective, if morally questionable, ways to deal with a chronic super criminal. That Spider-Man's motives in keeping a defeated Goblin out of the criminal justice system were almost entirely selfish lent his relationship to Osborne a troubling aura of ethical ambiguity. Basically, Parker really couldn't turn the Goblin over to the cops without risking being 'outed' as a superhero... at the very least, the same notoriously chancy legal system I've already been at some pains to describe might well not imprison Osborne, and even if he did do time, he had plenty of criminal contacts that, with the knowledge of Parker's true identity, he could have put to rather terrifying use.
The logical thing to do would have been to kill him, but this was the Silver Age, when heroes were actually supposed to be heroic, and while it was certainly unrealistic (and, honestly, somewhat contrived and overly convenient) for Parker to be given the opportunity to implant a post hypnotic suggestion in his defeated enemy's mind that he forget all about being the Green Goblin, along with all knowledge he had gained in that identity... it was also in the end, a powerful, if somewhat complex, statement as to Spider-Man's innate heroism.
There were other, isolated Silver Age cases where superheroes, upon defeating an enemy, did not immediately turn him over to the criminal justice system. The Legion of Superheroes could only defeat their arch enemy Mordru by burying him alive; as a general rule, once they'd managed to do so, they pretty much just left him wherever he was... which only seems strange until you consider that in order to secure him somehow, they'd have had to dig him out first, and once Mordru was dug out, he became pretty much all powerful again. Again, in the Silver Age, superheroes simply did not kill except in self defense, which pretty much ruled out the murder of a defeated and helpless foe.
One really blatant exception to everything we're discussing here about the Silver Age... both the universal Code Against Killing, as well as the whole concept of turning bad guys over to the criminal justice system... was The Spectre, as rather disturbingly written by Michael Fleischer and beautifully drawn by Jim Aparo for about a year in ADVENTURE COMICS.
This version of the Spectre was rather ghoulishly more faithful to the original, Golden Age run of the character (you'd be hard pressed to call him a hero) who, back in the 1940s, had generally encountered various weird, mystic menaces and dispatched them to horrible, gruesome fates with grisly and macabre relish.
For a longer period in the Golden Age the Spectre had been portrayed in more a classic superhero fashion, even being a sometime member of the Justice Society of America. However, under Fleischer and Aparo, he returned to his thematic roots as a spirit of justice and vengeance placed on Earth by a pissed off Higher Power to just generally kill anyone of sufficient nastiness who crossed his path in really icky ways. With Aparo's astonishing visual aid, Fleischer set about recreating the Spectre's previous ghoulish glories with an even darker modern twist, crafting stories which really had no internal conflict or suspense, but in which the sole point of interest lay in seeing just what particularly horrible fate the Spectre would mete out to this issue's reprehensible malefactors.
Under Fleischer, the Spectre did not arrest people, read them their rights, and turn them over to the local authorities, nor did he bother with anything even remotely resembling a hearing. With his supernatural perceptions, he located the bad guys (who were, it should be noted, carefully depicted by Fleischer as being criminals of far more than normal ruthlessness, like the terrorists who robbed banks by pumping them full of nerve gas to kill everyone inside before they went in wearing gas masks to get the money), told them he was there to kill them for their crimes, and then did so in truly ghastly ways, like turning one guy into wax and then melting him alive, turning another one into still somehow living wood and feeding him through a buzzsaw, enlarging a compass needle to giant size and impaling yet another one on it like a bug, etc.
The Spectre was never in danger, and no one ever put up the remotest plausible fight, and, in fact, given that the back up stories in ADVENTURE during this period were weird strips like "Captain Fear" (about a captured and enslaved Caribbean native who escaped, turned pirate, and extracted bloody vengeance on his white oppressors), "Black Orchid" (a beautifully drawn, ultimately pointless series about a mysterious woman in a purple costume who showed up, beat up some crooks, and then flew away again where the only 'hook' was wondering who the hell she was) and "The Adventurer's Club", a really hokey anthology series where people would show up and tell supposedly bizarre stories about real life adventures they'd had with twist, shock endings, you can pretty much see that this wasn't really in any way a superhero title at all.
