Sunday, January 2, 2011

Fist, meet face! Or, the beautiful nose-breaking

For Christmas, I received a copy of a comic book that got me thinking about one of the central tenets of superhero adventure: guys in tights whumping on each other.

The collection was Moon Knight: God and Country, written by Mike Benson and Charlie Huston. I loved Moon Knight as a kid—the shadowy world inhabited by a flawed hero in a silver-white costume (and the moody artwork that resulted); the fact that he had not one but three secret identities, and it made him kind of schizo; the serial encounters with his lycanthropic nemesis, Werewolf By Night, with their bizarre fusion of superheroics and horror. Moon Knight at his best was weird, and mysterious, and beautiful, and indefinably cool in a way that never really caught on (lucky for me—it meant I found a lot of good stories in the 25-cent bin).

Huston’s revamp of the character has been charitably described as hyperviolent. This version of Moon Knight is tormented by the Egyptian god who resurrected him in his origin story—except instead of demanding justice like he used to, Khonshu now wants blood and flying body parts, and usually appears wearing the form of a psychopathic mercenary Moon Knight killed (accidentally? During a psychotic episode? I’ve never been sure) in an earlier adventure. Moon Knight is now a government-sanctioned vigilante, and rapidly losing his grip on reality as he takes to carving his crescent-moon symbol into the foreheads of his bloodied and broken foes. I read Huston’s comics for a while, then finally quit in disgust because the story didn’t seem to be going anywhere interesting and pretty much everything I had liked about the character was now gone.

Reading God and Country, which picks up around the time I quit, reinforced my conviction that the comic had gone in an uninteresting direction. But it got me thinking about why I missed the old Moon Knight, and what it said that a take on the character that was (arguably) supported by the stories I loved was yet so repellent to me.

The answer struck me as I was typing those words up above—weird, mysterious, beautiful. There aren’t a lot of superheroes I consider beautiful, but as dark as Moon Knight’s adventures always were, I took a certain primal satisfaction in the fact that the character was trying to balance so many conflicting sides of his life, and more often than not managing to be a glimmer of light in his own darkness. That made the character beautiful. Huston lost that beautiful light in the spray of blood, and I lost interest in Moon Knight.

But let’s face it—guys in tights whumping on each other has always been a central feature of superhero comics. The first modern superhero comic featured on its cover a picture of Superman smashing a car full of gangsters into a boulder. Violence is part of the genre, and I don’t really have a problem with violence in my fiction. Heck, I do exhaustive research to get the violence in Masks right—to make sure Trevor’s fights, in particular, make sense in the context of the laws of physics, anatomy, and human behavior. I have described my book as “a love story and a coming-of-age narrative and a meditation on modern mythology—in which a lot of stuff blows up.”

And yet superhero violence, in my view, works best when it plays by rules, or at least when rules exist. In Masks, there’s an indelible line between masks who do their jobs with minimal violence—who never cripple or kill when they have a choice, who train to win fights without doing permanent harm—and those who believe in using the bad guys’ methods against them, who usually leave a trail of bodies in their wake. Rae and Trevor are in the first category; Cobalt is in the second, although he pretends otherwise. It’s what makes them enemies, really. The rest is window dressing.

Part of that conflict is rooted in the question of superhero morality—to have good guys and bad guys, you have to have at least a working definition of good and bad, right and wrong, and varying definitions lead to varying approaches. Most people who make the distinction at all agree, for example, that at least some forms of violence are bad—like murder. However, there are three major schools of thought on how to deal with the fact that violence exists whether we want it to or not. These ideas get dumbed down a lot for superhero fiction, but I’ll try to maintain at least a little of the necessary complexity.

The first school, which has become increasingly popular in the last 20 years, views violence (even in fiction) as a matter of proportionate response. If the bad guys are level-5 bad, then the good guys are allowed to be level-5 bad to beat them. If the bad guys are level-12 bad, you may need to keep a puke bag handy in order to root for the good guys. This is the same argument often advanced by people who advocate a “whatever it takes” approach to dealing with real-life violence—if the opposing force uses chemical weapons or suicide bombers, then we should be allowed to respond in kind. Anything less, this thought argues, ties the good guys’ hands. That’s where God and Country is coming from, and where Cobalt comes in.

