4 More Moments of Comic Book Shame
There exists a thing (at least in America) known as the animation age ghetto; that is the idea that anything drawn in a less than realistic style (to simply just drawn at all) is automatically for kids. IT is the reason why you can sometimes walk into a Wal-mart and find Bleach, Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and yes even Hellsing sitting on the same shelf of Dora the Explorer, Scooby Doo and Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles. In short people are stupid and because Walt Disney saw made his mark on the world producing G-rated movies, robot breasts and an uber vampire eating a man alive are being marketed to nine year-olds (much to their glee, I’m sure. Hell, when I was twelve, I bought a VHS copy of The Hex Files (it’s about witches having sex with hapless everydudes. No I’m not going to link to it.) from a Sun Coast store without the clerk ever batting and eye.
Things are a little better today, with shows like the Futurama and Venture Brothers being clearly marketed to adults and even kid/teen aimed shows like Young Justice and Gravity Falls being made with more intelligent writing and complex plotting. I like to credit Batman: the Animated Series for making good writing that all ages can enjoy a thing for televised serials.
At the same time, however, I feel like a lot of readers, writers and editors for American comic books haven’t gotten the memo. They continue to thrash and panic, desperately trying to escape the idea that comics are for kids and immature man children… even though if they just stopped and looked around for a bit, they would see that comics—or at least plots born in comics—are mainstream now. AMC’s the Walking Dead is a mega-hit, The Avengers made all the money, and major news outlets didn’t bat an eye at reporting on things like the Death of Captain America or Alan Scott being rebooted as gay.
But no, a lot of people involved In comics are obsessed with proving they’re totally grown up and wear big boy pants and everything… and as a result wind up making the whole art form that much harder to defend on other fronts as well as turning out some incredibly immature, lowbrow and just plain stupid things like what you’re about to read below.
The really sad thing? The Silver Age of Comics, where all the madcap, silly and just plain weird stuff happened and which is anathema to many modern writers was, along with the Golden Age, part of a time when everyone read comics. Yes, young old, male female—everyone read comics back then the same way everyone watches TV now. And no one back then was called immature for it.
Of course, you can call out as immature everyone involved with…
4 – Hulk Nom Puny Humans (Ultimates)
Oh the Ultimate Universe. Why do I get the feeling that every one of these ‘Shame’ articles is going to start with the UU? It really is that bad. The ultimate shape of the UU (barring an early Ultimate X-men and most of Ultimate Spider-man [Thought Ultimate Venom can go suck and egg]) was dictated by people who either fell directly into the ‘I have to show them I’m totally grown up for realz’ or, like Mark Millar, actively dislikes superheroism and isn’t afraid to show it when he’s hired to write superheroes.
I could, as I said last time, go on all day about the Ultimate Universe, but today we’re just focusing on the Ultimate Hulk. Why? Because he eats people.
Cannibalism is One of Those Things that, like rape or child murder (oh, that’s coming) needs to be handled well but has also been taken as something of a shortcut to making a story ‘serious’ or in this case ‘scary’ but hacks. As per usual, I’m not saying these should never appear in any story ever, but you have to have good, solid reasons backed up by good, solid execution. Hell, cannibalism isn’t quite as high up on the amount of thought that needs to be put into it—perennial Hulk/Alpha Flight foe, Wendigo, is the result of a curse transforming people who engage in it in the Great North Woods and a surprisingly small number of his stories are problematic (except the one with the boyscout troop, or Multiple Man).
Here however, not only is it really just used to paint the UU’s requisite coat of ‘awful’ on Hulk that the wife-beating does for Hank Pym, the incest does for Quicksilver and Scarlet witch, or racism AND jingoism does for Captain America (and yes, my international readers, mainstream Cap is NOT a jingoist, nor does he posture at other nations about how ‘awesome’ America is. He highly respects all of his international allies and has even been known to frown on French-as-cowards jokes thanks to his experience working with The Resistance.), but it totally rips off Mr. Hyde.
