Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Commisoner Gordon, Torture-Porn, Reader's Comments & Bleeding Heart Liberalism


"He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself."

Thomas Paine
    
Every week still brings comments which object to my contempt for the traditions of the noble-hero-as-killer and noble-hero-as-torturer. Of course, the responses which frequently arrive here at TooBusyThinking on the topic can hardly be thought of as representative in any way. Yet I do receive a surprising and worrying number of them on this topic, all of which - and I do mean all - seem not to know the first thing about the terms they're using. Sadly, these comments tend to come complete with a decided lack of even the most basic of good manners, and I tend to simply delete them. (Why debate with someone who clearly isn't up to doing so?) But I did save the relatively restrained comment which follows as an example of the kind of askew thinking that seems unsettlingly common on this subject. It's a belated response to a post I wrote in July of 2012 about Geoff Johns and Gary Franks' reprehensible Earth One Batman. (The post can be found, should you care to, here.) It's a tale in which a young James Gordon is portrayed as accepting his manly responsibilities as a bloke and a guardian of order through the savage beating up of a unconvicted if openly pernicious hoodlum. In doing so, Gordon passes from a persecuted and ineffectual victim to a lauded servant of righteous if not lawful justice. What follows is one commentor's response to my heretical objections to that conflation of machismo, lawlessness and virtue;

"Ahem... with all respect (*1), two cops beating a street tough who is also possibly a drug dealer, a pimp, and other things maybe, hardly classifies as excessive force, or torture. (*2/3) The story establishes that he's stepped on any kind of rights he might once have. (*4)

Also, it's not as if they restrain him, tie him up, and methodically inflict pain (like, say, Jack Bower in 24), they just beat the information out of him. (*5)

Someone with a more intimate knowledge of police procedure would give a much better reply... (*6) but this particular article is exactly the "bleeding heart liberal" mentality that often gets scorned by several people. (*7)" 



This kind of thinking is in no way rare, and if no individual example of beat-'em/hang-'em storytelling can be blamed for that, each certainly contributes to the reservoir of already established ignorance.

Anyway, my responses;

*1:- "Ah! We don't like sentences that begin "with respect", do we? Because "with respect" is a meaningless form of words that people use just before they tell you you're talking bollocks." - Andy Hamilton, Old Harry's Game 3:! - bless TV Tropes for recording the very words and rescuing my sieve-like memory

*2:- I would amazed to find any court on either side of the pond where Gordon's behaviour wasn't considered an example of "excessive force". He is, after all, clearly signed up in the story as having used a crowbar while in a furious rage to beat information out of a fellow citizen. Anyone confused about whether Gordon's behaviour might also be regarded as torture will find the definitions and links on the matter at Wiki an eye-opening starting point.

*3:- Apparently "possibly" being a "drug dealer" and "possibly" a "pimp" qualifies as grounds for such an arbitrary, vicious assault.

 

*4:- As shocking an idea as it may be, an individual's human rights can't  be limited even by one nation's laws. They can be encroached upon, but they can't be limited. As for the rights which the specific legal codes of, say, the United Kingdom or the USA grant, they can't be limited by an individual's suspected actions unless the law specifically states that that should be so. Brutally walloping an answer out of a free individual while hidden in the shadows of a dark alleyway is not, to my knowledge, a provision of either nation's laws.

*5:- I'm as fascinated as I'm appalled by the idea that a impassioned beating is somehow morally and legally distinct from the same occurring when straps, a chair and a calm-minded method are involved. That there's a clear difference between the "methodological" and - what? - the careless inflicting of suffering is a terrifying way of looking at things.

*6:-  So "police procedure" - whatever that might be - might more precisely support our commentor's argument? Can it be that anyone truly believes that there are formal codes of practise which determine how much of a "beating" is legitimised by x or y degree of suspicion is? Or is the suggestion by our anonymous commentor that the police informally establish traditions as they go along, and that these traditions are by their very nature legitimate and effective ways to serve the community?

*7:- To object to tyranny is to be a "bleeding heart liberal", it seems. Might I suggest that without such a form of liberalism, and of all the other political forms which support human rights and the rule of law, a great many more hearts would be bleeding, and to a far greater degree too.

