Purely out of curiosity, in the wake of the Flashpoint variant cover which features Wonder Woman holding Mera’s severed head, I posed a question to any comics fan who cared to answer:
Have you or has anyone you know ever said, “What I really need is more graphic violence in my comics”?
Just for the record, I can’t recall ever saying that or anything like it, even in passing to a friend, much less at a comic store or one of the very few conventions I’ve been to (seriously, I went to SDCC once and only because I got in free, back when it was possible to do such a thing - it was the year “Mallrats” came out if you want to figure out when that was).
And yet it seems that comics are getting increasingly graphically violent.
So let’s begin with the boilerplate disclaimers.
- I have a little girl, but I’m not suggesting that everything should be sanitized to a level that’s appropriate for children. I loved “The Shield” and while I wouldn’t let my little girl watch it until she’s older, I don’t think I - as an adult - should have to miss out on compelling drama and stories because some people can’t or won’t parent and can’t or won’t pay attention to what their kids are doing. I do not think less violent content is or should be a substitute for parenting and parental involvement.
- I’m not advocating censorship, nor am I arguing that the Comics Code should be reinstated. I don’t think the Comics Code was particularly effective when it was in place and it seemed to arbitrarily decide content was offensive or objectionable without any regard to context.
- It is not my intention to actually argue anything in this post - I’m asking questions. I’m asking questions I would like to see answered, preferably by people in the editorial departments of DC and Marvel, considering that Archie comics aren’t typically violent, and that my main concern is the level of extreme violence in mainstream comics stories - Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, Green Lantern, etc.
So let’s get started.
First off, I understand that some stories occur in violent times. Perhaps it’s unfair of me, but I’m vastly more tolerant of historical tales set among Vikings or in the Old West which feature violence. If you make a humorous comic about Vikings, you get Hagar The Horrible and I don’t know many comics fans who want that. If you do a serious story about Vikings, it’s likely to be violent and bloody. That’s what happens in a sword fight or when two people try to hack each other to pieces with axes. It’s inevitable. I wouldn’t really want to read a story about Vikings which pretended otherwise because it isn’t historically accurate. That doesn’t mean I want gore covering every page - it simply means that, if violence occurs in the story, I understand that it won’t be pretty (even if it is beautifully rendered in an artistic way).
Second, I think there should absolutely be a place for comics which are violent, and that it doesn’t need to be a back room of the comic shop, nor does it necessarily need to be an 18+ section. I love “The Authority” - even the volumes after Ellis / Hitch and Millar / Quitely - and there’s no reason to hide this stuff and treat it like it’s something shameful.
My question is why mainstream superhero comics - the stuff that, traditionally, has made lifelong comics readers - are so violent and whether they should be.
Need some examples? Glad you asked.
- That “Flashpoint” variant cover of Wonder Woman holding Mera’s severed head. If you’re a comics fan, you’ve probably seen it or at least heard about it.
- The Sentry tearing Ares in half in “Siege.” It’s a two-page spread.
- The splatterpunk violence in “Green Lantern.” While I absolutely love the series and the writing, the violence can be completely over the top.
- "Blackest Night." Just flip it open. If you don’t see violence that’s inappropriate for kids, turn backward or forward a few pages.
- "Identity Crisis."
- The Iron Man “Five Nightmares” collection. Ezekiel Stane burning people’s skin off in the only title for the starring character in two recent blockbuster movies. Just for the record, this is the same volume which featured photographs of Robert Downey, Jr., and Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover.
If that isn’t a sufficient number of examples, go flip through some Marvel or DC titles at the local shop. I’m sure you’ll find more without too much effort.
Now, some people might be asking why I’m so focused on Marvel and DC, and the answer to that is simple. They publish comics featuring ubiquitous characters. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t heard of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man or Captain America, even if they only know the name.
People who read comics as kids - like myself - may remember the content then and think that not much has changed. And while I freely admit that I read stuff that was absolutely inappropriate for my age (no kid should have been reading Savage Tales or Dreadstar or a lot of the other books I was getting), the stuff on the spinner at the local pharmacy was usually relatively okay.
Now? I can’t buy mainstream DC or Marvel continuity books in good conscience for my little girl, because I don’t know what will happen from issue to issue. I’ve already had to abruptly stop buying her a comic once when a recent Age Of Reptiles mini-series went from a tender story that nearly made me cry and was appropriate for all ages to extreme graphic violence in the very next issue (which, in fairness, was appropriate for the series considering the setting, even if it was a jarring narrative transition - I should note that I don’t fault the creator for that, although a bit more warning would have been nice).
Consider this - I’m a parent who actively wants to buy comics for my little girl, who wants to share the stories with her, who wants her to be exposed to the incredible imaginative and mythic power of these stories, but I can’t buy a Wonder Woman comic for her because I don’t know when Wonder Woman is going to break someone’s neck. I can’t buy my little girl the comic that stars the world’s most well-known female superhero because I don’t have any faith that DC will publish stories that are appropriate for her age.
This should be simple. Any parent should be able to walk into any comic shop and buy Wonder Woman or Supergirl comics for their daughter of almost any age (presuming she’s learned to read) and not worry about whether Wonder Woman is going to kill something in that issue. They shouldn’t have to look for the kids’ line or a non-continuity line like Marvel does with its Adventures comics. They should be able to walk in, say “Do you have any copies of Wonder Woman?”, buy a few copies off the rack and walk out with their kid reading about Wonder Woman punching Gorgons or saving the world or whatever and not have to worry about whether Diana just decapitated anyone.
