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Too Much ACTION?

Has the latest issue of ACTION COMICS gone too far?

By Chris Smits     April 22, 2009
Source: Mania


Too Much ACTION? (slideshow)
© Mania

After the release of last week's issue of Action Comics #876, a lot of things started running around in my head. Most of these things centered on the fact that it was essentially one big out of control brawl. Unquestionably, the brawl is a staple of superhero comics and I have no problems with that fact. Who hasn't waited for the epic showdown between their favorite hero and their villain of the moment? When the story has been building and the baddie is finally going to get their comeuppance via direct smackdown, I think it's awesome. Cerebral is fine but there are times when I just love seeing the heavy get their ass kicked. Violence has never been a stranger in comics (nor would I like it to be) so why do I find it so odd in this instance? Worse yet, am I being hypocritical?

Let me back up a bit.

Recently Action Comics' hero Superman has been replaced in the book by a duo calling themselves Flamebird and Nightwing. Based on Kryptonian heroes of legend, this co-ed team consists of Thara Ak-Var and Lor-Zod. Lor-Zod is the son of Krypton's main nasties General Zod and Ursa (think Superman II). Having spent time as a child with Clark Kent and Lois Lane (as their adopted son) he now goes by the name Christopher and the thought of being his parents' son repulses him. A blood crazed Ursa comes calling on her son and his new team mate, and what we have in this book is an attack that is meticulously vicious.

Cover art to Action Comics #876

But wait. By what standards does this warrant being labelled as "meticulously vicious"? 

Well, the first words of the book are in a caption that reads "The Killing". Serving as Ursa's narrative for the moment, she breaks down everything she loves about what she does here. She refers to herself as 'the weapon' and delights in provoking fear, anger, control and death. On the second page she fires a gun (point blank) into Thara's face four times. Having no effect on Thara (because of her empowerment from Earth's yellow sun), Ursa ditches the firearm and proceeds to physically beat her for several pages before switching to a knife that has a Kryptonite edge to it. With blood already visible on her face from her nose and mouth, the reader is now shown Thara being systematically slashed apart with Ursa's knife, visually drawing blood with every slice. To make matters worse, and to literally pour Kryptonite salt on the wounds, the blade is designed to leave fragments of Kryptonite in every cut, poisoning her from the inside out. This really comes to a culmination in a double page spread where small panels that showcase the various cut points circle a larger picture of Thara Ak-Var reasonably covered from head to toe with her own blood. There's blood on her arms, legs and face. There's blood from cuts on her stomach, back, cheeks and palms. Her blood is even in the air around her as she's diced and mutilated by Ursa. As she collapses to her knees, in a pool of even more of her blood, Ursa's narrative caption reads "Pity it had to end so quickly". 

All of this is in Action? DC Comics' Action? Yeah, I was surprised.

The graphic two-page spread from Action Comics #876

Keep in mind that I'm admitting my surprise, not my shock or anger. I watch/read/listen to a lot of violent entertainment so none of this offended me on any level, I just had some questions.

 

Was this really the place for these kinds of images?

I don't really know. I'm not even remotely trying to pass judgment of any kind on what's depicted here, honestly. I do know that I can't remember ever seeing this level of cruelty depicted this graphically in Action Comics before. The artwork and panels were exploitative and shamelessly gratuitous in my opinion.

 

Is this due to the script asking for it or was this the artists' take with the presentation of the events?

Unless writer Greg Rucka talks, we won't know. I'm very curious to know the answer to that one though.

 

What was the point?

Maybe DC or Rucka were trying to show us that 'this ain't your Superman's Action Comics'. If that's the case, that's a fairly cheap way of doing so. When a new actor takes over the role of Doctor Who, he doesn't establish himself as different by stuffing his pants with a zucchini and dropping f-bombs to stand out. If being more extreme with things is warranted, and if the writer justifies it, then that's awesome. Doing so for any other reason just stinks up the joint with cheap shock gimmickry.

 

Was it warranted?

Another page from Action Comics #876

Well, let's take a look at what this issue showed us. It showed us that Ursa is ruthless, cruel and has no regard for her son whatsoever. We kind of already knew that though, right? There's a little bit of revelation in that Chris is not like the other Kryptonians because he was born in the Phantom Zone, but that really takes a backseat and doesn't get much page time compared to Thara's beatdown. How the two weigh against each other is a matter for each reader to make up their own mind about.

