Spoilers for Punisher Max and Justice League: Cry for Justice are lurking below. Consider yourself warned.
It’s been pointed out by a few of my associates over at the Savage Critics (among other people) that there have been an awful lot of superhero comics in the last few months involving children and babies getting killed. The most prominent example is the maudlin, screechy Justice League: Cry for Justice miniseries, written by James Robinson, in whose final issue eight-year-old Lian Harper is killed off by an exploding plot device. Lian had been around since the mid-’80s, and she was kind of a cool supporting character (the daughter of screwed-up hero Red Arrow and super-assassin Cheshire), but apparently the mortality-and-morbidity count of Cry for Justice thus far wasn’t enough, so off she went. Is that shocking? It’s supposed to be, anyway.
On-panel kid-whacking is often a variation on the women-in-refrigerators syndrome: offering our heroes something to get This Time It’s Personal about, and providing a frisson of exciting disgust. Mark Millar, discussing the extreme violence in his own comics, quipped in his (fascinating, go-read-it-if-you-haven’t-already) interview with Lev the other day that “a lot of people will say, oh, you’re just trying to shock, and I just always think that’s the weirdest thing to say. It’s like saying, oh you’re just trying to entertain. Or you’re just trying to make someone laugh.”
The just in a complaint like that, though, suggests that the shock is not in the service of anything other than deeply experienced unpleasantness. Readers may seek out shocks as a kind of entertainment, but those shocks are usually the clever kind; there’s pleasure in getting a jolt from something you never imagined could jolt you. On the other hand, few things provide a cheaper, more obvious shock than showing kids being harmed, even fictional, only-ink-and-paper kids. Millar, in fact, has pulled the ice-the-kid trick recently too: in Ultimate Avengers #5, the Red Skull forces a woman to kill her husband “with a pair of old scissors” to save her infant’s life. But then he tosses the kid out the window anyway! Because he’s a bad guy! And now we know that!
In this week’s comics, there’s another kid who gets the axe; surprisingly, it’s actually a terrific piece of writing. It happens in the fifth issue of Punisher Max, Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon’s blood-soaked extension of Garth Ennis’s take on the Punisher, in which they’ve been re-inventing the Kingpin as a figure in crime stories rather than straight-up superhero stories. The first few issues of the Kingpin arc, and especially the opening pages of this one, have set up this version of Wilson Fisk as a cold-blooded gangster whose one saving grace is that he’s a devoted family man and father. Then Fisk is put in a situation where his life is balanced against his son’s, and he chooses to have his young son Richard killed without a second thought.
The scene is actually much more gruesome than the equivalent page of Cry for Justice, on which little Lian’s bloodstained, sneaker-clad legs, all we see as Green Arrow cradles her body, are what passes for tastefulness; in Punisher Max, we actually see the terrified kid’s throat being slit. It’s also much less ugly as storytelling. It’s the dramatic peak of the arc–a passage without which this story wouldn’t even make sense, the moment at which the Kingpin’s transformation to a monster is almost complete. (That becomes complete a few pages later, when we see his reaction to his son’s death, a gesture of emotional violence that’s even more shocking than the physical violence on the page.)
So why is this scene thoughtful and powerful, while the equivalent moments in Ultimate Avengers and Cry for Justice just seem manipulative and kind of sick? It might be, in part, a genre distinction: super-team comics tend to sell themselves as being about excitement and pleasure (and the disgust associated with dead children blunts that kind of fun), while amped-up shock and gruesomeness–and the irrevocable consequences of violence–are basically the point of Aaron’s Punisher, as they were in Ennis’s.
I suspect, though, that the distinction has more to do with the structure of Kingpin. The decision that Richard Fisk will die is one that the protagonist of Aaron’s story consciously makes–and reveals a lot about himself in the process–not something that’s done to him, or inflicted on the story as a plot-hammer to make a hero look good angry. Conversely remove Lian’s death from Cry for Justice, and it would still have exactly the same plot; even Green Arrow killing Prometheus at the end would have basically the same motivation. If 90,000 citizens of the hero’s city are dead, what’s one more little girl we readers happen to know already, except a way for lazy comic book creators to make a jaded audience feel anything at all?
Want more Emanata? See all of Douglas’ columns here.
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