I’ve written more than my share of superhero slugfests (in both comics and animation) and thoroughly enjoyed doing it. I adore these larger-than-life characters and there’s much to be said about the mythic qualities Superman, Spider-Man and their brethren bring to the page and screen and the resonance of the symbolic conflicts that play out in their battles. But there’s an inherent flaw in the capes-and-masks genre that was underscored—and I suspect it was intentional—in the first episode of the CW’s Black Lightning (which got off to a terrific start this past Tuesday. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to check it out). Early in the episode, lead character Jefferson Pierce—who, some years earlier, turned his back on his career as a costumed crime-fighter—says that he’s done more to change lives in his time as a high school principal than he ever did in his time as a superhero: a valuable insight about the power of focused compassion, of individual effort by average human beings, to change the world. But, by the end of the episode, Pierce is back in costume zapping “bad guys” left and right, leaving a trail of bodies, some of them dead, in his wake. The message appears to be: This is the way you really change the world. Compassion and kindness ultimately don’t work. Violence, in the end, is the most effective solution.
I’m sure this wasn’t the message the producers intended. BL is an extremely thoughtful show, grappling with serious issues, and I look forward to seeing where things go from here. Perhaps a major part of the ongoing story will be an exploration of this contradiction, examining the massive crack in the foundation of the entire superhero genre: No matter how much these characters talk about high ideals, non-violence or the power of love, in the end it often comes down to two people in costumes dropping buildings on each other’s heads. (And the more street level, the more realistic, your story is, the more difficult those scenes become: A space battle against aliens plays out very differently than, say, Batman beating the hell out of a common criminal.)
I’ve wrestled with the question of superhero violence throughout my career, trying to find new ways to circumvent it and addressing it very directly in stories like The Life and Times of Savior 28. There will always be a wide-eyed kid inside me who gets a primal thrill watching self-sacrificing heroes and crazed villains knocking each other across the city: it’s exhilarating, it’s cathartic, it’s fun. But there’s another part of me that would love to see Jefferson Pierce, after a few seasons of hard lessons, realize that he truly can impact the world more positively as an educator. That violence is never a viable answer.
And, perhaps, ultimately, that’s the story Black Lightning will unfold.
©copyright 2018 J.M. DeMatteis
Hopefully my other post(s) went up, my computer was kind of wonkey.ReplyDelete
However, I have a question right now. A question I honestly can't believe I didn't ask before.
You wrote Silver Surfer, that much we know. In that story, you wrote a tale where The Surfer found out Zenn-La was an illusion, and had died long ago.
Zen-La being an illusion (or something) was introduces in George Perez last issue.
Now I always figured this was an editorial mandate to have Surfer on Earth and mourning a lost world... this was the era of back to basics that frustrated Peter David to quit, and killed off Mary Jane Watson-PArker.
Now, you very likely may not know if that is the case, or what have you.
What I believe you do know, is whether changing Zenn-La's status to dead world was your idea.
Thank you for a time. and as a thank you, enjoy this frankly beautiful cover of a Bob Dylan song, my treat:
hippies love folk music... I hear they use it as a lure, to capture them out west.
Don't know about any editorial fiats, Jack. I suspect it was Perez himself who took the book in that direction, but I'm just guessing. I, personally, liked having the Surfer back on earth and also playing with, and explaining, the two sides of the Surfer: the cold, Spock-like alien Kirby introduced and the passionate, spiritual Surfer of Lee-Buscema run. There were a number of frustrating behind the scenes problems during my Surfer run, but I still had a great time with the character, who remains a favorite.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the song. Very nice!
Two episodes in, I'm getting a "with great power must also come great responsibility" vibe from the show. Initially, Pierce only returns to action to save his daughters, but he soon realizes the community needs Black Lightning.ReplyDelete
There's even a bit of a Mayday Parker dynamic with his oldest daughter. She's too much like her father to let injustices go unchallenged, but he doesn't approve when she makes herself a target by speaking out (and presumably, becoming a hero as well).
