Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Some Rambling About Killing In Superhero Comics

This is about killing in superhero comics. Not death, which is a punchline these days with how often one writer kills a character for a cliche "big, shocking moment", and how swiftly some other writer wipes that out, but the act that leads to a character being dead. There were three mostly unrelated scenes in comics that brought this to the forefront of my mind:

- This one's old, dating back the post-Secret Invasion Dark Reign stuff. But it was Ms. Marvel (when that was still Carol Danvers) opting not to kill Iron patriot/Norman Osborn, and declaring that choice to be what made her better than him. Really, it's that she's unwilling to kill Norman, but had no qualms about killing Skrulls during Secret Invasion.

- The fact the Beast won't stop busting Cyclops' chops about killing Xavier while under the Phoenix' control, but Hank is part of the Illuminati that are blowing up other Earths (which are inhabited as far as I know), ostensibly to protect his Earth. He's probably killed more people by now than the Phoenix Force did on its way to Earth in Avengers vs. X-Men.

- I didn't see all of it, but when Captain America broached the subject of the considerable number of corpses Wolverine has left in his wake, Logan tells Cap he has no business doing that, because Cap killed people in World War II.

Superhero comics have had this approach to killing for a long time where, if you kill, that makes you no better than the bad guy. Additionally, there was the idea that if a hero killed a villain once, he wouldn't be able to stop himself. I think one of the Batman animated movies - Under the Hood, perhaps - offered this as the explanation for why Bats doesn't kill the Joker. Because if he did it once, then he'd obviously kill the Riddler next time they met. Then Bane, Killer Croc, etc.

This seems sort of a Silver Age product. Back in the earliest days, late '30, early '40s, Batman would shot people for awhile, even Superman jumped into the tailgun of a plane and shot up Japanese fighters. Or the bad guy was getting punched and falling into his own death trap. Stuff like that. Maybe it was a response to the Comics Code that cape comics ditched that, or simply a matter of expediency for the writers and artists. If they don't kill of a villain, they can reuse him, rather than having to come up with a new guy.

I don't think it's a bad thing to try and instill in kids - who were still the primary audience, certainly at the beginning of the Silver Age - the idea that heroes don't kill, that it isn't the way to solve a problem. But I think the other key factor is the heroes were shown to find other ways to triumph without needing to resort to killing. Superman, the Flash, Batman, Spider-Man, whoever, they found ways to save the day, stop the villain that didn't require that. Typically, they used their brains and powers in some creative manner to outmaneuver the baddie. Nothing wrong with teaching kids to be creative and think laterally while also teaching them to stand up for what's right.

It also probably helped that the villains usually were a little more creative with their goals than simply "kill lots of people". Joker might commit worthless crimes to convince people he was nuts, so he could be put in an asylum near a man who stole a lot of money, but couldn't recall where he hid it, so Joker could find some way to get the money out of him (guy talked in his sleep, it turns out). That's devious, but hardly something where you'd argue Batman ought to think about offing the guy. Recently, it appears the Joker kills at least 5 people every time he gets loose, and he's always getting loose. Joker might as well be Shadowcat, turning intangible and walking through the walls, for all the trouble he has escaping Arkham Asylum. But Batman can't kill him, because that would make him as bad as the Joker. For the record, I don't want Batman to kill the Joker, I just think the writers ought to tone it down so I'm not wondering why some cop hasn't gotten fed up and emptied his gun into the clown after Batsy drops him off.

It's developed into this odd situation where killing 1 person, regardless of who or why, is as bad as killing 3,000, or 7 billion. In fact, if the 1 is an important character, it can get treated as worse than killing faceless masses. So Hank can bring younger version of the X-Men to the present to make Cyclops feel bad about killing Xavier, then turn around and blow up entire planets with Stark, Richards, T'Challa, and the rest. You would think if they could devise a weapon of planetary mass destruction, they could devise a way to fix things that didn't involve killing billions. But those billions aren't named characters, and Xavier was, so he's the one that matters.

Or you get Wolverine trying to argue there's no difference between Captain America killing some Nazis to try and free an invaded and conquered nation, and Wolverine killing a dozen ninjas that are mad at him for killing a dozen more of their brethren the week before, who he only killed because it's Tuesday and that's what he does on Tuesday.

In some ways, it's a fairly impressive philosophy, to argue that no one life is more important or deserving than another, so killing is killing, regardless of the reason or number. In other ways, it's blindingly stupid. Marvel and DC both published war comics, and characters in those killed, but weren't browbeaten for it. Because they were presented as people doing their best to do what they believed was right, but not taking any pleasure in it. Sgt. Rock didn't get excited about shooting Nazis, but he was a soldier trying to help free countries from tyranny, and that unfortunately required some killing. But there weren't suggestions Rock was just going to start killing indiscriminately now that he'd killed one person.