   

To put it simply, there's a great many people who believe in torture, and indeed vengeance, and who find it impossible to grasp that such are inevitably the tools and markers of tyranny. It's hardly surprising, given the phenomenal weight of ignorance-reinforcing trash that's constantly pumped out into the culture.Every example of vengeance and torture-porn that's oozed into the marketplace only worsens the situation. It would take an idiot to suggest that fiction creates the conviction that frontier justice is a necessary and ennobling business, and yet, it would also take an idiot to insist that fiction doesn't bolster pre-existing convictions.

But regardless, the torture porn and the vengeance-porn, it keeps getting published .....

The Doctor, of course, tends towards a different understanding of justice. (Attribution pending, though the artist is Mike Collins.)
nb: the commentor returned to express his opinions in the comment section below. Several new planks are added to his original argument, so you may find it well worth your time...
.

37 comments:

  1. While I don't always agree with your dispositions about violence in comicbooks, Batman Earh One was really disgusting, the infamous beating scene being only one of the many reasons why.
    The comment you quote shows a terrifying way of thinking. Seeing such belief on assumptions as reliable proof really shocks me. Not to speak of the risible difference the commentator (or is it commenter?) makes between ways of torture. However, what is actually worrying is how much this kind of thing is seeping into culture, specially into superheroes. Batman, being a character who can be easily transformed from supercop to sadistic vigilante, is a sad example of this. Two recent examples come to mind: One of the latest Batman &... issues, in which the World Greatest Detective's detective work consists on beating people until they give him the names he wants; the other one, the two latest Arkham Games, where, instead of using cunning, deduction and his considerable technical advantages to obtain the Riddler's location, he just "interrogates" thug after thug until he gathers all of the bits. Apparently, in the twelve years of training it took him to become "the ultimate crimefighter", no one bothered to tell Bruce (neither did he bother to learn) that not only is torture inhumane, but that the answers it yields are often, if not usually, unreliable.

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    1. Hello Rodrigo:- firstly, I appreciate you popping over to the blog when I am saying things that you don't always agree with. I never thought that TooBusyThinking's posts were there for folks to agree with, and yet I fear that the net has further fostered the attitude that what is read should be something that's already agreed with. It mystifies me that so many folks should seem to want to see their own opinions fed back to them, and yet everything I read seems to confirm that that's often very much so.

      Secondly, it was indeed - as you point out - the way of thinking on the part of the commentor which led to me printing this comment. I hope it shocks everyone who reads it, and yet, I have to say that its sentiments aren't particularly rare where the comment box of this blog is concerned. In fact, all that made this comment stand out was the relatively constrained degree of contempt in it. Just about everything I receive on such topics which takes a reactionary stance expresses it in .... shall we say, more profoundly unpleasant ways. That's not to define disagreeing with me as 'reactionary'; there's lots of folks who've disagreed and expressed it in a civil way and to ends which are anything but of the out-there right. But the more out-there the opinions, the more extreme the way they're expressed, or so the unrepresentative evidence of this blog suggests.

      I agree entirely with you about the way in which violence - torture, revenge, excessive force - has become more and more prevelant in society. The superhero book has always occupied dodgy waters - that's part of what makes it such a potentially fascinating genre. But the idea that violence - hyper-violence - smart and necessary and virtuous has become more and prevelant. I've not come across either of the Batman examples you give, but I fear that I'm not at all surprised. For all the good folks who work at DC, the company's product is all-too-often crass and dubious.

      Violence as a way of discussing issues while generating some spark of catharsis is fine by me; why would I be reading superhero books if it wasn't? But violence such as in EOB, as an expression of reactionary politics, of ignorance, of a crass expression of lowest-common-denominator storytelling is a very different thing.

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    2. Be sure I don't think you dismiss those who disagree, it is clear that you only avoid comments that do so in a disrepectful way. This lack of predisposition to debate you mention is something that bothers me quite a lot. Most people on the net seem to be looking either for complete agreement, or all-out insult-ladden viewpoint war. It's intriguing, and its source still seems unclear to me. Maybe the anonimity (is there such a word? sometimes my english fails me) drives normally mild people to such aggresive postures?