I think the show does a great job of validating multiple perspectives. You can see why Jefferson believes Black Lightning is necessary and why his ex-wife and Henderson disagree. So they could take it any direction they choose, and the groundwork has already been laid.
Haven't had a chance to see the second episode yet, David (I'll be watching it tonight), but I'm really looking forward to seeing how this story plays out.Delete
Ah, sorry! I think everything I mentioned was covered in the first episode but apologies if I've spoiled anything.Delete
Absolutely nothing to apologize for, David! I wasn't chastising you in any way!Delete
I didn't think so, but I just wanted you to know I'd never intentionally spoil a show or movie for someone!Delete
As far as superhero slugfests go, I agree that they're best understood as symbolic manifestations of conflict. When Spider-Man and Green Goblin are pummeling each other, it's kind of like our best and worst instincts slugging it out on the psychic plane. And of course, with characters like Professor X, Doctor Strange and the Spectre, that's not only figuratively but literally true.
I think that's one of the reasons I often prefer the more cosmic/mystical characters, David: it takes the stories, and the conflicts, to (often literally!) another plane. The more earthbound, the more street level, the violence gets, the more disturbing it can become.Delete
Actually on topic, a rarity for me.ReplyDelete
Dematteis, I think you are being a bit unfair to the superhero genre and a bit too fair to society at large.
From the silver age on, I'm not sure the idea of "slug fests" is really 100% fair.
It was Stan Lee who said "I hate violence as much as anybody, but I think there is a difference between violence and action."
The Superheroes of DC's Silver Age tended to me more concerned with containment.
-Superman was more of an adventurer whose strength was used as feets
-Flash maneuvered around characters to contain them.-Batman was more of a mystery solver
-Green Lantern's ring was more about trapping and stopping than all that many actual attacks. It was almost designed avoid violence.
Marvel didn't have much either. You have already stated a difference for non people (ie monsters, robots, etc)
-The F.F. have two characters whose powers work almost in contrast to assault, and the other two a re too powerful to actually fight.
-Thor was a guy who tangled with mythological
-Even Spider-Man usually used some form of trickery or cleverness to reduce physical issues. His most prominent element is webs...which traps people, not harm.
The stories were even designed to have the physical elements be at the end and short.
Yes there were some, but you are neglecting something, for the most most part hands were laid only in self-defense or in the defense of others.
This is a bit different than say... Charles Bronson or Travis Bickle... who went looking for people to kill. The idea of honest to God paroling only came along later, and even then was only to make sure things were okay.
And what of the Silver Surfer? Yes, you like to point out that he would talk of peace and then blow stuff up, but you seem to be overlooking two things
1. He would plead for peaceful solutions, but they would be rejected
2. The Surfer never actually harmed anyone. It was only destructive objects and bizarre beings of immense power (which again, you have said there is a difference).
The real issue comes to two other things
1. the myth that superheroes are fascistic or Ubermenschs
2. The fact that good, unlike evil, cannot exist in a vacuum.
Superheroes are in reality, the rejection of it. They do not redefine themselves, or become rulers. They do not form a new meaning for themselves.
They live among people , as equals. The find value and meaning as protectors.
So, what does this have to do with anything?
They follow the law. They uphold it, and really only the important ones, and most states allow citizens arrests (some even penalize you f you don't give some form of aid).
They do this, with lethal force taken off the table. ANd when it comes to normal humans, it is usually done in ways to stop them as quick and painlessly as possible (minus Frank Miller). Even the none humans. And those with powers often won't even do that.
It is by its nature a deescalation of violence. And always in defense of themselves and others. Granted a lot of writers turn Batman into kind of a psycho, but...
Now, what of being too lenient with society? That comes in part 2...
You are advocating writing new types of stories. To change and shape.ReplyDelete
There is one problem, that is not how fiction works.
