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Someone is wrong on the internet, David. And it’s you. It’s you.

November 4th, 2009 by | Tags: , , ,

Okay, and this Chad fellow, too.  For those of you unwilling to scroll down two entries, I’ll re-post David’s entry in full:

Chad Nevett on New Avengers #58:

Yeah, here’s the thing: not killing bad guys doesn’t make you better than them, it makes you a fucking pussy. It makes you responsible for everything negative they do after that point. No grey areas, no moral questions, no debates about what’s heroic and what’s not. [...] I hate superhero comics for pretending that letting villains live is somehow the morally superior thing to do, because it’s not.

If you listened to the Fourcast! this week, and you should have, you’d know that I agree with every word Chad says. I wanted to have a longer excerpt, but it’s a pretty short review. Go read it.

Chad and David both seem to agree that in comics heroes should be able to occasionally kill villains.  I agree, with specific exceptions, with this general idea.

Where we differ crucially is what ‘killing’ means.  To quote Chad:

Should they kill every mugger ala the Punisher? No. Should they kill Norman Osborn when the chance arises? Um, yeah.

‘Killing’ someone encompases a variety of different concepts, from pre-planned murder to accidental manslaughter to legitimate self-defense.  I think that, if the situation were to arise in which a hero had to kill a villain in order to save the life of that villain’s intended victim, they should, morally, kill the villain.  That’s killing someone.

Killing Norman Osborn, or the Joker, or whoever else, when ‘the chance arises’ is not just killing someone.  That’s an execution.  There is a very distinct meaning to that, and there are very different consequences for it.

First and foremost, refusing to execute someone does not make anyone responsible for their later crimes.  In an absolutist sense, only the person committing the crime is responsible for that, but that’s a little simplistic for me.  In some cases, refusing to kill someone might make a person partially responsible for their crimes, (for instance, not shooting someone trying to escape from an asylum for the criminally insane, not shooting someone directly threatening another person’s life, not having someone go to death row to be executed) but we can hardly blame superheroes for that.  Why not blame the incompetent or cowardly staff at the various institutions they are imprisoned in?  Why not blame the courts for it?  Or the legislature for not enacting laws that might end the lives of these types of criminals?  Or the thousand idiot psychiatrists who did not seem to understand that just because someone has a gimmick, that doesn’t make them legally insane?  Crime on that scale is a sociological problem, and all of society is to blame, not just the capes.

More importantly, I think we need to rid ourselves, once and for all, of the idea that all of society’s problems can be solved with more violence.  It might be naive to refuse to execute someone who will never stop trying to kill people.   It’s even more naive to think that executions performed by a secret society of people who patrol the streets and search through people’s private residences will make the world a better place.  Morally, such a society itself is seen as a failure, not only of the people performing the executions, but of the people who live under that society’s protection.  Practically, more brutality, more fear, more arbitrary violence and murder, have often destabilized a society rather than maintained peace and order.

Of course, we’re not speaking practically.  We’re talking about a fictional world in which the rules are changing.  That’s the problem, I think.  The subject matter of comics has gotten more dark, the shock-tactics more extreme.  We went from bank robbers, muggers, and invading starfish to villains burning pregnant women to death, murdering people’s families, and trying to blow up the entire earth.  Meanwhile, the heroes are less flexible than the situations they find themselves in.  The bad guys can do anything, the good guys are constricted.  Not killing has almost become a talisman that lets us know the heroes are still heroes.  (And of course, the heroes are bound by the fact that we need the villains to return for more stories.)

This pull between the truly evil villain and the curiously rigid hero causes a lot of fans frustration, and I can certainly understand it.  However, I don’t think the solution to that is more killing, even if it is well-written.  I think we should go the other way.

More bank robbers.  More drug runners.  More art smugglers.  More mad scientists with misunderstood but rampaging creations.  More nuisance criminals like the early Riddler.  More money launderers.  More bizarre (and non-sexual) kidnappers.

Less brutality.  Less parodic violence.  Less sexual assault.  Less ‘this time it’s personal’.  Less crimes that need to be resolved with a death.