If this version of the Spectre hadn't eventually teamed up with Batman in BRAVE AND THE BOLD, you could fairly easily have assumed it didn't take place in the 'mainstream' DC universe at all.
Probably fortunately, the strip did not last long. Its gruesomely violent sensibilities were either a throwback to the by then long dead era of EC horror comics, or a precursor of the much more graphic and mean spirited themes of the Modern Age to come, but whatever, the character was a startling anomaly for its time period in virtually every way... but very specifically, in its very straightforward depiction of crime being punished swiftly, finally, and with truly hellish creativity.
Other examples of superheroes simply ignoring the criminal justice system when it pleases them to do so arise when various supervillains seek to reform, as when former Iron Man villain Hawkeye, and former Evil Mutants Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, joined the Avengers early in the Silver Age after doing nothing more than promising to go straight. No attempt was ever made to try any of them for previous crimes, which would have had to include at the very least extensive acts of criminal mischief, vandalism, and industrial sabotage, even if you discount little things like assault (which, since both Hawkeye's and the Evil Mutant's early crimes took place on military reservations, it's unlikely any court would).
Still, the criminal justice system was apparently not even involved, and somehow or other, all three known outlaws were not only granted provisional forgiveness and acceptance by the public as heroes, but were given Avengers security clearances, and, presumably, full pardons, by the Federal government, as well. (That Hawkeye introduced himself to the Avengers by attacking the mansion with a smoke arrow after tying up poor Jarvis the Butler simply exacerbates the apparent idiocy of his immediate acceptance by the team.)
Well... it was the Silver Age. What can you say?
The Modern Age, when it rolled around at different times for the different companies, slowly saw changes being enacted in terms of the criminal justice system's effectiveness at dealing with super criminals. Both metarealities gained prisons specifically built to house superhuman criminals. Marvel, under the always detail-obsessed Mark Gruenwald, created first Project: Pegasus and then The Vault as a place to not only secure the more powerful super-offenders, but to study how their powers worked. This somewhat Nazi-esque innovation was established in a very matter of fact manner, but certainly the clear implication had to be that the normal suspension of certain civil rights for inmates had been at least somewhat extended in terms of the most dangerously anti-social supervillains, since in the real world, and even in the Marvel Universe according to LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR HIRE, conventional criminals had to 'volunteer' to be studied, tested, or experimented on.
At DC, the super-penitentiary was Belle Reve Prison in Louisiana, and became the staging area, recruiting grounds, and secret headquarters for John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell's always intriguing SUICIDE SQUAD concept. To the best of my recollection, DC's scientific community was not given carte blanche to conduct research and experiments on the supervillains imprisoned at Belle Reve, but on the other hand, participation in such research programs was a concomitant condition of enrollment in the Suicide Squad programs, which offered early parole in exchange for participation with the Squad on various government covert missions for varying lengths of time. Since real world inmates have long been recruited and encouraged to volunteer for medical experiments, this didn't indicate any real modifications to the DC Earth's American Constitution for the sake of dealing with superhuman menaces, as apparently had been made on Marvel's Earth.
One of the most comprehensive changes in overall superhuman behavior from the Silver to the Modern Age could be seen in a steadily increasing tendency for punishment, or 'justice', to be meted out outside the conventional structure of the legal system.
Obviously it was a major change in the punishment scenario for Modern Age super-criminals when many superheroes stopped abiding by an unwritten, unstated code that prevented the taking of human, or sentient, life. Under John Byrne, the post Crisis Superman, formerly the poster boy of the Code Against Killing as one of the few heroes who had taken a formal oath never to kill, dealt with the Modern Age version of a Phantom Zone break out by killing every single escapee, on the grounds that they were much too powerful to be allowed to remain at large in the outer world. These 'Phantom Zoners' were not merely criminals exiled to a nether dimension in this story, but were actually disembodied spirits with no real physical forms, but still, there isn't really any way to look at the act except as one of cold blooded mass murder.
