14 Ways to Rehabilitate a Disgraced Hero
Sometimes a superhero gets dragged through the mud. He does something that, according to the traditional rules his fans hoped he lived by -- moral, legal, or both -- is awful, perhaps even "unpardonable." And yet some of those heroes later get "rehabilitated," restored to a heroic condition where fans are expected to cheer them on once again! Sometimes an "excuse" was planned all along, and in that same issue -- or at the end of a longer story arc -- the excuse was trotted out and waved in our faces so that we could relax, secure in the knowledge that everything important had once again reverted back to the Sacred Status Quo. But right now I'm mostly interested in cases where a writer really and truly intended to portray a hero "going bad," but much later, someone else (or occasionally the same writer?) said, "Hmm. It's Damage Control Time! How can I clean this mess up and put everything back the way it was before, good as new, so that he can convincingly function as a superhero again?" (Although I do cover a few other cases, such as when the "sins" of the hero are retconned in, long after the fact.)
14 Ways to Rehabilitate a Disgraced Hero
02. Mind Control
03. Working Within the Criminal Justice System
04. Death and Rebirth
06. Total Amnesia Retcon
07. Deep Undercover
08. No Evidence
09. Outside of Anybody's Jurisdiction
10. Mindwiped After the Fact
11. Second Thoughts
13. Belated Awareness of the Problem
14. The Retconned Sinful Past
"Why, it's just heartbreaking to think that someone else using my face, my costume, my powers, and my name could have done such terrible things!"
That was the way Jean Grey finally got off the hook for the genocidal behavior of "Dark Phoenix" (previously stated to be Jean gone mad) as it had been depicted years earlier in the "Dark Phoenix Saga." Sure, Dark Phoenix had destroyed a star and thereby wiped out an entire species as a side effect -- the sentient inhabitants of the world D'Bari -- and sure, that was unpardonable, but we were now told the Real Jean was nowhere near D'Bari at the time! She was at the bottom of the Hudson River, sound asleep! Even Uatu the Watcher had been completely gulled by the Impostor as he watched what happened to her in the Blue Area of the Moon. (So much for his vaunted powers of perception!) All this was only revealed in a retcon about five years after the fact, of course. Someone at Marvel apparently said, "Let's start a new title reuniting all five of Charlie Xavier's original students! Of course, we'll need to erase three billion counts of murders from Jean Grey's rap sheet before anyone can call her a 'superhero' again while keeping a straight face . . . but that's a mere technical detail!"
02. Mind Control
"It wasn't my fault! The devil made me do it!"
(For "the devil," we may insert any other phrase that amounts to the same thing, such as "the powerful telepath who seized control of my brain cells" or "the mad scientist with super-duper hypnotic technology that no mortal can resist." Or whatever excuse would explain why the poor hero wasn't really in control of himself under the circumstances, even if no one bothered to share any hints of this with us in the original story of his bad behavior!)
This, of course, was the way Hal Jordan recently got off the hook, long after the fact, for the nasty behavior of Hal/Parallax that began in "Emerald Twilight" and continued in "Zero Hour" and some other stories. His excuse was basically: "Hey, you'd behave in a peculiar fashion too, if you had gradually become 'possessed' by an ancient yellow fear demon! Don't try to tell me you wouldn't!"
Extreme cases include what I call a "Mindswap." Where someone else's mind had been downloaded to the hero's body, while the hero's mind ended up somewhere else entirely -- maybe in the bad guy's original body; maybe somewhere else. In that scenario: photographs, fingerprints, DNA tests, voiceprints, etc., might all "prove" that the hero had committed some dreadful crime . . . but in fact it would only have been his body that was involved, while his mind was somewhere else entirely and remained pure as the driven snow. However: If his mind later got swapped back into the original body, he might have a little trouble proving his "innocence" in court.
03. Working Within the Criminal Justice System
"Yes, I broke the law in a big way. Yes, I was in my right mind and old enough to know better. Yes, I will stand trial and take my lumps if I have to, the way a good citizen is supposed to do."
Instead of trying to "wriggle out" and avoid whatever he has coming, the guilty hero sets an example by freely accepting full responsibility for his own mistakes. Which may well involve a prison sentence. Eventually, the hero may be offered a (perfectly legal) chance to go out into the field again. At which point he would be "rehabilitated" in the eyes of the law.
