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Vernon Reid and the Power of Comic Book Complexity

Living Colour guitarist challenges conventional "good vs. evil" dichotomy.

By Michael A. Friedman

“Look in my eyes, what do you see?

The cult of personality.

I know your anger, I know your dreams.

I’ve been everything you want to be.

I’m the cult of personality.”

— from “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour

There is something enticing about viewing the world in simplistic all-or-none terms of “good” and “evil.”

We love seeing ourselves as righteous and perfect, while viewing those with whom we have conflict as villainous and devoid of moral value. Why get involved in the stickiness of the complexity of human interaction?

And often we choose our entertainment based on our desire for this fantasy world. Good guys versus bad guys, cops versus robbers, superheroes versus villains — these are the dichotomies that pervade our cultural landscape.

Photo by Travis Shinn
Source: Photo by Travis Shinn

Who doesn’t love seeing a bad guy get their due in a television show or movie? And the more intense the retribution, the better – because if we are good and others are evil, it gives us the permission we need to revel in watching our heroes commit unspeakable violence against the villains. They’re evil anyway, so why would it matter what happens to them?

Well, as it turns out, it matters quite a bit. All-or-none thinking can actually be quite harmful intrapersonally and interpersonally. For example, people who are depressed may engage in all-or-none thinking that casts themselves as the villains in their own life story, at fault and responsible for everything, thus worsening depression. And ascribing hostile attributes to another person, in which we interpret the behaviors of others as malevolent, has been linked to the tendency for us to be more aggressive and even violent against others.

Vernon Reid has never been comfortable with dichotomous, all-or-none thinking. Reid, who Spin Magazine calls one of the greatest guitarists of all time, first began to challenge our simplistic all-or-none worldview as part of the band Living Colour. Their Grammy Award-winning and enduring anthem “Cult of Personality” was willing to blur the lines of good and evil by suggesting parallels between “Mussolini and Kennedy” and “Stalin and Gandhi.”

In doing so, the song confronted us with both the opiate-like euphoria we experience from cult-like figures, as well as the danger in blind devotion to these heroes.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the mere existence of an all-black hard-rock band like Living Colour was itself a confrontation of the mainstream view that hard rock was considered a “white” genre.  And this is despite the fact that the entire form is derived from the blues music of African-American artists like Robert Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Muddy Waters; pioneered by artists such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard;  and arguably perfected by artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Bad Brains. More, Living Colour has endured; Decades later they are releasing their sixth studio album Shade in September. 

However, Reid and Living Colour didn’t even fit neatly into the “hard rock” category, as their music was actually a hybrid of rock, heavy metal, jazz and hip-hop.

In talking with Reid, I found that while there were many sources for his divergent and norm-challenging perspective, he derived some of his viewpoint from what some might consider an unlikely source — comic books.

You see, rather than viewing the art form as a childish endeavor that feeds into the stereotypical “good vs. evil” mindset, Reid has found that comic books actually explore complex and intricate character development, in which everyone possesses good and evil traits.

And that has helped Reid come to a simple truth about life: You can’t have light without darkness.

Reid describes enjoying comic books from an early age, and appreciating how writers such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created mature, complex characters. “I’m in my late 50s. I grew up with comics. I grew up with the idea that they’re nonsense. ‘It’s a waste of time. How old are you exactly?’” Reid told me. “Comic books were for kids, but Jack Kirby did not condescend to kids. That’s what made Kirby and Ditko and all the great writers and creative comics awesome … . And here’s the irony of it – comic books are a multimillion-dollar, international industry. You could say it’s child’s play – but it’s also part of our modern mythology.

“It’s metaphoric. It’s very powerful.”

But as Reid grew up, he noticed that in the personal, political and entertainment world, the “stories” told were often reduced to caricatures of good and evil. He sees this simplistic all-or-none thinking as underlying some of history’s atrocities.

“Part of the thing that made Nazism possible was a narrative about greatness and glory. It’s a story about the other and the enemy. A narrative about, ‘What are the barriers to greatness and glory?’ And to identify a people — the Jews, the Gypsies, the Negro, whatever — these are the barriers to fulfilling a destiny,” Reid explained. “In some great shining tomorrow, there’s a destiny to be fulfilled. And that’s also in our Judeo-Christian and Islamic mythos, all of the Abrahamic religions have this kind of thing to them.”

As a nation, we often struggle with how to remain patriotic and proud in light of the long history of atrocities committed on behalf of the nation, such as American Indian genocide, slavery of African-Americans, our use of the atomic bomb as well as Japanese internment. “Of course, we have instances of terrible violence. And people ignored terrible suffering,” Reid explained. “We are still the only nation to have actually used atomic weapons. We still have to sit with the fact that we used the atomic bomb.

“Part of the mystery of the human experience is figuring out those justifications.”

David Chango, student assistance counselor/anti-bullying specialist and comic book aficionado, explained how — particularly as children — we often turn to comic books as a way of confirming our worldview.

