I finally had my opportunity to read Random Acts of Violence, the new graphic novel written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, with art by Giancarlo Caracuzzo, Paul Mounts and Bill Tortolini. This is a creator owned project that I know means a lot to these guys, so if you have any interest in horror, or comics in general, I urge you to pick it up. This little book surprised me, and left me more than a little disturbed.
In a nutshell, the story is about two friends, Ezra and Todd, who create and release their own horror comic, called Slasherman. It is a huge success, and before long is selling out multiple printings. The two guys go out on the road in support of the book, and soon come face-to-face with issues that many “real world” horror and thriller creators deal with all the time. Is all this violence necessary? Are these creators mysoginists because the killer in their book focuses on women? Does this kind of violence inspire people to do the terrible things depicted in the work of fiction?
As Ezra and Todd proceed on their tour, bodies start piling up. Indeed their comic has inspired a real world Slasherman who is committing gruesome murders, and how this all resolves itself is the crux of this comic’s narrative arc. It is really very well done as not only a horror book, but also a social commentary via the book-within-a-book.
The whole issue of life imitating art used to be pretty cut and dried to me. When I was younger, many of my musical heroes — Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, KISS — were being persecuted not only in the court of public opinion but also in actual courts of law on charges anywhere from being inspiration for kids to engage in obscene acts, to actual lawsuits charging them with responsibility for suicides. Then there was Columbine, and the Marilyn Manson connection. The West Memphis Three. None of the artists were ever convicted, and like my friends I thought it was ridiculous. Books, movies, music, whatever: my feeling was none of these things could make someone do something they wouldn’t find a reason to do anyway, because they were obviously messed up to begin with.
Now I’m not so sure.
A couple years ago John H. Richardson wrote an essay for Paste magazine called “My History of Violence: A rumination on art, death, truth, hubris and the unsexy call for media accountability” that hit me right in the gut. I saved it, and have intended to write about it ever since. You can check it out HERE. Given that Paste no longer exists, that link is to an archive location in Google. I printed it to PDF as well, which you can download HERE if you are interested.
Richardson wrote of many of the things that started to work their way into my thought processes around the time I became a parent. Coincidentally, that is also when he started questioning his own ideas about violence in media. He makes some good arguments, and shows examples of situations where media definitely has influenced people to do ridiculously stupid things. Yes, they had to be stupid in the first place, but it seems to me it is naive and dangerous to assume copycats don’t happen. I feel the whole issue is one of many elephants in the room that we just don’t talk about in this country, at least not in honest ways.
For me, the biggest issue was music. No matter what I said about drugs and alcohol to my son as he entered his teens, it was my word against thousands of songs extolling the fun and virtues of partying and getting high, and that is a tough battle for any parent to fight, regardless of how committed they are. And that is the argument most people make, that it is about the parents and how they raise their kids. Unfortunately, there are multiple billion dollar industries squared off against Mom and Dad, and it really ain’t a fair fight right out of the gate.
A recent movie that caught more heat than it was really worth is called Kick-Ass, based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar. Roger Ebert called it “morally reprehensible,” mainly due to its depiction of youth violence and profanity. I don’t know if I’d go that far, I just thought it was a pretty lame movie. The violence was stylized and fairly unrealistic, and the kids talked about how pretty much every kid I’ve ever heard talks (though the main focus of Ebert’s ire, the young female assassin Hit Girl, had a filthy mouth that seemed there just for shock value; we were supposed to believe she’d been raised in a very sheltered environment by a father who, despite raising her to be a killer, used about as much profanity as Mr. Rogers). I never read the graphic novel, and the movie certainly didn’t make me want to either.
I think Millar was trying to make a couple points in his story, though. One scene, where Hit Girl is mowing down a bunch of tough mob guys, she is wearing night vision glasses. The scene onscreen looks just like those ads I’ve seen for kill-everyone-in-sight video games. Frankly, I do find those things disturbing, especially games where as a player you are supposed to commit crimes and murders to advance yourself in the game. Would I censor them? Probably not, but it does beg the tired question: just because we can make those games, does it mean we should?
As a comics reader, it’s getting overwhelming at just how much violence is being depicted. For example, in order to show how “evil” a guy is in a comic book, does that villain really need to throw a baby out an nth story window, as Millar had the Red Skull do in a recent Ultimates comic book? Personally, I don’t think so. But maybe that’s just me. I think that’s too easy. It’s like comedians making relationships jokes. It’s low fruit. It isn’t challenging because it’s simple to shock someone with such gratuitous carnage. But the subtle dread . . . now that takes real craft.
Some of these musings may seem strange, seeing as how I’m often raving about books and movies and characters and comics that are inherently violent. I’ve never been much of a horror fan, at least as it relates to things like “slasher movies.” Never got into the Halloween/Friday the 13th/Nightmare on Elm Street franchises. Haven’t seen, or had any interest in seeing, the new wave of movies like Hostel or the Saw series. Not a big fan of all the zombie movies, though I did see, and really enjoy, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. I liked 30 Days of Night. I thought Drag Me to Hell was a blast. But even in movies I love; Tarantino flicks like Pulp Fiction or Inglorious Basterds, I’m usually hiding my eyes in the violent spots. I’m just not into it. I don’t need to see limbs hacked off or all the blood and guts.
I don’t care for a lot of that in fiction either. It’s one thing to read about a barbarian in a fictitious world carving a path to a throne with his battle axe. It’s something else to read exquisitely detailed torture scenes in flash fiction. I’d rather have the violence implied, not blown up on the big screen in all its glory. That’s when it is truly powerful to me, and disturbing, rather than just off-putting.
Finally, don’t get me started on the overabundance of torture porn directed at women. Or the simple fact that scenes of graphic violence are so much more acceptable to the culture than the naked human form, let alone scenes of sensuality and sex. I can read a Punisher comic with all manner of graphic and horrible violence and guts-shed, but show a couple people graphically fucking over multiple pages and it will probably be pulled from the shelf. It’s really pretty twisted where our priorities are, and I find that disturbing. I don’t have the answers, but it is certainly something I think more and more about, especially as I work on my own fiction and the places I want to take it. I like dark, adult-oriented stuff, but it’s a fine, fine line to walk.
Funny that the questions raised in Random Acts of Violence should have me back digging for the Richardson article again, and putting down these meandering thoughts. Thing is, media empires wouldn’t choke us on this stuff if we weren’t buying, so we are getting what I guess we deserve. Not that I see Random Acts as part of the problem — Palmiotti and Gray do a great job of raising the question while also showing us some pretty gruesome shit, and having characters in the book have serious conversations about it. Conversations more of us should be having. The book made me seriously revisit considering the choices I’m making if I really want to walk the walk, and not just stumble, and I appreciate it for that.
I’m curious to know what other people think about the topic. What are your own limits when it comes to the depiction of sex and violence in books, movies, television, etc.? Does it make people do things they maybe wouldn’t do, or is that whole argument bullshit? Who will speak for the children?!