No, not the classic Mr. Hyde from the classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (this link will take you to a site where you can read it for free!), but a specific interpretation of the character written by Alan Moore in his excellent The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The Hyde in that series is the token evil bad guy in a group made up of characters who are just on the border of being token evil bad guys. He’s one of these guys who loved to remind people that he’s a monster (to make it clear that he isn’t anything like the ‘weak’ Jekyll), often by threatening to eat people. However, the only time he really does it on screen, it’s done in such a way and to such a bastard that it actually makes you appreciate him as a character. He becomes our catharsis in taking down someone who we had ever right to think was going to get away with what they did.
To be fair, Stan Lee did draw partially on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in his conception of Hulk, but he also drew on the old Universal Frankenstein (and this link will let you watch the very first Frankenstein movie for free. Happy Halloween!) films where the monster is sympathetic, only really lashing out either out of ignorance or as a response to abuse.
First off, cannibals-by-choice are not sympathetic. Why? Because they kill and eat people because they like it. There’s nothing you can do to wipe that black mark off your record; you are forever a monster and should be treated as one. Maybe all my fan who are cannibals might argue that this is unfair, but you know what else is unfair? Being eaten.
Second of all, while Hulk was originally conceptualized as a Hyde-style brutish asshole, over the decades, he’s become more than that. He is in no way evil and except in alternate futures or confusing stories where Banner transformed into some kind of special ‘evil’ version of Hulk, he never has been. Hulk is anger unleashed and focused only on making the thing that makes him angry stop doing that and being left alone. Often he will channel that anger and energy into heroism under proper influence (from Banner, Rick Jones or others), but when you get down to it, until he became the Green Scar under the influence of the titular Planet Hulk, Hulk has never been malicious beyond hitting someone who hit him first.
Where am I going with all this? I point this out because in addition to all the other problems inherently involved with the cannibalism itself, the act goes completely against everything Hulk is and has been for decades just as much as the ‘dur, this A on my head doesn’t stand for France’ does for Captain America.
Hulk is an icon. Maybe he isn’t as strong of one as Superman, but when you talk about Hulk and smashing, you don’t mean smashing for evil or to make someone into a snack like some sort of humanoid dragon. Hulk smashes For Great Justice and maybe because you were a jerk to him.
In the words of a great man: LEAVE HULK ALONE!
3 – The Lizard Eats Its Young (Spider-man: Shed)
I did promise you twice as much cannibalism as the last one of these and I deliver, baby. Shockingly, this one isn’t from the Ultimate Universe… mostly. Let me explain:
After One More Day, which I targeted in the last shame list, Spider-man was supposed to enter the titular Brand New Day, a series of stories that were supposed to highlight all the super-keen, neat-o adventures our favorite wall-crawler was going to have now that he didn’t have his boring old wife around and had been reverted to living like he was in high school even though he’s like thirty.
There were a bunch of new villains, none of whom really stuck (though there was a dude who had the superpower of ‘nano-pimps’ that could pimp out any ride and that’s so ridiculous that I want him to come back). Predictably, they couldn’t just bring the old villains back, they had to ruin soil them in ways unkind because apparently, they really took offense to people liking Rhino, Lizard or even Vermin better than Paper Doll, Freak, and Person Using A Goblin Glider #157.
And while the fate of Rhino ends up linking up oh so well with #2 on our list, the worst of the worst award goes to Dr. Kurt Connors, AKA The Lizard in the story ‘Shed’. This storyline managed to pull together some of the worst, most crass shock moments comics ever managed to cobble together into a gestalt that manages to be somehow worse than its component parts. In the process, it purposefully and gleefully destroyed one of the most interesting characters in Spider-man’s supporting cast.
Let’s start at the start, shall we? Dr. Kurt Connors was a geneticist whose work involved the idea of splicing certain segments of lizard DNA into humans in order to give us the ability the regenerate like they do. It’s understandable, considering that he was missing an arm himself, and commendable because there are so many people who pray for this to become real every day.
