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Gail Watch: Where Did All the Non-Killer Supes Go?

Gail Simone, writer of all the amazing thing ( Most recently Red Sonja, The Movement, Batgirl, Leaving Megalopolis) is a very fascinating character all of her own. If you follow her on twitter, @GailSimone, you’re in for some amazing pictures, interesting conversations with other comic book creators, and commentary on comic book culture. The commentary that Simone dishes on twitter is the inspiration for “Gail Watch”, our ongoing column devoted to analyzing Simone’s observations. 

Today in @GailSimone news, Simone observed that most breakout heroes in the past year (we’ll define breakout in a moment) are senseless killers – like Wolverine, Deadpool and the Punisher and of course, our friendly neighborhood Bane.

This initial tweet got several responses ranging from The Young Avengers, the most recent Spiderman movie, Animal Man in the New 52  – most of which Simone shot down in her own way.

The key in Simone’s initial question is the term “break-out” which here we’re defining as commercial success rather than quality or buzz.  After all:

After suggestions kept rolling in not fitting Simone’s criteria, (Captain Marvel) there were a few rules added.

  1. Must be characters created in comics – no cult favorites. 
  2. “Buzz” alone is not very meaningful if no other fame indicators (sales, media appearances) are present.
  3. Quality is not the same as popularity.
  4. If a character is in a low selling book that gets cancelled in eight issues, it is not a breakout star.

With this list of criteria, there was only one character that passed muster.

There could be several explanations of why only violent characters have hit a nerve with audiences in the past few decades. One suggestion is that the majority of these characters got their “breakout” in the 90’s. Often referred to as the “Dark Age of Comics” the 1990’s were a time where comics often focused on sex, and an age that claims such works as Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.

There is some merit for this argument. The V for Vendetta movie definitely created a name for V in mainstream popular culture. Similarly, the Watchmen movie made a bloody name for Doctor Manhattan, the Comedian, and Rorschach. Other movies have gone pulled from these iterations of characters. The Dark Knight Returns was reportedly an influence for both Tim Burton’s Batman movie and the Nolan’s recent trilogy.

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However, other comics titles and their movies such as Kick-Ass (the continued popularity of Mark Millar’s body of work) clearly demonstrate a continued public desire for violence moving on into the 2000’s and 2010’s. For a more innocent example, Rocket Raccoon’s recent re-introduction into the Marvel Universe has added the tagline “Blam murdered you” to many of Rocket’s adorable scenes.

Comic creator Jamie McKelvie suggested that popular culture as a whole is more easily enamored with killers than the smaller segment of comic readers.

This would mean that the public at large finds killers more relatable than capes (who often have codes against killing), and will more easily adapt a character that kills as a favorite than one who simply ties up victims and leaves them for the police.

In recent times, sometimes peaceable superheroes have become more violent in media. In his recent movie iteration, Superman snaps necks , which is a bold move from Superman’s typically non-killing nature. Captain America, who is usually seen to avoid needless death (unless there’s a war on) has also seen a change in character, while he wields a machine gun. Wolverine, a desperately violent character on his best days and a mindless killer on his worst, has also seen this shift with his latest movie entirely devoted  to convincing him to kill again.

A second explanation to Simone’s question about why Marvel/DC can’t come up with non-violent characters comes from Peter Krause and Kurt Busiek.

In both the Marvel and DC universes, what is the point of having a non-violent character? With the launch of the New 52, DC has maintained a dark and gritty tone throughout their host of comics. What would be the purpose of adding a non-violent character into that deeply violent universe?

Marvel, on the other hand, might be able to manage. Several characters brought up multiple times in the discussion were Hawkeye, Captain Marvel, and Rogue and Gambit. While Marvel does have it’s fair share of killers – such as the newly released Black Widow title – it also has it’s share of characters who attempt to avoid needless death, at least in their personal lives.

However, the question still stands – why would a creator want to bring those types of characters to either of the Big 2 when instead they could retain rights to their characters and publish them with other companies instead? This model doesn’t incentivize creativity with new characters, only creativity in the re-telling of old ones, leaving creators to re-hash characters instead of introducing new ones.

Of course, none of this is explicitly bad. One of my favorite characters last year was Keatinge and Campell’s run on Glory, a book that featured some of the most intense gore I had seen in comics. I like some my killer characters (looking at you Harley Quinn) just as much as I like my pacifist characters, such as Black Orchid. However, it does have some implications about  heroes, the current state of the Marvel and DC’s universes, as well as public opinion at large. For example,

It also begs the question (re-worded from this tweet), what behaviors will we accept while still thinking of a character as heroic? If heroes are reflections of society’s values and beliefs, then what do these current violent breakout heroes say about modern day society? What other types of breakout heroes do we have to look at beyond the new 52? In the words of Gail Simone

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2 comments on “Gail Watch: Where Did All the Non-Killer Supes Go?

  1. Pingback: Gail Watch: Nerds in Love | We Are Comic Reviewers

  2. Pingback: Comics Picks of the Week | We Are Comic Reviewers

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