In the early days of the original "Thunderbolts" title, the initial premise was that a bunch of villains (one incarnation of the Masters of Evil) had disguised themselves to pose as "new heroes" who were trying to fill the void the mysteriously-vanished Avengers had left in New York City. This required actually fighting some crime along the way in order to look good on the six o'clock news. Some of the T-Bolts started enjoying the cheers of the crowds and wondered if they ought to turn the fiction into the reality. Later on, after their sinful pasts had been exposed and public opinion had turned against them, four of the original T-Bolts were on the run (along with new member Jolt, a sincere young hero with no criminal record). While they were desperately trying to figure out what to do now, veteran Avenger (and former criminal) Hawkeye tracked them down and offered to help the T-Bolts work to prove they were born-again heroes . . . on certain conditions. The toughest one was his insistence that Abner Jenkins, formerly known as "the Beetle" and now calling himself "Mach-4," had to turn himself over to the authorities to answer for an old murder charge that was still outstanding against him. (And he was guilty of it, too.) Jenkins ended up biting the bullet and doing this; ending up in a prison cell and thus showing the readers that his newfound desire to "redeem himself" was more than just cheap talk that wasn't supposed to cost him anything.
Note: Meanwhile, showing us that he had the sort of "flexible ethics" that would let him fit right in with the T-Bolts, Hawkeye was lying through his teeth when he led the T-Bolts to believe that if Abner Jenkins voluntarily turned himself, and if the T-Bolts complied with Hawkeye's other ideas, then the U.S. government was prepared to sanction letting the other wanted criminals among the T-Bolts run loose long enough to have a fair chance to prove they had turned over a new leaf. The truth was that nobody had authorized Hawkeye to make any such offer, but it seems he was afraid the T-Bolts might revert back to their villainous ways if he didn't dangle enough hope in front of them! (Except for Jolt, of course, since she had never had any villainous ways in the first place, so the chance of her reverting back to them was minuscule.)
Eventually Abner got loose to serve with the T-Bolts again, not by breaking out of prison as supervillains so frequently do, but legally, as part of a deal from the federal government. Which was supposed to be seen as a huge step in the direction of formal "rehabilitation," apparently.
04. Death and Rebirth
"I already died for my sins -- what more do you want from me? Capital punishment isn't good enough to satisfy you that justice has been done?"
Once upon a time (and this is a true story) a prisoner who was serving a life sentence sued to be released from the penitentiary, on the grounds that recently his heart had stopped beating during a surgical operation, and therefore he had "died," and therefore his "life sentence" had expired when his heart quit beating . . . and the trivial fact that the doctors had quickly managed to get his heart to start beating again was a minor detail that had no relevance to the termination of his life sentence!
The court was not overly impressed by this argument. The judge ruled that such a brief cessation of heartbeat did not constitute becoming legally dead, and the prisoner therefore had to keep serving his life sentence. (I think the judge was right, but I don't blame the prisoner for trying!)
But what if his heart had stopped beating for a much longer period, such as a month or a year, before he made a miraculous recovery? Would the judge have been more sympathetic to the claim that he had legally "died" before he just happened to "come back to life" later on?
Some "heroes" have used this approach in their own "rehabilitations." For example, Hal Jordan sacrificed himself in a heroic gesture at the end of "The Final Night." Having done that, he subsequently came back as The Spectre in another big DCU event; presumably God was willing to give him a second chance now that he'd already "died for his sins." (This was all done long before DC decided to go for the extra point by retconning in the "Mind Control" excuse to explain why it hadn't really been Hal's fault and he should now be seen as "trustworthy" again.)
Also: Elektra had been a professional assassin for years before Bullseye killed her in the Elektra Saga. Her body was handled in the normal fashion by the proper authorities -- identified, autopsied, embalmed, buried. Then she eventually came back from the grave. I'm not a huge expert on all the details of her subsequent continuity, but I believe she's at least occasionally been presented as something of a "hero" in one title or another since that time. I don't think Daredevil or any other heroes who know her biography have ever shown much interest in tracking her down and making her stand trial in various countries for all those old assassinations. I strongly suspect they assuage their consciences by tellimg themselves that she's already paid the ultimate penalty (violent death) for the sins of her "past life."