Even Frank Miller's then out of continuity cautionary tale THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS had Batman decide to murder the Joker, after agonizing about how many people he himself had killed by letting the Joker live through their past encounters. In the end, though, Miller, to his credit, had his aging Dark Knight stop short of actual murder, although Batman only stopped at the last moment, after permanently paralyzing his sociopathic nemesis with a broken spine. (In fact, Batman's deliberate paralysis of the Joker may well have directly inspired Shadowhawk, one of the more repulsive characters in Image's generally repulsive line up, who went around deliberately breaking the spines of violent criminals in order to keep them from hurting anyone again, while sparing himself the necessity of killing them. )
Still, even without adding deliberate murder to his pile of sins... something Miller was clearly aware would be crossing a primal line, as he kept quite consciously teasing DARK KNIGHT'S readers with the possibility, as when, in an earlier issue, he'd had Batman raise a rifle to his shoulder and peer through a telescopic scope at Two-Face, while remarking to himself "Harvey, you've had every chance there is.." only to fire a harpoon with an attached cable across to the rooftop the villain was on, so Batman could slide over there... the aging Dark Knight is a grim and brutal figure who moves the general experience of superhero violence far beyond the 'potato sack' level, where everyone gets knocked around but no one gets really hurt, and well into areas where the winner of the fight is the one who can limp off the battlefield with major internal injuries and one eye hanging from a thread of nearly severed optic nerve, while the loser is the one being carried by six mutants to the intensive care ward because every bone in his body has been deliberately broken.
Clearly, DC's Modern Age was not a place where supervillains could expect to run rampant over the criminal justice system with impunity any more. The message from Byrne and Miller, and later, from Truman and Ostrander's new Hawkman and Hawkwoman, who were alien cops perfectly willing to employ lethal force if necessary to bring a perp down, was crystal clear... if you don't stay in jail, at the very least, DC's new heroes will hurt you badly, and if you scare them enough, they'll kill you. And a few years later, with the debut of what was to be the first of several versions of the Spectre, punishment for certain specific sorts of crime became even more inescapable and severe for the hapless DC malefactor, super or otherwise. Under Ostrander, the Spectre even committed mass genocide on the hapless inhabitants of one particularly war-torn country most likely meant to be a fictional equivalent to Bosnia, declaring that no one there was innocent and the only way to balance the scales of justice was to kill EVERYone.
Clearly, we were no long in the Silver Age... although, just as clearly, the actual criminal justice system hadn't improved a great deal in terms of dealing with super powered criminals.
The Marvel government made one misguided attempt to create their own "Suicide Squad" type group when early in the Modern Age, an evil mutant named Mystique, in her civilian guise as some sort of senior national security adviser, managed to convince some idiot (the name Henry Peter Gyrich leaps immediately to mind, although I don't know for sure) that the captured Brotherhood of Evil Mutants would happily act as government super-operatives in exchange for parole... as they say in the sit coms, 'with whacky results!' The eventual failure of 'Freedom Force' to do much of anything except endanger the public while wasting, if not actively stealing, millions of dollars from the Federal budget, made a lovely analogy for the entire Reagan Administration, while simultaneously demonstrating that the criminal justice system in the Marvel Universe still didn't deal particularly well with parahuman bad guys.
The same sort of general failure of the criminal justice system to deal well with super-criminals, and an apparent concomitant rise in extralegal methods of dealing with same, was reflected in Marvel's Modern Age (which, by my calendar, started rather earlier than DC's, anyway), through the agency of extralegal vigilante characters, like the Punisher, Deadpool, the Foolkiller, and probably most notorious of all (if only as a plot device) the Scourge. All these characters kill fairly casually, although Deadpool, as a hired assassin, pretty much kills anyone, hero, villain, or apathetic bystander, that he's paid to, while the others only kill those that their own personal standards tell them deserve it. For the Punisher, that's pretty much any murderer or, if he's doing a story arc about drugs, any dope dealer; for the Foolkiller... well, the last version of the Foolkiller... it's anyone he finds egregiously selfish and irresponsible, and the Scourge seems to pretty much limit himself to killing really poorly conceived supervillains that Mark Gruenwald decided were too embarrassing to leave hanging around the Marvel continuity.
