This was not the column I was going to write for today. I was going to write about going into a Barnes and Noble recently, while my wife and kids shopped for new running shoes, and being struck by how the Batman collections outnumber Superman collections. I was going to write about how we now seem to connect far better with Batman than Superman, both as creators and as a society. Maybe I’ll still write that column at some point. But the horrific tragedy in an Aurora, Co. movie theater last Friday put such ruminations on the back burner.
I learned about the Aurora attacks first thing Friday morning, like a great many people did, on Twitter. Gleaning the information of what had happened hours before in a darkened theater, I felt abject shock at the insane cruelty of the act, and a glum realization that I wasn’t terribly surprised. This is the world we live in, in which mass murder is horrifying, but not completely unexpected.
Obviously, it’s the sort of incident that inspires reflection. Yes, there’s a savage irony that the shooting took place during a film featuring a hero whose life was forever scarred by gun violence, and who eschews firearms. No, I don’t believe you or I or anybody else needs to own assault weapons. Yes, I think it’s entirely appropriate to discuss gun control in the midst of a tragedy like this, because it’s the only time anyone pays attention. And yes, I fervently hope it’s the names of the victims we remember, not that of the lunatic who took their lives. You won’t read his name in this column, or my Twitter stream. Ever.
More than anything, I thought about the stories I write, and whether the nature of what I do — of what comics does as an industry — contributes to horrors like the Aurora shootings.
Last Friday’s work for me was the second half of a story for “The Ride,” published by 12 Gauge Comics. I’d already written the 12-page first installment, drawn by Rick Leonardi and Dexter Vines. The concluding half is being drawn by my buddy Tom Raney. “The Ride” is a clever concept: an anthology of stories by varying creators, all featuring, in some fashion, a particular 1968 Camaro. The stories tend toward crime fiction, with the accompanying trappings: shady characters, desperate scams and explosive violence.
The pages I wrote Friday were violent. Perhaps exceedingly so, with a number of deaths thanks to gunshots (though I think most readers will deem the victims as “bad guys” who suffer a deserved fate). I’ve written a great deal of violence in my career. It’s been mercilessly perpetrated by serial killers, costumed crazies, invading armies, supernatural menaces and Sith lords, to name just a few. It’s also been perpetrated by those we traditionally identify as heroes, sometimes just as mercilessly.
Sometimes that violence happens to innocent people. Famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view), I wrote a scene in which a woman’s dead body was found in a refrigerator by her boyfriend. Most of the actual violence wasn’t shown, yet the aftermath certainly will follow the rest of my career. That’s not a complaint. I set out to make a character’s death effective and memorable, and apparently succeeded. (Though, credit where credit is due, I should once again point out that the scene was inspired by the fate of Charlie McGee’s mother in Stephen King’s “Firestarter.”)
I think violence is hard-wired into us. We all have the capacity for it. Thankfully, centuries of civilization have made it mostly unacceptable to act upon those urges. Yet violence has been a part of our entertainment as long as there’s been entertainment, from Greek tragedies to Rome’s gladiator spectacles to Shakespeare. “Richard III” or even “Romeo and Juliet” without the violence? Not quite as interesting.
We Americans in particular seem to love our violence. We seem, on the whole, much more comfortable with people getting blown away onscreen than we are with the glimpse of a nipple. Perhaps in that respect we reap what we sow. I’m certainly not immune to the cathartic thrill of it. I watch the gunfights at the end of “Unforgiven” and “Open Range” every time they’re on television. Every time. It’s cool when Wolverine rams his claws through somebody, or when the Punisher … well, punishes.
Violence is a tool in the writer’s toolbox, a tool like romance, tragedy, comedy or any other. Writers want an emotional reaction from the audience. It’s painful when characters with whom we identify are made to suffer. Our sense of justice is served when retribution is delivered to those deserving of it. We all draw our personal lines, as consumers and as creators. I find torture porn like “Hostel” or the “Saw” films to be tedious and repugnant. Same with a comic like “Crossed,” wallowing in displays of extreme gore and cruelty. Not my thing, because I believe what you don’t show is almost always more effective than what you do show. Style over shock. But if that stuff appeals to you, that’s your business.
The violence in my comic work is funneled through the artist’s sensibilities. It’s a collaborative effort in terms of what’s shown. But I hope we always convey consequences to the violence presented in the work. That’s the responsibility we have: not to avoid depicting violence, but to show the consequences of it.
There’s no facile answer when you start talking about all the factors that contribute to an insane act. I don’t believe an otherwise sane person is pushed toward the unspeakable thanks to a comic, a movie, a video game. Can unstable people be triggered by such things? Certainly. They have been before. They will be again, unfortunately.
Last Friday I wrote a violent sequence in which characters died. A week later, I still like that sequence. I know where I draw the line for myself as a creator, and the story doesn’t cross that line. It’s tough stuff, but it’s not beyond what I’m comfortable with, as a writer or a reader.
I’m really no closer to answering this question than I was seven days ago. I still wrestle with it. It’s an ongoing conversation that I’ll be having with myself for quite some time. Probably for as long as I write. I owe the victims in Aurora nothing less.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts” and “Magdalena” for Top Cow, and his creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.
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