 

Should this even be an issue?

It struck me as strange that there doesn't even seem to be much talk of this going on around the internet. I found a review over at Comic Book Resources by Greg McElhatton where he said "On the bright side, Rucka makes it an entertaining fight" but he also writes "I appreciate that a fight between three Kryptonians should be brutal, but I actually felt uncomfortable in spots". To me he's hitting on the inherent confusion I felt as a reader.

On one hand it's nothing super crazy but on the other hand it left me wondering if I had problems with the way it was carried out. I still don't know that I did but I think it brings up a valid gut check of sorts. Whether or not you're personally offended by it, we all recognize those moments when something happens in our culture that causes us to say "Oh man, they're gonna catch hell for saying/doing that". From a comedian or actor using racial slurs to a lesbian comic book heroine, regardless of how you feel about it, our culture just loves to bring the hammer down and cause a dust up over it. But when is it valid and when is it a matter of making a mountain out of a mole hill?

There's a panel in this book where Chris ends up with Ursa's knife and he has her on the ropes. His hand is silhouetted in the foreground while Ursa is stretched out against a wall in the background; looking at this glowing blade in terror. It's a tried and true 'woman in peril' shot and (depending on the medium, I guess) offensive in some cases but not in others. There's an Italian horror director by the name of Dario Argento that's had to fight the label of misogynist his whole career for using these exact same shots in his films. Is it right to apply it there but not here?

A panel from Action Comics #876

Technically speaking, the shot where he's punching his own mother in the mouth while he's telling her "We're Heroes" is, at best, conflicted. Should we even be thinking in these terms at all? Most everything can have twisted implications if somebody chooses to see it that way, that's nothing new, but what are the standards (if any) that things should be gauged by? It should come as no surprise when I tell you that I don't know, but I always have to ask the questions and you should too. 

I hadn't previously thought that this line of questioning would ever be applied to Action Comics. This is a flagship title, it's Superman's book! Maybe that's a problem right there. Is it my own preconceptions that leave me feeling that something is wrong here? Maybe, but it sure doesn't feel like the evolution of a book to me and I'm not buying that as the line of reasoning for this issue. Sure, people's tastes evolve, but I've never been one to go by the concept of doing something just because you can. Things are written in comics today that never could have been published 30 years ago, doesn't make the stories better by default though. Like I said, I'm filled with questions as to how this one came about; just doesn't feel right having it in Action Comics.

What say you? There's a comment section below and I wouldn't have written this if my point wasn't in trying to see how you, as a reader, feel about these elements in comics.

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

Showing items 1 - 10 of 10
1 
lazerman 4/22/2009 7:07:02 AM

As a Kid, I loved Superman, but when I was in my late teens, I kind of gave up on him.

 

Then in 1992 when he was killed, I discovered the STORY in Superman to thrilling to give up and returned to my favorite Superheo.  Been buying Action ever since.

 

With Comic book companies dropping the Comics Code, creating their own rating system, and some of those more graphic titles selling more than the "Coded" ones, it was only a matter of time, from a Business perspective, that the longest running books would start to push the envelope.

 

So I would argue that this is the next stage in comics, to see how far they CAN go before Someone says Enough and cries for regulation.  But atthe same time what I took out of your review was that you feel repulsed and a unease you never felt before.  And that is a good thing.  For maybe the writer and artist are trying to say to us, LOOK at this violent act, do not GLORY in it, be Repulsed by it, never let this kind of thing happen in our real world.

 

Sadly, something similar DID happen in the real world.  A young Man on a Bus travelling along the Trans-Canada Highway  in the province of Manitoba was brutally attacked by a complete stranger, who used a knife on him, and all the other passengers were horrified by this cruel act.  The young man died, and the person who committed the crime was sentenced to life in a psychiatric ward.

 

For me, those images brought up that sad story, but in the world of comics, most villains get what they deserve, Justice.  but sadly, not in the real world.