Yet it's not only vigilantes and outright supervillains stepping outside the law in the Marvel Modern Age. Under Bob Harras, Marvel's premiere line up of marquee superheroes, The Avengers, took a big step over the traditional Silver Age moral line when a faction of them, sick and tired at being manipulated by the Kree Supreme Intelligence, decided to permanently kill the creature at the end of the badly named "Operation: Galactic Storm" story arc. Harras played up the... at best, questionable morality of this decision, which combined as it did both a hot blooded thirst for vengeance and a rather clinical, calculated desire to avert any future difficulties from the perpetually scheming alien entity. In the end, many of the Avengers' more traditionally heroic members, led by Captain America, left the team for a while, sickened at what it had become, although the eventual revelation that the Supreme Intelligence was not actually dead (big surprise there) and that apparently nearly everyone in the faction that had decided to kill it were being mind controlled to some degree or another by someone seems to have ameliorated this to some extent.
However, other than the creation of the Vault, which seems to only be used for the most powerful super-menaces, Marvel's criminal justice system itself seems to have changed very little from Silver to Modern Age. Recurring villains avoid capture, escape prison, or receive early releases with the same apparent frequency as they ever did in the Silver Age. In that light, and given the above paragraph's mention of the spurious execution of the Supreme Intelligence, the later supposed capture and imprisonment on the Moon by SHIELD of the Supreme Intelligence is yet another egregious example of the ineffectiveness of a superhero criminal justice system, since in point of fact, the S.I. was manipulating all of time and space in an utterly sinister manner in front of the noses of its captors, precipitating at least one global crisis recently in the MAXIMUM SECURITY cross over event... all of which might allow one to conclude that in point of fact, the original faction of Avengers that 'killed' the Supreme Intelligence only erred in not actually managing to get the job done.
As a further side note... remember our opening example which mentioned good ol' Abe Jenkins, AKA The Beetle? Well, our buddy Abe is currently running around in fan favorite comic book THE THUNDERBOLTS, in his new identity as the supposedly superheroic Mach-1. Your Humble Correspondent does not read THUNDERBOLTS, and so, cannot comment in any real detail on the events depicted in that series, but references made during recent crossovers with THE AVENGERS seem to indicate that Abe was being sought for murder, and had been convinced by Thunderbolts team leader (and former supervillain himself) Hawkeye to surrender... and no more than a year later (our time, considerably less by Marvel time) he was back in costume, in the team. This would seem to indicate that, once again, the criminal justice system has failed to mete out much, if any, of a sentence for a pretty serious crime.
(I don't want to finish this particular aside without noting the deftness displayed by writer Kurt Busiek in having Hawkeye leave the Avengers to take over the leadership of the Thunderbolts. Many other modern age writers would have overlooked Hawkeye's past as a one time supervillain who was only allowed to reform and rebuild his life as a superhero because of the Avengers', and specifically, Iron Man's, willingness to believe in him and offer him a chance at redemption. Busiek's transfer of the former outlaw archer to this former outlaw team is exactly the sort of thing he does best... spot on, insightful, and skillfully handled characterization for Marvel's old, well established Silver Age characters that Busiek clearly loves as much as I, or anyone else, does. It's this inarguable talent for characterization, informed as it is by an obviously genuine affection for the characters, that makes Busiek the finest writer currently working at Marvel, and his AVENGERS the best mainstream comic being published by that company.)
As a general rule, when a comic book reality does pay attention to their criminal justice system, they do it in the context of putting a hero on trial, not a crook. In fact, John Byrne has played a significant part in two such stories that immediately occur to me, the trials of Phoenix and the Sub Mariner. In the case of Phoenix, it's interesting to note that Claremont and Byrne had originally planned that Jean be effectively lobotomized by a galactic court, not to punish her for her crimes but to prevent her from ever committing them again, reducing her mentally to a childlike state 'forever'... which of course, would have ended up meaning, until Claremont wanted to bring the Phoenix back.
Then EIC Jim Shooter intervened, saying that Phoenix's crimes, which included blowing up an entire inhabited planet apparently simply for the sheer raw joy of absolute destruction, as well as murdering a few thousand more crewmembers of various galactic craft that had engaged her in combat, had to be punished more severely, and dictated that Jean Grey would have to be executed. (In fact, she died in combat with the Imperial Guard.)
