Violence in Comics


I was struck by eagle6002‘s comment regarding violence in the comments for Episode #178 of the iFanboy Pick of the Week Podcast.  “I really hope that comics isn’t going into the territory unnecessary violence,” he writes, “It seems that each issue I read gets more and more grotesque for no reason at all.” I am sorry I didn’t respond to it in the comments (but kinda happy because it inspired me to write this article–thanks, Eagle!), but I think he makes a good point and I hope we can have a good conversation about this.

To be honest, I have been thinking about why I should even write this article. I certainly admit to enjoying books that treat violence in certain ways, and would never suggest that a storyteller should rethink the use of violence as a way of telling a story.  The whole situation reminds me a bit of how (and forgive me for the incredibly geeky comparison) the original Dungeons and Dragons books explained their use of the term “monster”.  I don’t have the quote, but it was something like, “Look, we realizes that people can be monsters. They are capable of doing terrible things, etc.  In this book, we are talking about magical beasts and animals that have specific characteristics.”

Even as a kid, this explanation was interesting to me. I mean, duh, right? People can be monsters, but, for the most part, when you’re playing D&D, when you think about a monster, you are most likely thinking of an orc or a troll. Just as there are different definitions of what a monster is–different uses, if you will–there are different definitions and uses of violence in storytelling.  “Sure, this comic is violent, but, it’s not, like really violent.”

Recently, I’ve started to notice the term “comic book violence” (or some variation on the term) being bandied about to describe the depiction of violence in movies. The term calls to mind people getting punched and flying across the room, or going through the wall. The effects of the physical actions were amplified to entertain, arguably diminishing the emotional impact of the violence.  And, indeed, the violence did call to mind typical comic book action. Spider-Man gets hit and goes through a window, landing on a car a few stories below.

It seems like that kind cartoonish action was the name of the game for awhile, but eventually it almost seems like comics pushed back against that kind of violence and started using the action in a very different way. What would normally be a very gruesome sequence was now being used as a kind of nod and wink to the audience, almost a titillation–look what we can do now, you know?  There are countless examples of this–and, as far as I know, always in the comics meant for more mature audiences–but the books we talked about are particularly good ones. Destroyer, in particular, handled this kind of extreme violence rather elegantly–the art described horrific actions using art that was (and I use this term in the most positive way I can) basically cartoonish.  As I write this waiting for my jury duty to resume, I can see the first page, with Destroyer punching some alien so hard that the guy’s face has split in half, lower mandible flying toward the camera.

When I saw that page, I gotta admit: I laughed. I thought it was awesome.  I’ve seen Steve Dillon do the same in some books and I had the same reaction: “Man, I can’t believe they showed that!” I have seen that more recently with Darick Robertson’s fantastic art in The Boys.  For the most part, almost without exception, when I see something explosively violent, I think of it as tongue-in-cheek–I don’t really like violence like that, it’s just so over the top that I don’t think of it as someone in actual pain, I think of it as a new way to show over the top action. Both artists are using violence in ways that are gruesome, sure, but give texture to the story, a punch in the gut to really get you to feel what is going on.

What’s interesting is that I abhor horror movies.  I was even actually offended by one of those Saw posters, with the some guy’s half head on a scale (reproduced below). (To be fair, I could give a crap, but I was thinking about kids seeing the poster and I imagined them being freaked out by it, and, for some reason, that really pissed me off.) I actually cover my eyes during gruesome operating room scenes, like the ones in Nip/Tuck, even though I know how it’s all fake blood and chicken livers, etc. Much of the time I am bored by violence in the movies, with machine guns blazing or senseless fighting, my interest only piqued a bit if the violence is more stylized, like the Matrix or even Wanted (which, okay is a lot like the Matrix) or Iron Man...unless it’s like a comic book, I guess.  But I digress.

I guess I want my violence to not be too real so I don’t have to “feel” it as much. But I wonder: is that okay?  Is there something wrong with that?  I think, honestly, that that’s the most reasonable and healthy way to think about violence. If I really enjoyed realistic violence, if I laughed at more realistic violence the way I laugh at, say, the ass-kicking in Kick Ass, I think I would be worried.

