Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own 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…
Superhero comics on average aren’t very good at depicting violence, are they?
Yes, Mark, generally superhero comics are pretty terrible at depicting violence. Before we dive into that question though, it’s probably worth mentioning that most superhero comics aren’t very interested in violence. That doesn’t depend on whether we’re talking about great, mediocre, or awful superhero comics. The genre may include a lot of fights, but it spends a lot of time avoiding violence.
Just take a look at one of the classic examples of superhero comics: Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four. There are plenty of tussles throughout the 102 issues and 6 annuals of that seminal run. Marvel’s First Family lays regular smackdowns on Doctor Doom, Namor, Annihilus, and plenty of others in these pages, but it’s hard to describe the comic as being violent. Typically, the fights between heroes and villains in these pages are an obvious way of representing conflict in adventure, science fiction, and dramatic stories. The concept of violence relies on their being impact and consequences, and rarely does a punch result in visual harm focusing more on the plot instead.
I’m going to keep the focus of this conversation on Marvel for the sake of simplicity. Well, that and it feels a bit cruel to be throwing any punches at DC this week as they hover on the precipice of a meltdown. There are more than 50 ongoing series being published by Marvel as of today and even more coming down the pipe in a marketing strategy comparable to carpet bombing. Almost all of these feature fisticuffs on a monthly basis, but very few depict violence well.
Let’s take the current iteration of Guardians of the Galaxy written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Valerio Schiti for an example. The first issue opens with Kitty Pryde leading the team against a horde of Chitauri warriors. She tricks the aliens into firing at her as she phases resulting in them shooting one another and exploding their own vehicles and sentient war worms. By the time she is done dancing through this pack of warriors they’re a bunch of corpses with all of their space faring ships destroyed in the vacuum.
You wouldn’t recognize the consequences or harm of her purposeful actions based on how Schiti draws the sequence though. Pryde is shown gracefully flitting about and cracking jokes as the focus of the scene. While the destruction of the ships is revealed, the Chitauri themselves remain in the background as minor silhouettes or indistinguishable dots. They are being killed, but there is no focus on the violence felling them much less any awareness of it. While violence is technically present in this and almost any superhero comic, it’s not an important component. Schiti’s presentation of the scene and Bendis’ script aren’t interested in violence here. They’re engaged with moving between plot and comedic beats, introducing characters, twists, and jokes over the wallpaper of dead Chitauri.
The closest thing to a violent moment in Guardians of the Galaxy #1 is the appearance of Gamora at its conclusion. She arrives as a harbinger of a bad things to come having been beaten in spite of recently enhanced powers. Even when she arrives bloodied from a supposedly terrible fight, the focus of the panel is on her sexuality. Her ass is exposed and the curve of her hip emphasized as it rises above the rest of her body. The blood itself is speckled on with no visible wounds, as if an ink pen might have exploded on a boudoir depiction of Gamora.
Even on its fourth issue Guardians of the Galaxy hasn’t shown much in the way of violence. Cities have exploded, dozens of punches have been thrown, and hundreds of guns have been fired. Yet the closest thing to any depiction of recognizable violence or consequence to be found in the series is the speckling or drips of blood on women’s face along with Gamora getting a black eye. The series isn’t just a great example of the poor depiction of violence in superhero comics, but the genre’s bizarre relationship with sex and brutality as well.
Most superhero comics, whether they come from Marvel, DC, or any of the other publishers filling this overcrowded field, are more focused on this sort of soap opera antics or more light hearted storytelling than addressing the violence in their pages. However, there are always exceptions to rules and Marvel has produced some excellent exceptions in the past few years. These exceptions have been crafted by some of the most engaging rising stars in American comics, ones capable of depicting human cruelty like Peckinpah if he’d taken to comics rather than film (god forbid).
The first great example is Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s work on Magneto with writer Cullen Bunn. In the very first issue he shows the title character’s throat punch morality as he replaces an anti-mutant scientist’s fillings with sign posts. That image is horrifying by itself. The simple concept is enough to send shivers down your spine, but Walta adds a number of significant touches to make it really hit home. The scientist’s kneeling position, lax arms, and reclined head put him in a position of supplication. Despite failing to witness the act itself, you can read his final moments clearly and experience their terror and desperation. The blood dripping from his nose and mouth, along with the glass embedded in his skin make the violence feel more real as well. Walta isn’t satisfied stopping with the cause of death; he considers the full reality of the scenario and reveals it all to the reader.