I say it's interesting to note this because, had Claremont and Byrne been allowed to continue as they wanted to, it would have simply been yet another case of a supervillain receiving effectively no real punishment from a comic book universe's criminal justice system due to the seeming melodramatic necessity of preserving the character for inclusion in future stories. It was only through the intervention of the being that was, effectively, at that time, the All Powerful God Figure of the Marvel Universe, the Editor In Chief, that a really just punishment was meted out, and the horror of Dark Phoenix was brought to an end. (Heh.)
Later on, John Byrne, perhaps impressed by the concept of the judicial process, decided to have Namor, the Sub-Mariner, undergo a similar trial. Unfortunately, this was yet another display of Byrne's habitually wrong headed approach to virtually all characterization that he is entrusted with, as, in point of fact, it would be very difficult to characterize any of Namor's past actions, even those clearly antithetical to the public good of the surface world he had repeatedly attacked, as being either actually morally wrong or, more importantly, by any sane approximation of a realistic criminal justice system, illegal.
Reading between the lines, it would seem that Byrne was primarily motivated by a desire to 'redeem' Namor of his past 'sins', or 'crimes', by having him undergo a trial for those 'crimes', supply a medical reason for Namor's past 'criminal' behavior, and have Namor then accept the ruling of a court to remove the onus of the various different criminal proceedings that Byrne postulated must be outstanding against Namor, again, due to these various past, 'criminal', actions. Apparently Byrne wanted to make Namor into a classical Silver Age-esque superhero, clearing up and eliminating all moral ambiguity from the character, and transforming him into a fully moral and ethical protagonist who could proceed with a clear conscience and an unblemished criminal record on his new, Byrne mandated career as an environmental activist.
Now, far be it from me to protest against someone trying to return a character that has been morally tarnished and darkened by gratuitous, fan-indulgent Modern Age violent behavior to a more classic, Silver Age standard of heroic ethical behavior. I, honestly, applaud all such efforts I'm aware of. Furthermore, it's always nice to see a writer pay attention to what should be the realistic details of the fictional universe his character lives in.
The problem is, while Byrne may have thought that's what he was doing, in point of fact, what he was actually accomplishing was little more than the belittling, demeaning, and dehumanizing of what may well have been Marvel's only truly realistically complex superhuman character... a character that had been that complex and interesting, in fact, since the Golden Age.
Leaving aside all my various problems with Byrne's 'innovative' approach to established continuity and characterization (which I've gone into great detail about in my lengthy dissection of Byrne's career as a writer, "Crapping On The Shoulders Of Giants", available elsewhere on this website), the fact here remains that Namor has never, not in the Golden Age, nor in the Silver Age, been an iconically simple superhero. He occasionally behaves in a heroic fashion, yes; in point of fact, if we go back to classical mythology for our definition of heroic, which would include a great deal more reaving, looting and pillaging than the more modern version does, then he pretty much always behaves in a 'heroic' fashion.
However, Namor's morals are not the standard morals of a standard Marvel comics superhero, nor is there any reason they should be. Namor is the hereditary leader of an aggressive, warlike people who, historically, have tended to be treated pretty horribly by their neighbors. Admittedly, when surface worlders do something awful to Atlantaeans, it tends to be inadvertently, but when someone... like Namor, or some other more peaceful Atlantaean representative, shows up and points out to the surface dwelling governments that all the garbage and toxic chemicals they're dumping into the Marinaras Trench is actually poisoning people who live underwater, the governments have an annoying tendency to laugh uproariously and make jokes about Mrs. Paul's fish sticks. Namor doesn't show up to tear apart the Golden Gate Bridge because he's bored and looking for kicks, he does it in reprisal against fairly serious assaults on and insults to his people.
In other words, Namor is neither a superhero nor a supervillain. He's a ruling monarch who acts in the best interests of his nation and his people, and as such, he cannot be judged by the same morality as we'd judge Spider-Man or the Flash by.