Being a scientist in fiction, he tried his serum on himself first. Being a scientist who is not a main character, he of course was doomed to fail. Being a scientist who came in contact with Peter Parker, he was doomed to fail in a way that turned him into a super-villain
In his best stories, The Lizard is really just Connors with the so called ‘lizard part of his brain’ in the driver’s seat. He’s dumb, violent and highly destructive and yet he still remembers and responds to his wife and especially his son. He’s not evil so much as savage in the same way a panicked alligator might be. In his less stellar moments, he retains Connors’s intellect but is evil (because apparently that is inherent in lizards), doing stupid mad science stuff any trying to turn his family into lizards like him so they can be a family.
Naturally, someone decided that the later stories were more interesting because they were way more generic and so we got the story ‘Shed’. In it, the Lizard is a separate personality entirely from Connors and manipulates him into a) being very creepy and licking a woman and b) taking the formula again so he can lizard out. His plan is to destroy the Connors personality once and for all so he’ll never change back. Also it eats a dude. And somehow this article is not about that.
How does he do this? By killing and eating his son. Did I mention that this wasn’t in Ultimate Marvel? No, It’s totally in the mainstream Marvel Universe and in canon. The goddamn Lizard ate his son. Not even just any kid, but his son. Oh, and the Connors personality has to watch the whole thing. Lovely.
There are no words for how vile and distasteful this is. In one fell swoop, we destroyed a core part of a classic character, had them murder their own child and then to put the icing on this urinal cake of a yarn, we had him then eat the kid. There is no way you could possibly make this story more disgusting or more of an affront to pretty much all good, tasteful and intelligent story telling.
Oh, but then it turns out Lizard’s new powers can turn people ‘animalistic’ which results in a man pouncing on a woman with the clear intent to rape her. It’s like hitting the jackpot on a bingo card from hell.
Which segues nicely into…
2 – The Original Woman In a Refrigerator (Green Lantern)
Some of you may have seen me talk about and link to this term in other articles and since not everyone follows every link, you might still not know what it means.
In general, it is used to describe an alarming tendency for horrible things to happen to (disproportionately) female characters, especially in comics, but in other media as well, not to advance her own story, but to give flimsy motivation to another character (usually a man). Ignoring the gender politics involved, it’s still a tired as hell plot device and when you think about it, really selfish of the writer, given that they often fridge long-running supporting characters to service their one storyline.
Why does it have such an esoteric name? Well… think about what this article is about and ask yourself if you’re completely sure you want to know. For those of you who aren’t currently rushing for the toilet to throw up (provided you didn’t already after discussing ‘Shed’), I will explain.
During the Kyle Rayner era of Green Lantern, he found himself at odds with the villain Major Force. Force is an early lesser known product of the early Dark Age of Comics, only having his powers in the first place because he was in a military prison for rape and murder already when the US government decided to test the same experiment that gave Captain Atom his powers on him. To be fair, they didn’t know Atom had survived the experiment, much less that it made him into a small god at that point.
In any case, Force was always a monster and there is a story there with him. Unfortunately, every appearance of him after the story in question is usually sprinkled with tasteless jokes about this story and he is pretty much forever tainted even as a credible villain for reasons I will outline in a second.
In Green Lantern #54, Major Force comes gunning for Green Lantern and instead finds Kyle’s girlfriend, Alex DeWitt, a character who seemingly only has a Wikipedia article because of this utter bullshit. Force then proceeds to murder DeWitt and stuff her body in the refrigerator for Rayner to find with the intention of goading Rayner into fighting him. To make matters worse, the art used in the initial reveal makes it look like he cut her body up to get her in there.
Gail Simone, then simply a comics fan who is now a writer (and someone who then engaged in pointless killing in her Villains Month offering…-sigh-) use this as her stand-out example of the trend in comics, triggering a firestorm across the proto-internet (this was 1999) over whether this was a legitimate artistic choice, whether it was an issue that needed to be rectified, and whether the whole thing might be some kind of feminist screed.
Today, people are somewhat less stupid about it and it is generally seen as a problem among readers if not writers and a lot of writers shy away from this particular kind of stunting. Unfortunately, they’ve moved on the going for worse shock value stuff like cannibalism or child killing because there isn’t an easily linkable website to neatly and quickly use to call them out over it.
