April 26, 1991
Stephen Sondheim wrote, “Every day a little death, in the heart and in the head.”
From having discussed death in comics, and last week (although somewhat tangentially) violence in comics, we now move on to violent death. Specifically, to Hulk #380, a story about which I’ve received a great deal of electronic mail on the various computer nets I’m on, not to mention the April 5 issue of CBG.
For those who weren’t paying attention, Hulk #380 featured our resident shrink, Doc Samson, being called in to testify in regards to the sanity of an assassin named Crazy Eight. At issue–whether she was cognizant of her actions at the time of murders she committed. At stake–whether she receives life in prison or the electric chair.
Samson’s testimony in court results in her being given the chair, and her electrocution is clearly depicted on panel.
To quickly address two assertions by the CBG letter writer– First, “Crazy Eight” wasn’t inspired by the Barbra Streisand film “Nuts” (although I have seen it). It was inspired by an article in the local newspaper about a psychologist being called to testify at the sentencing hearing of a murderer, combined with the fact that I’d come up with what I thought was a nifty character name–”Crazy Eight”–and I wanted to use it in a story. (Although, for the record, Hulk #383-384 is definitely a Phantom of the Opera riff. Maybe next I’ll do a piece about where you draw the line between “inspired by” and plagiarism.)
As for the ongoing (which is a polite way of saying, Jeez, are we still talking about this) question of ratings, it should be clear by now that the usual violence level and occasional nudity (particularly in mutant books) makes Marvel Comics a standard PG, perhaps even PG-13. Therefore, anything that doesn’t cross that line should be acceptable.
Actually, Hulk #380 was an exercise in writing mechanics. I had a story I wanted to tell…and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do it effectively. I was afraid that, due to the climate of comics, it wasn’t going to work.
Here was a story that hinged on death being a reality. Death was going to come to this character, Crazy Eight. She was going to die. Dead dead dead. A character whom the reader had never seen before and wouldn’t see again.
My problem was twofold; I was asking the reader to care about what happened to this character whom they were only going to know for 20 pages, and I was asking the reader to believe that this character was really, absolutely going to die.
In approaching the first half of the equation, it meant that I was going to have to do everything I could to draw Crazy Eight as vividly as possible. I was going to have to make her so much bigger than life, so memorable, that she would make an instant impression. Her behavior in her interview with Doc Samson–her mood swings, her attempts to seduce him, her recollections of an abusive father that never occurred, and her stubbing out of a cigarette in her palm, all helped to grab the readers by the throat and make them pay attention.
Bill Jaaska’s art was so effective that, by the time we got to the electrocution sequence, I had become so fond of the character that I was sorry she was going to die. The problem was that, die she had to, or the story lost all its bite. Besides, the plot had been written and was drawn already. It wasn’t like I could change my mind just because the dialoguing stage had drawn me closer to the character.
The problem was, I wasn’t sure that the readers would take the death sequence seriously. That was something over which I had very limited control.
Wolverine routinely hacks up hordes of goons. The Punisher perforates criminals all the time, by the carload. Those “young readers” about whom a number of correspondents–not just the CBG letter writer, or I’d never have been brought this all up–express such deep concern, think Freddy Kreuger and Jason are cool.
And not only is death routinely depicted in comics (and glorified in slash/hack films appealing to the same audience base) but death is also routinely undepicted. I was worried that readers would get to the end of the story and say, “Oh, but she’s not really dead. She survived somehow.” That’s what quite a few said about Jean DeWolff, and she didn’t even have paranormal strength.
Death, in comics, has no meaning. But the story was about death; therefore, the story would have no meaning.
So to drive the point home–to give it as much (you should pardon the expression) grounding in reality as I could–I depicted the electrocution on panel. You couldn’t see her face–it was covered by leather strapping. You couldn’t hear her scream–her mouth was covered (all you “heard” was a muffled “nnnnnnn” which grew smaller and eventually blanked out) No huge, comic book-style, jagged lines of electricity. Her back arched, her fingers outstretched, her feet left the ground, but that was all.
In comparison to books featuring page upon page of routine slaughter, it was one panel.
One little death.
And people got upset.
