For Every Action
Travis Hedge Coke
One thing I agree with Dr. Frederic Wertham about, is that violence in entertainment, shown without pain or consequence can, mess up a child’s understanding of how violence works in real life.
Wait! I agree with Dr. Wertham? The bogeyman of comics? The mad censor from the foul depths? The dodgy pop-psych guy? Yeah. In this instance, I do. Because, disagreeing or agreeing shouldn’t be dependent on whether you like someone, or whether or not you agree or disagree with their other points. When someone is right, it’s not even about “letting them be right.” They’re right, then they’re right.
I think Wertham was wrong in targeting crime and horror comics, there, though, and that he was on the money when he said the Comics Code’s diktats made it necessary for superhero comics to embrace this consequence-lacking pugilism. Nobody was allowed to get jacked up, anymore, and so kids read stories where things like kidnapping, torture, superhuman blows to the face are treated as something you just shrug off. Dr. Doom can be an “honorable” man, despite kidnapping innocent people, tying them up, and holding them hostage, or pressganging people into committing crimes for him. They won’t hold it against him. Doom can be punched by a guy who can lift a building, he can be set on fire, or thrown off a cliff, but dude’ll be fine, because the Code, and the commercial market, require him not to be permanently disfigured further or crippled in any significant fashion.
Even without a villain there, a standard of Fantastic Four stories since the beginning is Torch and Thing beating up on each other. Torch playfully sets his friend on fire or burns up his prized possessions, and his friend gets mad and swings at him hard enough to break a load-bearing wall when he misses contact with Torch’s face. Then they laugh and laugh. And someone hits the other guy again, and the fight continues.
And, worse, 50s and 60s Superman is just a smiling bully. He lives to fuck with Lois Lane’s head, then spank her, then not date her even though he, you know, is attracted to her. It’s insane. I like some stories from that era, don’t get me wrong, but the social interactions in those comics are insanely unhealthy and as an adult, you can tell, and it’s fiction, so fine, but for kids, they’re easily learning from those stories that this is how life works. By the late 60s, you get letters in Superman titles from women annoyed with the social aspects or blanket misogyny, but you’ve also got ostensibly grown men writing in about what shrill witches these women are who keep invading men’s privacy by being reporters and stuff. Those earlier comics got in their heads, along with everything else in society, and messed them up.
Somewhere along the way, Superman’s super powers went from being a tool to take actions for justice that a lack of powers presented. Beating up alien invaders, crooked slumlords, guys who smack around their wives, and war profiteers took a backseat to Superman asserting his powers not in aid of ethics, but to prove his ethical superiority. And there is a difference. “Might doesn’t make right” is a saying for a reason.
A thought exercise: take the ethical problem of a Superman story, and remove all of Superman’s powers or threats via power. Is his position still right? I’m not asking if everyone around him agrees with him by the end of the story, but without his ability to punish or hurt someone, is his position right?
Imagine this story, if Batman had called in a normal, human doctor. Or, if a police had called in a doctor. Take the super powers out of it. Does Superman have an ethical leg to stand on? In fact, Batman has to call in paramedics, anyway, because Superman, for whatever reason, can’t fly the woman to a hospital.
Compare this to Superman in Warren Ellis’ works where he’s moodier than usual, and sharper-toned, but clearly and blatantly cares so hard. In New Maps of Hell, Clark Kent is investigating a suspicious suicide and when the cops are dismissive of the death and openly going to be hands off because it’s tied to a big corporation, Clark fumes and suggests he’ll do an op-ed on police corruption and obstruction of justice. Is that nice of him? Not really, it is a threat, after all. But, it’s fair and it’s compassionate. There’s a dead guy on the street, right there next to these people talking, and Clark Kent, Superman, is the guy who seems to really grasp how bad that should make you feel.