More importantly in the context of this essay, which concerns itself with the general effectiveness, or lack thereof, of the criminal justice system in a superhero universe, the Sub-Mariner is not bound by American laws. Furthermore, there are no international laws that forbid invading the seaport of a hostile nation with armed soldiers, engines of war, and great big sea monsters, if that hostile nation keeps launching toxic chemical attacks on your sovereign territory and your people. Especially after you, as Namor always does, show up and ask them fairly nicely to please stop, and deliver notice that if they don't, you're going to have to declare war on them.
In short, the Sub-Mariner has committed no criminal acts, is not subject to arrest by American police or trial by the American judiciary even if he has, and, given all that, John Byrne seems to be well on his way to establishing that on the rare occasions that the judicial system IS presented in some detail in a superhero comic book, it is simply, straight up, presented stupidly and incorrectly.
On a previous occasion, when Namor had tried to sue the surface world for damages done to his people through unrestrained dumping in the oceans, the judge had refused to even hear Namor's suit and instead insisted on trying him as a criminal for his 'attacks' on the surface world.
Matt Murdock, representing Namor, dispensed with such nonsense easily by pointing out that Namor isn't an American and is, in fact, a foreign sovereign and CAN'T be put on trial by an American court, any more than the King of England could be. Namor should have known that. At the time of his later trial under Byrne, Namor, by Marvel's own collapsing continuity, had to be around 70 years old and he'd had extensive dealings with people like Dr. Doom, Monarch of Latveria, and T'Challa, King of Wakanda. He certainly had to understand the concept of diplomatic immunity. Him surrendering to an American court was wildly out of character, and, well, stupid.
This was not a case where crimes went unpunished by the comic book legal system, but, in fact, where actions that were not crimes were unjustly and absurdly punished by a comic book legal system that bore absolutely no resemblance to anything that exists in actual reality. Had Spider-Man been sent to the electric chair for the murder of the Green Goblin or Captain America arrested and sentenced to ten years for defacing the flag by wearing it into combat, the miscarriage of justice and completely stupid misinterpretation of legal codes could not have been more blatant. Those who believe that any such events actually ever could take place have to be holding their heads in stunned disbelief at a legal system that could actually, at the end of the day, set such an overwhelmingly powerful maniac loose on 'permanent probation', while those who know even the tiniest amount about actual law must simply be shaking their heads.
The Trial of Namor, as shown us by Byrne, is a stunning example of exactly how the criminal justice systems in superhero universes don't, and apparently, can't, work, when dealing with superhumans. Namor is inarguably guilty of massively destructive acts, deliberately committed on entire populations of arguably innocent people. If we bring him to trial at all, we must find him to either be a criminal or a menace; either way, he should never have been set free again. With a legal system like the one depicted by Byrne, it's really no wonder the Beetle keeps getting let out of prison in a few months, and handed his super-suit back, too.
More importantly, it's really not hard to see why more and more people throughout the Modern Age in superhero universes start taking the law into their own hands, not simply in stopping crimes, but in punishing the criminals, as well.
As a general rule, it seems that one can show a fairly distinct arc between the Silver Age of Comics and its Modern Age, in which a growing desire for 'realism' on the part of fans, editors, and writers has led to a general movement towards the depiction of societies where the anti social and violent activities of super criminals are punished in a lasting fashion, not by a clearly inadequate criminal justice system, but by more 'pragmatic' super-beings who were more willing to take the law into their own hands and mete out more final judgements and punishments to some few unlucky villains who crossed their paths.
In fact, even Spider-Man once decided to 'punish' a supervillain/serial killer named the Sin-Eater for his crimes with a truly vicious beating that, we later found out, had pretty much crippled the guy for life... although Peter David forced Spider-Man to deal with the consequences of that act when he brought the Sin-Eater back in a further story, cured of his psychosis, walking with a permanent limp, just trying to rebuild his shattered life... something he was not allowed to do by an unforgiving public, and especially, an unforgiving Spider-Man.
