Great Power and Great Responsibility: The Philosophical Politics of Comics – Book Review!

Going a little outside the norm here with a book review. Like, with words. And extremely limited sequential art. I think it might be one of 5 non-comics I’ve read this year, joining “Man in the High Castle” and “Southern Home Cooking, Vol 1” among my favorite reads.

In this case, I wanted to share a few thoughts on “Great Power and Great Responsibility: The Philosophical Politics of Comics” by Douglas Mann, published by Wolsak & Wynn.

“Great Power and Great Responsibility” is a scholarly collection of essays covering a wide range of comic book commentary. It’s the type of supremely intellectual discussion that you’d expect to find assigned to your university Philosophy 201. Although, had my Philosophy professor been savvy enough to assign reading on the Watchmen and Marvel’s Civil War, I might have switched majors on the spot.

If you like really thinking about your comics, this is a great read. It’s an especially great read if use of Kantian morality reads perfectly fine to you, and doesn’t make you giggle like you’re watching an episode of Wilfred.

Make no mistake, Mann takes these comics seriously, and it’s why I find this read so compelling. A cynical mind could reduce Civil War to Mark Millar and Steve McNiven destructively toying with action figures, but Mann gives the social debate a heft I didn’t know it could take on. In his essay, “Civil War and the Right to Revolt,” Mann aligns Captain America and Iron Man with historic philosophies, and examines how those insights inform the decisions of the story.

Other essays include a study on The Watchmen titled “To Compromise or Not to Compromise, That is the Question: Watchmen as Ethical and Political Dialogue.” The most interesting single essay may well be “The Post-Ideological Hero: Comic Books Go to Hollywood” which tries to explain why exactly Comic Book movies are so in vogue right now. It’s an interesting question, and one that isn’t typically handled with this level of care and research.

My biggest critique of the book is simply the introduction. Here’s the thing: I enjoyed the intro quite a bit. Over the course of the first 50 pages, Mann sets out to explain comic book history and understanding comics (in the vein of Scott McCloud), and he largely succeeds. It’s a good read if comics are something you enjoy, although if comics are something you enjoy, much of this will be repetition.

Which is why I can’t fully understand why the book begins with this history. It seems odd to me for a book critically analyzing the philosophy and politics of comics to explain how sequential art works. It’s a small criticism, since I enjoy the work, but as an intro it doesn’t set the stage as well as I’d want.

All in all, this is some thought-provoking comic book analysis. The essays are largely disconnected, so it’s not really a sequential page turner, but you’ll feel like a part of the intelligencia just for opening the collection.

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