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Commanding Compassion

| COMMANDERS IN CRISIS explores the political dimension of emotion. |

NOTE: This is a version of a paper presented at the 2021 Comics Studies Society conference on August 7, 2021.


Image Comics’ Commanders in Crisis, written by Steve Orlando with art by Davide Tinto, is hyped as, "A new twist on strange superhero comics, with a bleeding-edge eye on the modern moment," in which "the last survivors of the Multiverse live among us under new, superheroic identities, five survivors of doomed worlds...taking a second chance to ensure our world lives on" and "reminding us about the importance of compassion and hope in the present moment, [while] putting fists to faces along the way!" (Such compassion!) The story is summarized as one in which

five unexpected heroes come together to solve a murder unlike any other. The victim? Compassion itself…This is ideacide!

(This isn't quite accurate, however. The victim is actually Empathy - which is not exactly the same as compassion... But, we'll skip over that point for now.)

Such a premise speaks to both the spirit and the specifics of the current socio-political milieu. In 2006, then-Senator Barack Obama bemoaned an “empathy deficit” in the public sphere, even while scholars optimistically proclaimed an “age of empathy.”


Ten years later, emotions ran high in the 2016 election, with Donald Trump’s fear appeals and Hillary Clinton’s calls for love and kindness.


And, in 2021, President Joe Biden’s inaugural address appealed for unity, “For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.”


Thus, in the front matter of the first collected volume of Commanders in Crisis, Cameron Kasky, activist, writer, organizer, influencer, and political campaign staffer for Andrew Yang, wrote, “Commanders in Crisis is a big, superheroic punch in the face to the grim reality of a country ravaged by hate and apathy.” The same grim reality of hate and apathy is found in the story itself. Orlando sets up issue two by explaining,

It’s a strange, angry world… and it’s getting madder by the day.

As the story unfolds, a proposed "American Individuality Act" is gaining traction in the Senate, threatening to carve America up into fifty-two interdependent, but autonomous, nation-statements. An agreement to disagree, from sea to shining sea.” Meanwhile, the heroes of Crisis Command are trying to save the world from an impending doom hastened by the death of Empathy itself – the “ideacide” of a concept believed to be, as described by Anthony Clohesy, "a necessary condition for justice, democracy and ethics, a necessary condition for us to live well in the world."


Throughout its first nine (of twelve) issues, the heroes not only fight against forces that would hasten the end of civilization but also explore what it means to be human and to act with compassion. They operate from the standpoint that humanity cannot hope to survive without community and that empathy is foundational to communal understanding. But they also slowly realize that empathy and compassion are flawed.


The comic reads, at times, like a political satire or, in some moments, a superhero parody. It also has the overt trappings of a liberal homily, with members of Crisis Command being selected from among countless persons in the multiverse because of the combination of their identities and achievements. Each is a former U.S. President from a parallel universe that was destroyed by the same supernatural apocalyptic force.

Each is a ground-breaker, a first, a pioneer, described as

the leaders of the free world. The pushers of boundaries. Those unafraid to make history.

The first gay, first woman, first Black woman, first Pakistani woman, and first Latinx to be president of their particular United States. Their headquarters is called The Think Tank. But despite the book’s tendency towards exaggeration and didacticism, it engages in a sophisticated debate regarding the emerging discourses on the politics of emotion.


Immediately following the assassination of Empathy, the Crisis Command sets out to resurrect the emotion, hoping to slow the escalating inhumanity and violence in the streets. Their fear, as expressed the hero Seer, is that with Empathy gone, it’s only a matter of time until people start dying. This view is consistent with the scholarly perspective of empathy as the emotional and imaginative capacity to affectively and cognitively understand, and feel with, another or the Other. From this perspective, acquiring a sense of others is a moral virtue and important factor of social life. But, empathy as a concept – and as a foundational element in the public sphere – is not without its limitations. As Naomi Head has articulated, this common view of empathy is abstract, top-down, and sometimes institutionalized. It is a view that tends to ignore the power relations that structure difference and conflict. It is a presumption of privilege that can be used silence the suffering or oppressed.Such weaknesses are also explored in Commanders in Crisis. The heroes recognize that empathy is as much an abstract concept as an emotional experience – one that people may cognitively understand, but not be able to enact. They further acknowledge that empathy requires motivation, and thus explore the possibility that even if the affective aspect of empathy is dead, that it perhaps can be replaced through logic – or what the literature calls cognitive empathy, which invites us to understand the perspective of others without having to share it on an emotional level. The heroes, Prizefighter and Sawbones, consider that

there are reasons to help people that aren’t emotional or moral. If it’s a dog-eat-dog world, everyone gets eaten eventually. Survival is logical.

