Saturday, August 04, 2007

Pantha Report

Ah, for the innocent comics of our youth; they were nothing like the violent comics of today. Or, at least, so they tell me. They were, however, riddled with corpses

This is Tommy the Corpse, the guest star of Bronze Age Superman story.

Remember, kids, the most important thing to do when you encounter a corpse is to throw your arms around it and stare deeply into its eyes.

Gnothi seauton, kouroi!

And the next time you're tempted to complain about death in modern comics, think of Tommy the Corpse and ...

don't lose your head.


Anonymous said...

Right. Because a bloodless corpse is the same thing, gore-wise, as Superboy decapitating a woman so the DC brass can laugh about it at conventions.

Timothy Burke said...

I love this blog. But this particular bit of preaching you've been hammering into the ground again and again is kind of tiresome, not the least because it leads you to pretend that there's no difference between those two panels. (Not to mention losing sight of the difference between whole storylines, themes, etc. in the two different time periods in terms of the uses and representations of violence.)

MaGnUs said...

I don't think Scipio is saying that, it's just that he things it's kind of stupid to complain about violence in comics of today if there was violence (and worse things, like racism... slap a jap anybody?) in old comics that people hold up as impolute.

Sorry to put words in your mouth Scipio, you can correct me if I'm wrong.

BIG MIKE said...

I don't think the point Scip is making is that those two panels are the same. I think he's trying to point out that comics have always been violent and have always dealt with death. Quite frankly, that corpse is kind of freaky anyway. But comics are far less gory today than they were when I was a kid in the early 90's. You could barely turn the pages of an Image comic without seeing an eyeball flying around or someone's body split in half. Pantha's head is gross, but at least it's happening in the context of a story with some morals behind it that make it clear that senseless violence is wrong. We didn't have that in the early 90's. Besides, the violence and death in comics is far less disturbing than much of the sexual content and cheesecake stuff. That's the real 'adult content'.

Scipio said...

I stand firm against the common hypocrisy in this matter, and the opinions of the Anonymous will not sway me (and why such a person should care what I think of the subject mystifies me). I maintain that my preaching against it is neither as tiresome nor as prevalent as the hypocrisy itself.

People seem upset only when a named, previously known character is killed. Bystanders, however, they treat as disposable props.

No one is really bothered by violence per se; they want it, or they'd be reading Blankets. These Children of Wertham just don't want their sensitivities offended by gore.

Well, corpses aren't bloodless. And Pantha's death, although more physically violative of her corpse, was handled with some artistic vagueness, at least (to the degree a rolling severed head can be handled delicately!). We didn't stare into the dead eyes of the severed Rolling Head of Pantha.

Other than brief periods, superhero comics have always been filled with death and violence (just like fairytales, folktales, and other "children's literature"). I am not annoyed if people want less violence or gore in their comics; it's a perfectly legitimate preference, just not my own.

What really annoys me is modern readers painting their memories of comics with a whitewash of nostalgic innocence that's unwarranted.

At least nowadays, death is portrayed as something spectacular, usual, or at least noteworthy, as opposed to "the Good Old Days" when the average body count was 1 or 2 per story.

Modern readers want characters to suffer and die, unless it's someone they already know;

In a world where people have the power to topple buildings with a wave of their hands, Modern Readers want all deaths to be goreless and corpses to be bloodless;

Modern Readers want to pretend (as people always have), that the Good Old Days were pure and innocent and that the Evil of Modern Times has corrupted them.

The first two of these are a matter of taste, but I call bullshit on the third (and will continue to).

jon said...

People seem upset only when a named, previously known character is killed. Bystanders, however, they treat as disposable props.

Exactly. I love my comic book characters as much as the next guy, but I don't flip out when they get killed. If you're going to bemoan the death of Pantha, you may as well mourn for every citizen who's ever been killed in a big superbrawl or when some new villain shows up.

And for people who say there was no violent death in the past, read the first appearance of Metallo in the Silver Age. He's tricked into putting in fake Kryptonite, then Metallo just drops dead because he has no power source.

And that Pantha panel is as tastefully done as possible. When EC (that's the Tales from the Crypt guys) went on trial, one piece of evidence against them was a cover with a severed head in the foreground. They asked the editor if it was tastefully done, and he said "yes" because they didn't show hanging entrails or anything like that.

We see a completely black figure, the head popping off, and some splotches of blood. I've seen way worse in movies and even TV shows.

Chance said...

I actually agree with anonymous, even though he's being kind of a dillweed.