Don't get my wrong, I think it is vital to a society. Fiction is the best way to gauge how a society and its beliefs. And that is just the problem. It shows what is already there, to does not get widely read if it is something else.
You seem to be advocating a type of pacifism. The problem is most people view violence as bad.... however sometimes necessary.
It is also very hard to make an action story with such concepts. Hawk and Dove didn't last long under its creators, and as much as I love Life and Times of Savior 28... I don't recall him using peaceful means to stop problems.
Of course, that is neither here nor there. What does matter somewhat is the cathartic nature. Seeing violence in fiction, very likely may make violence in the real world less likely.
There have actually been studies that seem to indicate this.
Of course, how is this being too nice to society? Well...
Like I said society and its values are reflected in its popular fiction.
A good example could be Film Noir, which has a dour pessimistic view that tells tales of good and evil with grayness... which highlights the war and post war America confusion and heaviness.
IN comics you could look at the Golden Age where characters did tend to be more brutal...because life was a period of survival and the oppressed struggling to be heard. Pushing hard seemed to be the only way to even survive... but you had to temper that with morality.
Now look around at our entertainment. All these popular shows that people say herald, a second golden age of television, star bad people. I don't even mean villains, just unlikable protagonists that we are told are good... but very much aren't.
That is what much of our popular fiction does, it just tells us that it is okay to be a prick for whatever reason. That we don't need to improve and we aren't that bad. Maybe even that we are entitled to it since we may even be better than most people.
Look at the MCU, most people agree agree Captain America Winter Soldier may be the best MCU movie, but Cap isn't the most popular character.
Star Lord (who Englehart said he created to be unlikable) and Iron Man (whose arc is being less of a prick...but still a smarmy prick).
Even Batman has become less in control and more of a an ass. In the comics alone, the last 20 years has seen him having plans to take down every JLAer, develop robots to kill all metahumans if need be, and become about imposing order at all costs. While becoming unbeatable.
What does this have to do wth your idea?
It is a little hard to push the idea of bettering when everything else in culture is screaming that it is not only okay to be a bad person, but maybe even a good thing.
Its kind of sad in its way.
We talked recently on this board about Superman's fall from popularity. I think it is obvious, since his slip 30 years ago, we have become less okay with the idea of goodness. Somewhere in the collective mind, we think goo can only come from personal tragedy and a dark place. Not values and a desire to help others.
We may be a sick society.
Lots of valuable food for thought here, Jack. Thanks for taking the time to share it. I'd like to turn this over to anyone else out there who'd care to chime in on the subject.Delete
I'll just add two things: 1) The whole point of Savior 28 was underscoring the futility of violence. And, in the end, S-28 completely rejected it as a path to change and began living his life in a totally different way.
2) I don't think we're a sick society. I do think that, right now especially, the darkness in our collective consciousness is being boiled to the top—a painful process—in order for us to recognize that darkness and, over time, dispel it. I believe, to the bottom of my soul, in the inherent decency, the inherent divinity, of humankind.
I'll throw in one more thing, perhaps not as important as the rest: I think the specific question of superhero violence gets much worse when we move from the comic book page to live action. The violence becomes far more real and disturbing, which, I think, is why I'm far more sensitive to it in something like BLACK LIGHTNING (or any live action adaptation, I'm not singling out BL) than in a comic book. I also think, as I may have noted in the essay, that the more street level and realistic the violence is, the more it rubs up against our day to day reality, the more it disturbs me.
I think that a society that wants to be told... no demands to be told... that their negative and/or self serving compulsion is acceptable if not proper has to have in society, is sick.Delete
However, sickness can be cued. people always forget that.
As for S to the 28 and his groovy times, I am aware of what the point was.
But all those problems he used to tackle punching still existed. While not tackling doesn't hurt the story in any way, it does beg a question in the back of someone's mind.
How would that read. The quest is far more interesting than attaining it.
I haven't seen Black Lightning, but I have seen Netflix Daredevil... both seasons even.