"Shucks, a nice girl like me could never do such nasty stuff! The story you heard must be purely apocryphal!"
Arguably, this is the simplest, tidiest way to handle incredibly bad behavior on the part of a character who is really expected to know better. No fancy excuses; no sudden revelations of mind-control or impersonation; just erase the entire thing, in every detail, with one big retcon! It simply never happened in the revised history; therfore, faithful fans of the character should never lose any sleep over it again!
As one example: In the late 80s, not long after Batman and his supporting cast made the transition to Post-Crisis continuity, Catwoman killed two security guards in "Action Comics Weekly #614" in order to frame another man for the murder, since that guy was responsible for other nasty stuff which she apparently felt couldn't be proved in court. This was bizarre. Even if we granted that Selina Kyle was ready to murder someone in the pursuit of "vengeance" or "justice," why not just kill the bad guy himself, vigilante style, and call it a day? If she was running around gratuitously killing innocent bystanders just to make life miserable for someone else, how did this make her any better than the guy she was supposedly "punishing"?
It is my understanding that this story was eventually deemed so painfully embarrassing that it was retconned into oblivion, although I don't know exactly when (or if?) that was "formally announced" by an editor.
DC's recent "Infinite Crisis" has provided ample excuse for other Retcon-Erasures of embarrasing Pre-IC stories to be imposed as editors and writers on specific titles see fit. As did "Zero Hour" before that, and "Crisis on Infinite Earths" before that!
Variations would be to say that an old story was somebody's dream sequence, or only happened in an obscure alternate timeline that will never be heard from again, or it was all a computer simulation of hypothetical events, or whatever. Those approaches all amount to the same thing: "As far as our characters in this ongoing title are concerned: It never happened!"
06. Total Amnesia Retcon
"Never apologize, never explain; that's my motto! Let's just never talk about this messy situation again! Maybe that means it never happened, or maybe we all just forgot about it! Who knows? Who cares?"
"Total Amnesia Retcon" has long been my pet name for the deliberately ambiguous situation which arises when the publishing company chooses to ignore an embarrassing old story and stop referring to its memorable events in new stories. (No matter how heavily those events logically ought to be weighing upon the minds of any conscientious hero.) Maybe this means the old story has been "retconned" into limbo without anyone coming right out and saying so. Maybe this means all the surviving participants of the controversial events of that old story have somehow developed "amnesia" about the ugly details. It's very hard for the longtime readers of a certain character's adventures to judge, because the writers and editors working on the title don't lift a finger to "clarify" anything. They seem to subscribe to the policy: "Ignore it and maybe it will go away!"
In my experience, Marvel seems especially prone to take this laidback approach to embarrassing old stories that logically should have had far-reaching consequences, but DC certainly has handled things this way too! (If totally ignoring the problem really qualifies as a method of "handling" it?)
To help you see what I mean: Here's one example where the Total Amnesia Retcon approach has apparently been used on a plot twist that I agree never should have been published as happening "in continuity" in the first place.
I did not read DC's "Last Laugh" miniseries of a few years ago, but I have heard that in the course of it, Nightwing lost his temper and beat the Joker to death. "Death" in the sense that the Clown Prince of Crime's heart stopped beating for awhile, from the shock. Then, apparently, some Good Samaritan performed CPR and brought the Joker "back to life" before there was any permanent brain damage (as far as we can tell). I've also heard that in some follow-up material in Nightwing's own title he apparently felt very guilty about such murderous loss of control . . . for about ten minutes. Then he and everyone else quietly forgot the entire thing and it may never have been referred to again!
So we can either assume that Nightwing and anyone else who logically should have heard about this incident have long since shoved it completely out of their minds as not worth fussing about any more -- or we can assume that someone at DC belatedly said, "Letting Nightwing basically get away with murder (or attempted murder)? Man, that was a dumb idea! Let's sweep it under the rug without admitting that we made fools of ourselves by publishing it; nor admitting that we are fixing the mistake with a Retcon-Erasure!" You can believe whatever you want to believe!
(I recently heard a rumor that a lot of other bad stuff that happened in Nightwing's title over the last few years is going to get much the same treatment -- as if it either never happened or has been mercifully forgotten by all parties involved. I don't know that for a fact, however.)