Sure, batman and Superman killed dozens of people every issue back in the Golden Age. But there wasn't this gore - nothing like Black Adam putting his fingers through Psycho Pirate's eyes happened in the major superhero titles, unless I'm badly mistaken.

I think the same difference is found in movies: old noir and war films had very high body counts, but they were nothing compared to the splatter-gore found in a lot of action and horror movies today.

Now as to whether that means the media are less "innocent," I don't know. But I do think there's a big difference between the GA and now in terms of graphic depiction of violence. I don't believe any of your posts on this matter, Scip, have indicated otherwise.

Scipio said...

Oh, come, now; ever seen a Golden Age Spectre story?

Anonymous said...

An established character with a history is completely different than an anonymous civilian. Anonymous civilians don't have a big mystery about their origins.

Allan said...

Modern Readers want to pretend (as people always have), that the Good Old Days were pure and innocent and that the Evil of Modern Times has corrupted them.

The first two of these are a matter of taste, but I call bullshit on the third (and will continue to).

The first thing I have to say to this is: We can swear on the Absorbascon now? Cool! I've totally been holding back!

Second, you're right. Nothing infuriates me more than when people mistake their own childhood nostalgia as proof of the rapid decline of western civilization. Of course the world seemed better and more innocent when you were ten years old--YOU WERE 10 YEARS OLD! An inevitable part of adulthood is growing up and becoming exposed to the less pleasant realities of this world--realities that have remained constant since the dawn of civilization.

It doesn't help that so many people believe they can find proof of their childhood utopias through the media, where the dark, paranoid, conformist period of the 1950s becomes the colourful and light-hearted Happy Days (a title, one assumes, is meant only to be applicable to those who were straight, middle class and white), and the turbulent, revolutionary 1960s is epitomized by The Monkees and The Mod Squad. And let's not forget That 70's Show where even today, the sight of teenagers smoking pot was implied but never shown.

Anyone who has seen reprints of the horror comics from the 50's knows that any one of them make Pantha's demise look positively Victorian in its restraint, but the sight of blood and viscera alone does not make depictions of murder more troubling. It is how these depictions fit into the overall narrative that determine whether or not they go beyond the pale of "good taste."

I wasn't disturbed by Pantha's decapitation not because it wasn't shocking or sad, but because it was clearly depicted as an accident--the result of Earth-Prime's ignorance of his own strength, rather than an act of deliberate murder. To that end it helped serve the story and set in motion the development of the character from innocent dupe to outright villain.

On the other hand the panel depicted in the above post from 1974's Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane #137 (which I coincidentally just happened to have at arms reach at this moment) does disturb me, because it ultimately adds nothing to a story about Lois Lane being abducted via the Metropolis subway system by a duo of intelligent dinosaurs (which is exactly the kind of plot that kept this particular issue within arm's reach).

In other words, the graphic depiction of violence in Infinite Crisis #4 helps to serve the overall story, while the horrible frozen look of fear on the face of the unidentified victim in LL #137 does not. And it is this distinction that so many people who decry the violence in today's comics seem to miss--context matters. True, this can often be left open to the realm of opinion and debate, but I think it is ultimately a mistake to judge all such depictions as unacceptable without any regard to what they do or do not add to the story being told.

I'm sorry, I'm tired. Did any of that make any sense? I humbly apologize if it didn't.

jlg said...

Allen: But you can just as easily say the reason for that civilian's death was the same as Pantha's death: to give a story an added jolt of "seriousness." The problem is, Pantha was an existing character with an unresolved storyline, while this guy is no more bothersome than your average Star Trek Red Shirt. Pantha wasn't created by Marv Wolfman to be killed in a gruesome panel for someone else's character development.

And the fact of the matter is the amount of blood and what's shown does matter in determining good taste, no matter how you or Scipio try and downplay it. Hitchcock knew it. There is a difference between a kid's movie showing the villain drop into the void or a Star Trek Red Shirt vaporizing, and the current torture porn movies that are in vogue. Just as an old man dying bloodlessly is different than a young women being decapitated, and the head rolling with a trail of blood in front of her husband and kid.

And I think another point that needs to be made is that a mainstream superhero book is a completely different genre than '50s splatterhouse, pulp horror.

For the record, I'm not old enough to engage in the kind of nostalgia you're talking about (I know the world's never been innocent and nice). It's just Infinite Crisis is all kinds of careless, mean, and just plain awful writing.

Allan said...


Your invocation of Hitchcock perfectly illustrates one of the fallacies that is inevitably used to support the censorship of violence in the various mediums.

