Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Lots of exciting things going on here, but I thought I would start with a hello to anyone who might be visiting from the Vigilance Press Podcast, sponsored by I had the pleasure of participating in this last evening with Mike Lafferty, Charles Rice, and Daniel Gallant, and after we talked about the Field Guide and Daniel's new ICONS character portfolio, we had a great time playing a little ICONS. I used the Bruin, who is from the second volume of the Field Guide, Mike made "The Whiz," a speedster trained by Tibetan monks in the paralyzing cobra strike, and Chuck had "Spartan," our resident Mutant Master of the Mind. Mr. Gallant (whom I envy on the basis of "If he got superhuman powers, his name would be his codename") was our GM. If you have not listened to it, you should give it a turn right here.

Before we got into playing, Chuck and I got into a bit of a discussion on superheroes and killing. It's an old debate, and a good one, and Mike was good to rein us in as we could have gone on for hours. Chuck's basic position, and it's a very understandable and common one, especially among players of superhero games, is that superheroes who swear they don't kill are being pretty naive and weak. When a criminal psychopath like the Joker has demonstrated his ability to escape from confinement time and time again, each time murdering dozens before being recaptured, only for Batman to defeat and not kill him, Batman must share some culpability for the Joker's crimes. The superhero who swears off killing is not only weak and ineffective, he's kind of a dope.

On my side, I tried to argue that while this argument makes a lot of sense on a visceral, "He killed so I can kill him" level, superheroes like Batman, Captain America, and the X-Men (all of whom are generally portrayed as No-Kill-Heroes, despite many notable exceptions to this rule) use their no-kill philosophy to teach us something: Just because someone else is evil, does not justify your own descent into evil to defeat them. Captain America has given this speech a hundred times if he has given it once. To execute an evil man is to lower yourself to his level. The superhero is a self-appointed agent of criminal apprehension, not a judge or jury. If a criminal is to be executed, that will be determined by a jury of his peers, not one man, no matter how justified that execution might appear. This is not weakness, it is a recognition of the essential character of the American criminal justice system. It's not Batman's fault that the Joker kills people. Batman does his part. That doesn't mean he doesn't feel guilty when the Joker kills. Of course he does. When the Joker killed Robin with a lead pipe, Batman wanted to kill him. But that would also be murder. Because Batman is not empowered by the American people to hand out sentences of execution. That right is reserved, not for Batman, Captain America, or the X-Men, but to you and me. We are the ones who decide if people live or die. And letting Batman do it for us is taking the cheap way out.

But in many ways, what is more interesting here is the long debate over superheroes and killing, which has been portrayed in many wonderfully thought-provoking books over the years. Chuck mentioned a panel from X-Men, and it is a famous one, so I thought I would represent it here and you saw it at the top of the page. Wolverine murders a guard in the Savage Land while Storm and Nightcrawler look on, the former saddened and the latter horrified. Claremont and Byrne are demonstrating their genius here, because it takes a thoughtful creative team to move the camera off of the murder and onto the reaction shot. Jim Lee would have kept the camera on Logan as he stuck his claws through this guy's back. Yawn. You see one merciless killing, you have seen them all. But the reaction shot illustrates the real drama of the scene. It's not the killing, it's the moral and ethical questions the killing raises. That's what makes this story so damn good.

Lethality in comics has gone on big pendulum swings through the decades. In the Golden Age, no one batted an eye when the bad guy got killed. By the 1960s, however -- and I am tempted to say this was largely the result of the Comics Code, but I may just be taking the easy way out -- Superman had become the Blue Boy Scout and even Batman was having his goofy period. When Wolverine killed in the pages of the X-Men it created tension and a moral quandary which built for a while, peaked, and finally collapsed by the 1990s. Later writers tried to portray this split in comics; the Avengers ended up splitting into two teams when one half (led by Black Knight) decided to kill the Kree Supreme Intelligence and the other half (led by Captain America) refused to. But really this was all just the pitiful thrashings of a crippled giant. Marvel was deep into its darkest days by this period, and it seemed as if every hero and team was now carrying guns and wearing armor. Don't tell me you have forgotten Fantastic Force. When a superhero team founded on principles of exploration, imagination, and adventure has been turned into a Rob Liefeld book, you know you have gone far off the reservation.

The reason that cover looks so crappy, by the way? Foil. Nuff said.

These days, even Captain America kills. It is, after all, war. And no one should mistake me for some kind of super-pacifist who wants to trash any superhero who kills. That's not my point at all. Rather, I am mostly interested in a good story. And tension -- between those heroes who kill, and those who do not -- makes great story. In order for that tension to work, both heroes have to have some kind of authority. They have to be successful at what they do. If only one of those two approaches works, then obviously it is the only correct one and the tension evaporates. We need more panels with Storm and Nightcrawler cringing as Wolverine murders a guard. That's great comics.

But, in the end, neither of these approaches succeed. At least in comics. It doesn't matter if the Batman kills, or Captain America kills, or even if Wolverine kills, because Batman, Captain America and Wolverine have to appear in comic books every month, and every story requires more antagonists, more evil men who deserve killing. Put the Joker in prison and he escapes. Kill him and he just comes back from the dead. Ultimately, both approaches are doomed to failure. The comic book superhero will never bring justice to the city ... until his book is cancelled. See James Robinson's Starman.

More soon. I am teaching an upper division English course at UCR next quarter on graphic novels and comics, and a course in the spring on the superhero narrative. So you will see a lot on these pages about those courses. You may even be one of my students!


  1. hey Jason
    That was actually me who created the Whiz. Danniel Gallant was the GM

  2. Interesting article.

    I, as probably anyone else who has read super-hero comics for any length of time, have given this issues a lot of thought, and I tend to be a bit more pragmatic. For me, as a reader, I tend to let the circumstances of the death dictate where I stand. For instance, if there were no other options available to, say, Captain America and it came down to killing Crossbones or allowing him to slaughter innocents—even an innocent—I’d side with Cap. If, however, Captain America has foiled Crossbones’ plot, and there’s no way that he can, in that moment, harm anyone else and Cap chooses to Baron Blood him… Well, Steve Rogers would no longer be considered a hero.

    I suppose it’s the same reason I am alright that Batman has a part in Dent’s death in THE DARK KNIGHT—even though I hold Batman to the highest of standards as it is the cornerstone of who he is as a character—since the film is quite effective in painting a hero that was on his last legs w/ no other option except to save Jim Gordon’s son as opposed to Ra’s demise in BATMAN BEGINS. But that’s a whole ‘nother debate.

    That X-Men example is a curious one, since the writer does give Logan an out. Kurt offers to dispatch him quickly and quietly—not to mention, probably more effectively since now there’s a body to contend with—and, instead, he starts giving in to his blood lusting tendencies.

    It’s an interesting paradigm, to be certain. I very much like your comment regarding “our” own culpability in the Joker’s future deaths as a society. I never thought of it in those terms before.