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    3. Hello Rodrigo:- People just seem to share the predisposition to seek out the opinions of like-minded folks. The reasons seem many and complex, of course, but in the end, we don't seem to be a species which enjoys disagreement and doubt.

      As for the link between being able to stay anonymous and choosing to be unpleasant, I've no doubt it's a strong one. By the same token, I've found the majority of folks I've come across on line to be heartening civil and smart, and that's despite the chance to behave as they like without risking retribution. Why, there may be hope yet :)

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    4. Hello Colin,

      I'd like to join in on the Arkham games discussion to point out that in the first one, Arkham Asylum, the approach to the Riddler is his hacking into Batman's radio to taunt him with the challenge of finding various clues and trophies (glowing green question marks, naturally) hidden all over the asylum. Players can search every nook and cranny of the various buildings (Arkham Asylum in the series is re-imagined as a large group of prison and medical buildings on an island, instead of the standard gothic mansion out in the woods) deducing what Riddler's word play means and finding the little green trophies. It's a satisfying process that provides a reason for the player to explore the game's world while feeling clever for doing so, and ends with batman (somehow) deducing where the Riddler is broadcasting from and giving the police the address. The last broadcast Riddler sends is the startled revelation that he's been outwitted.

      Arkham Asylum is a game that features violence but that part of it doesn't involve any, so it's strange that the sequel felt the need to include interrogation when a) we live in a world where strategy guides and recordings of games devoted to activities like this are all over the internet and b) stumbling across a glowing green question mark entirely by accident was part of the fun. Oh, and c) there was already an interrogation free way to introduce the challenge in the first game.

      Then again the sequel, Arkham City, involves Hugo Strange (who, to be fair, no one has ever heard of in this take on the franchise so they don't know he's Evil©) convincing the city to wall off a large section of slums and decaying infrastructure to act as a city prison, with the apparent goal of the city like confines helping prisoners develop their own society so they can confirm they are fit to be reintegrated into the actual one (so it's not as if the legal powers of Gotham wind up looking any less daft) but in reality is all a plan to arm the super villains for a riot so he can justify sending in lot of helicopters to blow everything up and prove he's better at stopping crime than Batman.

      The latest one, Arkham Origins, is all about the Arkhamverse's first meeting between Batman and the Joker, and climaxes the game with a sequence where you push a button really fast so Batman can beat the Joker really, really, really fast. And also integrates finding Riddler clues through interrogating thugs.

      Arkham Asylum had it's violence, but while it's sequels don't feature scene where Gordon and Bullock(?) beating someone for information (Gordon's always been portrayed decently in the series) it's sequels have fallen in line with DC's policy of fetishizing violence as part of Batman, even in the parts of the game that are meant to be puzzle solving.

      One of the ways Batman interrogates Riddler's thugs is by pressing his boot on their face and stepping down hard to knock them out once he has what he wants. This isn't just stupid thing to include when you're trying to portray him as one lone, righteous vigilante fighting against a police state, it's downright impractical. How would they be able to talk with him standing on their faces?

      The recent and soon to be scuttled cartoon, Beware The Batman, actually plays up the detective side of the franchise, similar to recent shows like House M.D and Sherlock. Bruce is acutely aware of small details but lacks most proper social graces, which he apologizes for to co-star Katana while also complimenting her own skill set, point of view and sense of morality. Meanwhile DC always seems to have an Earth One or Man-Bat Out of Hell waiting to go.

      Simon

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    5. Hello Simon:- First off; thank you! That's a terrific summary of those games, and it serves to quickly get me up to speed, I wish I could show my respect for your welcome contribution by adding to, or even debating with, the points you raise, but you're clearly the expert here.

      Your conclusions are sad ones, and yet all the evidence I know of would surely support them. The adoration of power - above sense or principle - seems to be DC's way to target a niche of largely blokeish readers. Is it cynical or principled? I wish I knew. Is the DiDio regime simply happy to put profits above principle, or is it one largely run by reactionairies? (Actually, a third option presents itself, which is that all involved are too thick to know what they're arguing. We could even add the possibility of a regime in denial of what they're collectively doing.)

      I've not seen Beware The Batman. I'm not even sure if it's to be found on the channels I've access too. But I'm sure I can track it down, and you've made me fascinated to do so. My thanks.