07. Deep Undercover
"Ah, shucks, you didn't really think I had gone bad, did you? But pretending I had was the only way to get properly positioned for what I really needed to do!"
I've seen this done various times as a built-in escape clause for a single story or arc, planned that way from the start. The hero in question still had the moral standards he had adhered to before; but the "crimes" he was committing were the only way he could move steadily closer to his Vitally Important Goal. Back in the Silver Age, it was quite common to see a DC comic book with a cover featuring a hero (Superman, for instance) doing something utterly outrageous on the cover . . . and then, by the final page of the relevant story, it would turn out that there was a perfectly good explanation. Sometimes the explanations involved impersonators, parallel worlds, mind control, or whatever . . . but sometimes it turned out the hero had been "in his right mind" all along, but found it necessary to "play along" with someone as a means to an end, in order to prevent some terrible tragedy from occurring.
Offhand, I'm having trouble thinking of a really good example where some superhero who previously had a proud record of achievement has appeared to utterly disgrace himself -- and then it's only been revealed to the readers years later that the hero was merely working "undercover" and pretending to be much worse than he ever was. (Although it's certainly been done the other way around, where we are suddenly informed that someone, a fellow hero or a friend or relative whom one or more heroes had trusted for years, was actually a bad guy running a long-term deception against them. DC's "Millennium" event was full of such retconned disclosures.)
08. No Evidence
"Yeah, maybe I made a big mistake. Illegal, unethical, whatever. But nobody is around to testify against me, so why worry? No criminal charges! My public image is still squeaky-clean!"
In other words, the hero did do something bad when he really should have known better. But there's a serious shortage of eyewitnesses who are ready, willing, and able to testify against him in court, and little or nothing in the way of solid physical evidence, so it looks like he'll get away with it! The alert and conscientious reader may see something wrong with this picture -- but the general public within the superhero's fictional universe doesn't know anything about it, so tricky questions of "penance" or "rehabilitation" or "spin doctoring" never even come up!
Let me provide an example from the Pre-Crisis Superman continuity.
In "Action Comics #500," Lex Luthor surreptitiously obtained a skin sample from Superman and used it to grow (incredibly fast!) a perfect clone of him, all the way to physical adulthood. He also arranged to copy Superman's memories and transfer them directly into the clone's brain -- with one tiny little modification. The Superman-Clone now felt vast respect and admiration for that brilliant humanitarian, the tragically misunderstood Lex Luthor. The plan, of course, was to have the Superman-Clone quietly "replace" the regular Superman and then Lex would have a much easier time in the future because the Superman-Clone wouldn't keep trying to arrest him every time small-minded people started screaming about what a terrible criminal Lex was. (Granted: This plan overlooked the possibility that Supergirl and the JLA would eventually notice something was badly wrong and take steps to deal with it.)
At the very end of that story, the real Superman had managed to break out of a trap Luthor had him in, and he fought and ultimately defeated his clone. This was done with a piece of Gold Kryptonite which permanently removed the Superman-Clone's Kryptonian powers, making him the physical equivalent of a normal human being. The story ended there.
Then two years went by without a single word of follow-up on just what the heck had happened to the Superman-Clone, bearing in mind that he might be powerless, but still possessed a complete set of Superman's memories -- including everything connected to his secret identity as "Clark Kent".
The Clone had not killed anybody, and I'm not sure he had even tried to kill Superman when they were slugging it out. (After all, Lex didn't say anything about trying to change his core moral values to make him a cold-blooded sociopath.) For a first offense -- basically just a big slugfest with Superman -- I imagine he might have gotten off with a suspended sentence, or at least a very light one, provided that he made repentant noises to the judge and perhaps agreed to make financial restitution when he could for any damage he had caused to other people's property. But that would require that he actually stand trial in the first place!
In "Action Comics #524" we learned the Superman-Clone had never seen the inside of a courtroom. Superman had taken it upon himself to act as prosecutor, judge, and jury, find the clone "guilty," take him to the Fortress of Solitude, and imprison him. Then he left him there indefinitely, sealed off from the outside world, after making arrangements for the Clone to have food and water and so forth so he wouldn't actually die anytime soon! (Yeah, yeah, all this was technically in violation of various pieces of the Bill of Rights and other laws. But Superman didn't let a little thing like that stop him! By implication, his self-centered attitude appears to have been that protecting his own secret identity was far more important than granting the Clone any pesky "civil rights.")
