‘Shock’ is dead. That’s what Steven Grant wrote in a recent Master Of the Obvious column on http://www.comicbookresources.com.

And, yes I know, all us comics pundits columns are starting to resemble a coffee morning, where everyone’s just sitting around nattering and arguing with each other. Why we don’t just go on a mailing list and talk to ourselves, I don’t know. I mean how much of this can interest the reader.

Well fuck the reader, the column is always what’s on my mind, what I’m thinking about and if it interests anyone else, all for the good. It’s said that when writing a column or talking on radio, you should imagine that you’re talking to yourself. And I’m sure in some cases that’s not a glib style guide but a matter of fact.

Anyway, shock. Yes. I’m here to argue in favour of shock as a literary device and one that could save rather than condemn comics. To do so, I’ll use examples of other media to illustrate a point, but I’m sure I’ll manage to bring it all back to comics. Be patient. I’m probably going to throw a few ideas around here, if any stick I’ll be happy.

Grant states that shock has been overused, it’s lost it’s bite, all the taboos have been broken and we’ve become unshockable. Nonsense, especially in the USA. Recently, on Channel 4, a commercial terrestrial channel in Britain, with a focus on minority tastes, broadcast the TV comedy sketch show Jam. Amongst many taboos being broke, showed a couple arguing over an alleged affair that had taken place, the woman accusing the man of cheating on her. He denied this, she said a friend had seen them kissing, he proclaimed that he wasn’t kissing her, he had his hand over her mouth and he was in fact raping her. It meant nothing! The woman asks if this is true, gives him a hug and forgives him.

Harsh, powerful, disturbing, funny. And yes, shocking. It was the talk of my office the next day, some found it funny, others not, all found it moved, disturbed and shocked them. Channel 4 showed this sketches show without adverts because, hey, who would want to advertise that! The show had mixed reviews, but was talked about across the media.

Ali G, a creation by Sacha Baron Cohen, parodying the “wigga” aspects of certain Englanders also took the nation by storm. A white Jewish guy who dressed in his image of black people, with the lanuage of “the street”, dressed head to toe in Tommy Hilfiger, with a misogynist and sexual bent, interviewed top politicians and public figures, masquerading as a TV voice of youth. And almost all fell for it, trying to appeal to “youth” by going along with his questionable questions and his constant cry against prejudice “is it ‘cos I’m black”? And it worked. It shocked, it entertained, it made serious people look ridiculous and it achieved mainstream crossover.

Recently in Authority [BIG SPOILERS HERE! SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU INTEND TO READ ISSUE 16] after a concerted fight against an army of super-types, with the death toll rising, including the deliberate slaughter of a room full of infants, the genius leader wasn’t taken down so much by The Authority as pacified and then given a job cleaning up one of The Authority’s previous messes. Not the ending I was expecting after reading Authority and Stormwatch for years. Harsh imprisonment, possibly, a shot to the head more likely. [END SPOILERS!]

And everyone’s been talking about this scene… forming a long thread on Usenet and making The Authority section one of the biggest boards in the DC Message Boards site. The Authority had become a wish fulfilment book under Ellis. Under Millar, it’s been mixed with the ‘harsh realities of international politics’. And yes, I was shocked. I enjoyed the feeling and want to see more. Many readers didn’t have the same reaction and some have no doubt dropped the book.

And that’s also the price of ‘shock’. Yes, you get a sharp reaction from the reader. Some will stay and rave about it, the others with leave and condemn it. But often both the raving and the condemning get noticed and bring more readers in to see what the fuss is about.

Maybe here here lies a difference. Shock for shock’s sake brings the viewer but if the can’t see anything behind that shock, informing it, giving it purpose, they go away. Shock with a point, often known as satire, is more likely to keep people or is at least more likely to be appreciated. So the Death Of Superman – shocking, yes, but overly melodramatic, with no lasting implications and without real purpose other than to shock. Flop. Ozymandias in Watchmen, explaining his diabolical scheme to the heroes and then saying he already did it thirty minutes ago – one of the most remembered scenes in the book, subverting the agreed system, leading to pages of death and destruction that struck hard at the superhero world and giving the reader new eyes to see. Hit.

For those who think that taboos will dry up and die as they are breached, I’m dubious. Every generation has taboos that are challenged, and while there are taboos a hundred years old that are blatantly broken as a matter of course in life, without any shock value, we seem to have created a whole host of taboos for ourselves that simply wouldn’t have occurred to our forefathers. And just as one aspect of pop culture breaks a taboo, it still
doesn’t mean it holds true for everyone else. Ali G has taken on the way the media uses and views race in England, but there’s still plenty of room for a different angle to get the same reaction.

Shock can get attention, publicity, media interest. In fact, it’s only the ‘shocking’ scenes in comics that seem to do see, a gay outing here, a death there. If these are properly built on, it could be a way to change and form
public opinion as to what comics are and what they’re about. The X-Men film has caused a lot of fuss about gay and racial themes in the movie… they’ve been in the comics for decades. All it needed was a brave company to do a press release stating yes, this is what this comic is about, shock , horror, and it wouldn’t be the film that’s taking all the credit now.

But sometimes companies are timid, nervous of a bad reaction that sees comics pulled from the hands of children, their product not being stocked by chains and the threat of mass boycott. People, there is almost nothing that can harm comics now, the industry is so low it’s scaring everyone. Shock tactics, negative publicity and a campaign against a comic can only help, not hinder its sales. As for kids being forbidden to read comics, they aren’t reading them. Kids read many more comics when they’re deemed bad to read, subversive or downright insidious. I know that’s why I read them.

American comics, intended for a teen reading audience get read by thirty year olds. While Viz Comics, a mature-readers comedy comic on British news stands with a cover that states it is Not To Be Sold To Children is mostly read by fourteen years old in the school playground. And every issue sells 350,000 in Britain alone, with a quarter the population of the USA.

Comics need shock – and the scandal that comes with it. Basically, we need another Seduction Of The Innocent and we need it now…

Rich Johnston

I’m currently using the Ramblings page to keep a list of current columns and work that’s available to be read by the reader, including Rich’s Rumblings. So give it a bookmark, why don’t you and be here next week for my Not The San Diego Comic Con column. It’ll probably be better than this one.

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