You might be wondering why this is higher on the list than cannibalism or child-killing and the cannibalistic child killing if I’m saying those are worse. The answer is in the meta-response to this whole thing. You see, a lot of writers are not happy that this particular arrow is being increasingly removed from their quiver. Whether they’re hacks or not, every writer eventually wants to engage in some lazy writing and doesn’t like being called on it (even me) and women in refrigerators has made it a big deal to destroy one character to motivate another.
So you see a lot of sneering and condescension among such writers and their fans, often turning to pretty vicious attacks on the effected characters to ‘justify’ the fridging or using the term as a means of suggesting how to get rid of (almost always) female characters they don’t like. Look, I don’t like Mariah Hill either, but there’s something psychotic about suggesting that even a fictional woman should be chopped up and stuffed in an appliance.
The other thing is that people keep trying to justify this trope in terms of it ‘making sense’ from the villainous perspective to hurt the hero’s family. After all, it is a real threat for cops, prosecuting attorneys and witnesses that criminals they put away might hurt their families out of revenge or to discourage them from doing it again. It’s the biggest reason to have a secret identity, after all.
It actually doesn’t make all that much sense when you’re dealing with superheroes, especially powerful ones like Superman or Green freaking Lantern.
If you kill someone close to a cop, even if he snaps, he’s just a man with a gun at worst. Yeah, you could get the death penalty if you’re caught, but you’ve got a chance. But if you kill Lois Lane, the love of Superman’s life (regardless of what the reboot says), you have no hope. At best, he will find you in ten minutes and skeeball your ass into jail. At worse, he snaps and he can do anything to you. The man can move at the speed of light, can juggle planets and can give you a lobotomy by looking you in the eye—and you just did something that would break most people’s sense of morality and principle.
As I said before, most criminals generally don’t want to be caught or do unnecessary things that might lead to them being caught. Killing someone a superhero cares about is not only a completely unnecessary thing that will get you hunted to the end of the Earth by someone that society has decided is totally allowed to unleash their vast array of powers on you, but you’ve lethally motivated them. Boy, you gon’ die.
In the case of Major Force, you might be able to argue that being a copy of Captain Atom, he has reason to assume that he can not only survive Kyle, but defeat him. However, that’s still no reason to kill DeWitt if what he wants is a showdown with Kyle. Suppose Kyle was so broken up that he didn’t fight at all? You can’t control how people will react to death if you don’t know them (and Force doesn’t really know Kyle), so why take the chance when he could just kidnap DeWitt and hold her/threaten to kill her unless Kyle comes to fight him. Sure, there’s still a chance of losing, but you make damn sure Kyle shows up AND that he isn’t more angry and more willing to murder you than ever before.
In Force’s case, Kyle ‘only’ tortured him near to death before the cops stopped him, but there was absolutely no reason Force should have taken the risk and now he will be forever known as a moron and bad at villainy. So all told, the originating incident for ‘Women in Refrigerators’ killed Alex DeWitt for an even stupider reason than normal and the response to having it pointed out it pretty damn vile to boot.
The Death (and Erasure) or Lian Harper (Cry For Justice)
Last time I did one of these, I talked about how One More Day erased May Parker from existence in a story that really had no business being written in the first place and much less reason to mention her being erased. I also mentioned how May’s had a hard time in the main Marvel Continuity. But hey, at least May had a run in Spider-girl and got to live a certain amount of life elsewhere in the company, unlike the victim of this comic book shame.
DC’s Cry for Justice was a train wreck from the word go. It was promoted as a new Justice League book only the heroes in it would be proactive and all about justice—even though it was clear even in the lead-up interviews that neither the writer nor editor knew what the hell either of those words meant… or what the Justice League did already.
It mostly followed a group lead by Green Lantern Hal Jordan throwing a hissy fit over the Justice League not… justicing enough, I guess (I read the series and I still have no idea what these chuckleheads’ problem is) and striking out on their own to torture the crap out of villains for information on where they could find more villains to beat up with no provocation. As it turns out, their Authority-style idiocy is actually playing into the plans of a Villain Sue named Prometheus (for the record, I’d never heard of this guy when I wrote my Prometheus).