By the end of "Action Comics #524" Superman had finally reconsidered. He set the Clone up with a new life as a journalist (since the Clone still had the appropriate memories that went with the education and professional experience of being "Clark Kent.") But beyond that, there was never any sign that Superman would ever need to defend himself in court for his callous disregard of the Clone's right to a trial by jury before being imprisoned incommunicado. I have not been able to find the exact source, but I believe Bob Ingersoll once addressed this in an installment of his "The Law is a Ass" column in which he looks at how comic book stories have mangled the legal process in various ways over the years. As I recall, Ingersoll once responded to a fan letter that asked how Superman got away with such high-handed behavior, totally skipping over anything resembling "due process," and Ingersoll's reply was something like this (loosely paraphrased from my imperfect memory):
"How did he get away with it? That's simple! No one else knew just where the Clone had ended up or how he was being treated! The authorities were not in a position to waltz into the Fortress of Solitude and check up on whether Superman was holding any prisoners unlawfully! Hey, I never said I was going to explain how this imprisonment was legally or morally justified. I only said I'd explain how he got away with it!"
09. Outside of Anybody's Jurisdiction
In the late 80s, the Post-Crisis Superman executed three "Phantom Zone Criminals" on a Pocket Universe Earth who had gotten out of the Zone and then had slaughtered every human being on the planet over the last few years. Their powers (essentially those of a Pre-Crisis Kryptonian under a yellow sun) were dramatically stronger than the more limited powers of Superman as a Post-Crisis Kryptonian under a yellow sun, so he had a very tough time trying to deal with them. However: By the final pages of the story arc, the trio had lost their powers due to a piece of Gold K. But they were openly boasting that sooner or later they figured they'd find a way to regain their powers and continue their genocidal ways. Superman basically appointed himself judge, jury, and executioner, and killed them with a piece of Green K, both to punish them for billions of murders and to make absolutely sure they'd never break loose and commit any more in the future. So Superman had finally crossed over a line that he'd previously had for himself about not killing people. (His self-imposed line, like that of Batman and other heroes, has traditionally been much stricter than the lines that most people in real life tolerate, where there are exceptions for such things as self-defense and acts of war.)
But it didn't hurt his reputation any back home, nor did he ever have to stand trial for what he had done. One of the reasons he got away with this was #08 -- No Evidence. No authorities back on his own Earth were going to know anything had happened unless Superman personally chose to tell them. But there was another reason he got away with it: Even if he had told all in a public statement upon his return home, what could anyone do about it, legally? Things that happened on a different planet, in a different universe, would be way outside the jurisdiction of local or federal prosecutors based in Metropolis (or any other prosecutor anywhere on the face of the Earth, for that matter!). So whether or not Superman's actions were "good" or "bad" was essentially irrelevant from the legal point of view!
(Of course, given that every human inhabitant of that Pocket Universe Earth had already been killed off at that point, we could make an argument that Superman, as the only person around who was old enough to vote and who wasn't currently incarcerated on well-documented charges of genocide, had every right to elect himself to every single post in the government -- trial judge, prosecutor, court of appeals, executioner, etc. -- in a landslide election (100% of the vote!), in which case he was only carrying out a "perfectly legal execution." He didn't say that this was his rationale at the time, however.)
10. Mindwiped After the Fact
"Can you really blame me for things I don't remember doing? Read my mind telepathically! Hook me up to a polygraph! Use any reasonable test! You'll find I really don't remember ever being the awful person you describe!"
Scott Lobdell once "introduced" into the "Uncanny X-Men" title a character named Joseph. He had silver hair and incredible magnetic powers and total amnesia (beyond being able to speak English and perhaps some other languages). The obvious conclusion was that he was Magneto, apparently looking younger than he had when last seen, and without any memories of his previous misdeeds. Basically starting over with a clean slate. (A couple of years later, it was revealed that Joseph and Magneto were two separate people, but there is a rumor -- I don't know how accurate - that Lobdell originally meant for Joseph to truly be Magneto starting a "new life," plain and simple.)
