>Random Acts of Violence

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?!

12 thoughts on “>Random Acts of Violence”

  1. >For me personally, the limits are some tweaked depending on whether I'm writing something, or if I'm reading/watching something.I do know that when I'm writing, I've learned to tone down or ramp up the sex when the situation called for it. As for the violence, that's been a little trickier, as the level of violence that can come out my pen is so high that it really has caused a serious conundrum within myself on whether or not to include it in my stories.Sex and violence on television and the movies, to me at least, is cartoonish and something that should not be taken seriously. Unfortunately, most people will and like you said, this seems to be the main issue with today's generation.

  2. >First, Random Acts of Violence sounds like my kind of sin and I will remember that title. Thanks.Second, bad parenting or lack therof should be blamed. I wasn't allowed to read or watch certain books or films until my folks deemed it ok because a fertile mind can be warped by what it views.

  3. >Two things.First- My mother refused to let me watch The Three Stooges when I was small because in her opinion little kids can't tell the difference between make believe and reality. She had no desire to see me poke other people in the eyes and whatnot because I couldn't understand how slapstick works. She was right.Second- last summer I wasn't even thinking, and I turned on my X-Box and loaded DOA3. I was sitting there beating the shit out of my opponents in what is probably the least graphic fighting game ever designed, and my daughter who was almost three years old started laughing hysterically. She kept yelling, 'Again! Again!' and I got up and shut off the game.When she was an infant I watched anything I felt like watching. As soon as her cognizant abilities started shifting into gear I stopped. SVU reruns during the day? Nope. Episodes of Buffy on DVD? Hell no. I have no plans to "shelter" her per se, but until she reaches a point where I can discuss with her and explain to her what she sees onscreen we're avoiding anything that she could emulate in a bad way.I'll say something else. After I had her I had to stop watching SVU for myself as well. Things that never bothered me before, to a huge extent, bother me greatly now. I cannot watch that show if there is violence against children in an episode. I get physically ill.This was great. That link was an amazing article, too.

  4. >G: I agree that a lot of the stuff we see is cartoonish, and I really don't have a problem with that. That's how it is in KICK-ASS, for example. Sometimes it isn't, though, and I think that is when I get bothered. I can't define it; it's of the "but I know it when I see it" variety.David: I agree that bad parenting certainly does lend itself to the problem, especially nowadays. My parents didn't restrict what I could see, I just didn't have access. We had two television channels when I was growing up, neither of which came in worth a damn. By the time I hit my teens and we actually got cable and/or early satellite, my tastes were pretty much already set. One could say the violence in 80s movies like CONAN, TERMINATOR, HIGHLANDER, or FIRST BLOOD is part of the problem, but those movies sure interested me more than the slasher films of that era did. Julie: When my son was little, we had a fighting game called "Killer Instinct." That was all we had, really. The neighbor across the street wouldn't let her son play it, but was fine with him playing war. He was also a vicious little punk who would pinch and slap. I'm guessing their discipline techniques did a little more damage than my kid's video game did.Also, I know how you feel about gore from your recent blog post, so we are definitely different in that way (though your tastes seem to run about along the lines of the stuff I actually like from time to time — did you watch DRAG ME TO HELL? You should!). One thing you've stumped me on, though: what is SVU?

  5. >Interesting post, Chris. You make some good points, and sadly, the ones who would likely most benefit from the perspective you have are the ones who do exactly what you did at that age, think "what's the big deal?" and ignore it, or worse, defend it just because that contrary to what The Adult is saying.By the way, you might want to take a look at this. You're making an increasingly common mistake.http://begthequestion.info/

  6. >Wow, Richard, thanks for that. That's the first I've ever seen that raised. I appreciate it. I've always assumed it meant begging like a freakin' dog to have a question answered. Obviously I'm not alone in my ignorance, for once.

  7. >I learned this definition in high school debate class, Chris, back 1961, and have noticed more and more the term being used instead of "that poses the question" which is usually what people are trying to say, I think. I pointed it out to you because I thought you'd be receptive (you are). Most of the time I just ignore it, but maybe I should mention it more often.

  8. >I was never really bothered by violence in movies, books, etc., until I had kids of my own. Then suddenly I couldn't bear to see anything bad happen to children, even in fiction. I've stopped reading books because there was a child rape scene or some other hideous thing. Now I've got these two young boys who are obsessed with superheros. I find that all this stuff is marketed towards kids who are too young to even watch the movies! We've watched a lot of superhero movies with them, and they SEEM to understand that there's a difference between real violence and superhero violence, but…do you think I am allowing their little minds to be warped?

  9. >SVU = Law and Order SVUI watched the first two Spider-Man movies with Livvie in the room, and she would get upset during fight scenes. This was last spring right after she started talking (she was a late talker. 27 months). We talked with her during the movie and she actually got to a point where she would see something and say, "Spider-Man will fix it. Spider-Man will fix it with tape!"She loves him, and she HATED seeing him get hurt so we stopped watching. She's still on the youngest side of her age emotionally, and she can't stand seeing anyone get hurt or upset. We just have to be very careful with her.One of my best friends has twin boys who are now 8, and when they were toddlers one of them thought the movie Leprechaun was the funniest thing he had ever seen. He's a rough and tumble kind of boy, but nothing overly violent. His mom took the time to talk with him about things.About the gore thing. I've noticed that if it's "fantasy," such as over the top things like 2000 Maniacs or monster type thingies it's cool.SEVEN? Couldn't bear it. Same with when I read American Psycho. Those absolutely did not sit well with me. And I'm ok with that. I don't need to be too cool for school.As an aside, my word verification is "GLARCH," which I will now be saying regularly when appropriate.

  10. >Chris, great post. As Jason and I get closer to parenthood, this is something that is on my mind. What will I let my child watch? As a kid, I loved curling up on my dad's lap and watching old horror films. But those films are nothing like what they have today, and today's movies give me, an adult, terrible nightmares. I can only imagine what they would do to a young child. I agree that violence in movies has gone way too far. You're right in your statement, just because we can, doesn't mean we should. I say that all the time, and most people seem to get upset by it. In a world where we all believe that parents needs to take more responsibility, this often leads others to think that no one else should take any responsibility. I have a hard time with that. And don't even get me started on famous people, athletes, and role models.Anyway, I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post.

  11. >Thanks, Nikki, and congrats on the impending bambino.FYI, I replaced the kid movie Homeward Bound, which was one of Sid's favorites (and I was tired of it being on 24×7), in the VCR with KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park when he was about 4 or so, and it all went great. Make sure and pass this little tidbit of info along to Jason!

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