Superfist_home 4/22/2009 7:55:20 AM

 Well Lazerman, I have to clarify that I wasn't repulsed by the issue and that my unease was more of a "What's this doing in Action?!" kind of thing. It just seemed kind of sleazy for the standard of this book. We've all seen fights of that magnitude presented a million times without the way they presented it here. Keep in mind, I'm also talking about the fact that this is a mainstream book and not Hellblazer or The Boys.

TheSleeper 4/22/2009 9:26:16 AM

Great article, Chris.  Interesting subject to bring up, and I'm sure you'll get opinions from all sides on this one.

I disagree with lazerman -- there's just nothing about the art that suggests there's some big moral lesson being passed along here.  What we've got is heaping loads of violence served up for our viewing pleasure.

I think Chris hits it right on the head when he asks, "what's this doing in Action?"  Context matters.  You pick up an Action comic book, you're expecting it to be fun and have some moral clarity to it.  if these drawings had been in Sin City or something like that maybe it wouldn't have been as much of a problem.  But even in Sin City, it's usually the misogynist pig you really see getting the beat down, so it's okay the bastard is getting what's coming to him.

In this case it's just too clear the (innocent) victim is well past the point of defending herself.  She's helpless.  And yet we linger, linger on every cut, on the frightened eyes of the victim, on the sadistic grin of perpetrator, and we're even supposed to see it all from the perpetrator's point of view - "Pity it had to end so quickly" puts us in Ursa's head.

There are other ways to convey shock, if that was the intent.  I read "Joker," by Azzarello and Bermeso recently.  There's a scene where Joker breaks into the apartment of an old couple and kills them.  But we don't see the Joker stabbing two helpless old folks to death, lingering panel after panel on the Joker reveling in his cruelty.  We get one panel of a frightened couple hearing a noise at the door -- then the next panel shows the Joker lying in their blood-soaked bed.  It's shocking and brutal enough, but our point of view is with the victims, not the Joker.

There's another scene where Joker smashes a bottle in a lackey's face and proceeds to grind the broken glass into what's left of him.  When it starts to get really grisly, the panel cuts away from the victim and focuses instead on the Joker's crazed and demonic face -- we don't need to see bits of glass drawn in exquisite detail cutting into flesh, with sprays of blood flying in every direction.  We get the point.

My two cents -- this was a misstep for Action, and the writers/artists involved need to re-examine what they're doing.  

 

Superfist_home 4/22/2009 9:44:44 AM

Which brings up yet again, was it this detailed in the script or did the artist just go buck wild?

TheSleeper 4/22/2009 10:35:08 AM

Artist or writer?  Who knows?  I'm not exactly clear on how DC splits up the work.  I know at Marvel it used to be the writer just came up with some rough notes and the artist was much more in control of how everything was presented.

Could it even be the end result came about by accident?  Writer writes the scene one way, not making it clear exactly how it should play out?  Artist, whose ideas of storytelling might be pretty crude and decides "just focus on the gore, that always works" ends up creating something that comes off slightly too sadistic for a series like Action?

I don't know.  I kind of doubt that it was purely an accident though.  

Superfist_home 4/22/2009 11:06:30 AM

 I agree that it couldn't have been an accident.

Cacaoatl 4/22/2009 1:35:53 PM

At DC they use the full script format for their stories which include dialogue and detailed panel descriptions. I've read some of their scripts. While each writer has a different style, they are very detailed in describing exactly what they want in each panel.   The artist knew exactly what Rucka wanted. However, we can't ignore the third person involved in the production of a comic: the editor. If the editor for Action Comics thought the violence was over-the-top, he would have sent the art back or even had the script rewritten.

jsmulligan 4/22/2009 10:56:14 PM

Three words, "Disgusting and unnecessary."  Seriously, there is no need to give that much detail to the brutalizing of your character, drawing in all the blood flying through the air... just... no.

myklspader 4/23/2009 5:11:15 AM

 I could be wrong but maybe they went so crazy is because they are running with the whole “A World Without Superman” theme… when you think about it maybe this is DC's way of thinking well in a world with him there wouldn't be such a graphic ordeal and such.

Then again it could just come down to DC wants to make some waves or the artist, writer and editor want to make their names too. Regardless I think it is too over the top for a company like DC to put out under one of their more known/friendly to all titles. 

Superfist_home 4/23/2009 7:25:51 AM

 I honestly never thought of the World Without Superman angle towards this. Interesting...

1 

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