Saturday, August 22, 2009

Good Guys vs. Bad Guys

My kids read comics from the 1940's and 50's and 60's. One of the things I like about old Superman is that there's a clear distinction between the Bad Guys and the Good Guys. It's hard for kids to deal with gray areas if they don't grasp the basics of dark and light first.

A year ago Big Guy brought a modern superhero comic home from school. Curious, I read it. When I was done my son asked what I thought. "Unless I knew ahead of time who was a Bad Guy and who was a Good Guy, I wouldn't have been able to figure it out," I replied, "They all behaved the same way." I didn't like that: if the only difference between good and evil is the label we attach to ourselves, we're in trouble.

But after a while I got to thinking. Real life isn't like it is in Superman. Although we tend to think of evil in Bad Guy terms (Hitler and Stalin and Jeffrey Dahmer), most of what we're likely to encounter in our everyday lives isn't going to show up in that form. At times it can be genuinely hard to tell the difference between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. That's partly because we're all a mixed bag of pluses and minuses, but it's also because we're not always adept at recognizing what we see.

I learned this the hard way in my twenties, working in the money management industry. My boss was young, smart, attractive, successful, and reasonably gracious. She was not a backstabber, nor was she Machiavellian. I'm sure she thought of herself as a Good Gal and a champion for women in the world of finance. Yet she stepped on people constantly. She did this without noticing, because you only came into her field of vision if she perceived you as helping her succeed, or as threatening her ascent. Otherwise, you didn't really exist. It's easy to step on something without thinking you're causing harm.

The devastation this woman's self-centeredness wreaked was jaw-dropping. Because I had a vague idea that Bad Guys usually acted with some sort of intention to hurt, it took me months to figure out that I was in the presence of evil. I know that sounds strong, but this woman's unthinkingness caused a lot of suffering. Evil finds room to snake in whenever one of us puts personal desire ahead of the humanity of others. I see it happen regularly in my own life, when I am fixated on getting the kids out the door on time; I'm thinking of my goal, not them, and the results aren't pretty.

Which brings me back to old Superman. One thing that made him a Good Guy was that he consistently thought in terms of something bigger than his desires. His goal was for the common good, not his personal satisfation. I'm guessing that served him well in his everyday life as a mild-mannered reporter, too.


  1. Julia, this sentence says it all:

    "Evil finds room to snake in whenever one of us puts personal desire ahead of the humanity of others."



  2. Fascinating! I love comics, but usually gravitate to more recent ones (for art and writing reasons). But the hero I liked best is Spider-man, who I think has generally retained his good/bad division. (Paranthetical nerdness: well, he did until the last two years, in which he became a slacker who likes to sleep around (with the advent of the One Last Day/Brand New Day storylines), which I why I have entirely switched to the Ultimate alternate continuity, and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, which is no longer being published, which is okay, since the writer they brought in after the old writer didn't care about the material. End paranthetical nerdness)

    I think your example of your former boss is brilliant - the evil of mundanity is pervasive, seductive, and so very hard to see. I think that's partly why I like (more nerdness) Jane Austen.