Dexter: Pathos & Ethos of the Super Hero – Part 1

Not long ago, while winding down a day with an episode of Dexter, my betrothed turned to me and asked if I thought that Dexter’s actions are acceptable.  Vis-à-vis, is the killing of one murderer by another murderer a morally just outcome?

At first my thinking in the discussion that followed revolved around the real world. Evaluating my moral principles (murder is always wrong, no matter how justified) within the construct of living in modern-day America, and all the enactments of law and recourse it provides, quickly became a poor model to me in terms of the program. The crimes we’re generally faced with in reality, particularly on the evening news, are curt and reckless. They exist in the realm of information: facts, linear developments, static characters—not the realm of storytelling as a locus. This subtle break from reality into fiction plays a significant role in adapting our collective morality: when what we abhor in the real, we revel in the fantasy.

Obviously, Dexter is a scripted television program. We know it’s fictional. One can watch Michael C. Hall be interviewed and hear him talk like a normal human being. And as fans of the show are keenly aware, the character of Dexter Morgan is based on the novel about a serial killer, written by Jeff Lindsay, Darkly Dreaming Dexter (after the first season, subsequent seasons are written independently from Lindsay’s continuing novels on the character). In thinking about the question, which has remained lodged in my head for some time now, the thought occurred to me that while Dexter appears as a sort of anti-hero protagonist, his character is based on the traditional paradigm of comic book heroes of yore: Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, et al.

At first the idea struck me as absurd; after all, it’s a show about a sociopathic serial killer, not a search for truth, justice, and the American way. But part of the ingeniousness of the series is found in modernizing an older, culturally devoured model into a mode that’s edgy, and a bit more sophisticated in the 21st century.

It’s not difficult to find similarities in the origin of Dexter with a number of popular heroes from Pax Americana Graphica Novela: Take a troubled childhood for example. Dexter Morgan witnessed the brutal murder of his mother at a very young age. So did Batman (his father too). Dexter was raised by a loving and supporting foster family. So was Superman, Spider-Man, and to an arguable degree, Batman as well (by Alfred). Dexter learned in his formative, early-teen years that he was “different” from other kids. See also, Superman, Spider-Man, and any of the X-Men not named, “Wolverine.” You get the idea. But it was amusing to me that a notion that initially seemed a farcical stretch of association was actually closer to plagiarism.

From the standpoint of the real world, I’m surprised that Dexter’s “Dark Passenger” compromises a part of “self;” Dexter is always cognizant of his socially disruptive urge to kill. And while it makes for a deeper and more interesting character, I’d think it more likely that a split personality would have emerged from his early childhood trauma. Still, we have a character with an ever-present understanding of who he is and what he’s capable of doing, and deliberately holds back that self while in public, ala Superman—the prototypical alter ego.

To be continued in Part 2…

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