Mild-mannered Mark D. White has a double life. By day, he’s a professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. And, well, also by day, he’s a writer on superheroes, philosophy and what we can learn about moral and ethical choices through superheroes’ stories. Dr. White’s latest book is A Philosopher Reads Marvel Comics Civil War: Exploring the Moral Judgment of Captain America, Iron Man, and Spider-Man (Ockham, 2016). He’s also written, The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons on Character from a World War II Superhero (Wiley, 2014). And if that’s not enough, he’s co-edited and contributed to books on philosophy and various superheroes including: Batman, Iron Man, Green Lantern, The Avengers, Superman, and the heroes of Watchmen. He’s also written about superheroics here at the Gutter, sharing with us “My Year with the Fantastic Four.”
Mark kindly agreed to answer some questions on superheroes, moral codes and writing about such things.
Carol Borden: How did you get into superhero comics?
Mark White: I can remember being a little kid in the late ‘70s, in Troy, Montana (population: 700), and loving Superfriends and the Adam West Batman series. I think my parents brought home a comic once or twice from the grocery store while there, but after we moved back to Ohio (where I was born), we lived a few blocks from a little soda shop that had a comics spinner rack, and I bought one or two a week, completely at random, with the deposit money I’d get from returning Pepsi bottles for my parents. Later, I found a newsstand/tobacco store in town (also with a soda counter) that carried all the DC (and Marvel) comics, and that’s when I started following titles regularly.
I’ve always said I’m a superhero fan rather than a comics fan, and I read comics because I believe they’re the best medium for telling superhero stories. I’m drawn to superheroes for the heroism, basically. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fantastical elements too—the costumes, the capes and masks, the gadgets and headquarters, everything. But at their core, superheroes are stories about heroes who act for the good of others; the fact that most of them have special abilities but still use them for the good of others makes them superheroes.
CB: Do you have a favorite character now?
MW: I have several favorite characters, each for different reasons. My first superhero idol was Batman, but I didn’t fully appreciate him until I was older, and it was for the fairly standard reason: the fact that he has no special abilities (aside from gobs of money) but nonetheless devotes himself 100% to protecting his fellow citizens of Gotham from crime, and earns the admiration of the other heroes. Some of those features he shares with another favorite of mine, Captain America, though they’re very different heroes in terms of their approaches to heroism, both in temperament and moral code. Finally, as you know, I’m a huge fan of the Fantastic Four, especially the ever-lovin’, blue-eyed idol of millions, the Thing, who has every reason to withdraw from the world and wallow in self-pity, but instead risks his life saving the world time and time again.
CB: Speaking of saving the world, what can superheroes teach us in a world that’s so rough and uncertain?
MW: To me, superheroes, as with heroes in general, provide examples of doing the right thing even when it’s hard, even when it’s unpopular, and even when it involves sacrifice. These days especially, when people are so bitterly divided, and compassion for others is becoming ever harder to find, superheroes need to show us that everyone matters and we need to take care of each other. As Ms. Marvel said in a recent issue of Champions, “we’re all part of the same team,” and teammates watch out for each other. (Speaking of whom, Kamala Khan is becoming a favorite of mine as well, and is quickly becoming a moral exemplar in the Marvel Universe—especially while Steve Rogers is, ahem, confused.)
CB: So how did you start writing about superheroes and philosophy?
MW: I had long been a fan of William Irwin’s philosophy and pop culture collections, going back to the beginning with books on Seinfeld and The Simpsons. Eventually, I got in touch with him and started offering ideas and then essays to some of the books, and when I suggested a volume on Batman, he and the folks at Wiley Blackwell jumped at it. I had just gotten back into comics a couple years prior to that, and diving back into them—especially all of the great Batman comics released since I stopped reading them in high school—while teaching and writing philosophy made the combination too good to resist.
CB: How do you choose which character to write about in your books and essays?
MW: Well, if I want to be published, I need to write or edit a book on someone appearing in a big movie—that’s just the reality of the publishing business. Luckily, there is no shortage of superhero movies being made these days, and I’ve been lucky to have been involved in books on most of my favorite heroes (with one notable exception—what a revoltin’ development that is).
CB: And how do you approach figuring out a character’s philosophical position?
MW: Nailing down a hero’s moral code involves, first, reading as many of his or her stories as I can. (What a tough job I have!) For my Cap book, I read all of Cap’s solo books and all the Avengers books he appeared in, along with all the major events, crossovers, and guest appearances I could find. I take extensive notes on them, and if the character is written consistently—as the Marvel heroes in particular usually are—the moral code will start to reveal itself to me. It’s their moral code, as reflected in the decisions they make in difficult situations, that gives characters their character. And even if they’re not written as consistently, that can be interesting in its way, because none of us in the real world is perfectly consistent either. So sometimes I can even work some inconsistency of portrayal into my analysis of the character.
CB: So one of your books is about the central philosophical conflicts in Marvel’s Civil War. and Marvel is just starting to deal with the aftermath of the Civil War II storyline. Do you have some thoughts about the conflicts in Marvel’s Civil War II? [Beware, there is discussion of plot elements in Mark’s answer below. ~ Ed.]
MW: I think it was a missed opportunity to delve into fascinating and timely issues. In short, the series centered on an Inhuman named Ulysses who could predict the future (or “a” future). But the various creators at Marvel couldn’t settle on one explanation of how his powers worked, and therefore couldn’t delve as deeply into the implications as they could have. At first, it seemed he actually saw the future with certainty, such as when he predicted the arrival of Thanos from halfway across the galaxy. This would have invoked the debate over free will vs. determinism as well as the nature of responsibility, which would have been fantastic topics for the creators of the main book and all the tie-ins to explore.
Then they shifted gears and decided Ulysses was just an amazingly powerful data processor that generated accurate predictions out of all available information, which changed the focus to the ever-increasing role of Big Data and algorithms in criminal justice and the controversial issue of profiling. But they were inconsistent with how much information he gathered through his powers and how much he needed to be fed with outside (no amount of which could have told him Thanos was coming). Furthermore, the profiling analogy was overwrought because Ulysses could predict exactly who would commit a crime, enabling the authorities to intervene with that particular person, whereas profiling involves stopping or arresting anyone that meets a certain profile because people who meet that profile are believed to commit more crimes.
I had many other problems with Ulysses’ abilities, including whether his predictions took into account the heroes’ reactions to them, as well as the nature of the interventions by the heroes who sided with predictive justice (arresting people suspected of future crimes rather than just holding or diverting them). So… yeah.
CB: Would you ever write about a supervillian’s ethics, for instance Dr. Doom or Two-Face?
MW: Normally, no—I’m attracted to the heroism in superheroes, so the villains don’t interest me as far as their ethics are concerned. But there are exceptions, and Doctor Doom is definitely one of them, mainly because he so strongly believes he is doing the right thing, and he does it with so much integrity. (This is before his recent transformation at the end of Secret War and his current title The Infamous Iron Man, which only adds another level of interest to the character.)
Thanks so much to Mark D. White for taking the time to answer some questions from me. You can find his books here. And you can keep up with what he’s working on at his blog, www.profmdwhite.com. And, if that isn’t enough, you can find Mark on Twitter.
This interview was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Jan. 26, 2017.