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    6. Hello Colin,

      Beware the Batman's chances of reaching the UK airwaves don't look too good. I don't think most of DC/WB's recent animated efforts have made it over here, strangely. Superhero success (and presentation as decent people) has really had a lot more to do with other, more inclusive media, all the way back to Batman the Animated Series and Marvel's current crop of films.

      And while I made the comparison, I should point out that Arkham City and Arkham Origns don't portray anything as terrible as what Man-Bat Out of Hell or Earth One do. I almost typed "Terrible and as wrong headed", and what makes me settle for terrible (because that is what the sentiments in those stories are) is that they are games that market their Riddler challenges as a detective experience to help "make the player REALLY feel like Batman". Which, past that first game, now HAS to include searching for thugs to stamp a boot on.

      As far as video games go, all too blokeish and followed by super bloke fan like supporters of their own, there are one's that do far worse than that and are far less enjoyable AS games.

      But there's a worrying precedent being set when being The World's Greatest Detective is presented no longer as just a matter of solving little word plays, but as only possible to introduce by the World's Greatest Detective standing on top of someone until they give him the word play. I'm worried I didn't make that clear and suggest that one flaw makes the Arkham series sound unsavoury instead of just, well, occasionally creatively wrong headed.

      Then again it should be noted that Geoff Johns's took more of an executive role in the creative process after that first game.

      Simon

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  2. You know, of all the things Spawn did poorly, it actually had some cool ideas about portraying the consequences of torture and vigilante justice. There was an issue in which Spawn encountered an abusive father and used his powers to intimidate him into stopping, but it just made him more violent to them. One of the kids killed him in self defense and they were later shown homeless. But the really great part was in the next issue in which Spawn, now miles away from it all, was thinking back proudly on what he had just done and how he had helped those kids.

    Spawn also brutally tortured and killed a child rapist and murderer in an early issue only to have him return as a servant of Hell sent to cause more suffering much later in the series. I wish more mainstream comics would deal with torture and execution more seriously, or at least have some kind of a different take. I like Dirty Harry, but I don't need to see it over and over again in every piece of crime fiction.

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    1. Hello Jeremy:- Having even being unable to stick Spawn when either Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison were writing it, you've done something that I never thought possible; I'm curious to see how the themes you've described play out.

      I have a terrific respect for Dirty Harry, and for the first two movies in particular. Though the second ties itself up in knots trying to differentiate from one sort of vigilante and another, both movies functioned to challenge as well as entertain in the context of their time. But as you say, a fictional landscape in which Harry is the norm - if not actually on the soft side of the norm - is by its very nature a reactionary business.

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  3. I'd actually be quite interested to find out what "someone with a more intimate knowledge of police procedure" would make of this scene. Looking back, the panel where he's shielding his face clearly implies that Jim and Harvey are aiming at his head - from where I'm sitting, I'd imagine that simultaniously whacking a man in the skull with a baseball bat and a crowbar (shortly after he's already sustained a blow to the head from the bat, no less) would go past "excessive force" and end up in "attempted murder".

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    1. Hello Neil:- I can only agree with everything you've written. It strikes me as unlikely that the subject of this beating escaped terrible injury. It's a scene that's amongst the most despicable that I've ever read in the superbook. Holy Terror may surpass it in the nauseating degree of Islamophobia it radiates, for example, and yet Miller wasn't trying to use comics-realism to flog his repellent world-view as Johns and Frank are here. By which I mean, there's an assumption in EOB that this kind of material is, for want of a better world, "mainstream" and "heroic". Millar's values as expressed - by purpose or accident - in Holy Terror can hardly be excused by the more cartoonish approach he took. Yet his work lacks the sanctimoniousness of EOB - a small mercy, but still... - whose creators appear to believe that what they're doing is at worst 'edgy' rather than appalling. Both entirely regrettable projects insist that scumbags are heroes, and that rights and laws are absolute barriers to justice, but Earth One Batman's aesthetic insists that what's being shown is nothing more perverse than a typical superhero book. And there does seem little doubt that EOB's creators considered the beating a marker of heroism. How that can be possible ... simply escapes me.