Those characters weren't superheroes to be sure, but they were still "good guys", so the disconnect is kind of interesting. Perhaps it owes to superheroes having means and abilities a normal soldier doesn't, so they can accomplish their goals without killing. Soldiers do the best they can, but some times it's unavoidable.

Of course, the idea that each life is equally important kind of goes flying out the window when you see how easily some of them go around killing things that they apparently don't count as human. Carol Danvers kills a bunch of Skrulls. The New 52 Justice League kill a bunch of Parademons. Yes, even Superman, who apparently smashes a bunch of them to pieces by hitting them with a bus. But it raises the question of why, for example, if Carol is OK with killing these Skrulls, she balked at killing Osborn when he called himself Iron Patriot and was using a government post to let his criminal allies run wild? She clearly thought he was a significant threat, enough of one she felt it necessary to mention she could kill him. She argues that she won't because she's better than him. But the way comics seem to figure morality, she isn't. She killed Skrulls (or farther back, the Master of the World during Busiek's Kang story), which means she's no different than Osborn is for having killed Gwen (or Ben Reilly, or whoever).

So what's the difference that made killing Skrulls no biggie, but Osborn off-limits? Is it as simple as Osborn not leading an invading army, because he was able to sucker the morons of Marvel-Earth into giving him power? Invading seems to be an important factor. If they're invading, it can be like a war, and since soldiers kill in wars, then superheroes can as well. But when it's not an invasion, it isn't allowed.

I guess a fair portion of the strangeness of it owes to the nature of the comics. The shifting creative teams, writers and artists with different visions, beliefs, and interests. Mark Gruenwald notably had Captain America claim to have killed no one during World War II, despite his comics of that era showing him killing people. Most other writers who address it, especially the more recent ones, seem to agree Cap killed at least a few Nazis. The movies took that approach as well, but that's different perspectives and times coming into play. But the shift is curious, though still not particularly nuanced.

It seems like it ought to be. A hero who killed was often told they weren't in fact a hero, and none of the clean-cut hero types wanted to work with them if it could be avoided. See Captain America, Spidey, or Daredevil's reactions any time they had to work with Wolverine or the Punisher in the '80s and '90s. I guess the nuance was in the non-killing cape not trying to take in the one who kills, but that did happen, and there was usually some reason it wasn't pulled off (too beat up, Punisher slips away in the confusion, whatever). Now there's more variation, but it just seems muddled and arbitrary, which is I guess what you get when looking at dozens of books written by hundreds of different people across a span of years. The heroes who kill are more tolerated, even welcomed (see Wolverine or Venom being Avengers). The heroes who didn't kill still mostly don't (see Spidey), but don't seem as bothered working with the ones who do. Killing is OK, except when it isn't, but once you've killed, you can't criticize anyone else who kills, regardless of the difference in body count or reasons behind the act. Unless they killed a named character and you didn't, in which you lord that curious moral high ground over them forever.

Expecting a more nuanced approach from superhero books is probably a fool's errand, but it is curious that for all that you see an insistence that comics, even cape stuff, are not just for kids these days, the creative teams can't do better. But that goes to the issue of what they consider as making a book "mature", which is a whole other kettle of fish.


SallyP said...

"Nuance" is pretty much foreign to comics, I do agree. And it all depends upon the writers. I seem to remember Ann Nocenti coming up with the idea that Wolverine never killed anyone either...he just wounded them really bad.


I guess it falls into the old adage, that a child's death drowning is a tragedy...but wholesale drownings in China in a flood is simply a statistic. Because we don't know those people. Or Skrulls. Or other Earths. Or the countless faceless, nameless poor schlubs who die everytime New York gets blown up.

It has all escalated so much. I used to like the Joker stories, now I just cry, because you know the innocent body count is going to just keep growing and growing. It's one of the reasons why I like the Batman '66 books so much. The villains are out stealing rare books or ruby cats or Egyptian artifacts, as opposed to poisoning the city water supply.

CalvinPitt said...

It's especially annoying with someone like the Joker, who is supposed to be so chaotic. Wouldn't he do something other than kill people all the time then? Surely that must get dull.

That's a good point about how when it's large groups of people we don't know, it creates an emotional distance. There's nothing personal to be hit by those. Which makes them almost like window dressing or setting. Which is a bad approach, because then we as readers don't care, because they as writers are telling us it doesn't matter.