So does comic book violence in comic books make us less sensitive to violence in society?  Does it do what so many people who complain about violence in videogames say it does, that it makes us more blase about killing people?  Just like the case with videogames, I think the people that make those accusations need to give us more credit–of course not–but that’s another article.

Not all comic book violence is “comic book-y,” of course. The violent rape and murders in Battlefields: Dear Billy by Garth Ennis stayed with me for a long time–indeed, the emotional and physical violence in that story made much more of an impact on me than the brutal killings in Destroyer.  In that case, it was the impact the violence made on the characters’ lives, the residue of those experiences that haunted the characters, that made me reflect on the madness and the horror of war, which I felt much more personally than any kind of superhero battle.  It is the impact of violence, the memory, the ghosts of that trauma that affect how we live our lives, how we interact with people, how we consider ourselves. It is that struggle to live with those experiences that makes violence resonate, not necessarily the act of violence itself.

I admit, I have done a poor job of addressing Eagle’s concern about whether or not the violence in comics is really necessary or not. Violence can be necessary as a means of telling a story, and when it’s over the top and cartoonish, it propels the story in a particular direction–entertainment. It can be handled in different ways depending on the point of the story–remember how violence was handled in ancient plays, like Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus rips his eyes out offstage, then enters, eyes bandaged…he must live with that violence all his life. And I guarantee you that the imagined act of gouging out his eyes is much more intense and effective than watching some actor trying recreate that moment with blood packs–the Greeks knew what they were doing.

I don’t think over-the-top violence in comics is a problem, because, for the most part, I think it is handled responsibly, even when it’s gratuitous. I also don’t think that just because we are seeing more violence desensitizes the modern comic book reader, nor do I think that reading a violent book will bring out violent impulses. I do think we have different standards than in times past, because society as a whole seems less restrained in reporting and showing the violence around us and art, reflecting life around us, has adjusted to this new reality.  Modern comics are also telling stories that use violence and pain in ways that are far more compelling than before, acting as a kind of counterbalance to the over the top sequences that can garner so much attention. I think, in closing (finally, I know), that we are seeing comics mature and maintain a creative and emotional equilibrium, and we, as readers, are lucky to have a chance to explore it.

Thanks for reading. Curious to read what you think about this.


Mike Romo is an actor in LA. His first job ever was as a set PA in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, which, after writing this, he finds kind of ironic. He’s on facebook and twitter.

Comments

  1. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    The most frustrating thing about fictional violence to me isn’t so much the the highs or lows of it, but the points where people can’t properly interpret the intent of the violence.  Especially when related to horror.  Zombies for example. What used to be a political statement (something exciting and truly scary to make a point about horrors in the real world) is now just an empty element for "cool scares."  Horror’s become a dirty word because we associate it with torture porn like Saw.

    But horror and violence can play a crucial role in some really important stories.  Frankenstein says something with monsters and violence. Of Mice and Men says something with human violence. It’s really like any other literary technique or device. It can be used to great effect, but if you push too far, it can be disastrous. Thing is, testing those limits is a valid experiment or artistic endeavor so long as there’s intelligent motivation.  

  2. Paul makes a typically astute points here, but I think the issue becomes can intent ever truly be interperted by the audeince? (This may have been your point and if this redudant, I apologize. Also, is the intect more important than the affect?

     I’ll take the Jimski example of "dead babies". I think that most people are disturbed by a dead baby whether or not it is meant as a serious mediation on martality or as a part of the latest zombie variant Shock eliminates the time needed for thoughtful contemplation.

     

  3. I never really thought about how violent some of the comics are until I started my lending library in my classroom.  While I may not be bothered with a character bleeding profusely or a pointed object bursting through their torso, these images are not really considered acceptable for kids, especially kids that aren’t mine.  I think the industry needs to make sure that there are kid friendly products out there for kids to read.  While each parent is different on what they consider appropriate or not, its disappointing to see a little kid have to put away a Wolverine comic he was really excited about because the parent with him found Wolverine decapitating some guy on page 3.  That’s an example that I saw of violence in a comic being detrimental to the industry.

