Yeah, that’s Spider-man. The panel is from Amazing Spider-man #685. He’s in one of his new outfits that looks like a perfect excuse for a new multi-figure toyline, but that’s not what I am writing about—kids should have some new Spider-man toys to play with. No, what interests me about this panel is that it is part of a scene where Spider-man tortures Sandman for information, threatening to kill him by forcing him into a human shape and pouring acid on him. This panel demonstrates a normalizing of torture in our society in the post-Bush/Guantanamo era. It may be that I am romanticizing the Spider-man of my youth, but I am pretty sure that that old-time Spider-man wouldn’t have tortured anybody (Wolverine? That’s another story. . .). I am not trying to argue that superheroes shouldn’t change, because any honest examination of mainstream comic book continuity reveals that all superheroes ever do is change. Rather, I am arguing that how these characters change demonstrate something about the context under which their behavior is seen as okay. The easy use of American torture terminology, like “waterboarding” is really all the evidence you need.
Yes, sure. . . he does not go through with the threat to kill Sandman, so at some level we are supposed to accept that Spidey isn’t a torturer. . . except of course, that now he is. It is the pain and fear of torture that makes it potentially efficacious – at least until you can interrogate a dead body (though in a superheroic world, that could probably happen) – since sometimes it is the promise of death and relief from whatever pain is being inflicted that leads to the information being given up.
I guess it should be no surprise that a genre most often predicated on beating people into submission would draw a line that seeks to condone inflicting excruciating pain, while keeping outright murder in the realm of immoral. But just to be clear, while I am sure there has been plenty of torture and killing in lots of other comics, even some mainstream comics, for it to be an unquestioned part of a mainstream flagship character like Spider-man demonstrates its acceptability – not only through not undermining Spidey’s identity as the good guy, but by the fact that most of the reviews of the issue I could find online (like this one or this one) didn’t even mention the word “torture,” except for one that “loved it” and someone else who was “bummed out” about it.
It’s a brave new world.