Yesterday, my badminton partner Chris Sims wrote a piece on the weekly comic tie-in Injustice: Gods Among Us, based on the upcoming game by Netherrealm Studios. For the most part, he and I disagree on it. I think it’s a fun series while he considers it one of the frontrunners for worst comic of 2013. The one thing we do agree on is the dire first three issues, though he certainly minds it a lot more.
The series tells the story of how Superman comes to take over the world in the name of the greater good, ultimately leading to a DC version of Civil War. Through the first three issues, we see the Joker devise a situation where after he shoots Jimmy Olsen in the head, he kidnaps Lois Lane and tricks Superman into killing her. He does this by dosing Superman with Scarecrow fear gas laced with kryptonite so that Superman thinks Lois is Doomsday and shoves her into orbit. And it turns out Lois is pregnant too. Then Joker blows up Metropolis. When in custody, Joker’s questioned by Batman and they argue over Superman’s integrity until the Man of Steel busts in and angrily puts his fist through Joker’s chest.
The whole “fridging of Lois” thing is what made me aware that the comic even existed, but I didn’t care to read it until seeing some panels from the fourth issue, where Green Arrow keeps Harley Quinn in custody himself so that Superman doesn’t execute her as well. Even Sims admits that that’s a well-written bit and has some positive things to say about the issues that follow. And yes, while I claim the series is worth checking out, I mainly mean AFTER the Joker plot.
That said, the discussion on the matter made me realize a state of comics that nobody really touches on. As unfun as Superman being tricked into killing his wife and unborn child is, I’m not all that offended by it because “fridging” or not, it’s a step that the writer kind of had to make based on years upon years of righteousness. It’s a fucked up thing, but it’s the double-edged sword that comes from the purity of comic book heroes. It definitely could have been pulled off better in this story, but it’s a necessary trope.
It makes me think about something Grant Morrison’s talked about during his Batman run. Over the decades, the way the Joker has been written has evolved into something nasty, both in the character’s context and in the writing context. He went from being a goofball obsessed with “boner crimes” to a man who’s killed more people than polio. He went from flying around in a clown-faced helicopter to cutting his face off and having it reattached like a Halloween mask. The explanation is that by figuring out the Joker and his crimes, Batman puts a cage over him. Joker has to think bigger and more twisted to escape the cage and Batman puts a bigger cage around that. It escalates and the next thing you know, Joker’s chopping his face up.
Every now and then, a writer will play with a superhero’s refusal to kill and see where that goes. Sometimes it leads to a hero deciding at the last second, “No, I can’t do that.” Sometimes they’ll be totally ready to do it until getting interrupted and realize later that it’s probably for the better. Then there are times when they really go through with it. Whether it’s a good story or a bad story, I don’t envy the writer who has to set up that plot development because you’re forced to go over the line.
When I think of superheroes who strictly don’t kill, the four who pop into my head are Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and Daredevil. Each and every one of them has had at least one story that shows just what it would take to make them kill. Most of the time it’s a non-canon story that can get away with it easily (ie. Injustice) while other times it’s a canon story meant to be part of the bigger picture of the serial storytelling.
The Marvel two on that list aren’t too hard to shove, all in all. Marvel characters are about being down-to-earth, after all, and while Spider-Man and Daredevil are virtuous dudes, there’s still a limit. For Spider-Man, it’s about taking out a loved one. In canon, he was fully prepared to hunt down the Kingpin and kill him once Aunt May flatlined, but since that got retconned away via deals with the Devil, he never followed up on it. In various What If comics, they’ve had him kill the Red Skull for executing Aunt May, kill the Kingpin for having Mary Jane killed (she took the bullet for Aunt May in this scenario) and one issue even looked at him beating the burglar to death for Uncle Ben’s murder instead of bringing him in.
Oh, and there’s that kicking rad What If by Jeff Parker where Wolverine convinces him to become his partner in making the world a better place via black ops. He shoots a bullet out of his wrist. It’s nifty.
Daredevil had a couple kills in What If on the Kingpin. The first suggested that he was fully planning on killing Kingpin during the events of Born Again, only to get his ass handed to him. In the What If, he’s smart enough to pickpocket a guard’s gun and bypasses the fight. In another story, Karen Page doesn’t die and her near death experience drives Matt to discover that Kingpin sold out his identity, leading to murder out of outrage. In both instances, Daredevil gets shit on because it’s comics and that’s what seems to happen to him 9 out of 10 times.
Which brings us to Daredevil’s in-continuity killing of Bullseye. After years of writers turning a good comic into a monthly look at how depressing they can make this poor guy’s life and mixing that with Bullseye blowing up an apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen, Daredevil finally has enough and executes a defenseless Bullseye. Then they reveal that he was possessed by a demon or something because you can’t have him go on to continue swashbuckling against crime unless you pull the “Parallax Defense” and blame someone else.