    I think comics inherent violence plays to its somewhat older audience.  If some of the violence was toned down or missing, we may not find some of the stories as engaging.  This plays into Mike’s point of using violence well.  From a storytelling perspective, I think that violence can sometimes add stakes to a story that weren’t there, particularly if the characters we’re reading about are in danger of death.  

    Something that comes to mind is Greg Rucka’s comic work, and how perfectly the violence is balanced with the personal relationships, manipulations, and subterfuge that goes on.  Those stories are always so intense, whether people are being shot or two people are in a meeting. 

  4. What bugs me is that people see violence in a comic and will sometimes write off the series as just being about "senseless violence and shock value."  Destroyer, Crossed, and Kick-Ass come to mind as books that people have that initial reaction towards.  For some, it just seems too hard to believe that the violence and gore is in certain comics for a particular reason.  It’s suppose to envoke some sort of reaction out of you; it’s not always just included to push the limits just for the sake of it.  I won’t go so far as to say that comic creators never do that, just that its not as prevelent as some fans would like to believe.

    I’m looking forward to reading what more people think about this too.  It can be a touchy subject, but if any fans could discuss it civily, its the iFanbase.

  5. Let’s see in today’s comics I saw:

    Aliens dying by getting acid blood on them, people commiting suicide, someone gets shot right between the eyes, someone punches a robot’s head clear off, people drowning in a submarine, someone getting hanged, lots of people getting shot, and someone in a bear costume getting blown to bits…

    Yeah there is a lot of violence in comics arent there? (That was only 3 comics in that previous paragraph mind you….Let’s see someone with 17 comics this week state the violence they saw)

    Neb pretty much hit all the points I was gonna make. But I think violence overall isnt as excessive or gruesome as it could be. Romo pointed out the Saw franchise. That series only exists to see people getting tortured in horrible ways. Other then I few I can think of (Walking Dead), violence is never really shown like that at all. Yes I mentioned a lot of stuff that happened in my comics this week there is violence. But a lot of it feels like an action film, or that the consequences for death is never really shown. It’s like letting a kid watching a Batman film. There might be a lot of punching, but it’s not really going to damage the kid at all. Give a kid a Spider-Man comic and let him enjoy himself….Just dont give him anything Punisher related til he’s a teenager…

  6. @TNC-I don’t want to derail this discussion, but that is not what The Walking Dead is about at all

  7. @drake~ I think books like Destroyer and Kick-Ass are created for those "I can’t believe they just did that!" type of reaction.  But, to me, that’s ok.  It’s kind of the point, and those books are labeled as books with parental advisories.  They’re also crazy fun to read.

    I agree with you about Walking Dead in that it is a great example of a book whose violence is used for those emotional moments, and as a way to examine the human condition when put through the worst the world has to offer.  With all the deaths in Walking Dead, that book constantly punches you in the gut with its violence to make you feel for the characters.

  8. @Neb-Wolverine is a curious case I think.  Is it possible for creators to tell a great non-violent story with a character that is inherently violent and openly kills?  I can’t think of the last Wolverine book I read that wasn’t bloody and violent, admittaly thought I have not checked out Wolverine: First Class.  So its hard to find a Wolverine story that you can confidently give to children without fear of parental retaliation, yet Marvel and Fox have a movie coming out along with action figures and lunch boxes and everything.  You make a good point that, in some cases, if violence was toned down then some readers might not be as engaged, or may feel that the story isn’t true to the character.  All I know is that when I pick up a Wolverine book, I personally expect to see some bloody action

  9. Let me explain what I ment about Walking Dead, cause reading it again I didnt make it clear.

    Walking Dead is a whole other beast when it comes to violence in comics. I agree that Kirkman uses the violence to show the side of the human condition and just how drastic life has become for people living in a zombie nightmare. But when you put that up against, lets say, Spider-Man….the violence is ratched up 100 fold. While stuff like Spider-Man, GL, or others feel like your watching a saturday morning cartoon…..Walking Dead is like watching a Saw film at points. The violence can be sometimes relentless and down right brutal.

  10. @TheNextChampion – constant hunger for human flash does that to people.

  11. Nothing is worse than crossed

  12. "So does comic book violence in comic books make us less sensitive to violence in society?  Does it do what so many people who complain about violence in videogames say it does, that it makes us more blase about killing people?  Just like the case with videogames, I think the people that make those accusations need to give us more credit–of course not–but that’s another article."