That first season had Matt being brutal in some of his scenes. Okay, yes one was against human traffickers so you can't say the character didn't deserve it.
There are plenty of points where he just wails on low level guys.
Here is the thing about Daredevil in the comics, most of his combating is finesse. Leaping, tripping, knocking over and the like.
Here is the thing about movies, you can't quite show that. The training to do that would require far more time than an actor has, and it may look weird in not still form.
I think that may be why the Punisher became so big after season two. I like the Punisher in comics... just rarely in the lead. With a few exceptions, I think he works better as a counter balance to Spider-man, Captain America, or... Daredevil.
Having him in Daredevil season 2, blasting people away, made Matt seem less brutal, no matter how hard he wailed on someone.
In a lot of ways, much of season 2 was making Matt less brutal. Even though much of the same aspects occurred.
The character work in season 2 actually was better in some ways than season one.
So it seems there is a least a desire for characters not to be viewed as violent and brutal.
I'm sure there is!Delete
I agree with Jack that most heroes are built around de-escalation and I really like the citizen's arrest analogy.Delete
I don't have a moral objection to using force to oppose criminal actions if necessary. I believe such responses should be limited and tailored to the specifics of the situation. And I agree with Jack that Stan Lee's model of heroism strikes an optimal balance. Fisticuffs are usually just a placeholder until the hero comes up with some clever trick or pseudoscientific solution.
I do think that the violence potentially strikes a different chord when taken wholesale instead of individually. When it's coming at you month in and month out for fifty years, it appears as though the heroes thrive on violence, even if the specifics of each situation justify its limited use.
And because desensitized readers are bored readers, there's a natural inclination to escalate the violence to keep their attention.
And I think that landscape provides an opportunity for different kinds of stories--ones that guide us to believe that the hero is obligated to act as well as ones that challenge the culture.
"And because desensitized readers are bored readers, there's a natural inclination to escalate the violence to keep their attention."Delete
Absolutely. I think we see that across all media. I remember when TERMINATOR 2 came out and my son (who was 11 at the time) was desperate to see it. My wife and I had already seen it and both thought that it was perhaps the single most violent movie we'd ever seen (it was also a terrific movie, so I'm not knocking the film) and told him no, he couldn't see it.
Looking back now, that movie seems tame compared to the ultra-violence we see not just in movies but on our TV screens with regularity. A random episode of GAME OF THRONES is more violent than T2 so your point about escalating the violence is well taken.
Something else with remembering: When I was a kid first discovering comic books, reading the DC Comics of the late 50s and early 60s, there was minimal violence, often no violence at all in those stories. You can criticize the lack of depth, perhaps, but there was great imagination on display in the Superman and Batman stories of the day and they completely captured my young mind and made me fall in love with those characters. And they did it without a parade of punches.
Have you ever read SUPERGIRL: COSMIC ADVENTURES IN THE EIGHTH GRADE? You would LOVE it. It was a six-issue miniseries (now collected in TPB) that exists in its own universe and covers a lot of those Silver Age concepts. And it's proof that you can tell a truly excellent and engaging story without excessive violence.Delete
Sounds like I'd love it!Delete
BTW, I think T2 was the first R-rated film I ever saw in theaters.
It is weird how our perspective changes--it wouldn't even dent the surface in terms of 'most violent' twenty years later.
Anyway, I think I will make it my personal mission not only to get you to read SUPERGIRL: COSMIC ADVENTURES IN THE 8TH GRADE but also to get an animated adaptation written by you!
Your dedication is admirable, David!Delete
A coda to the T2 story: I finally relented and let my son see T2, thinking that its violence would impact him in such a way that he'd never want to see a movie like it ever again. (Or at least till he was a little older.) Of course he totally loved it and there was no negative impact on his tender psyche. Just goes to show you!