Hitchcock did not restrain himself from portraying violence onscreen because he thought it beneath him or unnecessary but because he was forbidden by studio-mandated self-censorship to do so. Just like the Comics Code of old, the Hays Codes limited a filmmaker's ability to realistic portray violence on film.

If anything Hitchcock was one of the directors who worked the hardest to test the code and break past its boundaries. For its day The Birds was considered a horrifically gory film. And while it is true that the shower scene in Psycho contains not a single shot of the knife penetrating the body of Janet Leigh, it is also true that a replica of Leigh's body was designed and created just in case the director felt such a shot was necessary.

And for anyone interesting in looking for torture porn (a genre that goes back all the way to 1963 with Herschal Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast) they'd do no better than Hitchcock's second-to-last film Frenzy which features depictions of the strangulation of attractive young women in extreme (almost loving) detail.

And, forgive me if this sounds glib, but Pantha's storyline was resolved in that moment, with clear finality. One has to accept that just as in life not every comic book story has a neat and happy ending.

Finally, I will agree that there is a tradition in modern children's entertainment to downplay the reality of violence (a tradition it should be said that certainly didn't exist during the creation of the original, terrifying, fairy tales that linger with us to this very day), but I will disagree that this is necessarily a good thing. My experience as a writer whose work largely appeals to younger readers has taught me that this censorship inevitably has nothing to do with the tender sensibilities of young minds (because, it must be said with love, most of those young minds are savage creatures who would just as soon see a thousand rolling heads of Panthas than be bored with another "villain drop[ping] into the void") but is instead a reactionary salve to queasy parents who fear that such unDisneyfied tales might rob their precious jewels of their much-vaunted innocence.

One only has to look at the most beloved examples of children's literature to witness this disconnect between what kids want and what adults want to give them. The enduring popularity of the works of Roald Dahl, Daniel Handler and JK Rowling clearly indicates that children are capable of not only appreciating works filled with violence, but adoring them as well.

If anything what you seem to be advocating strikes me as more potentially destructive than the acknowledgment of blood in these kinds of juvenile stories, as it would seem to strike home the point that the deaths of nameless individuals you know nothing about are trivial events and not worth the time it takes to mourn them. Grief, you seem to argue, should only be reserved for those you have gotten to know and not wasted on strangers you have never met. It's a common philosophy, I admit, but not one that I find much comfort in.

Allan said...

I forgot to add in my refutation of Hitchcock's restraint and good taste that Psycho was the first mainstream Hollywood film since the creation of the Hays code to feature a working toilet. Both Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano conspired to create a scene in which a flushing toilet was relevant to the plot specifically to break one of the most absurd rules the major studios had to abide by during that period.

jlg said...

I can't get back to you on the Hitchcock and children's stories points, as this is getting really long. But on the "torture porn" point, it's that a sub-genre normally left to the "grindhouse" and cult fandom part of the genre has become more pronounced in the mainstream, to the point something like Captivity can have nationwide advertising.

You may not have intended it, but you're putting words in my mouth.

Who said anything about censorship? I'm objecting to it because it's lazy, bad writing. It's about restraint, and how much needs to be shown. Or what can be told by what you're not showing. It's easy to use gore as a shock tactic, but it's shallow. You could replace Pantha with a random civilian and it wouldn't have changed the point of the scene (except for how much the scene relies on Red Star and Baby Wildebeest's response, which is another issue).

And her death being the end of her story doesn't work either, because it's hardly much of an end. The moment isn't even about her, it's about Superboy Prime's character. She never has her true identity revealed, or what happened with the Wildebeest's experiments. She just shows up and gets herself killed with a quip. Nothing to set this up. Even if you want to say "life doesn't always neatly end," you have to set that up leading into that character's death. It's hard to have a message like that when it's only "expendable" and obscure characters die, then the message is if you're popular and have the right connections you can die neatly and happily. ;)

And I never said anything about "wasting grief on strangers you never met." Johns doesn't even give you enough time to do that, as Superboy Prime takes up all the space, and things quickly move on to the next event in IC. If you go back and read up on Pantha's story through back issues, you're not going to get a satisfying conclusion to her story.

In fact, I can point to an example where an anonymous death proved to be more effective than this Infinite Crisis scene. Eureka 7 had a scene where the boy hero unknowingly killed an anonymous soldier. We have a quick shot of the soldier's arm among his giant robot wreckage, and then a close up of the wedding ring on the man's hand. The anonymity, in fact, adds to the horror of that scene, as the viewer starts thinking about the past of this unknown soldier. And in the following episodes, we do feel the loss of this stranger, as the boy hero is genuinely crushed by what he did, as it really hangs over him.