The consequences of violence extend far beyond this single panel in Magneto #1 as well. This moment is framed by law enforcement agents interviewing a barista who witnessed the act. His downturned head and quickly darting, baggy eyes express the impact of this action on the living as well as the dead. He doesn’t only seem scared, but stalked by the memory of what has occurred. Violence rests not only in its depiction in Magneto, but all of the people and moments that surround it.
Walta did not draw every issue of Magneto, but those he did never shied away from revealing the horror of what this character was willing to do for his cause. Even though Magneto often targeted other terrorists and murderers, seeing their fates was no easier. Creatively destructive moments like the one above in which Magneto nails a man’s hand to his face are so cringe-inducing that it would be difficult to wish them on any person. Yet seeing Wolverine slice and dice dozens of ninjas is often easily swallowed and allows readers to think of him as a hero in a way that would be impossible in Magneto.
The difference between Wolverine’s wanton murder sprees and Magneto’s malevolent actions comes in the depiction. It’s not only Walta’s work that makes this moment function, but that of everyone crafting the page. Colorist Jordie Bellaire makes the blood a dark, muddy affair like the rest of Magneto. It makes it resemble the blood we may recognize from small cuts in our own lives and avoids the technicolor tone of many superhero comics. Cory Petit’s “SHHUNNK” really sells the sickly sound of metal cutting through skin and bone with wavering loud letters. Even Bunn’s limited scripting of a single “muuu-” helps realize this moment, avoiding any speech for a small, pitiful sound of crushing horror. In this moment the entire creative team absolutely nails the depiction of violence.
Walta continues to work at Marvel today on the outstanding new series The Vision, which has continued to see him realize the terrible consequences of violence. However, the best artist to depict violence in superhero comics at Marvel in the past several years is someone who only provides covers for the company now: Declan Shalvey. His work with writer Warren Ellis and colorist Jordie Bellaire on Moon Knight is one of the publisher’s highlights of the past decade. It also serves as an excellent example for how violence can be depicted without relying on gore, like the sequences from Magneto above.
The key to depicting violence lies in showing impact, in recognizing consequences. That’s something Shalvey does beautifully in the issues of Moon Knight where Marc Spector faces off against human combatants. Every punch, kick, or throw he delivers affects his opponents in a clear way. Even when they are never seen after being dispatched, it’s clear that he has severely harmed, crippled, or killed each person he comes into contact with. In the sequence above from Moon Knight #5, he interacts with one gangster for only three panels. But in those three panels it is possible to see Moon Knight’s approach, decision, and action that results in one man being rendered unable to walk and left in agony. It is both a clear depiction of violence and a tremendous example of visual storytelling as well.
Of course for the best depiction of violence in the superhero genre, you’re going to have to ditch Marvel and DC Comics altogether. There are lots of great indie comics that examine both the action of violence and its aftermath, and COPRA is the king of them all. This is a series constructed on the legacy of a very violent mainstream superhero comic, the first volume of Suicide Squad, and then built into something entirely its own. COPRA creator Michel Fiffe is creating a modern masterpiece that is equal turns horrifying and beautiful. Every action has consequences and he makes you feel them all in the pages of COPRA.
None of this is to say that superhero comics are bad for avoiding violence or failing to depict it well. For series like Fantastic Four or Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, violence is not only not a focus of the story being told, but runs contrary to it. Fights are purposefully cartoonish, making for a visually engaging spectacle of confrontation. The Thing throwing a punch at Doctor Doom in Fantastic Four is entirely different than Manhead throwing a punch at Vitas in Copra. In the former example characters are conceived in a manner that a punch is simply a means of stopping progress. They don’t feel or experience long-term effects from that punch. In the latter characters are engaging in violence to cause lasting harm on one another. It is much more brutal because the story demands it to be.
When the intent and depiction is clear, a punch can be many things. Superhero comics don’t have to be violent, but they often try to have it both ways featuring violence but failing to depict it. Comics like Guardians of the Galaxy and Justice League often feature mass murder and mayhem in a manner where immense harm is self-evident, but never effectively rendered in the story or images. They use violence as a shortcut to impact, but undermine that impact by failing to recognize the consequences of what is actually happening on the page. The result is at best a muddled message and tonally disastrous at worst.
I enjoy superhero comics that depict violence well. I enjoy superhero comics that don’t feel the need to engage with violence. It’s the wide swath of those that fall in the middle, utilizing violence but failing to depict it, that I’d rather avoid. Luckily, there are enough of Moon Knight’s and COPRA’s in the world that those of us who enjoy the superhero genre can dodge bullets like Guardians of the Galaxy.