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!Skid Marks! : Shock Value in Comics

Written by Zenguru on Monday, May 24 2010 and posted in Columns

What's with all these shocking images in comics nowadays?  Are they good, bad, or something else?  Has shock comic writing dropped the baby?

Greetings, Skid Fans!  Get ready to wipe! 

Finally saw Kick Ass last night.  My parents asked me how the movie was when I walked in the door.  I said "It was morally reprehensible and I enjoyed every minute of it."  They looked at me a little strangely after that, but still no more than usual.  I explained that it was a movie for comic fans.  The writer of the comic on which the movie was based, I said, is known for writing stories with a certain amount of shock content.  I didn't to into greater detail, of course.  Comics are very different from when my parents were kids.  I'm sure they'd rather read something that doesn't portray a foul-mouthed 10-year-old girl who kills, maims, and dismembers bad guys and then goes with her dad to the soda shoppe for an ice cream.

I've been thinking about the shock value of comics lately.  Especially since the issue has been active on the board over the past couple weeks.  The drama, as it were, started over an issue of Ultimate Avengers wherein the Red Skull forces a whimpering mother to make a choice.  Either kill her husband or Skull will drop her infant child out the window.  Tears streaming down her face, she empties a gun in her hubby's face.  Okay, she says, now give me my baby.  Well, the Red Skull is evil, see.  So he essentially says "I lied" and drops the baby anyway. 

Does the baby survive?  Sorry, that's not the issue here.  You want to find out, read the comic.

The issue here is acceptable levels of imagery in comics.  What's decent and what's not?  Everybody has a different opinion on decency.  If publishers allowed for all of them, they'd never get anything out on the shelves.  So that's where the ratings systems come in.  Marvel has foregone the seal of the Comics Code Authority for their own method of labeling the content of their books.

Now the issue of Ultimate Avengers in question (#5) had such a label.  It said "Parental Advisory".  On the bar code. 

Y'know, that little white box in the corner that your comic shop owner scans as he rings up your comics.  Yeah, the one nobody hardly ever looks at.  That one.

And that brings up another issue.  Some buyers expect the companies to make their labels noticeable.  Like the ones you see on CD's for explicit lyrics.  Should we expect to see such labeling on our comics? 

Personally, I don't see why not, but that's me.  Some may say that such labeling, if too overt, would mar the appearance of the cover.  Perhaps it would even dissuade people from buying it.  And for those quite discerning over the content of their comics, I'm sure that would be a good thing. 

Making the warning labels larger is one possible solution.  What about bagging?  Some companies do that, but not always because of explicit content.  But what if they did?  If, say Marvel, had to bag a comic for every time Mark Millar wrote a villain doing something morally disgusting, how would that affect price?  I'm sure those bags cost money.  Would it be worth the extra quarters just to find out how explicit the comic really is?  I guess it just depends on the buyer.

My comic shop has a progressive solution to this:  They bag the comics themselves.  Comics like Tarot Witch of the Black Rose, Mark Millar's War Heroes #2, and certain Vertigo titles like Greek Street.  Speaking of Millar's War Heroes, you know the scene I'm thinking about.  If you don't, buy the comic......if you dare!!!

I'm sure if my shop was around when stuff like Preacher was coming out, the owner would have bagged nearly every issue of that.  That's just how he is.  He will not take the chance of some little kid picking up a comic about a fallen priest prowling around the country with a sexpot who's into guns and an Irish vampire who's done just about every immoral hedonistic thing there is.  That's why all the all-ages comics are on a wall right next to the door.  That's how he rolls.

But I'm getting away from myself a bit.

The baby dropping scene is certainly not the first shocking thing to happen in comics.  And I'm sure it won't be the last.  The aforementioned Preacher is a good example of that.  So why didn't anybody raise a ruckus about it back then?  Well, I'm sure someone did.  But times were different.  The internet was just starting to explode.  Messageboarding was in its infancy.  Outlets for discussing such things were limited to letterpages and snail mail.

Now the internet has had a chance to evolve.  Comics have evolved.  Comic writers have...what?  I want to say they've evolved, but I'm not so sure.  Maybe I'm splitting a hair, but I think it's a bit more apt to say comic writing has evolved rather than the comic writer.

There are more kinds of stories put out than there were years ago.  Those genres were brought about by such efforts as Marvel's Epic line and DC's Vertigo.  Not to mention the world of underground and black & white books that were bubbling underneath.  They introduced readers to worlds beyond just the hero getting the girl in the end. 

Heh, I made a funny.

But can a writer evolve?  Maybe some can.  But since this column deals with shock value, let's look at a shock writer.  Garth Ennis, for example.  Started on Hellblazer.  Made a huge splash with Preacher.  Went on to small arcs on BLOTDK and books like Demon and Hitman.  Did some really good stuff with Unknown Soldier and War Stories and, lately, Battlefields.  Also did Dicks and does The Boys.

Now that's just a skimming of the work he's done over the past 20 years or so.  Has he evolved?  Preacher was not just a showcase for shocking imagery, it was Ennis' forum for his views on things like organized religion and elements of society.  The Boys reads like a parody on superhero books past (Avengers, JLA) and present (Authority).  Lots of shocking imagery in The Boys.  A blonde beautiful superheroine shamed to the point of dressing scantily around all the other drooling male heroes.  A character named Mother's Milk who gets his powers the book.

If you're looking at Ennis in terms of meaningful storytelling, using his books as a format for his own progressive viewpoints, then perhaps you could argue he has devolved. 

But his war comics?  Lots of shocking imagery there, too.  I'm still haunted by a image in War Stories of a mother and baby melted together by an explosive.  The mother is dead, but the baby is still screaming.  Ennis never fails to tell us that war is horrible and there is no end to the kind of suffering it brings.  Hmm....maybe he has evolved there, in a way.

There's lots more to talk about.  A lot of stuff out there.  You could find as many comics with no more lessons on depravity other than that it is in the world, as there are comics that show us that life is a full spectrum and we cannot ignore infrared for the sake of ultraviolet. 

There's the old adage: Don't like it, don't look at it.  I wholly support that. 


Don't ignore it.  Don't tell yourself it doesn't exist.  The tide of knowledge is ever-increasing.  The pressure is incalculable and it will eventually tear down any wall constructed against it.

It's a shocking world, people.  Better get the shock used to it.

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About the Author - Zenguru

Zenguru has been an Outhouser since the days it was blue. He's the Rick Jones of The Outhouse. Not always in the mansion, but always around in a pinch. Just don't pinch too hard, okay? He's written a few articles, notably $k!d M@rks, and has published several books of poetry. Lately, he's been writing poems and fiction about diners. He's been reading comics since the mid-70's. He dreams of one day traveling between dimensions to be Jonah Hex's sidekick.

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