Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
We often praise the visceral moments where a comic comes to life through action. It’s cool when Batman stomps someone’s hand through a half-rolled down car window. But it’s Clark Kent’s wink that fills your heart with hope. What are some of your favorite gentle moments in books otherwise known for their violence?
When you sent me this question I did what I often do to start these columns: I looked through my library for titles to kickstart my interest. What I found interesting was how many answers began to jump to mind as I worked my way through the shelves. There wasn’t one right answer, but a veritable bounty of items that could work. I want to start by touching on some of my current favorites, as you did ask for moments, plural, but what was even more interesting was the theme they created. While Clark Kent’s wink is a nice moment, in and of itself, I think it and these others show off a more important lesson about storytelling.
SPOILER WARNING: I’m going to be discussing some big reveals and moments from comics that range from being one month to twenty years old. I’m going to clearly label the comic and creators before discussing anything specific though. So feel free to skip any paragraphs that include a moment you don’t want spoiled; I promise the thesis at the bottom will hold together even if you skip a few specific examples.
I want to start with a very recent example because it’s the first one that leapt to mind. COPRA #30 created by Michel Fiffe concludes a long arc in the ongoing series with a variety of team members reuniting in the United States after almost a year (in publication time) spent apart. It’s a reunion that doesn’t go perfectly and results in the absolutely hideous execution of Wolfgang Ice by Lloyd. It’s a page turn that does not shy away from what happens when an unhinged marksman empties both barrels into a heroin addict at point blank range. Ice is almost unrecognizable, looking like a kindergartner was given a pack of only red crayons for their coloring book.
That and a few other fights deal out some really top-notch violence that give way to some much needed reunions. I don’t think there are any more anticipated than the slowdown between Guthie and Wir. After being separated and run through a ringer of non-stop battles, they’re finally able to spend some time alone in a motel catching up. There has always been something innocent about their relationship containing both a pure element of romance as they appreciate one another on an emotional level and an interesting mentor-student component. As they kid one another just like they did in COPRA #1, it’s a release from the series’ cycle of violence and revenge. That is until the cycle continues in the most horrifying way possible with a single gunshot.
There’s a similar moment of connection and cathartic release in Jason Shiga’s Demon that spans the end of Chapter 7 and start of Chapter 8. If you’ve read a single chapter of Demon, then you’re aware of the ultra creative ultraviolence it contains. This is a story packed with so much death that it eventually constitutes multiversal genocide. Jimmy Yee’s quest to die leads him on a horrible path of carnage packed with exploding jets and cum knives. It’s consistently horrifying in the funniest manner imaginable. And then Jimmy comes to learn the daughter he thought was dead is still alive.
The page in which you see the young lady for the first time and the expression on Jimmy’s face is a tonal shift almost without compare. Jimmy’s driving force has been to die because his family is dead, and yet here he finds the person he cares about most still alive. The story is instantly changed and after spending hundreds of pages rooting for Jimmy to die, you suddenly want him to live. The joy and shock contained in a couple of splash panels is hard to summarize because of how much work is put into making you believe and want the opposite of what you do in that moment. It doesn’t take long for Demon to dive back into darkness, but there’s suddenly a light at the end of the tunnel and it makes the entire experience much more enjoyable.
An older example that still gets me, like so many long-running comics written by Garth Ennis, is the conclusion of Hitman in #60. Before going out to meet their ends, Natt the Hat and Tommy Monaghan have one last drink at Noonan’s. The 59 issues preceding this one are jam-packed with ludicrous levels of violence. There’s a story that primarily consists of murdering baby seals and penguins. They’re evil baby seals and penguins, bus still…
Anyway, these two friends have a beer and discuss what their legacy, friendship, and lives have meant. It’s a rare moment of vulnerability from two characters wrapped in macho bullshit. They acknowledge what comes next and speak truth to one another in a really meaningful way. Just about any man raised in the myth of American manhood can recognize this sort of bonding, and it comes across as being honest in a way that can’t help but summon a few tears. What comes next is every bit as bloody as all the issues to come before, but this moment and all of the history between Tommy and Natt provides some meaning to that additional bloodshed.
The last example I want to tackle comes at the end of the second volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, spanning issues 5 and 6. I am of course talking about Mr. Hyde raping the Invisible Man to death before marching off to meet his own demise as he is scorched to a cinder while terrorizing Martians by destroying their war machines and eating them. If you haven’t read League of Extraordinary Gentlemen before that all probably sounds pretty awful; I’m actually underselling it.
Hyde is id unleashed, the worst aspects of toxic masculinity with no constraints remaining as Jekyll fades into nothingness. His destruction of his fellow man and invading Martian both reveal a level of brutality that’s difficult to rival. And yet between these moments, a small aspect of heroism is unveiled as his motives are seen in a single moment of tenderness. After killing the Invisible Man, he makes it clear that it was due to his assaulting Mina Harker. As he marches out to meet the Martians, he stops to greet Mina and asks two favors: that he may kiss her and feel her breast. Mina grants them and Hyde, just as he prepares to die, whispers, “Always I knew that heaven would be the cruelest of places.”
None of this redeems Hyde’s characters or his actions. He is still a monster who commits monstrous acts, but he is not beyond understanding. In these terrible moments of violence readers see Hyde embracing his nature, recognizing both that he is unable to change, but also that his nature cannot be reconciled with a good and loving world. That shift from the more selfish version of the character in the series first volume is related to his relationship with Mina and is crystallized in this moment. His perspective on himself has been changed by the respect and understanding provided by his friend, and so he utilizes his own beastly nature in an attempt to help her. First he commits an act of revenge he knows no civilized person would allow and then goes on to save the world, even if there was only one person he wanted to save.
It’s a tightrope between violence and sentimentality that is incredibly well walked in the pages of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The comic never attempts to justify the violence within its pages or transform ugliness into something laudable, yet it also recognizes that beneath even the most terrible acts of violence lies humanity. Hyde is shown to be a complex individual who still possesses meritorious traits, even if he may not be truly redeemable. The complexity of these tones and juxtaposition of a singular moment of compassion between scenes of horror reveal the complexity of the human condition.
That’s what all of these moments, including the one you mentioned, share. They come in comics that acknowledge and occasionally fetishize the darkest components of the human experience. We watch individuals inflict violence upon one another and themselves in ways that may be fantastic, but all reveal some element of truth. These stories remind us of how we hurt one another and ourselves, sometimes intentionally and sometimes incidentally. They’re ugly, cruel, and heartless, but not entirely.
Just like with our lived experiences, there are more to these narratives. There’s love, brotherhood, and a need for redemption, even if these are only hopes that can never quite be attained. By revealing moments of kindness or compassion, the stories acknowledge the broadness of the human experience and create fuller characters and narratives. They’re better for it and remind us, even in the midst of so much evil, that we can strive to be better too.