    I’ll throw my hat in the ring about this. If what we put in our brain through our eyes had little effect on us Pepsi wouldn’t spend billions of dollars on advertising. Imagery is a powerful thing. To underestimate that power is a mistake in my opinion. Does violence in the media desensitize people? Maybe, I don’t know. But it can’t not have some sort of effect. What you put in your brain affects you to some degree one way or another. It’s inevitable. For this reason I strive for moderation in all things. 

    Please don’t judge me. Thank you.

  13. in my humble opinion I feel that "too violent" is an oxymoron.

  14. @JumpingJupiter – but Pepsi isn’t selling shit in a bucket, so it helps – to have a good product. I don’t watch a commercial and buy whatever is displayed there. I use common sense to decide if I want to buy it and it’s not based on a commercial. The commercial informs me of that product or reminds me of it.

    The only desensitizing is towards fake violence. Fake violence gets less and less risque as you grow up and get exposed to many forms of it. 

  15. This is a great topic, Mike, and I have so many thoughts on this, but first I thought I might post a link to a new story from The Onion News Network titled "Hot New Video Game Consists Solely Of Shooting People Point-Blank In The Face".

    http://www.theonion.com/content/video/hot_new_video_game_consists?utm_source=a-section

    I felt like it went well with your article, while incorporating some humor. 

  16. @Chlop: You’re absolutely right! A good brand/advertising campaign brings people to your product. A bad product pushes them away. And also, generally, a product that has strong branding competes with an unbrabded product of equal quality the strong brand trumps the other in sales. Putting all that aside though, my opinion is simply that what we take in with our senses can’t not have an impact on our thinking. But I may be completely wrong in that also 🙂

    Interesting article Jim!

  17. @JumpingJupiter – it can, but what will be the effect? I doubt it can be predicted. We can choose several options that seem more likely to occur in vast amounts of people, and take a guess.

    Like "that someone will remember it and add it to their grocery list", " that someone will remember it during a visit to the grocery store and buy it" etc.

    My reaction will probably be to change the channel. More than a hundred channels available – why watch commercials? 

  18. but aren’t superhero comics themselves inherently violent? I mean most superhero comics consist of a lot of punching. and I mean, for me at least seeing it on the page is in no way like seeing it on the screen. I mean compare the violence in the Watchmen movie and the comic.

  19. I think it all boils down to ‘kids shouldnt be picking these titles up in the first place’ type of argument. Or ‘why the hell dont parents actually pay attention to their kids?’ as well.

    Cause the stuff Romo pointed out; Destroyer, The Boys, or anything else Garth Ennis mentions shouldnt be anywhere near a child’s hand (or anyone younger then 13). If we’re talking about stuff like Superman, Spider-Man, most Batman titles, or anything really superhero related….I find those type of violence okay. Cause it’s like Power Rangers, sure you can reinact some of the stuff but kids just grow tire of that stuff and go on playing real games.

  20. I love over the top ultra violence as much as Geoff Johns clearly likes to use it, but I do think that there are times that some books use it excessively for shock value rather than black humor which can make a world of difference. Today I read Incognito #3 which had a character who had his eyes shot with a shotgun to the face, I thought it was hilarious because it was used in an over the top comedic way… atleast thats how I saw it anyway. Also, there are some books that I think should never get too violent, the Superman books for example I think should of course be mature enough to entertain adults, but should never be so extreme that a kid can’t read it because of its violence

  21. @TNC. Gotta disagree with you on GL. It’s much more tame than titles like Preacher or The Boys, but GL has taken things really far in the last 2 years. In Sinestro Corps War, there are multiple headshots shown in a large amount of detail including brainmatter and bone chunks, even if those more gruesome details weren’t the direct focus of a certain panel. Some superhero titles tend to stick with the punching and kicking (You mentioned Spider-Man, which I think stays in that territory) but some basic superhero titles like to push things a little bit.

  22. @Anson: Looking back your right…especially in GLC this week. How many people died in that issue this week?