As a general rule, and with the exception of notable but extremely rare stories like the Sin-Eater tale mentioned above, this generally contemptuous treatment of the criminal justice system, which has only increased over the past forty years as we have passed from Silver to Modern Age in superhero comics, is, in fact, somewhat dangerous. As I say, when I was a kid, we simply never really noticed how futile the system seemed to be; in the Silver Age, most cops were at least treated with nominal respect by superheroes, and although the courts were generally depicted inaccurately and ineptly, they were, in truth, rarely depicted at all. What happened to bad guys after they were defeated by the hero simply wasn't something we paid much attention to, and therefore, drew no moral lessons from.
However, in today's modern society, nearly everywhere we turn, adults and children both are basically taught contempt for our cops, our laws, and our courts. TV shows seize on the aberrant, perverse extremes of the system to dramatize because that's the stuff that is interesting and exciting and often (as in the case of the currently popular show about the New York City sex crimes unit) titillating.
To enable, validate, and further exacerbate this contempt for law enforcement, the judiciary, and legislature by creating a vast realm of illustrated fiction aimed primarily at children, in which justice, to paraphrase Chairman Mao, grows out of the barrel of a gun and can only be found at the hands of paranormal vigilantes exerting their own moral judgements... well, to say that this is sending the wrong message would seem to be an understatement.
It's one thing when supervillains elude capture, escape prison, or are awarded ridiculous early releases for the sake of the plot; at the very least, they end up being recaptured again at the end of those particular stories. However, when we're told that the only way any supervillain can ever really be brought to final justice is for some so called hero to take it upon him or herself to act as judge, jury and executioner... well, this doesn't seem to me to be something we should be teaching to either our kids or our adults.
As presented in the Golden and Silver Ages, the superhero is, truly, a strange archetype... a masked vigilante, often with paranormal abilities, who runs around without oversight or judicial review or any real sort of social control, enforcing his or her own peculiar moral code with their fists, feet, and whatever weaponry they choose to carry around with them. However, superheroes of these eras did not kill and never sought to do any more than interrupt crimes in progress or catch a crook who had already committed several crimes... nearly always violent crimes... and turn him over to the authorities.
As I've discussed before, this concept of a masked vigilante with a rather strict moral and ethical code and a somewhat short sighted view of dealing with criminal behavior is rather inherently unrealistic. Nonetheless, the Code Against Killing teaches kids to value human life, and the fact that superheroes only battle criminals long enough to subdue them, and then turn them over to the authorities, also teaches kids respect for law and order, and for the cops, and the court system. Yes, it's unrealistic; it is, in fact, fantasy, for many reasons I've discussed in detail in other articles.
But if the price of realism is the jettisoning of all ethical grounding in our comic books... if, in fact, the Modern Age 'post superhero' that many in the pro and fan community seem to be talking about is going to be a figure that teaches that casual murder is justifiable if the victim is 'scum', and that our structure of laws is ridiculous and can be casually ignored if the 'hero' knows that he or she is clearly 'right'... well, I'll take the fantasy, thanks.
Given a choice, I would much rather live in the universe of Cary Bates and Curt Swan's Superman, than John Byrne's. At least in the former, human life still has value.
* * * * * * * * *
John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. He is willing to admit that another reason he would rather live in the Silver Age DC Universe rather than the Modern Age version of same is that in the one he prefers, one can get exposed to radiation and gain Kryptonian style super powers, or find an ancient, magical dial with H-E-R-O spelled out on it, or get zotzed by lighting while working in a chem lab and gain amazing super speed, or have a dying alien give you a mystic ring of power... and after doing any or all of that, you might share an adventure with a cute teen age girl from Krypton and even get kissed on the cheek by her, too! All of which seems to be infinitely preferable to the alternatives available in the Modern Age DC Universe, where apparently, one can at best hope to fall down a hole and be possessed by an ancient Bat-demon, since, assuming you're not sitting in jail sleeping off a drunk, you won't be chosen to get a power ring, there aren't any H-E-R-O dials, and only the really obnoxious and shallow people get superspeed. Of course, given his real druthers, he'd rather live in the Marvel Silver Age, where you could even get laid once in a while, but then, he has been accused on occasion of having a small mind. There's a comment thread below, so you can accuse him of that yourself if you like.