Long story short, Prometheus blows up Green Arrow’s home town of Star City for… reasons? (Okay, so Batman and Martian Manhunter, the established biggest opponents of mindwiping people totally mindwiped Prometheus and shoved him in an asylum. Except at the time of CfJ, both of them were dead and there was no reason for Prometheus to hate anyone else in the JLA) And in the process, Green Arrow’s partner Roy Harper AKA Arsenal had an arm blown off and his young daughter Lian killed.
Now, you might notice that I didn’t mention Roy when describing the plot. This would be because while Roy was in the series, he had absolutely nothing to do with the plot. As far as I can tell, Prometheus barely even knew who the hell Roy was and was never gunning for him until Roy blundered in on him doing his plan. Nor did Prometheus know Lian was in Star City. He didn’t know if ANYONE GA knew was in Star at the time. Killing Lian was just random collateral damage to a character who was in no way involved with the story.
We’re not even going to get into the ‘destroying an entire city’ thing in this article. I’m going to save that one for later (just to reply to the obvious response, yes, I will talk about my own destruction of Juis de Flora in The Descendants, but not Greenview Ridge because it wasn’t destroyed, just damaged as per a natural disaster). No, what I want to talk about is the treatment of Lian Harper.
There is a place, especially in the Superhero genre, to discuss collateral damage and the consequences of super battles. But that wasn’t what this was. The death of Lian Harper was in actuality, an editorial mandate in order to change Roy Harper’s character into a knife-wielding Punisher knock-off in the CfJ spin-off mini, Rise of Arsenal (in which he talks to a ghost drug dealer and beats homeless junkies with a dead cat). In order to accomplish this, they killed off his child in a completely offhand and meaningless manner, making her just another Woman in a Refrigerator.
The reason this gets to me like it does isn’t the pointlessness or how mean-spirited it is to just kill off a child for shallow motivation. No, it’s because I was just getting to know Lian. I had just starred my foray into DC comics after long years as a Marvel Zombie, buying the series then simply titled Titans and Blue Beetle. There was one issue of Titans that was devoted to nothing but Roy and Lian, showing us a rather unique take on superheroics where Our Hero is also a single dad trying to do good by his daughter.
Readers of this site and the blog series know how important family is to me and how much I love stories where the characters are family. That issue really whet my appetite for more Roy and more Lian; for maybe a miniseries all about them and their daddy/daughter adventures. There was so much creative potential there (which would later be realized in a way in the movie Despicable Me if you think about it) just waiting to be tapped.
The next time I saw Roy Harper was a few issues of Titans later with his arm gone and everyone looking nervous when he asked after Lian. And at the moment I used words I don’t normally use on this blog.
Lian’s abuse would not be over for another four years, however. After serving as her father’s reason for turning into a huge prick and anti-hero who joined a team of straight up villains, she was excised completely from continuity when DC rebooted for the New 52 so Roy could pal around with Jason Todd (a character who should have been erased) and Starfire (for whom erasure would be a mercy) in Red Hood and the Outlaws.
Really, what happened to Lian was just an early symptom of a sickness happening in comic books: the death of the supporting cast. Now that Marvel and DC are owned by corporate interests, they no longer see the point of keeping around characters who don’t make them money, namely anyone who can’t be made into a toy, a movie or a TV show. That’s why Superman is with Wonder Woman now: because it helps sell Wonder Woman where no one is going to get their kid Lois Lane jammies.
One can only hope that someone higher up in the crystal spires of Disney or Warner Brothers realizes that the comics themselves could become huge cash cows in and of themselves if only they applied good writing, a steady editorial direction, and solid characterizations with strong supporting casts behind them. If they made those changes and stuck to them, they would be able to sell in the tens or even hundreds of thousands without having to stoop to gimmick covers and theme months for short bursts of revenue and the entire industry would flourish.
It will never happen, but a guy can dream, right?
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