Self-verification theory suggests that we often seek out information or relationships that confirms our worldview. So if we already view the world as “good” and “evil,” we will perhaps seek out comic book stories that confirm this worldview. 

“The content of the comics helps validate our worldview as well as the narrative we are creating regarding who we are as people.  Much like a grown-up will follow news feeds and Twitter accounts that are of a like mind to them, kids will find heroes that resonate with them,” Chango explained.

“The kids connect with a particular hero or heroes because they talk and act in a way that the reader identifies with or wants to identify with. The earlier heroes seemed to tap into the readers’ want for fear, mysticism and magical occurrences, as well as clear images of right and wrong, from heroes such as Superman and Captain America.”

In contrast, Reid has always sought out more complex characters, and perhaps more complex interpretations of what might otherwise be considered unidimensional characters, such as Superman.

“We have cast ourselves for a very long time as the heroes of the world narrative. Americans are the good guys in every narrative — truth, justice and the American way. Superman is considered the least interesting among superheroes because he’s a good guy,” Reid said.

Reid was not surprised that in response to 9/11, and the vulnerability that many Americans felt, that people seemed to cling to Superman as an ideal — a powerful and flawless character dedicated to fighting evil. “You know, the number one thing I saw after 9/11 was people wearing Superman T-shirts. A lot of people wore Superman, because they wanted to help at that level.”

But Reid has a different take on Superman; namely, that because he’s an alien, he feels he needs to be extra “good” and flawless to ingratiate himself into a culture that may not accept and even fear him because he is different and potentially harmful. This theme was actually later explored in Five For Fighting’s song “Superman (It’s Not Easy).”

“How we know that Superman is an alien is that he’s not an asshole. I think a lot of immigrant people feel that ‘I’ve got to be a credit.’ There is a kind of oppression that is the oppression of being a credit to your ethnic group, a credit to your race … the ‘I’m a good guy’ thing is because he’s representing so many more people,” Reid explained. “The thing that’s interesting to me is the amount of self-control. He’s Clark Kent, so he has an alter ego. He sits down at a typewriter.

“How does he not make the typewriter explode?”

In contrast to the purely “heroic” portrayal of Superman, Reid found himself drawn much more to the complexity of the character of Batman. In particular, Reid has found that the relationship between the “hero” Batman” and the “villain” Joker revealed how a “hero” like Batman could actually have a lot more in common with a “villain” like the Joker. Reid described the now-deceased Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in the movie “The Dark Knight” in terms of two kindred spirits finding one another. 

“In fact, if you stop and think about Batman … Heath Ledger was incredibly happy. He’s like, ‘Oh, my god, I’ve been trying to find you [Batman] my whole life. I’ve been dealing with idiots.’ When he says, ‘You complete me,’ that’s the scariest line, because Bruce [Wayne] is in denial that what he’s doing is really crazy,” Reid said. “And the Joker just says, ‘You’re my brother.’ And that’s the thing that frightens Bruce more than anything else. He’s thinking, ‘I’m doing this extreme thing. I’m trying to do good.’

“And the Joker’s just saying, ‘You’re crazy.’”

More, Reid feels that comic books often show complicated origins of anti-social or violent behavior, which he feels is more consistent with reality than assuming that villains are pure evil for no specific reason. For example, research suggests that factors such as childhood victimization and poverty can be risk factors to criminal behavior.

Reid sees these complexities explored in comic book series like “X-Men,” where they show how people can be motivated to do evil things. In the comic book, the character of Magneto was a concentration camp survivor who felt that humanity could not be trusted to be kind to mutants (i.e., people with extraordinary powers) — and therefore sought to destroy humanity. His friend Professor X had more faith in humanity and sought to thwart Magneto’s destructive plans.

“Certain abnormal psychological things are actually physical, bad wiring in the brain. Some of the people become villains because they were never given a chance,” Reid said. “And their rage has turned into ‘The best defense is an offense’ which leads to whatever it leads to. Like Magneto, he’s seen the worst of humanity and thinks, ‘Why do I care?’ But Professor X says there’s great nobility in humans and we have to deal with anomalies.”

Reid points out that, ironically, one of the circumstances that may perpetuate “evil” behavior is not when people experience abuse and trauma, but when they “win” and are in power. And he feels that comic books often explore this issue, as “winning” heroes struggle with how to treat defeated villains. For example, there is often a question of whether the conquering hero should kill or imprison a villain – as was seen in both the “Superman” (with General Zod) and “X-Men” (with Magneto) comic book series.

“The problem comes in oftentimes with success. Struggle is one thing. It is a kind of defining thing … all of the principles are intact because you’re being opposed,” Reid explained. “The problem is — and this happens with sports teams; this happens with comic book superheroes; it happens with politicians — the problem is, when you win.

“When you win, are you able to hold on to your principles? Are you able to be humble? Are you able to find new things to talk about – the motivation … . When you get on easy street, that can be the place that is the most dangerous — when your desires are fulfilled.

“And that’s where lightness and darkness can have a crazy interplay.”

