At my comic shop, Metro Entertainment (cheap plug!), we do our part every week to look through books for violent or sexual content, and then shelve them accordingly. It's important to do that because no one wants their young son or daughter to accidentally pick up an issue of Crossed, right? Things that get graphic are bagged and labeled to keep them out of the hands of curious kids and to give parents a little sense of safety, knowing that when we recommend a book for their kids, there's not going to be any HBO-style content inside.
Parents should be protective of their children's exposure to violence; it's a rough world out there, and not worth jumping into the big problems of society and strife too soon. At the same time, watch a Tom and Jerry cartoon and try and tell me what violence is appropriate (what's that mouse doing to the cat OH GOD NO). In the realm of superhero comics, it's not all that out of line to expect Spider-Man to swing at a supervillain or for the Avengers to fight toe to toe with the X-Men.
Marvel has its own rating system to handle what gets in the hands of who. It's a little imperfect -- the difference between ALL AGES and A is a little difficult to explain by just looking at the cover -- but it does give an idea of content and structure. An A-rated title is for ages 9 and up, while ALL AGES is self-explanatory. Between A and T+, the content will mature; more talk about romance and teen drama than in the A books. From T+ to Parental Advisory, I think the content matures again between the iCarly fans and the Law & Order set. MAX is ... pretty understandable by now. So if we take Wolverine and the X-Men #14 (rated T) and Uncanny X-Force #28 (Parental Advisory), there's a clear change in artwork and intensity between the stories.
How violence is handled is absolutely key in good storytelling. There's a big difference between The Amazing Spider-Man and Space: Punisher. Even as adults, sometimes a tasteless drawing of a guy with a grievous head wound is just a guy with a grievous head wound, while a slim shadow drawn over someone's face can imply a lot more violence than a few dozen swords. Comics can handle violence in an all-ages fashion without resorting to picking flowers and, even better, can use an act of violence as a backdrop to a much larger theme of justice, morality and heroism. And who doesn't want kids learning about justice, morality or heroism?
WARNING: Spoilers up ahead for Uncanny X-Force #28, so grab a copy and read along!
Uncanny X-Force is kind of the poster child for extremely violent acts in the Marvel line, as the adventures of Wolverine's team of stabbing and shooting states on the very first page (it's kind of in the corner and dark pink on black font, so I'm not surprised if you missed it): "Some evil won't stop. Some evil no prisons can hold, no force can contain, no plea can soften. Sometimes to truly save lives the only option is to take them. The burden of that truth falls on a covert team of mutants assigned to those jobs too dirty, too dangerous for the X-Men." Yep, some people are gonna die. And when the leader of the team has giant metal claws, it's not going to be a clean or easy death.
The fantastic part is that the messiness comes up issue after issue; hard choices are made and then resonate throughout the book long after the last page. It's demonstrated in Fantomex's willingness to kill a child to stop an adult Apocalypse, and in the introduction of Deathlok (a walking anti-violence conundrum) and in this most recent issue. The team is taken to the future and shown that by being praised for killing a future Apocalypse, they are celebrated and given honors. This leads to the team sort of making a living at it, Minority Report-style. Betsy Braddock, who has had the worst of it since she joined the team, loving and losing to violence time and again, bearing great emotional scars for her own actions, leads this dystopia. By the end of the issue, Psylocke tries to stop the cycle of violence by stabbing herself with her own sword, so ... solving violence with more violence might not work out well next issue.
And that's the thing: When someone on X-Force murders another person, there's a somber air to it. A lot of deaths have been presented as the wrong answer,and can spark debate among readers as to what the right answer was all along. I've had this conversation with a customer or two and let me tell you, it's a beautiful thing to debate morality and peace using what some might consider a "child's medium." All in all, violence is never the end in Uncanny X-Force, nor is it an answer. In fact, some of the team's greatest moments have been saving a life or the rebirth of someone more pure. It's a dirty world, but you can be clean of it.
Now, would I give this to an elementary-school student? No, the artwork is pretty clear on their violent ends, and sometimes I got a little queasy during "the Apocalypse Solution." How about a teenager? I think I know a few teens who would really dig this sort of book. While rating books and wrapping them in plastic is the only option to take in some cases, the best option remains to read them and make the decision there, in the story. Look through the ideas brought across by the writer and see if the content on a deeper level might be more important than the amount of blood in a stab wound.
Don't get me wrong, I like Space: Punisher as much as the next person who never wanted to see Frank Castle smile like that, and I am totally prepared for the vicious acts to come in that book. But sometimes, when you put the right rating on something, it's not the physical act of violence -- the gun, the knife or the blood -- but the effects of that action on the people who enact it, on how that effects the story, and what the reader takes away from the act than matter. Kids should be protected from violence for sure, but the morality is important for everyone to know.