However, we never feel the loss of Pantha. She gets one line, and its what gets her accidently killed. Beyond the call for male vengeance by the men in the family Pantha formed, there's nothing specific to her. It's not even mentioned after that in IC. The Titans tie-in had one line, saying how she would be forgotten (interesting, that you criticize me for deaths "not worth mourning"). Even the Titans issue with Red Star is all about his angst, that he resents the Titans for his "stuff" that was taken from him. In fact, how much Scipio turned the scene into a big fun joke shows how much it failed. Pantha's death is that destructive kind you mention, that it's only trivial people that die.

I think it should be noted that it's not an either or situation as Scipio tries to disingenuously make it be. It's not "squeaky immature clean" or "grim realistic blood bath," death or no death. I think it is important to think how one uses death and violence in a story, but to make it this black and white isn't helping.

Dave said...

Let me try to reformulate the anti-decapitation standpoint in a way that sheds more light than heat onto the discussion.

Superhero comics were put out by the same kind of companies that published pulps, many of which were borderline pornographic. As such, Detective Comics and True Detective were distant cousins. See this summary of "Men of Tomorrow" for a glimpse into these interconnections.

Then something interesting happened -- it turned out that magazines with the colorful characters meting out justice appealed to a far broader audience. Not merely borderline axe-murderers and retired cops, but also ordinary folks, neck-beards -- even women!

Thus, Scipio is correct, as horror and death are an inescapable part of the genre, but so are the critics, as the genre is loaded down with some fairly unpleasant hand-me-downs from its sexual torture obsessed relatives locked away in the attic.

"Mom DECAPITATED as Dad and Kid Watch!" comes dangerously close to a blurb on the cover of a cheap, nasty detective magazine filled with lurid tales of kidnapping, rape, and torture -- with women invariably the victims.

This squicks the chicks, as you may imagine...

Cuddles said...

So a supporting argument for why there was always a lot of graphic violence in comics is that in the 1950's horror comics showed gruesome stuff, so that's no different from a superhero comic doing the same?

What next? The depiction of sports in a romance comic is equal to there sports in a comic about baseball?

And I suppose the one corpse in the issue of Lois Lane is in some way the same as the millions of corpses of ordinary people created by Black Adam's rampage at the end of 52?

I'm not sure why you keep banging on about this. The people who are going to be persuaded by your arranging the facts to suit your opinion are already convinced, and probably bored by it, and everyone else sees the holes in your arguments and rolls their eyes whenever you drag it out again.

Scintilla said...

Hey, let's compare murders!

Nightmare on Elm Street, a horror movie, has five deaths.

Die Harder, an action movie, has over 250 deaths before the opening titles.

What does this prove? About as much as Scipio has proved by showing us panels from two comics out of the thousands published in the last forty years that show dead people.

For someone with an academic background, I'd expect an argument supported with something more like a factual basis than showing a greatly enlarged picture of a corpse.

Scipio said...

"I'm not sure why you keep banging on about this."

Why, because Scintilla won't believe me until shown more than anecdotal evidence.

So I'll have to do it again and again and again and again....

Cuddles said...

"Why, because Scintilla won't believe me until shown more than anecdotal evidence."

So give us more than carefully picked anecdotal evidence and tabloid journalist tactics and you might make some sort of case to support your view. Because otherwise it's just opinion with pictures.

"So I'll have to do it again and again and again and again...."

And why must you do that? Is it so difficult for you to cope with anyone else having a differing opinion that you have to continually return to it? Has such badgering on a subject ever caused you to change your opinion on anything? And if not, what makes you think it will work on anyone else?

But then I think the issue cannot be simplified down to either "it's always been like this" or "it's better/worse now than it used to be". And even if it could, so what? What does it gain us either way? What do you hope to achieve here other than the desire to see people agree with you?

plok said...

Just two things, in the interest of furthering the discussion:

One, given you have a script that calls for swift, unambiguous death by extreme superhuman bludgeoning, how much can an artist really be expected to tone that down? At some point, doesn't it become a sort of "tastefulness triage" on their part?

And two: wasn't the little word "snap" by Gwen Stacy's neck every bit as vicious and gratuitous a jab at reader innocence as any rolling head or suggestive impalement? Though I loved it, of course...

I tend to think the childhood-raping and the blood and guts are being mixed up a little too well, here; me, I see more childhood-rape in bad dialogue and pretentious plots than I do in the shock moments of "edgy" violence. Well, it must be so: I love Alan Moore comics, after all, and those are loaded with violence and grue.

