Cops get killed on a depressingly regular basis. You can easily find dashcam footage of this kind of tragedy (trigger warning–features murder caught on camera): a cop pulls someone over who then acts noncompliant with the cop’s lawful demands. Despite the cop’s pleas, the suspect eventually manages to reach for a gun and kill the officer. We can debate the merits of at exactly what moment the cop should have engaged in self-defense, but surely we should agree that it’s somewhere before the other guy shot him.
But hold on: this isn’t a pro-cop piece. Because we’ve also all seen the footage of Philando Castile’s death after he was shot by a police officer in Minnesota following his stop for a broken taillight. As it appears, Castile was reaching for his identification after letting the cop know that he was lawfully carrying a firearm under state law. For whatever reason, the cop opened fire and Castile died in front of his girlfriend, who retained the presence of mind to turn on her camera and record the whole thing. As a lawyer, I’m inclined to give the cop his day in court…but the information we have looks really bad, and I can’t imagine him being guilty of anything less than negligent homicide, and likely worse.
The Washington Post currently identifies 547 people killed by police this year, 134 of them being black.* My black friends on Facebook regularly post about their fears of the police growing up, their fears of the police today, and their fears of the police in the future. These are law-abiding people who can’t help but worry–and not unjustifiably–that they’re given extra scrutiny because of their skin and background. They worry that they’ll be the next death over a broken taillight because a trigger-happy cop is looking for a reason to take them down.
But hold on, because this isn’t an anti-cop piece. Because the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund says that 67 cops have died in the line of duty this year, with about half of those being from gunfire. Again, cops are not-infrequently assailed by private citizens and it often ends badly. By training, cops know that it’s a kill-or-be-killed world, and they sometimes have to take the ultimate step to save the lives of others or themselves.
In other words, we live in a pretty awful world right now. Black men are afraid that cops are going to kill them, and cops are afraid that they’re going to be killed. In case you didn’t notice, the week after the Fourth of July was pretty lousy for both groups. Two black men were very publicly killed during arrests, and a few days later, eight cops were killed in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge. The tense, unanswered question the United States is dealing with right now is: how can police officers safely do their jobs without making black people afraid for every minute of their lives?**
So enter Marvel’s Civil War II #3 which, entirely by coincidence, came out shortly after that awful week. The current Civil War II event concerns Marvel’s heroes encountering a new character, Ulysses, who can see future events before they happen. The Avengers successfully stop several major disasters based on these advanced warnings. Iron Man is convinced that this is information that shouldn’t be in the heroes’ hands, because they’re profiling and they just don’t know whether having this information will make things worse. (In fact, War Machine died during one of the early engagements based on Ulysses’ information.)
In issues #2-3, Ulysses has a very bad vision that the Incredible Hulk is going to go on a rampage and kill the heroes. So the heroes confront Bruce Banner–now powerless, mind you–to figure out what to do about this. Banner starts to become very angry, but before any Hulking can occur, he’s killed by Hawkeye, who swears he saw a glint of green in Banner’s eyes. And now Marvel’s heroes are debating whether this was a justified act of self-defense or an act of prejudice and being trigger-happy.
Civil War II #3’s publication is coincidental, but its proximity to the week of police shootings makes it a perfect gateway to discuss the cop safety/racial profiling issue. The accidental metaphor could not be clearer. Hawkeye is the cop who’s reacting based on training and fear. Bruce Banner is the black (well, green) man who doesn’t appear to be a threat, but maybe he is and the cop could end up dead. There’s no clear answer here in the story, but it’s an opportunity to discuss and consider both sides.
But: comicdom’s been unwilling to have that discussion. On various comics discussions forums I’ve visited, the discussion has been elsewhere. It’s basically been on comics continuity and how out-of-touch the issue is with Marvel’s current history. The complaints are as follows:
- Hawkeye would never do this.
- Killing the Hulk with a special arrow is stupid.
- Bruce Banner was recently cured in Greg Pak’s Totally Awesome Hulk series, so there’s no way Banner should have been a threat.
- The Hulk has come back from the dead before, so an arrow through the head isn’t going to do squat.
And so forth. In other words, the major socio-political issue captured by the comic has gone completely over readers’ heads, and they only want to talk about how the comic doesn’t jibe with their existing knowledge of Marvel’s characters.
To be fair, part of the problem lies with Marvel’s editorial folks themselves, giving free reign to top writers like Brian Michael Bendis to write whatever they want in spite of past continuity. It should be an easy matter to fact-check whether Hawkeye acts like this or whether killing Banner is “realistic,” but Marvel’s readily ignored its own history or rules for the sake of the story. Marvel has to know how their readers would react to such obvious story flaws, and yet they press on because the story is more important…and really, the sales even moreso. Civil War II #1 was one of Diamond’s best-selling comics of June 2016, after all, so who cares if continuity gets in the way?
But then, poor storytelling aside, the readers need to get over this too. It’s a known fact that Marvel is a business and controversy sells. The Avengers are now a mass-media property, and if Hawkeye is now rougher around the edges to better match his movie counterpart, that’s just the way it is. And yes, the Hulk probably will come back from the dead at some point, but that’s not a concern for the here-and-now of comic sales. Marvel is there to sell comics first and foremost, not to make continuity-checking readers happy. We don’t own these characters and our complaints about storytelling aren’t going to matter.
Meanwhile, Civil War II is giving us an opportunity to converse about one of the biggest social issues of our time. Hey, I get it–I’m a long-time Hulk reader and I’m just as annoyed about his chump death in issue #3. But I’ve also been around long enough to know this will be undone in one to five years. And more importantly, I know that the deaths of both cops and unarmed black men–that’s real cops and real black men–are a lot more pressing than the death of one fictional green man. And we need to talk about it, and figure out how to fix it so that none of them die in vain any more.
So, yeah, I’m disappointed in comic readers for turning to continuity instead of turning to discuss the racial issues that Civil War II represents. This is an opportunity to stop, reflect, and engage, not to nitpick the things that don’t matter. Let’s take a break from Hawkeye and Bruce Banner and consider the fallen cops and the Philando Castiles and what these comics can teach us about them.
* – This statistic isn’t judging the individual justification of each shooting. It’s just letting you chew on the statistic that 547 people died by cop.
** – Yes, yes, cops kill people of other races, too. I’m not aware of any other demographic that routinely fears for their lives on the basis of skin color the way blacks do. If you’re not black and fear for your safety from all cops, consider that the black man has an extra level of fear that you haven’t experienced.