I can see why. I was always more disturbed by the first TERMINATOR film, which was decidedly less optimistic.Delete
But what I love about T1 is that, because Cameron had a limited budget, there's not a ton of direct onscreen violence. He had to choose what he could show because he couldn't afford to show more. And it gave the whole thing more of a TWILIGHT ZONE feel, where suggestion is more intense that display.Delete
100% agreed. "Suggestion is more intense than display"--I love the way you've phrased that!Delete
Hey...maybe I should consider becoming a writer!Delete
It sounds like your mind is made up about this writing thing so I won't stand in your way. But if you're really serious about it, I suggest you get cracking on that animated adaptation of SUPERGIRL: COSMIC ADVENTURES IN THE 8TH GRADE! :)Delete
Would that it were that easy!Delete
Interesting fact about T2, Robocop, and Aliens, all violent movies of their time, they were marked to kids as toys.Delete
The first Terminator was more of a Thriller. It also seem like the Thriller has decreased as the violence escalated in media. The last point that you really saw a decent amount of Thrillers was the late 80s and early 90s.
Also, just before the rise of CGI.
When it comes right down to the idea of what you don't see, well perhaps that is why people seem to feel movies are not as scary as they once were.
Old episodes of the X-Files creep me out more... because TV wouldn't let them show stuff.
However, there is also a historical element.
Until the 20th century, most countries would have a war every generation that was more or less unavoidable.
Barring that, famine and lethal disease were common.
Even the banal every day life was violent. Until the 20s, most people lived in the country. If you wanted food, you likely killed it at least at some point.
Your parents and grandparents likely died in your home. As did some of your siblings more than likely.
The 20th century brought crime problems that lasted almost if not until, the 21st.
The rise of violence in our media is directly connected to the lack of it in every day life. Not on the news, in front of us.
People are always fascinated by dark elements of life that seem in the distance.
It has only been relatively recently (100 years or so) that violence has become a dark and hidden part of life and not just a part of it.
In many ways post-war culture was darker in tone than pre-war, but it was also less violent (Film Noir was dark, but not really violent) some of this may have had to do with standards and practices, but some of it was a reflection of a generation that was reflective on dark elements.... but had its fill of violence. After all, the event that caused the single most death in human history (And in some truly messed up ways) had just passed.
As for comics...Delete
Well, it has often been pointed out that Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen ruined comics in a way, because creators often didn't take the right lessons from it.
Dark Knight Returns, is Frank Miller's most well known work. Batman is incredibly violent, and not a very nice guy. At times even taking glee in hurting people.
His Daredevil run wasn't as violent, his last issue was even a plea against it. Daredevil Born Again had the violence being placed ON Matt. Even his other Batman work... Year One... not only didn't focus on Batman, but rather Gordon, it also had Bruce as less physical and when he was facing realistic problems from being beaten.
In Watchmen, Rorschach was a nut job, violent on a whim... because Moore was trying to kill superheroes as a whole (in Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow too) as he did thought most of the 80s, this time showing only a masochistic psycho could succeed at it.
Problem was, as those who read it come of age, they focused on the two called the most influential, part of their minds focused on the violence. They believed that is what made it more mature.. not necessarily how it was handled or teh meaning behind it.
They were after all likely teenagers when they read it.
Now, here is my musical offering to compensate for my rambling. May they bring you joy to replace the agony of reading my words.
It's not agony, Jack. No worries there. But thanks for the music.Delete
In the end, I think, the old cliche is often true (I say "often" because there are always exceptions): less is more. I always go back to one of the most frightening images ever imprinted on my young brain. In the TWILIGHT ZONE episode "It's A Good Life," the psychic brat Anthony turns one of the adults into a human jack in the box. All we see is a close up of the man's face with a jack in the box hat and then a jack in the box shadow on the wall, weaving back and forth before it disappears. You never actually get the full image of a man turned into a jack in the box, but your mind does it for you...and far more chillingly than if the story had been done today and they'd shown you the image in full CGI detail. In a way, it's like comics where we're looking at static images that give the illusion of movement and then filling in the space between panels and making them move and come alive, move, in our minds.