The second school of thought is at the opposite end of the spectrum—if violence is bad, then the good guys shouldn’t use it, period. In the real world, this usually takes the form of pacifism—for example, Quakers who register as conscientious objectors in wartime because their religion prohibits war. You don’t see this portrayed much in Western entertainment anymore, partly because it really limits your fight-scene options. But you will occasionally see a pacifist superhero trying to make headway in a violent fictional world. Usually he doesn’t succeed; the best-known example of an attempt at a nonviolent hero in American culture is Shane, a novel and movie about a former gunfighter trying to give up the gun. It’s a deeply moving story, full of big ideas, but you can’t help noticing that Shane keeps beating people up in bar fights. Shane’s attempt at pacifism, noble as it may be, is a real problem for somebody writing a Western. There aren’t any heroes in Masks who take this view, although I’m experimenting with a pacifist hero in another novel just for the heck of it and it is as difficult as it is rewarding.

The third school of thought occupies the middle ground—the idea that violence is a necessary evil, but evil nonetheless, and should be limited as much as possible. In the real world, this basically boils down to the rules-of-war approach—things like the Geneva Conventions. This approach says that violence is sometimes the only solution to a bad situation (the Nazis are a classic example of a bad thing that needed stopping), and that violence should therefore be used only when absolutely necessary, and then only according to strictly defined rules, which are written out in advance so nobody is tempted to cheat. Soldiers wear uniforms; they don’t deliberately harm civilians; captured enemies are treated humanely and with respect. Most superheroes used to take this approach, although it’s less popular now as writers and editors have made villains ever more extreme—by the time the fifth school bus is blown to bits, it’s hard to understand why Batman hasn’t just strangled the Joker already.

Writers, of course, see problems and opportunities in all three approaches. It’s easy to give a pacifist hero the moral high ground, but stories need conflict, and it’s harder to create action and tension when your heroes avoid it. Competing with an already violent culture makes the proportionate approach tempting—when you’re trying to make your bones as a storyteller, nothing gets readers’ attention like the snap of bones breaking—but having to constantly make up new tortures is exhausting. And the middle path seems to be the best of both worlds, but it requires constant examination to balance the need for action in a superhero story with the need to avoid unnecessary violence.

Different writers have different attitudes toward this question. Part of it’s a question of temperament, naturally, and of how much you can get away with in a given story. But I’ve always found the most beauty in the balance—in the good guys who stay good guys, as much as they can, while the world goes to hell around them. They fight monsters without becoming them, or at least they try. Sometimes they’re outnumbered or outgunned as a result, but that just makes it more dramatic when they win. The balance itself is a good source of conflict. My favorite heroes abhor violence to one extent or another, but they won’t stand peacefully by while someone, for example, abuses a child. But neither will they beat the abuser into the ground just for the hell of it. The balance is difficult. It’s complicated. And when it’s done right, it’s beautiful.

(By the way, this is all completely separate from the question of whether violent art should be censored or restricted to certain audiences—although I do support things like clear and informative labeling so we don’t have six-year-olds bringing home God and Country by mistake. So if you want to know whether movies like Hostel should be in general release, you’ve come to the wrong window.)

At the climax of Masks, Rae and Trevor are forced to fight each other, with the fate of the world at stake. It’s arguably my favorite scene in the book because of the way their beliefs and their feelings for each other play out in their exchange of professional blows and personal words. It couldn’t happen if either one of them refused to fight at all, or simply pulled out a gun and blew the other away. What happens next is unexpected, and thrilling, and heartbreaking. And, to my mind, beautiful.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

1 comment:

  1. Funny, all of my shootouts are going by too fast for beautiful breakage ... okay, someone died, and there was a touching, heartbreaking conversation at gunpoint. But beauty in the breakage only counts in my book if you count one line.

    "Sean, what are you doing with that fuel truck?"