    Well compare Spider-Man as a Power Rangers-like violence then I still go by my statement

  23. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Well, here’s the thing.  Is it really less harmful to portray violence in a milder fashion (i.e. TNC’s Power Rangers example or DarkKnightDetective’s Superman example)?  I’d argue that it’s more harmful because there are no consequences to what are still violent actions.  "If I kick this person, they’ll just get back up." That said, there’s a fine line between glamorizing or fetishizing graphic violence and showing the realities of violence and its impact.  If you ask me the more important question is how the narrative approaches the aftermath of violence.  The repercussions. Violence is real and sometimes necessary, so it doesn’t make sense to censor it. It’s important to offer commentary though.  

  24. Violence = good

  25. What is the ratio of violence/sevarity of violence between the comic books you bought this week and shows they show in prime time? Less/more? Why?

     

    –Your English Teacher. 

  26. So sorry Mike. I mixed up your name with Jim. 🙁

  27. I think if you are offended by violence in a comic book you must have led a pretty guarded & sheltered life, but that being said, no one is ever forced to read a comic book. If something offends you for whatever reason (violence, sex, Oprah Winfrey) — don’t read it/watch it/listen to it.

    But, my personal view on violence in entertainment is that it’s fine. To quote Ali G — "What harm has violence ever done? … Besides death & injury."

  28. What kids shouldn’t read is The Ugly Duckling. That is the ultimate pro plastic surgery story.

    Let me ask you a serious question – when did you learn about the Holocaust? 

  29. My problem with recent violent movies/comic/tv shows, is that most of the time, it’s too over the top and cartoony. By cartoony, I mean the Wile E. Coyote hovering in mid-air cartoony. It is funny the first time, but after that it’s gratuitiously boring. Watchmen(the movie) had the same problem. The voilence that disturbs me is realistic voilence, like the fate of Joe Pesci in Casino. That was brutal and scary!

  30. No one gets desensitized to violence; they just end up with PTSD.

     

  31. Or a phobia of turning pages. It’s movies for the rest of your lives. You will never be able to read the paper on the crapper ever again.

  32. @Paul: Well I dont think the minions the Rangers faced ever got back up. Plus sparks always seemed to come out from thos punches and kicks. So the realism is out the door for me when it comes to that type of violence.

    That and they usually faced crab monsters

  33. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Crab monsters are very real.  

  34. Oh I know, I had to fight one on the way to college this morning. They are a bitch to kill. Hint: Bring it home and you got dinner for a week.

  35. @TheNextChampion – they are very rare and near extinction…

  36. @chlop: But they’re so delicious

  37. Short answer: no.

    Long answer: Comics today are not more violent, more graphic maybe, but not more violent. In the 80’s we had Watchmen. We also had Robin being beaten to an inch of his life with a crowbar only to blow up a few panels later, The Mutant Massacre, not to mention Kraven blowing his own head off with a shotgun. That’s what I read when I was a kid and I turned out fine. When my dad was reading (late 60’s-early 70’s), Capt. Stacy was crushed to death by falling bricks and his daughter’s neck snapped while she was being rescued by the man she loved, and that was just in ASM.

    Point is, when done correctly, violence adds to drama and drama makes good story telling.

  38. The TRUE answer is a resounding YES!!!! The violence in todays comics is completely out of control, and without merit! Violence is part of everyday REALITY, we see it, smell it, absorb it, beyond any measure that’s at all healthy. Certainly there was violence in comics dating back to the 40’s…but not like THS crap folks, not even close. Just look at the latest issue of Titans# 31, where this dude ‘Slip not’ literally has his friggin HEAD ripped off…i’m mean,straight decapitated!!!! Is THIS necessary in a comic book? REALLY? This is what this medium has dissolved into? Blatant, unnecessary, and utter gratuitous, killing, maiming, and  just plain GORE were NEVER part of comic book lore, EVER! I dare anyone to show me ANYTHING even remotely similar for 20-30 years back, comparatively to todays offerings.
    Comic book have always be an escape from reality, an escape from stress of our daily grind, heroic and CLEAN for the most part…at least in its message. When is the critical mass reached? when is enough enough? that 21-65 comic crowd is getting older folks. Stop writing comics, and their TPB formats, for film optimization…we already have plenty of violence in that format. It’s truly sad, and disgusting!