As I discussed in last week’s column focusing on the comic book series Preacher and the question of morality, comic books have a long tradition of examining what is the best way to behave both toward our fellow humans and life in general. Inevitably during a conversation of supeheroics and the Good, the question of the efficacy of killing is brought up. Heroes such as the Batman have a strong moral stance against the taking of a human life, even a life like the Joker, whose actions have left so many dead or emotionally or physically compromised. Arguments against a hero killing a heinous murderer usually focus on either how taking a life morally taints a hero or how such a hero should stand above the fray and hold him or herself to a higher standard.

On the opposite end of the argument, there is the objection that killing, while sometimes distasteful, can be a tool used for the greater good. Batman himself has confessed that he holds some responsibility for every life the Joker takes, as allowing the Clown Prince of Crime to live makes him just as culpable in the madman’s slayings. While there is the grey area of whether a twisted person like the Joker can ever be truly reformed, the argument goes that a dead criminal can’t harm anyone else. Even Captain America, who avoids killing when possible, has admitted that during World War II that he killed members of the Axis. It came with the territory of the theater of war.

But these are special cases, admittedly. What about murder on a mass scale? Is it ever morally sound to kill, not just a few, but tens of millions of beings in order to save your own people? And not just “bad” people; the morally upright and everyone in between as well. Does that question make you uncomfortable? Good, it should. It’s a question that writer Jonathan Hickman explores by putting that situation to a group of otherwise stalwart heroes in the Marvel comic story New Avengers: Everything Dies.

In New Avengers, the Marvel heroes Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Beast of the X-Men, Namor the Sub-Mariner, King Black Bolt of the Inhumans, and Captain America meet in secret as part of their clandestine group known as the Illuminati. In addition to protecting the Infinity Gems (which the Mad Titan Thanos is always seeking), the assembled heroes discuss matters of universal importance and decide the proper course to take. It’s all secretive and would probably chap a lot of other superheroes’ asses if they knew that the group was making decisions for the rest of them. Black Panther has called together the rest of the group to discuss information he learned from a woman known as the Black Swan, who he recently encountered in his nation.

Here’s what the Illuminati gathers from the Black Swan: The birth of a Great Destroyer known as Rabum Alal triggered the premature death of one of the myriad of alternate realities in the multiverse. That death caused a contraction that caused two universes to collide at a central point, Earth. If the Earth from each universe touches, both Earths and both realities are obliterated. However, if one of the Earths can be destroyed before both Earths collide, both universes and one Earth can be spared. Regardless, however, the destruction of each Earth causes the contraction of the multiverse to speed up and, with it, make the rate of which other incursions occur increase.

So, here’s where the question of morality enters the equation. Mister Fantastic, Cap, Iron Man, and the gang know the particulars and that, more than likely, they will have to contend with an incursion in the very near future. While the rest of the group feels that, with such high stakes, every strategy and contingency should be on the table, Captain America won’t entertain the possibility of killing a world to save his own. He says he will not be a party to such an atrocity. Eventually, while facing several incursions and Earth being spared without having blood on their hands, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Illuminati might eventually have to do what they find unpalatable and destroy a populated planet. With Cap clearly not on board, his memory of the group and incursions is wiped and he is sent away. Toward the story’s end, Black Panther himself destroys an Earth to save his own, although his conscience lucked out in that the Earth wasn’t populated. Later, Mister Fantastic tells an imprisoned Black Swan that the rest of the Illuminati will come to see that they need her, suggesting that he might have come to accept that the unthinkable will be a necessity.

Hickman sets up a real moral quandary for our heroes. These aren’t characters who are mental lightweights; they’re the heroes with the biggest brains that Marvel has to offer. The writer does a good job using these folks in such a way to let you have no doubt that if they had some other smart person on their side that they could think their way around the issue. But no, there are no others. These are the guys. And he lets you know that because it’s all the more crushing to see them fail time and time again at coming up with a viable solution. Hickman is all but stating, “One or more of these heroes is going to have to destroy a world to save theirs, and that world, more often than not, will have people on it.” And you can see the heroes slowly come to convince themselves that, while it might be a distasteful and gut-wrenching decision, they might have it in them to destroy a world to save the people they love.

While none of us will ever be in the position to decide the fate of one world and its people against our own, Hickman is making the characters and the readers question what is “the right thing” to do. How far is too far when the chips are down and you’re the only person between your species and extinction? At one point, Captain America makes the case that what his fellow heroes are considering is a slippery slope, and he’s correct. I know I wouldn’t have it in me to destroy another world and have that kind of blood on my hands. But the story makes for great philosophical debate and makes us consider when a hero stops or starts being a hero. It’s the question of why Batman doesn’t kill, but writ large.

A side note: Another reason to pick up Hickman’s run on New Avengers, specifically this story, is because it ties into Secret Wars, the big summer event Marvel is rolling out that will involve universes from across the multiverse.