Mega Man Morality: The Debate About Forgiveness, Ethics And The Nature Of The Soul (Seriously)
Back when it first started up, I wrote a review of Archie's Mega Man comic where I called it "the smartest superhero comic on the stands," mostly because of the way that it took on some pretty serious ideas without detracting from the accessible, all-ages adventure that made it such a fun read. That bit in the first arc where Mega Man starts to withdraw from his family, becoming cold and, well, robotic because of the psychological toll of destroying other robots like himself is still one of my favorite scenes in comics from the past few years.
Forty issues later, I can still stand by that statement. Mega Man hasn't just continued building one of the most enjoyably action-packed stories around the bare-bones plot of "go right, shoot robots" that it got from the video games, it's also having conversations about ethics, forgiveness and what it means to love someone that nobody else in comics is coming close to. And it's great.
One of the biggest elements of what Ian Flynn, Tyson Hesse, Mike Cavallaro, Ben Bates, Ryan Jampole, Powree and the other creators involved in Mega Man have been doing over the past few years is how simple it is. It makes sense, too, when you look at what they're working with, an attempt to not just adapt the bare-bones story of the original NES games into a comic series, but to stretch them out and create an entire world around them where things matters. Seeing them navigate that particular bit of gymnastics has actually been one of the best parts for me as a reader -- as much as I love those games, "Dr. Wily made some new robots that need blowing up" is a plot that would probably get real old, real quick when you're seeing it in a passive medium like comics -- and they've done a great job of fleshing things out and adding character and backstory where there wasn't any before.
And it's worked, too. After almost four years, the storyline of the comics is only just now getting around to the events of Mega Man 3. Even if you take the big Sonic the Hedgehog crossover and the anniversary celebration (which, to be honest, was a bit of a mess if you're not completely in love with complicated video game continuity), that's a pretty impressive bit of decompression.
But even though there might be more to it, it's still presented as being pretty simple. Everything's right there on the surface -- a friend of mine on Twitter mentioned how charmed she was that they did a big crossover with Sonic where their worlds collided that was called "Worlds Collide," and that was followed by a story about a global blackout called "Blackout." Part of that, of course, is the nature of the book, spinning the simple ideas of an 8-bit video game into adventure stories for kids. It's not exactly subtle, so when I say that this is a book having conversations about morality, forgiveness and whether it's right to create artificial life that can feel emotions, that's exactly what I mean: There are actual characters within the books having conversations.
The thing is, it all works. It all flows naturally from the action -- the scene above, where Doctors Light and Lalinde find themselves on an impromptu double date with the book's resident cops, is in reaction to a terrorist attack that struck a robotics conference while they were having a debate about the nature of artificial life. It's not a matter of stopping the action for the sake of a moral lesson, it's characters reacting to the world around them, talking about things in a way that makes sense. And since the world around them is full of robots that were ostensibly created for peaceful purposes being weaponized for both good and evil purposes, those are the discussions that we get to see.
Mega Man himself is obviously at the heart of a lot of these, and the most recent example came as a follow up to "The Curse of Ra Moon," which, shockingly, was not about an actual curse. Instead, it's a story that bridges Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3, laying the groundwork for Dr. Wily's seeming reformation and Proto Man's return as an uneasy adversary. During that story, Mega Man is essentially "killed." His body is damaged badly enough that he shuts down, and while he's repaired and ends up saving the day by destroying Ra Moon, an alien robot.
In the aftermath of that story, Mega Man returns to Ra Moon's South American stronghold, and ends up dealing with a lot of complicated feelings that make perfect sense given what he's been through. There's the fear that he didn't actually kill Ra Moon and he's still in danger, the relief when he finds out that he did, and then, most interesting of all, worry about whether it's right to feel joy from killing, even if the thing you killed was demonstrably evil.
As much as superhero comics tend to be built on a pretty rigid moral structure, that's not the kind of discussion you ever really see, especially not with another character replying that there aren't a lot of easy answers. In a lot of ways, it's the kind of conversation you could only really have in a book about robots, where their bodies can be blown up in as many creative ways as necessary only to be rebuilt and reprogrammed as good guys.
But that, in turn, is what makes Quake Woman so interesting.
Unless I missed something in the 30-odd Mega Man games that I've played over the years, Quake Woman is entirely the invention of the Archie comics -- specifically Ian Flynn and Jonathan Hill, helping to get around the fact that the games are pretty lacking in women -- and her arc over the course of the series has become one of the most compelling stories in comics.
See, the deal with Mega Man is that the title character (obviously) represents a massive step forward for robotics. He isn't quite a full-on thinking, feeling artificial intelligence -- that, after all, is the canonical domain of Mega Man X -- but it's close enough that he has emotions, thoughts and a personality that are pretty much indistinguishable from human. Quake Woman, alias Tempo, the creation of Dr. Lalinde, is the flipside to that. Like Mega Man, she was built as an ersatz child for her creator, but when she was damaged in an accident, Dr. Lalinde took away her personality in fear that she was harming a "child" by giving it the ability to feel.
That in and of itself is a pretty interesting idea, and brings up a lot of questions that are debated within the book about whether it's right to take away someone's ability to feel in order to spare them the pain that inevitably comes from being alive -- and to spare yourself the pain of watching them suffer. In the end, Tempo gets her personality back, but that's not the end of the debate, or of the story. It's continued through the run of the series, with Tempo becoming a complicated character who represents an interesting contrast to the Santa Clausish Dr. Light and his cheery commitment to creating a robotic family. While Light is invariably shown to be giving to a fault -- there's a pretty amazing scene recently where he explains why he accepts Dr. Wily back into the fold after two attempts at world domination, despite everyone else in the book telling him, correctly, that this is a terrible idea -- Lalinde and Tempo are far more complicated.
And when Proto Man shows up, with a similar element in his backstory of wondering if his personality can be taken away, robbing him of himself, it leads to some pretty fascinating character interaction.
As it goes on, it's revealed that Tempo is deeply conflicted. She doesn't only worry about her own fate, but whether her mother will be driven to take away her personality again, and the trust that you have to put in someone, both to allow them to live their own life and to hope that they won't abuse their power over you. But she's willing to put that trust in Dr. Lalinde.
It's pretty heavy stuff, and even though we're shown a "right" answer -- that it's a good thing for robots to advance to the next stage of development -- the question hangs over the series in a way that's really fascinating. There's a lot to it, and as much as it lacks subtlety, it never talks down to its audience, instead presenting multiple points of view from characters on both side of its Good and Evil battle lines.
And all that's happening while it's still barreling through a zippy adventure with robot dogs that turn into rocket sleds.