Saturday, October 18, 2014

Selective Accountability

As one of Marvel's "heroes," the incredible Hulk was in an uncomfortable position, straddling the fence as a character who acted out of good or as a deadly menace, depending on the circumstances. Complicating matters is the fact that a creature of rage is hardly going to care about those times when he's being a menace:

As a result, Marvel--through Betty Ross, Rick Jones, et al.--skirted around the issue of accountability, and tagged the Hulk with an all-purpose label: that he's "misunderstood," a label that gives him a pass when it came down to the level of destruction he delivered. Side-stepping holding the Hulk in any way accountable for his actions is of course no help to these poor pilots, or to other such victims of his rampages who simply had the misfortune of being in the Hulk's path when he felt like smashing.

Yet, what of those times when the Hulk's actions are premeditated, rather than random? In the days before Marvel discarded its iron-clad rule against the use of deadly force, none of the other heroes in Marvel's ranks believed in killing, either in self-defense or in their actions toward the foes who were trying to destroy them--but the Hulk had the same lack of scruples on the subject as did Marvel's villains. For instance, it's probably safe to say that the Hulk really, really doesn't like ships bearing down on him:

But the Hulk gives no thought here to the loss of life that would result from his attack. To him, the punishment fits the crime--i.e., if someone tries to kill him, he's not going to shed any tears if his response causes his attacker's death. For the most part, the Hulk's rage generally runs its course when his foe goes down and stays down, even if they're still alive--yet, on occasion, he's been known to not only threaten someone with death, but to kill outright.

This 1971 story was quick to blame the destruction of the ship on its munitions exploding due to pressure--but the Hulk's words in the scene are clear. These men were being dragged down to their deaths.

By way of comparison, another character who gives a proportional response to attacks on his person is Magneto, though his being a villain cuts him more slack from Marvel in terms of accountability. Magneto is "misunderstood" only in the sense of his worldview being twisted due to his mistreatment by the Nazis; as a result, he's held accountable in the same way as any other villain, i.e., being defeated and imprisoned. "Thunderbolt" Ross has been given an open-ended mission to either imprison or destroy the Hulk, at his discretion; in Magneto's case, the world considers him a dangerous super-criminal on the same level of notoriety as Public Enemy #1. There seems to be little difference in the ways both are hunted and dealt with, the exception being how the X-Men pursue Magneto.

Given what we've just seen of the Hulk's motivations to kill, a scene that quickly comes to mind in Magneto's case is one that elevates him to the status of terrorist, as he makes a bold play for world dominance and issues a series of demands to every major world power, followed by an ultimatum. The response isn't long in coming, as a Russian sub launches a pre-emptive strike.

This time, however, the publication year is 1985, and there is no effort to glaze over the fact that the character in question is directly responsible for the deaths of all hands. (Nor was there really any question in the Hulk's case--the munitions explosion merely expedited what he'd intended to accomplish himself.)

When the dust settles, and Magneto is finally apprehended by Freedom Force, he voluntarily surrenders in order to face the charges against him head-on. Yet, it's interesting to see how both characters are held accountable for their past actions when it's time to face the music, during a period when the circumstances of their lives mirrored one another's. In the Hulk's case, he's finally under the control of Bruce Banner's mind--and, no longer being the destructive "monster" that was constantly hunted, he, too, seeks the acceptance of a verdict of sorts; while at the time of Magneto's apprehension, he's also turned over a new leaf, working with Charles Xavier and the X-Men. Both are responsible for acts of destruction, as well as their share of deaths--yet only one is made an example of in court.

For what it's worth, the Hulk also had his day in court, though obviously unable to testify in his own defense in the same manner as Magneto. The trials of both defendants were inconclusive, with their respective prisoners breaking free and avoiding judgment--but, in a much later issue, the Hulk is given the pass of all passes.

At Magneto's trial, his attorney successfully used the argument that Magneto's past crimes should be stricken from the record for the purposes of the trial, due to Magneto once being regressed by the mutant Alpha to the age of an infant--in essence making him a "new" person when restored to adulthood, and only responsible for those crimes he'd committed since. With Banner being in control of the Hulk, one could basically make the same argument as far as not being responsible for the acts his brutish alter ego committed. The difference, of course, is that Magneto essentially picked up where he left off, and also committed multiple acts of murder that would now be used against him at trial.

Magneto, the doofus, has also made the claim of not being a citizen of any country, which slams the door on any presidential pardon coming his way anytime soon--though he'd be unlikely to see public opinion sway favorably in his direction, as it did toward the Hulk. In any event, all of this seems moot, given the current mood of Marvel heroes these days--realists who have moved beyond the need for adversarial proceedings that confront such weighty issues.  And since each of these stories avoided rendering judgment, perhaps the unsettling part is that they may have paved the way for the less conscionable stories that were to come.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, Magneto is kind of a dick.
But he kind of came off as more of an over-the-top super-villain clown until super-serious Claremont got a hold of him. I mean, getting changed into a baby, that's gotta be embarrassing. In Super-villain Team-Up, Doc Doom made fun of him for that. Vic can be insensitive some times.
I remember in Defenders, the Hulk accidently flattened the same poor guy's house TWICE. I guess if you live anywhere near Kyle Richmond's riding academy, you better get yourself some Hulk insurance. mp

Blaxkleric said...

I must confess I thought Magneto's temporary conversion to good guy, in charge of the X-Men and X-Babies was inspirational stuff, and lead to some good X-Men vs Avengers storylines. Couldn't have done that with the Hulk (who is equally the anti-hero in many early stories) and attained so much impact and caused so much 'noise' from the fanbase.

Great article btw, and another great posting. Many thanks.


Anonymous said...

The President writes his Presidential Pardons on lined paper? Never would have guessed that one. I guess the paper comes from a Big Commander In Chief tablet.

When Hulk dives under water to stop the spinning blades and pull the ship down, down, down into the crushing depths.....who is he talking to? I mean, they're word balloons not thought balloons, right?

The Prowler (The dream police, they live inside of my head the dream police, they come to me in my bed the dream police, they're coming to arrest me, oh, no).

Comicsfan said...

I kinda liked those Magneto stories, too, Blaxkleric, at least as a change of pace for him. I think he makes a much better villain, however, and in his role as Headmaster he mostly came across like another Charles Xavier--far too sedate, and losing much more in characterization than he was gaining, IMO.

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