Good defeating evil is the storyline that the whole comic book industry is based on, but why does it work so well?
Snow White and the Evil Stepmother, Harry Potter and Voldemort, Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West; good v evil is a storyline that has dominated literature since books first began, especially in books aimed at children and young people. One of the oldest books in the world, the bible, is solely based on the premise of good defeating evil.
After so many years, why is this simple storyline still working, and will it ever become boring?
Joseph Campbell had a famous theory that he called the ‘monomyth’. Simply put, he argued that every famous story or myth from around the world is structurally the same.
In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces from 1949, he explains his theory.“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man,” he writes.
Having said that, the simplicity in which this general story-telling structure is described, surely can’t be as easy as it sounds. If so, stories would become boring and overdone.
Ex-war veteran, author and freelance journalist, Bryan Wood believes the idea of good v evil is actually a complicated one. “When I ponder the concept of good versus evil, I pause for a moment to recognize that the words have varying meanings to different people,” he explains. “While one culture may view the stoning of women for sexual behaviour perfectly acceptable, others will view it as being despicable and an abomination to humanity. The important fact is to isolate and define a form of evil that is all-encompassing for the human species and not varied between individual cultures.”
This is, as Wood explains, a complicated topic. Of course most will look at the stoning of women and clearly know in our minds how inhumane this is. But, not every person. And this is where the subject opens up to why? What possible reason could a person have for seeing such a heinous act as acceptable in modern society?
Perhaps this is why the storyline has lasted so long, because it in fact isn’t simple at all, but actually the most in depth of them all.
The majority of stories you read or watch are based on one or a group of good characters trying to defeat one or a group of bad characters. However, there will always be a sense of bias around the story from whoever wrote it. For example, if an author has lived their life believing that being queer is wrong, they will write queer characters in a problematic light. If an author lived their life being told that all Muslims are terrorists, they will likely write any Muslim characters in a way that represents this belief.
The comic book industry is arguably the biggest advocate for this classic storyline, with the basis of each story being based upon the idea of a superhero fighting a villain. Generally, the superhero wins in the end.
Porle Miller wrote the Student Radio Award nominated comic book radio drama, Midnight Louis, and he believes it is the storyline at the heart of the industry. “Good vs evil is the root, isn’t it? Yes, from that root are spurned dozens of intricate and inter-weaving sub-plots and story arcs but in essence it all comes down to that very simple premise. The interesting take on it for me though is, who decides what is good and what is evil?”
“Who decides what is good and what is evil?”
The blurring of lines between what is truly good or bad is one that has been explored more so in recent years within the comic book culture. The Dark Knight trilogy (2005–2012) is a perfect example of this, with Batman becoming the villain to many. Let’s not forget the legendary quote, “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.”
In The Man of Steel (2013), Superman finally beats the villain by killing him. Murdering was once unheard of from a superhero, especially Superman, who always embodied hope, righteousness and courage.
Ethan Deplitch is a graduate film maker and life-long comic book fan and he also talks about the confusion many superheroes are being portrayed as having over whether they truly are good. “If you look at the recent trend with superheroes, most juggle with the concept of what is socially considered good, and what is considered bad. You needn’t look further then The Punisher or Batman for that.”
Comic books, however, have always been fiction. Exaggerated versions of the real world, or completely made up Universes. So, how realistic can their good v evil storylines truly be? How likely are we to see a Donald Trump-esque robot marching the streets spreading hate? Maybe not as unlikely as it sounds.
“As a whole, we recognise evil acts as being those committed by individuals who have abandoned society,” Wood says. “Deranged individuals who commit rampage style shootings, those who target children for sexual exploitation, those who target vulnerable women for rape, and so on. These are acts which, regardless of their root cause, have no seed of good within them. They are committed solely for the purpose of delivering pain, suffering, and torture to the victims, with no redeeming value to society, and without remorse.” Does this not sound like the Joker? Or perhaps Thanos? Maybe even Purple Man?
“We recognise evil acts as being those committed by individuals who have abandoned society”
The good v evil storyline can look cheesy, a little clichéd and fake from the outside. But, there is a true sense of reality running throughout it. Captain America was a character created from World War II. He inspired solidarity and patriotism when America needed it most. One of the most famous villains he faces is Red Skull, a Nazi helping Hitler during the holocaust. Behind the costumes, the corny one-liners and the fictional aspect, comic books are encompassed by reality.
In the real world, evil wins. If comic books really are taking inspiration from true events, could we see evil one day win?
Dean Martin is a graduate of creative writing, and she believes there’s no reason why evil couldn’t defeat good. “I’m sure there are many books in which this happens because it happens in real life. Plus it shakes things up. One thing Scandinavian literature is good at is bittersweet endings where, the good guy still triumphs, but in such a way, or with a consequence that leaves the reader satisfied but not elated.”
If comic books have made a very successful career off this storyline, and have used it in almost every story created, we have to wonder whether it will ever become tired. Whether readers will one day get bored of good winning, and the writers will have to spice it up with something new.
Deplitch believes it already has changed. “As time’s gone on, there’s been this craving for the anti-hero,” he explains. “Someone who socially may be considered slightly bad, but we the audience know that they’re not, for example your Walter White type. It’s exploring how there’s a dark side to everyone, and audiences like to embrace that idea.”
But Dean believes that ultimately, there will also be need for a classic good v evil storyline. “The basic storyline is simple enough that it won’t lose use, because evil can manifest itself in a horrible boss at work to an actual super villain, there is enough variety,” she says. “Also, it will never die in real life, as long as it happens in the real world, it will happen on the page.”
If comic books are forever changing with the times, replicating real life, and taking inspiration from real people to create new goodies and baddies, there’s no reason for this storyline to ever die. While the world keeps turning, there will always be Harry Potters, Snow Whites, and Dorothys, and comic books will always create new heroes we side with. Just as there will forever be villains for those heroes to fight.
How this storyline will keep adapting is where the real intrigue lies.