I’m ecstatic that people got upset. I’m thrilled. I am dancing on the ceiling and bouncing off the walls that people got upset. I want people to get upset.
I wanted that scene to turn people’s stomachs, to nauseate them, to make them want to look away. I wanted that scene either to make people stare at it in morbid, horrified fascination, or else look away because it was too upsetting for them to take.
You see, Hulk #380 had a theme. Killing is wrong. The cold-blooded, state-planned murder of another human being is wrong. When I stated that on a computer board, I was accused of using a comic for expounding my own beliefs, which was ostensibly a bad thing.
Horrors. Imagine that. A comic with a point of view. A comic with a theme. Actually, most comics do have themes, and they’re consistent ones–Might Makes Right and Winning is Everything. In the old days, you occasionally had Love Conquers All, but you rarely see that now.
Might Makes Right. And winning is everything. The theme of comics. The theme of the country. If someone is your enemy, step on them. Kill them if you can.
One little thing, though. Unless I tell you that Hulk #380 is an anti-capital punishment story, you probably won’t pick up on that. Because I never say in the story that capital punishment is wrong. That would be intrusive. That would be preachy (much like this column). Instead, I simply showed it. I showed the harsh reality–the shaving of the head, the pulling of the switch, the human being’s muffled screams. I gave the reader the courtesy of drawing his or her own conclusion.
One little death.
One small death is what I wanted the readers to care about. To make them take death seriously, accept it as a reality in comics and in life.
Several people told me that they were annoyed because they read comics to escape. They want mindless entertainment. Sorry, guys–you might not realize it, but it’s insulting to ask me to turn my mind off when I write. And I would never insult my readers by expecting the same of them when they read. If someone came to me and said, “This issue of Captain Cauliflower you wrote is stupid, mindless pap” and I replied, “You mean you think when you read comics? Boy, is that a waste of brain power,” I feel that would be pretty damned offensive, don’t you?
Of course, do objecting readers say, “Whoa, this is upsetting, we should do something about the death penalty.” Nah. They say, “Whoa, this is upsetting, we should do something about the comic.” Now there’s a case of having your priorities in order.
As for the charge that younger readers shouldn’t be subjected to seeing this happen–Why not? After all, it’s not like I’m depicting prostitution or mainlining. The seamier, illegal sides of the dark adult world. No no. This is state approved. Their parents may even have voted for this. This is legal. This is okay.
Except it’s not okay, is it. It’s really hideous, isn’t it. It really is gut-wrenching, stomach turning.
One death. One little death.
Of course, people who complain about the younger readers being upset are generally upset themselves but don’t want to admit it. Same as people who say, “I’m not in favor of censorship” always follow up with the word “but,” thereby undercutting the first half of the statement.
But let’s focus on the youngsters for a moment. If we’re not to show them the horrors of state-mandated death, what should we teach them? Indeed, what are we teaching them these days on the subject of killing?
Well, we teach them to celebrate the death of 100,000 Iraqis. The general expression I hear is “We kicked butt.” What makes it okay is that only a handful of Americans were killed and, besides, Iraq was the enemy.
One hundred thousand people.
Take a hundred thousand pennies and count them, one by one. Stack them in your living room. Watch the pile grow. Imagine each penny to be a body. A man, a woman, a child. One hundred thousand lives.
Now try to make a life to replace one of those lives. Takes nine months and a small miracle. Lot of work. Do it 100,000 times. You can’t. No one can.
But it’s okay. It’s to be celebrated. We won.
And kill criminals, because they’re bad guys. We have the technology. We have the laws. We have the might on our side.
Winning is everything. Might makes right.
Who says comics don’t mirror real life.
On a lighter note, Peter David Isabella, writer of stuff, appreciates brother Tony’s kind invitation… especially when he recalls that brother Tony once instructed readers of “Justice Machine” to ship pizza boxes to Peter at the Marvel offices, which did not endear Peter to the Marvel mailroom. Still, the surname addition is kind, although Tony’s long-standing obsession with the fact that Peter has two first names is curious, considering that Tony Isabella also has two first names, just like Peter David. Of course, at least Peter and David are both men’s names…