But this approach is easily manipulated and useful for a nation state that wants to win the hearts and minds of its enemy.


The comic goes further, exploring both the politics of empathy and compassion in the abstract, and also how it manifests in our modern socio-political landscape. The proposed American Individuality Act, for example, synthesizes the kind of individualized state-level policies we saw enacted during the national, and international, COVID crisis – and how states and governors were pitted against one another in the political rhetoric – and it offers an example of the ideology of "compassionate conservativism" that arose at the turn of this century, led by former U.S. President George W. Bush.


In Commanders in Crisis, the act proposes that the USA be dissolved into 52 individual countries, each doing its own thing domestically, but working together against foreign threats. The plan’s supporters describe it as a "family" of states, comparing the idea to how family members often disagree and keep their distance except it times of need and crisis. This is the fundamental idea of compassionate conservativism – the belief that local institutions are the best able to serve the less fortunate, so long as those in need come forward for help. All social membership is voluntary in this view – which also reinforces current state policy to impel people to work harder and to enter nuclear families, at which point state entitlements will step in to protect their economic interests.


The one complication of the politics of empathy and compassion that Commanders in Crisis does not explore is one that is paradoxical, even antithetical, to the superhero genre itself. With its Justice Leagues, Justice Societies, Halls of Justice, and quests for Truth and Justice, the superhero genre is a mythos of justice and order. But, justice and its related concept of mercy are, as Maureen Whitebrook notes, characterized by a form of inequality. The ability to dispense justice or grant mercy denotes power over, and unfavorable judgement of, others. Compassion and pity, on the other hand, are more concerned with equality. Effectively then, compassion denotes action based on feelings of pity (or empathy). But this is not how superheroic justice works. Superheroes are called to do justice from the pragmatic view of justice as a "fair" result predicated on the notion that something is "just" when individuals get what is due to them, which brings us back to situation-specific determinations of guilt, worth, and power relations. It is, therefore, not surprising that Commanders in Crisis, a consummate mega-event superhero book, is ineffective at separating justice from compassion - resulting in the heroes ironically and paradoxically inflicting violence to preserve compassion.


Nonetheless, Commanders in Crisis has lessons to teach readers on both sides of the political, Comicsgate, and vaccination, divides. It shows that sometimes people do horrible things because they feel misunderstood or because they had horrible things done to them and don’t really know better. The murderer of empathy was a disillusioned poor White boy. And while he was visually represented in the cultural stereotype of the incel or MAGA devotee, as depicted in the 2019 film Cuck, he very movingly explained his actions by saying,

The world is full of people that matter. I wanted to show it I was one of them.

It reminds readers that words and representation matter and that ensuring both are fair and right and apt does not happen by chance but by design. Originator – Sumaira Shamsie’s power is alter reality through the creation of new words. In March 2021, AIPT Comics ran an “interview” with Originator in which she explained,

Every word we use can have enormous potency. Take, for example, the word “series”. It can mean a sequence, a distribution or an arrangement, as well as a half a dozen different meanings. It originates from Latin, Serere, to join. Now it is a word we use to interconnect. That is the case for all of language.
The way we speak shapes reality, always, so I learned to be even more deliberate.

Likewise, issue seven reminds readers about the need for deliberate action in representation. As Crisis Command asks the public to believe in the existence of the multiverse, it implores them -and us- to

consider your history and ask yourselves… why did it take the multiverse for people like us to share in power?

And, it reminds readers that survival of the human race requires interdependence and cooperation and that even though our burdens are currently not shared equitably we are, nonetheless, as we have heard so many times during the last seventeen months, still “all in this together.”


~Christina M. Knopf

8 August 2021

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