More Batman doing detective work.  Less Batman beating up snitches for information.  More Wonder Woman dealing with mythological fantasies and modern-day mindsets.  Less Wonder Woman snapping necks to save the world.

The comic book world doesn’t need heroes that are darker, it needs villains that are lighter.  I don’t want the heroes to be heroes because they refuse to kill, even when someone has tortured their entire family to death in front of their eyes.  I want the heroes to be heroes because they go out into the greater world, find all different kinds of crime, and figure out ways to stop it.

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22 comments to “Someone is wrong on the internet, David. And it’s you. It’s you.”

  1. Ha, I have a post on this very subject going up at 6am. Gonna be a fun day.

    I think that we are closer in opinion than you think, particularly with regards to this:

    The comic book world doesn’t need heroes that are darker, it needs villains that are lighter. I don’t want the heroes to be heroes because they refuse to kill, even when someone has tortured their entire family to death in front of their eyes. I want the heroes to be heroes because they go out into the greater world, find all different kinds of crime, and figure out ways to stop it.

    My thing about heroes killing comes from the way that the villains have turned from committing crimes to committing casual atrocities and the heroes haven’t changed at all. They are still parroting 50-year old ideals that are obsolete in a world where several villains have body counts in the high six figures.

    Anyway, I just wrote a whole long thing, so I feel like I’m repeating myself… from a post that hasn’t even gone up yet. More tomorrow, I’m sure.

    (Wonder Woman was right to kill Maxwell Lord, and Superman and Batman should be ashamed of themselves.)


  2. Well. I take comfort in the fact that I scooped you, at least.


  3. “It’s even more naive to think that executions performed by a secret society of people who patrol the streets and search through people’s private residences will make the world a better place.” Exactly. Those people are best defined by the term ‘lynch mob,’ not ‘heroes’.

    Face it, even government-sanctioned killing is the wrong answer in the eyes of most of the world, the real world; look at the way most civilized nations view the United States’ take on the death penalty.

    As soon as your heroes – who are ideally to be morally superior – are granting themselves ALL the powers of the law, you’ve passed them from saviors to dictators. Raymond Chandler said, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” FOr heroes to lead and inspire, they must be that – especially untarnished.

    I agree with Esther that unfortunately entertainment media has escalated the severity of infractions in order to pique interest. Robberies aren’t enough, now it’s rapes and murders. And the more murders the better, the sicker the rape the better, the more of a still-living victim is eaten, well, the better. The fault’s in the creation and the audience, as people just aren’t that drawn to a petty crime.

    Wonderwoman failed to find a heroic answer to a heroic problem, and that’s why she’ll never measure up to Batman or Superman.


  4. @Esther Inglis-Arkell: Yeah, I totally got Ultra Esthered. I don’t think that’s happened on the same subject before.


  5. @ACK: “Wonderwoman failed to find a heroic answer to a heroic problem, and that’s why she’ll never measure up to Batman or Superman.”

    I can’t agree with this. Batman, if you remember, did sort of indirectly kill a ton of people when he launched Brother Eye, and that was just to spy on his allies.


  6. That’s a heroic fuckup, not a *decision* to kill. Take big chances, experience big repercussions. For the sake of the decision to kill argument, no she doesn’t measure up. If you want to talk about a different subject, ‘who’s made the more grievous errors which indirectly caused terrible consequences’, well, that’s a different post! A better analogy would be Bats killing Darkseid, who was evil incarnate, and I still grit my teeth over that one.


  7. I’ve always felt that say … a kill in the heat of battle a la a policeman shooting a gunman isn’t necessarily unheroic. But there should be consequences for Batman, say, just like there would be for the policeman in real life if we’re going to get all “realistic” with our super-hero fantasies.

    The only hero I feel should never kill in any situation is Superman, because his powers are so godlike that the consequences are rather frightening if he decides there are no moral or legal limits to him exercising his abilities. Kind of like the end of DK2 …


  8. I spent way too much time yesterday beating this into db’s skull. I should have just written a post. Thanks for mega-esthering him. I hate to just post a comment that only says “I agree with everything you have to say here” but that’s all I have to say.


