Comic books, especially superhero comics, are sensationalist. I understand that. Violence has always been a part of superhero comics since their inception.
I am not saying that the Comics Code needs to be re-implemented. I realize that the market of comic books has shifted from children to teens and adults. I realize that there are rating systems designed to suggest the maturity of the intended audience. My kids only read comics rated “A” (all ages) and even then I peruse them for content unfit for a seven and four-year-old.
I am not writing this to claim that comics are corrupting our youth. I am writing to say that “adult themes” mean more than just violence and nudity. Adult audiences want intelligently written stories with engaging characters.
Instead, the violence in most media, comics included, has lost all meaning. Gertrude Stein once wrote, “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose….” Her point is that after repeating this phrase over and over it loses its meaning. Violence in comics has become a rose. Those of us old enough to remember: think back to when Frank Miller was actually creating good comics. His were of the most violent ever conceived since the Comics Code. But the violence in his books serves a purpose. Yes, Miller’s violence had shock value. But it was also so prevalent because his point was that human nature is at its essence violent and when society decays into a Hobbesian dystopia, that violence is rampant.
Comic book violence is at its best when it has meaning. Extreme violence, like that of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns, Rorchach in The Watchmen, and (to cite a more recent example) Fantomex in The Uncanny X-Force #4, should always raise the question of whether such violence is justified.
Unfortunately, many artists and writers have seemingly realized that if one draws enough blood and gore, then the audience won’t know how unoriginal and uninteresting the story actually is. (Not to mention that if you draw a woman naked enough, then no one will notice that she has no depth of character. But that’s a whole different article.)
This is not to say that all comics on the shelves today are superficial, overly sensationalized garbage. Some of my favorite monthly series (Uncanny X-force, Wolverine, Moon Knight, and Fables) can be incredibly violent at times. The difference is that the violence in these books, though sensationalized, is purposeful. That is what separates all good writing from bad writing – purpose.
Let’s take the Flashpoint series to illustrate my point of just when violence loses meaning. In the Flashpoint series, we have a universe that is very much a dystopia where it is expected that violence will abound. Besides, in an alternate universe you can kill off as many superheroes and villains as you fancy.
Take Deathstroke and the Curse of Ravager. The violence in issue three of this comic includes the following: A man is electrocuted. Another is frozen and then his head is smashed into pieces. Another’s brains are blown out of the top of his head. Electric Eel is impaled on a sword. More throats are slashed, bullets fired, and a head is decapitated. Icicle’s head explodes so that his jaw and eyeballs fly out at the reader. Finally, Sonar is shot in the leg and then execution style. Strangely this last bit of violence is only suggested with a “BLAM” and is thus the most dramatic. The rest, however, is an example of violence that has lost its meaning through excess. (By the way, this issue also begins with an excellent example of how to draw a woman as naked as possible without crossing into the “M” rating).
The result: we don’t care about any of the characters who are killed. We don’t care about the characters doing the killing. Deathstroke is not at all tragic or sympathetic. Blitz, the girl who explodes Icicle’s head, is the epitome of mindless fiction – explosions and sex. She contemplates murder about as much as venereal disease. In fact, the only way this series could have possibly had any redemptive meaning would have been if Deathstroke did not save Rose. If Rose dies in a fiery inferno, maybe it means that violent obsession, no matter how benevolent the reason, leads to destruction (a la Captain Ahab).
If comics are meant for a more adult audience, then maybe more of our writers and artists should create comics that aren’t the equivalent of an ninth grade wet dream. If I want to watch senseless violence, I’ll just turn on the MMA and watch two idiots destroy the handful of brain cells they have left.