Grant Morrison’s Superman is forever talking people into peace, or trying to talk things out with the opposing side, even if it doesn’t work. In the JLA story, Rock of Ages, a man yelling at Green Lantern about collateral damage from a giant flood the heroes just rescued people from before diverting the water, Superman steps in, and by the end of their conversation, the guy’s shaking Superman’s hand. Superman stands still and lets the US Army fire on him, point blank, in the Ultra-Marines arc, because they’re just folks doing their job earnestly, and he can take it. He can last longer than the clips in their guns, and eventually they’ll come around to reason, which they do.
In All-Star Superman, Supes tries to talk sense to Lex Luthor, another time to two time-traveling strongmen, and in those instances, he fails to get his point across to them. He also tries to reason with Lois Lane, after he reveals his secret identity to her, but she’s under the paranoia-inducing influence of an alien substance and aware that Superman has lied to her in a big way plus has a history of pranking and tricking her, so she’s not inclined to take even his sensible statements at face value for the bulk of that issue.
This, to me, is different than if Spider-Man cuts loose. The trash-talk that Spidey indulges in, or when he wails on a guy like Doc Ock, who’s just a guy, after all, except for the big metal octopus arms, that’s not ethical or heroic, but it’s not meant to be. It’s venting. Spider-Man is a geeky, gawky kid that everyone picked on, even if he doesn’t look it anymore. It’s how he thinks of himself, and it’s how he acts, especially when he was younger and still getting picked on all the time. Superman, whose powers really do put him in a whole other league, shouldn’t be that frustrated kid revenge fantasy. And, definitely, when either of them act like that, those around them, the world around them, shouldn’t reward it all the time.
The saving grace of Spider-Man’s self-indulgence, whining, and trash-talk is that virtually everyone around him would rather he shut up and act like more mature. The talent, the writers, artists, and editors don’t condone it, or shy from consequences. Dan Slott making a point of how often Spidey’s villains have been cheerfully concussed or gleefully had their jaw broken by Spider-Man’s superstrong blows, or Mark Millar writing Ultimate Captain America acting like a total teenage sex-frustration fantasy and beating up on his girlfriend’s abusive ex only for it to blow up in his face when she goes back to the other guy? Those aren’t the most pleasant or rewarding consequences, no, but they temper what would otherwise, in typical post-50s American comics, have no consequences.
In heavily licensed comics, people may bruise, but they never get new scars. And the old scars don’t impede much. Daredevil’s blindness is a plot point, rarely something that affects him incidentally. When Hawkeye was deaf, he never forgot to put his hearing aids in, he just turned deaf when the plot needed it. Barbara Gordon was kept in that wheelchair for so long primarily because no one else was. Batman was in and out of his wheelchair. The very same writer had written Black Canary shot not too long before The Killing Joke, and Canary walked it off. Spider-Man will always have the same money troubles, the same anxieties about women and old age, barring some short-term disruptions. Those are his old scars, and they stay intact. But he’ll be in and out of a broken arm or growing four extra ones. The important thing, to me, and this is for my own tastes and, again, for the kids in the audience, is that the broken arm (or the extra four) feels significant at the time, and that it has at least an emotional consequence.
When people are hurt, the audience should feel it emotionally, if not physically. We should feel the positive, the pleasurable aspect of a good guy pounding the tar out of a villain, sure, of a woman getting her revenge blow and cool oneliner off in a climactic panel, but we should also feel the negative consequences. Sure, slam a refrigerator down on top of your enemy, as the Bulleteer does in Seven Soldiers of Victory, but drive them to the hospital after, too. The best way to sedate a mentally ill person screaming nonsense and ready to flay anyone who gets in their path might not be to throw bat-shaped darts at them if you have a tranquilizer in your belt, as Batman so often, when the plot requires it, indeed does. And, if Batman needs to throw a batarang (they’re trademark for a reason) or run over and punch them in the nose, he probably shouldn’t gloat about it, or make jokes about how it’s “treatment” for their illness. That’s not heroism, it’s not blowing off steam, it’s funny maybe outside of the situation, but in-scene, he’s just being a jerk.