  9. The way I see it, heroes can indeed find themselves in a position where death is unavoidable, or where they have to kill to survive. Like New Frontier Green Lantern said, survival is the one thing that would push him to kill. And that’s understandable, that’s human. By that standard, a person can kill and still be a hero. Many soldiers are forced to kill, and I can still acknowledge their heroism. Police officers carry guns for a reason.
    But what makes a superhero a superhero is that they hold themselves to the standard they set by any circumstance. And if that means not killing, then they find ways not to kill and still get the job done. Even if that is seemingly impossible, by some incredible effort they hold themselves to that superhuman expectation. Even when they falter, they never accept death as necessary. Is that unrealistic? Sure. But so is flying around, swinging between buildings and lifting cars. So is going out every single week and saving the world. So is being the best you can be every day. So is doing everything you can to make the world a better place with every power at your disposal. It’s something to aspire to, even if it’s fantastical. Yes, we can’t go out and be perfect demigods with incorruptible moral codes. But that doesn’t mean we accept our imperfections, it means we continue to work to better ourselves. I’ll never be Superman, but I can at least try to be more like him than I am.
    I don’t judge those soldiers and police officers who genuinely do what they have to do because I know that good people have to do terrible things sometimes. And it takes bravery to do those terrible things. But I don’t celebrate those things, either. And I definitely consider the killing of another human being to be a terrible thing, however necessary it might be. I regret the death of every gun-toting maniac, because all life is precious, even theirs. That’s why we dream of superheroes. We dream of a world where no further life needs to be lost, where such people can be stopped in a humane fashion. Isn’t that a dream worth having?
    Granted, even in comics the really bad ones usually escape and kill again. Even the superheroes don’t live in a perfect world. So even they dream of a better one. And everyone has a right to do that, even fictional characters.


  10. Thank you so much for posting this. I get into arguments occasionally with people who insist that Batman is worse than the Joker because he refuses to kill, or people who say that Slade Wilson is better because he does. And that drives me crazy.

    Basically, I agree with everything in this post, and thank you for making it.


  11. I agree with many of your arguments, particularly the need for lighter villains — since much of my argument hinges on the fact that too many villains have become such horrific monsters that it seems immoral to not kill them. I also definitely agree about society’s problems not needing violence to solve them and would love to see more non-violent solutions in comics — one of my favourite ideas in the past ten years was Joe Casey’s decision to make Superman a pacifist during his final year on Adventures of Superman. That’s a decision I still stand behind as forward-thinking and one that should have been kept by those that followed.

    That said, non-violence isn’t happening. Villains are darker. And, I don’t want to see heroes dealing with villains that do have no problem with killing and will kill again pretending that simply locking them away so they can escape is morally superior. It’s much too simplistic for me when, if we’re to believe that comics are more ‘sophisticated’ than they once were, the discourse in this area should be more nuanced and complex.


  12. These “no nonsense” solutions of yours just don’t work in a world of jet powered apes and time travel.


  13. On the subject of Wonder Woman killing Maxwell Lord, I can’t help womdering why she couldn’t just knock him out … or fly him outside the range of his power … Or inhibit his ability to concentrate.


  14. ” That’s why we dream of superheroes. We dream of a world where no further life needs to be lost, where such people can be stopped in a humane fashion. Isn’t that a dream worth having?
    Granted, even in comics the really bad ones usually escape and kill again. Even the superheroes don’t live in a perfect world. So even they dream of a better one. And everyone has a right to do that, even fictional characters.”

    I’d agree with this too. I mean the question is put to us ‘should superheroes kill’ but in reality the question is ‘should MY superheroes kill’. Blahblahblah reflect life – no, no thanks. I can read a gritty CIA book or watch a badass killer-killer movie or any of those things which more accurately reflect life. Or I can even read Criminal, Sleeper, etc. When I think SUPERHERO I think IDEAL. And ideally they don’t kill. Ideally, there will always be a way around killing. And yes, I am more comfortable with the men and women of ideal failing to save a life than appointing themselves Justice Incarnate and taking lives.