Reid considers the potential perils of being in power in the context of our country. As the United States is predominantly Christian, Reid feels that fears of terrorism fuel fear-based and stereotypical depictions of Muslims, thus resulting in an increase in hate crimes against Muslims over the past year.

“Because Christianity dominates, they are able to tell the story of themselves. Winners tell the story of the conflict. Why do people assume that Muslims are more religious than any other person in America? That’s the other thing that’s crazy. You’d think people are banging their head on the floor five times a day. That’s not happening,” Reid explained.

“It fucked me up when I found out that Thomas Jefferson, in his book collection, had a hand-calligraphied Koran. And I was like, ‘Whaaaaat?’ There were Muslims in the country — for the whole history of the country. Wrap that around your brain.

“People are frightened, and this is the easy way out.”

Reid himself describes how he tries not to fall into the trap of stereotyping people with whom he’s not familiar. “Part of the problem is the ongoing, fucked-up narrative of what you think shit is … . They had a documentary about people in Appalachia. And they’re talking to these folks. And I’m listening to these folks,” Reid said. “And I’m like, ‘These folks are broke.’ And these people are living exactly like people in the ghetto … their conversation is not different than people’s in the projects.”

Reid has faith that people are able to pull themselves out of their situation and be empathic towards others.

“One of the things they found in Civil War battlefields — and it was shocking — was the amount of unfired weapons. There’s this idea, this myth, that as soon as you’re in the field you’re going to become a ruthless killing machine. And they’ve found battlefields where on both sides of the conflict, weapons that were unfired,” Reid described. “The Christmas troops in World War II, where soldiers exchanged gifts. Somebody sang ‘Silent Night,’ the soldiers from the other side joined in … . The generals had to threaten and exhort their soldiers to start shooting again. They didn’t want to do it.”

Through his work helping students deal with the complexities of bullying and being bullied, Chango thinks that creative outlets such as comic books can be helpful in allowing children and adults to explore more nuanced views on what previously might have been considered simple topics.

Chango also finds that with children who are predisposed to be more sensitive, or feel more like outsiders, this exploration is particularly valuable for kids who feel that they are not “mainstream.”

“Comics have been tapping a different audience since Day One. Comics have been tapping into the kid who was looking for something new or different since the first hero, Doctor Occult. Now, it’s much cooler and more mainstream to be a ‘nerd’ today, but the kids that come in my office, that talk about comics and superheroes fall into that, historically, fringe group of kids who tend to be a bit more insightful, sensitive and creative. I think kids tend to prefer the grey areas with their heroes because it helps them identify with just being human,” Chango explained.

“Wolverine started off as a guy in a yellow spandex costume, and he has evolved into this grizzled, angry hero. Where Superman and Captain America have this very clear image of good and evil, right and wrong; the Punisher has a similarly black-and-white image of good and bad; but he kills bad.  He doesn’t try to rehabilitate them or offer them salvation. He doesn’t always do the right thing, but he has a huge following for being an anti-hero.”

Still, Chango thinks that it is helpful that even though the “heroes” are flawed that they eventually — more often than not — do the “right thing. He sees this process as a good model for kids who struggle with complex issues, but who ultimately want to be “good” kids.

“As much as they like a guy like Flash or Superman who are quintessential heroes, it’s not practical to be perfect all the time. So a guy like Ant Man, who was a former thief turned hero is much more interesting because of his flaws,” Chango explained. “It would seem to me that kids reading comics, getting that message would gravitate towards being that kind of person that does what’s good or right even when they really don’t feel like it, just like their heroes.

“You have a young kid with a sensitive predisposition reading comics about heroes that are different than everyone else, and they’re saving people who are in dire straights, or helping people be better ... . I think, more often than not, those kids will try to emulate that behavior.”

Ultimately, it would seem as though comic book culture is becoming pervasive enough that the lessons of how comic books portray people and issues can have an impact on culture.

Once considered a fringe activity predominantly for children, as Reid pointed out, comic books are big business. Festivals such as Comic-Con are thriving, drawing thousands of people. And comic books are routinely made into successful blockbuster movies, including “X-Men,” “Batman” and “Spider-Man.”

Also, it would seem that people are demanding more complexity in their characters in other forms of entertainment. Whereas previously we watched TV for “heroes,” now we seem to crave anti-heroes — flawed individuals who struggle just like we do. Thus successful shows like the FX series “Sons of Anarchy” and “The Shield,” as well as AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and Showtime’s “Dexter” and “Homeland” portray deeply flawed — and at times violent and criminal — protagonists.

Reid thinks that the struggle with this kind of complexity can only help society. “And that’s the kind of thing that’s possible with those kind of metaphors or story arcs — the idea of bringing in certain aspects of the world we deal with,” he said.

“When the Joker says to Batman, ‘You complete me,’ he says that to Bruce Wayne’s horror. Because the Joker is able to identify something that he can’t think. And we all have things that we can’t think.

“And to find a way to be able to talk about those things that you think are shameful, embarrassing — to find a way — is one of the most empowering things that can happen in a life.”

Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Contact Dr. Friedman at michaelfriedmanphd.com. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.

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