During the Forties and Fifties, one of Australia’s most popular comic-book heroes was the Lone Avenger, about a masked do-gooder in the Wild West. (The setting wasn’t Australian, but the publication was.) His creator, Len Lawson, was one of Australia’s most talented comic-book artists, and easily the most disturbed. In 1954 he was imprisoned for 14 years for rape. One newspaper ‘exposed’ him as ‘the artist of violent comics, which frequently depicted bosomy heroines.’ Almost immediately, The Lone Avenger was banned in Queensland, followed by several other comics. Lawson was released in 1961, and one year later he made headlines for killing two teenaged girls during a siege at a girls’ school chapel.
It seems ludicrous to blame comic books for violent crime. Still, in Lawson’s time, they were the scapegoat for many of society’s ills, leading to the Comics Code, probably America’s toughest censorship body (which was no mean achievement in the cautious Fifties). Australia followed suit, finally killing our once-thriving comics publishing industry. In the US, anti-comics crusaders also damaged the industry, but the strict enforcement of the Code didn’t seem to make any difference to crime levels. Perhaps that was because, once their comics were confiscated, the youth of American were free to watch television and listen to rock’n’roll.
The recent murder of 12 people in Colorado, during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, has resurrected the decades-old argument that comic-book superheroes — fighting violence with violence — are a bad influence. The gunman reportedly proclaimed himself ‘the Joker’, after one of Batman’s villains, who was never presented (in either comics or movies) as a role model. Batman himself has a strict code of ethics: he will never kill anyone (even a psychopath like the Joker, who hence survived the previous Batman movie). Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and other superheroes are similarly anti-death, but some of their colleagues (mostly created since the edgier 1970s) are not so wholesome. Wolverine, the most popular member of the X-Men, has a strong moral code, but it doesn’t preclude killing.
Still, Batman faces the conundrum common to many comic book heroes. (There is more to comics than superheroes, of course, but it is far and away the most popular genre.) The medium is ideally matched with such characters, who solve problems, and dispense justice, through violent means — colourfully depicted on the panel. Batman beats up criminals with such force that it’s a wonder nobody dies. Spider-Man, in a fit of rage (and superhuman strength), once left a murderer disabled and possibly brain-damaged, but that was an exception. Comics rarely explore the long-term effect of superhero violence. In comics, even death can be fixed. Heroes and villains frequently return from the dead.
Much has been written about the way that comic books have ‘grown up’ over the years (even the Comics Code is now virtually ignored), but like so many ‘adult’ things, this includes a greater amount of violence. Two years after 9/11, Marvel Comics, best known for larger-than-life superheroes like Spider-Man and the Avengers, published 411, a three-issue limited series. Rather than superheroes, this featured regular people in real-world settings, solving problems in non-violent (and mostly apolitical) ways.
A noble idea, but comic-book readers weren’t interested. Sales were so poor that it was never compiled into a graphic novel (as Marvel’s mini-series usually are), and it was cancelled after only two of the three issues, so that we never got to read the story by Australian anti-nuclear campaigner Dr Helen Caldicott, which would have been her debut as a comic book writer.
It was also a useful experiment for Marvel: the readers wanted superheroes, and they didn’t want them sitting around talking. They wanted action!
In Australia, though anti-comics controversy peaked in the 1950s, the medium has still had its critics over the years. In the Eighties, the Reverend Fred Nile complained about the gory violence of the horror comic Phantastique. Even Streetwize, a comic about youth social issues produced by the Redfern Legal Centre, was frequently at odds with education authorities.
Since then, Australia’s comics have had both an adult focus and a low circulation, so they have mostly avoided controversy. Still, as we remain a major market for US superhero comics, the debate has resurfaced: are comic books too violent?
The Colorado shooting isn’t the first time that an apparent superhero aficionado has gone on a killing spree that was linked to his love of comic books. Fans of Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime) seem to be especially violent. In 2008, a disturbed comic-book fan killed seven people in a stabbing frenzy in downtown Tokyo. Now, obsessive Texas anime fan Trey Sesler (known for his internet movie reviews) stands trial for gunning down his family in March. According to police, he was planning a Columbine-style massacre at local high school.
Yet Colorado’s ‘Batman killings’ (as some media have dubbed them) are not further proof that superhero comics inspire violence. The Lone Avenger was a masked vigilante in the style of Batman, but Len Lawson was one of very few comic book artists who ever became murderers. The excited crowds at comic book conventions (such as last month’s Oz Comic-Con in Melbourne, attended by 40,000 people) have never descended to the rioting — or even a Hillsborough-style crush — occasionally seen at football stadiums. They might enjoy fantasy violence, and even dress up as their favourite characters, but on the whole, superhero fans behave much better than football fans.
Though the old chestnut of violent comics has been mentioned, it’s perhaps surprising that the ‘blame the comics’ chorus has been reasonably quiet… so far. Just as well. Superheroes, whether in comics or movies, should not be blamed for the ‘Batman killings’.
So who can we blame? James Holmes, the alleged perpetrator, is clearly very troubled. For years, Batman fans (as if to prove their obsession) have argued over the cause of the Joker’s insanity. Psychologists might argue about Holmes for even longer. Sadly, it’s not as simple as in the comics.Tags: iapps