I know that comics became more mature to remain interesting and relevant to a readership that continued reading comics as it aged. I have no problem with that. My little girl knows that people sometimes do bad things and that they need to be stopped. I have no concerns over her seeing the Batman punch The Joker or Superman incapacitate Lex Luthor. She understands that sometimes, people who do the right thing don’t survive the experience. I’m not suggesting that comics companies even refrain from killing a hero - Barry Allen and Supergirl died during Crisis On Infinite Earth and I would be okay with her reading that. People die, even heroes, and heroes are far more prone to it because generally, saving people’s lives doesn’t come without mortal danger.
However, violence does not confer or equal maturity. It is a last resort, something to be used only when every other option has failed. That’s what my little girl’s martial arts instructor teaches her. It’s one of the most brilliant parts of Grant Morrison’s “All-Star Superman” - look at how often Superman avoids violence in that series. It’s an astonishingly gentle, kind book, especially considering that it’s from the creators of “We3.” Morrison and Frank Quitely proved in those issues that it’s not only possible to do a mature book that appeals to all ages, but that such a book can be really good. This is the same Grant Morrison who did “The Invisibles,” who did “The New X-Men.” This is the same Grant Morrison who is no stranger to violence and horror as narrative tools and he created one of the most moving and emotionally compelling versions of Superman ever written.
As a narrative tool, violence is frequently, if not usually, a cheap shock tactic, something to be used when a writer can’t think of a better idea. I don’t mind my little girl reading about Peter Parker and Mary Jane struggling with their marriage and her concern that he won’t come home one day, that he’ll die trying to save someone he doesn’t even know, and her fear about what her life will be like in the wake of such a thing. That level of maturity is something I’m perfectly okay with. She sees that level of maturity in films like “Finding Nemo,” which deals with the loss of a parent. She sees that level of maturity in “The Hobbit,” when Bilbo has to summon the courage to do something he knows his friends will consider a betrayal to prevent a greater tragedy. The stuff we - as a culture - have generally considered appropriate for kids has always dealt with content like death, fear, what happens when people do bad things, having to make difficult and unpopular choices because it’s the right thing to do, and so on.
The difference is that while literature we’ve traditionally (and by traditionally, I mean over the past several decades) considered appropriate for kids deals with those issues, it doesn’t contain the level of graphic violence we see in mainstream comics - not even the original Grimm’s fairy tales which were significantly darker than what we like to remember (unless we consider parents sending their kids into the forest to die of exposure because they can’t feed them to be comedy).
So. I know the violence came about as part of the grim and gritty era of comics and emerged as a direct result of less talented writers taking only the most superficial aspects of what Alan Moore and Frank Miller were doing in their attempts to write for a more mature audience. They saw the violence but missed the psychological and larger philosophical questions embodied in those stories - do the ends actually justify the means? What number of people would we tolerate killing to achieve world peace and prevent the destruction of both our species and planet? What if we didn’t know? And what kind of person could actually make that decision and carry it out? What if Batman had to contend with villains who are every bit as ruthless, if not more so, than he is? How would he respond?
Moore and Miller’s fascinating examinations of the extreme end-points of heroism - deciding to kill roughly 6 million people to save about 6 billion in the case of Adrian Veidt, revealing a perversion in his sense of heroism in that he regarded it as an acceptable loss - reveal logical flaws in heroes, in the lengths they’re willing to go to and that may actually be necessary to save us. The violence was not the point - the violence was a symptom of a larger condition, and that condition was what happens when a hero hits the end of the road and finds him or herself in unknown territory with no map but their own moral compass. It’s not to difficult to argue that Wonder Woman killing Max Lord is a reflection of this approach. Wonder Woman is a warrior and comes from a warrior society - in such a culture, killing may be regarded as necessary, even if it isn’t desirable.
However, what we forget is that “Watchmen” was not part of the DCU at the time. Even now, Earth-4, home of the Quantum Superman (an analogue for Doctor Manhattan) and a version of The Question (see: Rorschach), falls well outside mainstream DC continuity on New Earth / Earth-0. (Note: here’s a list of Earths in the DC multiverse including continuity changes from events.) Likewise, “The Dark Knight Returns” used Batman, but occurred in a mini-series outside DC continuity, not unlike a precursor to the Elseworlds stories.
And even more to the point, while those series were considered inappropriate for children at the time and likely still are, the violence in them was significantly less graphic than the violence in recent Green Lantern stories which are likely to receive a sales boost from the upcoming film. As a perfect example of a potential problem for parents, Art Baltazar recently worked on a series of books called Super-Pets involving various animals from the DCU. Take a look at Super Hero Splash Down:
That would be Dex-Starr on the cover, cutely rendered and appropriate for kids of all ages (like, y’know, me - I love Baltazar’s work).
Contrast that with Dex-Starr’s appearance in the Green Lantern books:
It’s an interesting contrast, isn’t it? Take careful note of the fatal cranial injury in the last image.
I have no problem with my little girl reading Art Baltazar’s comics. She absolutely adores Tiny Titans. My problem is that a fair number of kids will see the Green Lantern movie, want to start reading the comics and that parents will realize, too late, that the comics which provided the source for the movie contain content like the images above.
As an adult, I love Dex-Starr. The little blue rage kitty is one of my favorite characters in comics ever. I’m sure my little girl would love that character as well, but there’s no way I can let her read Green Lantern yet - or in the foreseeable future for that matter - because of pages like the ones above. It doesn’t matter if she likes the movie - she can’t start reading the comics because of the gore.
So I ask again: have you or has anyone you know ever said, “What I really need is more graphic violence in my comics”?
Because I haven’t. And I can’t imagine that DC and Marvel would have added this stuff if someone, somewhere, hadn’t specifically requested it. I’d like to know which consumer did, because in the absence of a paying customer specifically requesting graphically violent content which excludes a broad range of ages due to the grisly images, it seems like one of the dumbest business decisions ever made.