So you go right on quoting regulations, Mr. Scipio!

(Why doesn't anyone ever seem to notice the wryness in these examples of his, by the way? Am I the only one who thinks they usually come off as playful?)

J. Kevin Carrier said...

I think having to look Tommy the Corpse in the eyes is a more honest and powerful depiction of death than the silhouetted Rolling Head of Pantha, which comes across as more of a joke than anything else (c.f. the Black Knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail")

Timothy Burke said...

I think some of the comments here speak pretty well for my own views.

It's not that past comics were innocent, current ones are horrible. Scipio's caricature of some current criticism as being Werthamite is unfair, I think.

A lot of the difference has to do with storytelling, with writing and craft. The invocation of Hitchcock above is a fairly good way to get at the difference.

But it isn't just the difference in individual stories, between the way one writer can make a death have a dramatic payoff (Gwen Stacy) and another have little or no drama to it. It's a difference in collective, cumulative storytelling, about how these fictional universes compare. There is a difference in the underlying mythology or storytelling infrastructure between a fantastic world where (by and large) brightly colored superheroes generally minimize the consequences of their struggles with their enemies and a fantastic world where those consequencs are both exuberantly violent AND generally inconsequential.

The objection I have isn't generally to exuberant violence per se. I like Invincible a great deal, for example, despite the explicit bloodiness of its storytelling. The point is that Kirkman often does something *with* that violence. It's part of the world he's making, of the narratives he's building, of the characterizations he's developing. In the current DCU, on the other hand, the rolling head of Pantha is contradicted at every level of feeling and sentiment and characterization and narrative logic not just from title to title but sometimes from panel to panel. (Infinite Crisis was a great example of this kind of storytelling schizophrenia).

The one thing I REALLY think is off-base in this discussion, by the way, is Scipio's mention of realism above. E.g., that real-life violence is bloody, ergo, it should be bloody in the comics. Whenever that kind of argument is made about works of fantasy or imagination, it's a pretty clear sign that someone's a bit desperate. It's not sustainable in any kind of consistent way. "Yes! We should see people at a picnic ripped apart by neo-Nazi supermen because THAT'S REALISTIC." Come on, pull the other one. If we're talking about show-me-the-realism, all superpowers are both ridiculously unrealistic even in their own fictional terms and the entire idea of superheroes is psychologically unrealistic. What would most people do if they had the kinds of powers we see in the DCU, if those people were anything like the actually existing humanity of our everyday world?

Even if we accept that DCU people are psychologically different than real-world people and that superpowers have a "unreal" realism, think of all the things that you *don't* get to see within the DCU that are potentially just as "real" to it as heads getting ripped off. Larry Niven's Superman essay is one whole dimension to that. We don't get to see Clark Kent's interior monologues about how he's got to avoid losing control when he's fucking Lois, but if heads are getting ripped off by Superboy-Prime, I guarantee you that Clark has to deal with that problem every day. If we get to see people ripped apart, why don't we get to see still more of that, in even more detail? Why not show me the bloody stumps for eight panels? Why not show me Dr. Midnight's latest autopy in detail, from stem to stern? Why don't we get to see people tortured in detail in the comics--surely some of these villains we see have tortured people, bystanders and otherwise? Why aren't we seeing anything like a realistic fatality and wounding rate among superpowered characters? Isn't death entirely too rare? Why does anyone still live in Metropolis and Gotham, given that they suffer the equivalent of a 9/11 attack every month and make contemporary Iraq look like Smallville in the comics of the 1960s?

Etc. You can argue for a specific storytelling or even personal preference for gore, explicit violence, or for that matter, for corpses with terrifyingly dead eyes. But don't try the "it's more realistic if people get their heads punched off" thing. That's really not on if what we're arguing about is comics in which brightly powered people with fantastic powers fight each other.

The Raging Spoon said...

(Why doesn't anyone ever seem to notice the wryness in these examples of his, by the way? Am I the only one who thinks they usually come off as playful?)

It's often difficult to tell whether Skipio even believes the opinion he is putting forward. Much of the time it appears to be provocative for the sake of getting a response. But you can usually tell from his responses to criticism, which are anything but playful.

Jon H said...

"Well, corpses aren't bloodless. "

Um, well, actually, they mostly are. People die bloodless deaths every minute. There may be other fluids involved, but not blood.

C'mon, Scip, you're a cop, you should know this! ;^)

IMHO, as presented the corpse of a man who apparently died of fright is an example of the macabre, not an example of 'gore' ala Pantha's head.

I think people have a pretty high tolerance for the macabre, even if they don't like gore.