What Lobdell allegedly wanted to do with Magneto by giving him a "clean slate" is much the same as what was later done (via retcon) to Terra, the Titans character (or characters) at DC. In the early 1980s, Terra I (Tara Markov) infiltrated the New Teen Titans and eventually betrayed their secrets to her partner in crime, Deathstroke the Terminator, as she had planned all along. Then she died in battle after finally going totally berserk and losing control of her own powers. After the battle, Terra's body was found, identified, and given a nice funeral. Presumably it had a full autopsy before it was embalmed and placed in the coffin. That all adds up to being about as dead as any character can possibly get, right?
Several years later, Terra II debuted as part of a group of "Team Titans" who travelled back to the DCU of the early 90s from an alternate future timeline. She was a bit of a mystery. She had the same face and powers and much the same costume as Terra I, but none of the memories -- and a personality that was considerably easier to get along with, if you could give her a fair chance. (No murderous psychotic fits, for instance -- that's always a good sign!)
Marv Wolfman, the original writer on both of the Terras, has stated that it was never his intention to have Terra II actually turn out to be Terra I making a comeback. However, several years ago (after Marv was no longer the main Titans writer for DC) a DNA test allegedly "proved" that Terra II really is Terra I, minus any memory of that "past life" . . . except that Geo-Force, brother of Terra I, looked at the results for her and then lied about them to Terra II to make her feel happy. So that even if there was some sneaky substitution of bodies at the last moment by the Time Trapper, say, and even if the girl known as Terra II is really just a sweeter personality that's somehow been created inside the living body of what was once the insane and treacherous Terra I, Terra II honestly thinks she must be someone else entirely! (And just about everyone else in the DCU except Geo-Force ought to share that belief at this point, as far as I know.) Therefore, she presumably could continue doing superheroic things with a clear conscience and without worrying about being arrested for any felonies Terra I may have once committed!
Note: I mention that last part, about not being arrested, because in the American criminal justice system -- and probably most other such systems -- just saying "I don't remember ccommitting that awful crime" is not considered much of an excuse if the weight of the evidence says that you did in fact commit that crime! Even if the judge is convinced you're telling the truth about your severe memory problems (and I suspect he'd start with a certain skepticism on that point), he's not just going to slap you on the wrist and then say you're free to go. So Terra II's major protection from being prosecuted for the sins of her "predecessor" seems to be that American prosecutors -- and those of any other governments that might be interested, since Terra I had apparently done various nasty things that the Titans never knew about -- simply don't know about the results of that DNA test.
11. Second Thoughts
"I started to do that, but after the story ended, I changed my mind before any real harm was done!"
In 1988, at the end of the "Ten Nights of the Beast" story arc written by Jim Starlin, Batman had chased the assassin known as the KGBeast down into the sewers of Gotham City, where he finally managed to secure an advantage (despite the Beast being stronger and faster than he was). They ended up in a section of the sewer system that Batman knew like the back of his hand, whereas the Beast was apparently improvising wildly at this point and ended up running into a room that turned out to be a dead end -- solid concrete walls and only one door. The door was a big heavy watertight thing that could only be locked and unlocked from the outside (I don't know enough about sewer systems to say whether this is realistic) and Batman, instead of stepping into the room for one last man-to-man duel to the death as the Beast challenged him to do, shut the door, locked it, and walked away.
Although Batman did not say this in so many words, the Obvious Implication was that he intended to leave the Beast down there to die of hunger and thirst -- or possibly of asphyxiation if the chamber was truly airtight so that he'd run out of oxygen before the lack of water became an urgent problem.
(In Batman's defense: Starlin had previously had a CIA guy suggest that if the Beast was taken in alive, the USSR might then find a way to "prove" he had diplomatic immunity and should be handed over to them instead of standing trial in Gotham for dozens of recent murders. Then they might - for the sake of argument - find a way to brainwash the Beast into being a good little servant of the USSR's official policies again. So Batman was afraid, rightly or wrongly, that he wasn't looking at a choice of "either kill the mass-murderering bad guy or see him locked up for the rest of his life," but a choice of "either kill the mass-murdering bad guy or see him walk away with a mere slap on his wrist and do it all over again," which didn't appeal to him.)