The characters in DC aren’t quite as human and sometimes come off as more cartoony in their ideals. Batman wants to kill the Joker SO MUCH but he won’t because it’s a slippery slope to him and once you pop, you just can’t stop. The Joker’s killed thousands and Batman won’t kill him. The Joker tortures James Gordon and cripples Batgirl and Batman won’t kill him. The Joker murders Robin and Batman won’t kill him.
In the Elseworlds story JLA: The Nail by Alan Davis, he decides to write a story where Batman is finally driven to kill the Joker for the sake of adding distrust to a superhuman community that lacks Superman. But how do you do that? If poisoning a load of boyscouts won’t do it, what will? Davis has to reach down deep and goes into really disturbing territory where the Joker – armed with some Kryptonian tech – tortures and tears apart both Robin and Batgirl while forcing Batman to watch it all unfold. When Batman gets free, he’s seen on live TV snapping the Joker’s neck in a fit of rage. With the deaths of his sidekicks and his moment of weakness, Batman endures his biggest failure in any continuity and the rest of the series – as well as the sequel, Another Nail – is about him getting by through the help of his remaining allies.
I still remember someone telling me that he thought Batman killing the Joker there was out of character. I mean… what more do you want before you can accept it as a thing that he would do?! You can’t build stories on this being a possible thing and then insists that it’s impossible no matter what angle you use.
Even Jeph Loeb of all people knows that Batman has a limit. If Joker had omnipotence and tortured Batman to death on a daily basis, I’m sure Batman would think, “I really want to kill that guy.”
Those are two extreme instances to set the ball rolling, especially compared to the Marvel heroes. Superman’s side of this is a little more unique. He has killed before, exposing Zod and friends to kryptonite out of fear of what they’d do if they ever came to Earth. There was also Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow where he killed a demonic Mr. Mxyzptlk. Those were both instances where he had to protect the world and felt horrible about his actions afterwards.
The status quo of Injustice demands something more from Superman. Not only does he have to kill, but he has to feel vindicated so he can continue. The plot demands that Superman become a dictator, so how do you go about that and let it make sense? The Justice League cartoon was able to get by by simply having Lex Luthor kill Flash, but that plays by different rules.
Wait, you know, now that I think about it, Justice League did once have its own scene where Superman accidentally killed Lois.
No word on if she was expecting during this dream sequence.
As well-meaning as he was, Superman was basically a fascist dictator in Kingdom Come. In order to position him in that spot, Mark Waid had to cut Superman’s tether to mankind, which was Lois. Fittingly, this was done by having the Joker murder both her and Jimmy. It’s unsure whether or not Superman would have killed him, but Magog sure did and Superman got all pissy about it. Then again, as much as Waid loves Superman, he probably wouldn’t have.
Joe Kelly once did a story about Lois dying. Sort of. In his story arc Ending Battle, Superman came home from a long day of fighting so many bad guys to find Manchester Black standing over a dead Lois. This was all a mind trick done by Black to test Superman and to his shock, Superman passed by swearing he’d send Black to prison for the rest of his life. So killing Lois won’t make Superman flip the fuck out on that level. You have to go even darker because that’s what’s been established.
And there you are. What else is there left to do? If your intention is to write a story where Superman rules the world with an iron fist and Batman has to stop him, you can’t just go from A to C without proper justification. Something bad has to happen. You have to crack some eggs for this omelet and thanks to years of showing just how pure-hearted and unbreakable Superman is in these situations, you have to crack some disgusting and nasty eggs because anything less doesn’t work.
One might say, “Then simply don’t write a comic where _____ kills a dude in the first place.” But why not? Because it’s a bad comic? It doesn’t have to be. What If Daredevil Killed the Kingpin and JLA: The Nail were both very good. Just because something is taboo doesn’t mean you should never try to mess with it. If not, we wouldn’t have gotten Winter Soldier or the Last Temptation of Christ. You don’t know if you don’t try. If these characters are defined by their limits, then sometimes we have to peer into a world where those limits are broken. If the hero always wins, what would it look like if they lost? They never die? Well, what if they did? They’ll never kill? Something would change their mind, even for just an instant, else how can we identify with them?
It’s superhero fiction. There are no limits. If I can believe a man can fly, I can believe that he can be imperfect.
You know what? I just realized a fifth hero who is pretty big on the “no killing” rule. Wally West as the Flash. You know why he’s able to have stories that don’t show him killing? Because he never actually makes a big deal about it, so we don’t give a damn. You can’t lose if you don’t play.