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Comic Book Crime

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

Nickie D. Phillips

Publication Year: 2013

“Carrying ahead the project of cultural criminology, Phillips and Strobl dare to take seriously that which amuses and entertains us—and to find in it the most significant of themes. Audiences, images, ideologies of justice and injustice—all populate the pages of Comic Book Crime. The result is an analysis as colorful as a good comic, and as sharp as the point on a superhero’s sword.”—Jeff Ferrell, author of Empire of Scrounge 
Superman, Batman, Daredevil, and Wonder Woman are iconic cultural figures that embody values of order, fairness, justice, and retribution. Comic Book Crime digs deep into these and other celebrated characters, providing a comprehensive understanding of crime and justice in contemporary American comic books.  This is a world where justice is delivered, where heroes save ordinary citizens from certain doom, where evil is easily identified and thwarted by powers far greater than mere mortals could possess. Nickie Phillips and Staci Strobl explore these representations and show that comic books, as a historically important American cultural medium, participate in both reflecting and shaping an American ideological identity that is often focused on ideas of the apocalypse, utopia, retribution, and nationalism. 
Through an analysis of approximately 200 comic books sold from 2002 to 2010, as well as several years of immersion in comic book fan culture, Phillips and Strobl reveal the kinds of themes and plots popular comics feature in a post-9/11 context. They discuss heroes’ calculations of “deathworthiness,” or who should be killed in meting out justice, and how these judgments have as much to do with the hero’s character as they do with the actions of the villains. This fascinating volume also analyzes how class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation are used to construct difference for both the heroes and the villains in ways that are both conservative and progressive. Engaging, sharp, and insightful, Comic Book Crime is a fresh take on the very meaning of truth, justice, and the American way.
Nickie D. Phillips is Associate Professor in the Sociology and Criminal Justice Department at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY.
Staci Strobl is Associate Professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
In the Alternative Criminology series

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

Some books write themselves. This was not one of them, and so we wish to thank everyone who helped us along the way. Our hard work would have been futile without the guidance and support of many people. In particular we would like to thank Dr. Jeff Ferrell, of Texas Christian University and the University of Kent, and Dr. Mark Hamm, of Indiana State University, ...

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1. Holy Criminology, Batman!: Comics and Constructions of Crime and Justice

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pp. 1-19

Comic book readers around the world know that the medium’s unforgettable heroes and villains are capable of leaping out of their pages and into our lives. Upholding “truth, justice, and the American way” with super-powered strength and agility that is “faster than a speeding bullet,” Superman emerged from his Kryptonian rocket ship and onto the American cultural landscape, ...

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2. “Crime Doesn’t Pay”: A Brief History of Crime and Justice Themes in Comic Books

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pp. 20-39

Dan Richards graduates last in his class at the police academy, but his talent for fighting crime outshines even the “honor man” among the graduates. During his academy days, Richards had secretly built an extensive file of known criminal personalities. When a Mafia thug frames him and a classmate for the murder of his rival, corrupt politician Al Armaud, Richards uses the file to track down the culprit ...

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3. The World Is Shifting: Terrorism, Xenophobia, and Comic Books after 9/11

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pp. 40-61

The post-9/11 age of comics is devastatingly crystallized in the graphic novel Shooting War, which is deeply informed by real-life events on the ground, as well as by the ways in which digital technology and blog journalism have transformed the coverage of world events. Rogue journalist Jimmy Burns blows open the story on American military war crimes ...

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4. A Better Tomorrow: Apocalypse, Utopia, and the Crime Problem

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pp. 62-81

In the opening pages of Coup d’Etat, published in 2004 by DC imprint Wildstorm, the state of Florida suffers destruction and mass casualties brought on by aliens who attack its residents, and whose motives remain elusive.1 The series occurs in a separate universe that features the Authority, a team of superheroes that works toward saving the world from various threats, both on and off the planet. ...

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5. “That’s the Trouble with a Bad Seed”: Villains and the Embodiment of Evil

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pp. 82-106

The story arc in “Dangerous,” from Astonishing X-Men, heats up when its villain, Danger, threatens the mutant students at the Xavier Institute. She is embodied as a bright blue feminized robot, much like the mechanized gynoids in the classic film Metropolis (1928). Danger traps the students in the “Danger Room,” a holographic simulation room used for training. ...

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6. “Aren’t We Supposed to Be the Good Guys?”: Heroes, Deathworthiness, and Paths to Justice

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pp. 107-139

Upset that he slept through 9/11 after a pathetic self-deprecating bender, ageold superhero Savior 28 goes into a deep, reflective, and depressive spiral, emerging with an alternative to his violent approach to injustice. Haunted by a phrase from the Buddha that his wife often repeated, “What is most needed is a loving heart,” ...

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7. “Take Down the Bad Guys, Save the Girl”: Gender, Sexual Orientation, and Comic Book Justice

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pp. 140-168

In 2005, DC Comics’ Villains United introduced Scandal Savage, the daughter of supervillain Vandal Savage. Scandal is among a rogue band of six villains available for hire as a mercenary team. In Villains United, Scandal rebuffs the advances of her teammate, Deadshot, and proclaims that she is a lesbian. ...

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8. “Aren’t There Any Brown People in This World?”: Race, Ethinicity, and Crime Fighting

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pp. 169-196

In the medium of comics, in which graphic representations communicate ideas, the identity marker of race has often been stereotypical and problematic. Although racial identities intersect with other identities such as gender and sexual orientation, a separate treatment of race as it plays out in criminal justice themes yields important information about messages of racial identity that contemporary comic books impart. ...

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9. Apocalyptic Incapacitation: The “Maximum-Maximum” Response to Crime

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pp. 197-217

In his article Feeding Wolves: Punitiveness and Culture, David Green writes that our understanding of criminal justice policy is influenced by the cultural resources we encounter on a daily basis, that the stories “we tell and retell ourselves, are crucial to the ways we understand the world and how to engage with it.” ...

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10. Conclusion: Ultimate Justice

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pp. 218-228

This expression of “ultimate justice” elicited the biggest applause of the night and dominated headlines in the hours following. However, in his study of the death penalty, sociologist and legal studies scholar David Garland points out that the death penalty is no longer about actually carrying out executions; ...

Appendix: Sample and Methodology

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pp. 229-238


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pp. 239-266


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pp. 267-282


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pp. 283-288

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About the Authors

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pp. 289-298

Nickie D. Phillips is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at St. Francis College. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814762738
E-ISBN-10: 0814767877
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814767870
Print-ISBN-10: 0814767877

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2013