About a year and a half went by with no further word of the Beast at all. Then Marv Wolfman started a run on "Batman" with a four-part story arc titled "Year Three." Unlike Batman's previous "Year One" and "Year Two" arcs, which were entirely set in the early days of his career, this one was partially happening "in the present day." In one such scene ("Batman #439"), Nightwing and Batman had the following exchange about Batman's attitude toward criminals lately, according to things Nightwing had heard through the grapevine:
NIGHTWING: You nearly let one of them die, locked away in the subway tunnel.
BATMAN: I informed the police.
NIGHTWING: Hours later. On second thought. It didn't matter that he had already escaped - you considered letting him die.
Batman didn't argue that point any further. Wolfman was trying to insert a very gentle retcon. He was not denying the "truth" of any of Batman's actions, spoken dialogue, or narrative captions as they had been previously reported within the pages of "Ten Nights of the Beast." He was only adding to our understanding of what had happened "offstage," shortly after the closing sequence of "Ten Nights of the Beast," by suggesting that after chewing on the moral issues a bit longer, Batman had exercised his free will and Changed His Mind about taking it upon himself to impose a death sentence -- long before there had been enough time for the Beast to actually die of thirst or anything like that.
"It wasn't my fault! If I didn't commit those crimes, my enemies were going to do something much worse!"
I often see those words, "blackmail" and "extortion," used mistakenly. Some people seem to think they are perfectly interchangeable. Let me put it this way: Suppose I'm a superhero and suppose someone says to me, "I've kidnapped four of your friends and I will shoot them, one by one, if you don't do exactly as I say." That's extortion. He's using a scary threat to make me do things I would otherwise never choose to do. But up until this time, I haven't done anything seriously wrong.
On the other hand, if he has dug up some dirt from my past and says, "Do exactly as I say or I show the world the proof that you were one of the men who robbed the Third Bank of Gotham City five years ago and got away with it," that's blackmail. I already did something seriously wrong, but I managed to keep it quiet at the time, and now he's using his knowledge of it as leverage against me. See the difference?
There have been plenty of stories where a villain used extortion or blackmail to get a hero to do certain dirty jobs for him (grand theft, for instance). However, we usually found out what was really going on within the same story, after we'd been shocked by the criminal behavior shown on the cover! I've had trouble finding a really good example of a case where a hero appeared to have "fallen from grace" and then, long after the fact, was "rehabilitated" in the readers' eyes by retconned disclosures about extortion or blackmail as mitigating circumstances.
13. Belated Awareness of the Problem
"Oh, was that a serious sin? Somehow, that never occurred to me at the time! Why didn't you say something sooner? Anyway, I don't do that anymore."
This one is a tricky case where the writer of the original story did not intend to show the hero "tarnishing" himself by doing something Very Wrong. But other people -- fans, other writers who come along later, etc. -- may end up concluding that this was exactly what the writer of that story achieved anyway, even if he did it accidentally rather than maliciously!
There are a couple of different ways to handle that, if "damage control" seems necessary, long after the fact, and if the current writer on a title doesn't choose to just bite the bullet and erase the whole thing. He can have the hero say, "Sure, I used to do that sort of thing -- but I've long since developed a stronger set of ethics for my own behavior, by trial and error. I don't do that stuff anymore and I'm sorry I ever did!" Or the writer can try to retcon it slightly, admitting that it still happened (more or less), but "revealing" that there were much better reasons for some of that stuff than met the eye at the time!
The first approach was used with Professor X, beginning around the late 70s and early 80s, I believe. Chris Claremont's scripts acknowledged that the Professor used to be pretty trigger-happy (in the Silver Age, mainly) about mindwiping people just enough to remove sensitive information about the X-Men from their memories. But the scripts also suggested that Charles Xavier had developed a stronger sense of respect for the mental privacy of innocent bystanders since then -- even when it was inconvenient.
Well, he'd more or less developed such a sense, anyway -- a dramatic moment in the Dark Phoenix Saga came when "Jean Grey" mindwiped the parents of Kitty Pryde in order to make them forget their daughter had recently been in any danger, and persuaded Mr. Pryde to approve of sending her to Xavier's school after all. Professor Xavier was right there when this happened, and was as startled as Cyclops or any of the other X-Men by "Jean's" unexpected breach of her own previous ethics against uninvited tampering with innocent minds . . . but Xavier didn't lift a mental finger to "undo" this "wrong" and give Mr. and Mrs. Pryde their full memories back, same as before! Since Xavier easily could have fixed the problem, but instead chose to keep his mouth shut and benefit from what had just happened, I believe a lawyer would call him "an accessory after the fact."