    Specifically addressing David Brothers’s last post where he talks about how Normal Osborn should get shot, no. Heroes don’t hunt and kill. Killers do.


  15. From top to bottom:

    @ACK: re: Wonder Woman- There was no heroic solution to the problem. Lord made it plain that she had two options: kill Max or be killed by Superman. WW is a master strategist, I assume she ran through all the possible scenarios before making the hard choice and killing him. She comes from a warrior culture and she acted according to her values. I think she’s absolutely as heroic as Batman and Superman. A lot more boring and impenetrable, but just as heroic.

    @Marc Burkhardt: What’s interesting is that the end of DK2 featured a Superman who rejected man’s law, but embraced morality. He was going to do what was right because it was right, not because it enforced the law. That’s a take that I can totally get behind.

    @Margot: I don’t think anyone here would argue that Batman is worse than the Joker. Personally, if handled with a certain level of skill, Batman killing the Joker could be a very well done story. Frank Miller took their relationship to the limit and still had Batman hold back at the very end. I just don’t buy that killing one person automatically makes someone into a monster or removes their heroic status.

    @Chad Nevett: :-*

    @one zen bullet: And the no-nonsense “Heroes don’t kill” solutions don’t work in a world where villains cheerfully murder thousands at a shot, either.


  16. @david brothers: Personally, if handled with a certain level of skill, Batman killing the Joker could be a very well done story.

    I always liked the way it was handled in The Nail and Another Nail. The reasoning, the aftermath, the development and the conclusion to Batman killing the Joker was well done.


  17. @Gavok: Oh, I totally forgot about those! Yeah, I agree.


  18. @david brothers: When has Batman ever felt ashamed of himself?

    also just a completely random thought: I liked how both times Rucka had WW violently kill a villain, it was on live television.


  19. Actually WOnder Woman snapped his neck as soon as he told her that was the only way to stop him from controlling Superman. I think that’s an instance where the lasso of truth was a little to limited. Yes, that was a way it could happen. I bet they could have also trapped him in the Phantom Zone or lobotomized him


  20. Esther, you write, “I think we need to rid ourselves, once and for all, of the idea that all of society’s problems can be solved with more violence.”

    I think it’s more true that we need to discard the idea that all of society’s problems can be solved, PERIOD.

    Even non-violent utopianism is still utopianism, and it is dangerous because it is unrealistic.

    Otherwise, a very good essay, with which I largely agree. Your solution of lighter villains is already present in most cartoon adaptations of mainstream superhero comics, including Batman: The Brave and the Bold and — probably the height of the genre — Batman: The Animated Series.

    I suspect that these shows will have longer legs than the current print incarnations of many of the same heroes, that they’ll be enjoyed by kids and even adults years from now, in part because the premises for their clearly fictional universes are more internally coherent.

    That makes me wonder what will be the long view on Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker. It’s the clearest exception to this trend, where the villain went really dark, really quick.


  21. @Jason

    She snapped his neck because he’d found a way to mind-control someone who could juggle planets and kill you by flying to the moon and staring really hard in your direction (yeah, his eyes are that powerful.) If Lord had been mind-controlling Batman or Cyborg, then the circumstances would have been different. If she’d taken the time to figure out a way to break Lord’s hold on Superman, Lord’s response would probably have been the same as mine: Have Superman fly upwards and past her limits (while exposing himself to a maximum level of sunlight), then rain down as many beams of heat vision as needed to kill WW. Or, obviously, kill as many innocents as possible thereby forcing WW to take lethal measures to kill Superman to prevent him from “murdering” bystanders. Either way, someone had to die in that scenario, and Maxwell Lord’s death was far more palatable than having to deal with the grieving parents and/or children who would have been left behind from a potential Superman rampage. Never mind the fact that Supes would never forgiven *himself* for being turned into a living space gun.


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