(Naturally, "Jean's" own bad behavior there was later wiped off the board as part of the Impersonation Retcon that was used to make it clear that "the real Jean" and "the Jean who became Dark Phoenix" had been two separate entities, as mentioned in #01, above.)
The second approach -- a mild retcon to provide extra justification for what arguably came across as insanely bad behavior in a previous story -- was used by John Byrne during his long run on the Fantastic Four, to explain why Reed Richards had once had Galactus on the ropes, when Galactus had been about to devour Earth in order to replenish his flagging strength, and Reed had then persuaded a coalition of fellow heroes that it was their moral duty to get Galactus out into space, close to some other planet he could devour, rather than just let him fade away and die for lack of planetary sustence. Inevitably, Reed had to know that in the future Galactus would sometimes devour planets that were populated by billions of sentient beings of one species or another (as he had done many times before), but Reed apparently figured that as long as they could make sure Earth wasn't the next planet on his list, everything would be hunky-dory!
No, this didn't make much sense the way it was presented at the time. It did show a nasty strain of callous speciesism -- the obvious implication about Reed's moral values was that he meant the following: "Galactus can be turned loose to kill billions and billions of other people in the foreseeable future, as long as they aren't us human beings! That's all that really matters!" Not exactly the attitude we like to see in our "superheroes."
When placed on trial in a later storyline, Reed Richards -- and some high-powered "witnesses" who dropped in, as well -- rattled off some convoluted philosophical "justifications" for leaving Notorious Mass Murderer Galactus alive and running loose around the cosmos indefinitely. Excuses that, whether they were right or wrong, had never been mentioned as motivating factors in the original story! These after-the-fact philosophical subtleties and implications and so forth were all being shamelessly retconned in, as part of an effort to belatedly persuade the reader that although the old story had "really happened," Reed hadn't simply gone stark raving mad at the time.
14. The Retconned Sinful Past
"Gee, I always thought I was a reasonably clean-living young hero . . . until somebody retconned in a bunch of old sins from way back when!"
In other words, instead of seeing the hero commit some serious sins "right now" and then try to atone for them over the next several issues (or the next several years, or whatever), we suddenly learn, after we've already known him (or thought we did) for ages, that he already committed those sins years ago and has long since repented of his foolish mistakes and become a much better person! (So why hold grudges over "ancient history"?)
One example would be the way we learned in "Identity Crisis" that Zatanna had succumbed to peer pressure from other members of the JLA and done quite a bit of mystical mindwiping in her early days as a member -- including wiping out ten minutes or so of Batman's memory when he interrupted their mindwiping of someone else. In the subsequent "JLA: Crisis of Conscience" story arc, Geoff Johns stressed the point that Zatanna has felt guilty about that ever since, and has worked out a modified set of ethics for mindwiping that doesn't involve doing it to a fellow hero in the heat of the moment. So we're supposed to accept that by the time we ever found out she once mindwiped a fellow superhero, she had already spent years agonizing over the ethics of it and "rehabilitating" herself behind the scenes of the stories she actually appeared in from the late 70s onward!
As always when I do something this long, I take it for granted that there's room for improvement. For instance: If you can think of any other ways superheroes have been "rehabilitated" after "bad behavior," please say so! If you make a persuasive case that I completely overlooked something, and you can provide at least one example of how your method has been used before, then I may someday post a "second draft" of this piece with your idea incorporated into my list!
As some of you may have already guessed, I first started making notes on "Rehabilitation Methods" when I was chewing on the problem of how Cassandra Cain, the third Batgirl, might someday be "rehabilitated" after the way her character was dragged through the gutter in 2006. Then I decided it would make more sense to first draw up a master list of all the ways other superheroes have actually been "rehabilitated" over the years, and worry about the details of Cassandra's case later on. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, I intend to post a list of possible scenarios I might use if, hypothetically, it became my job to write a sequence of events that would restore Cassandra Cain to her role as a public-spirited and definitely non-murderous superhero!