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    2. Hello Neil:- I can only agree with everything you've written. It strikes me as unlikely that the subject of this beating escaped terrible injury. It's a scene that's amongst the most despicable that I've ever read in the superbook. Holy Terror may surpass it in the nauseating degree of Islamophobia it radiates, for example, and yet Miller wasn't trying to use comics-realism to flog his repellent world-view as Johns and Frank are here. By which I mean, there's an assumption in EOB that this kind of material is, for want of a better world, "mainstream" and "heroic". Millar's values as expressed - by purpose or accident - in Holy Terror can hardly be excused by the more cartoonish approach he took. Yet his work lacks the sanctimoniousness of EOB - a small mercy, but still... - whose creators appear to believe that what they're doing is at worst 'edgy' rather than appalling. Both entirely regrettable projects insist that scumbags are heroes, and that rights and laws are absolute barriers to justice, but Earth One Batman's aesthetic insists that what's being shown is nothing more perverse than a typical superhero book. And there does seem little doubt that EOB's creators considered the beating a marker of heroism. Millar seemed to know how little most folks would agree with his polemic, and he certainly didn't try to pass it of as matter-of-fact super-book. But Johns and Frank did, and for all the criticism they got for doing so, they pretty much got away with it. How that can be possible ... simply escapes me.

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    3. The impression I got when reading the book is that Johns had started out writing a more realistic Batman story (as announced by the opening, in which his hook malfunctions and he falls off a building - something that would naturally happen to him on a regular basis in real life) but apparently had nothing worthwhile to say about the subject of actual, real-world crime and punishment, ultimately falling back on cliches and exaggerations of superhero comics and action movies.

      Once the above scene happens, it's clear that realism has been thrown out the window and we're back in Toontown, where everything short of Dip is fair game in the struggle between cops and robbers.

      (Re-reading ths person's comment, I must say, something about the phrase "scorned by several people" tickles me. You'd better rethink your position, or several people will scorn you!)

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    4. Hello Neil:- I too had that sense that Johns just didn't know what to do with EOB's "real-world' premise. I rarely have the sense these days that GJ has spent a great deal of time on a project, and there's rarely the slightest reason to suspect the guiding hand of an editor. I simply can't imagine how anyone would be so rushed, or perhaps lost in an Imperial phase, that they let this script - for what is supposedly a prestige project - out into the world. As you say, it quickly collapsed into hyped-up pulp cliches, and it didn't even piece them together with any verve.

      The folks right at the top of DC appear to be able to do whatever they like. Perhaps the truth is different, but at the moment, the system seems to be pumping out one wave of undercooked, ill-thought bloke-bait after another.

      Thank you for unpacking the comment and nailing the worrying idea that scornfullness may well be headed my way. Yet dishing out the very same thing as I sometimes to, I guess I'll just have to lump it. Several people, you say? I am girding myself, Neil, I am ....

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  4. Hi Colin,

    My Goodness! I am so glad that I haven't been reading this book. Or any of the alternate Earth stories. I like Gary Frank's artwork as much as I loathe this particular storyline.

    I enjoy a good kick to the face as much as any comics fan, but this...this is vile.

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    1. Hello Sally: - It is vile. Utterly vile. Yet it was announced as DC's own Ultimate line, in the sense that was it was continuity-free and marketable to non-comics readers.

      Imagine producing that book in order to attract neophytes into comics.

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  5. Well, that's a surprising response - the poster is bright enough to put together their thoughts, but the arguments and assumptions are just weird. It's as if she or he hasn't the foggiest as to what it means to live within the rule of law. The idea that any reasonable person, and every law enforcement officer, would see nothing wrong with brutally assaulting a suspect is frightening.

    And this is the Batman DC thinks is the perfect entry point for the general public? Marvellous.

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    1. Hello Martin:- The comment certainly is an ... interesting if worrying way of looking at the world. Actually, I find that mix of appalling thinking and apparent literacy quite common in my comment box. But as you say, this is someone who hasn't the faintest about the rule of law and human/legal rights, let alone why they're important. Sadly, many of our lords and masters appear to feel the same.

      It IS remarkable that DC thought this was a good way to flog Batman to the broader market. But then, Manbat Out Of Hell along with months after months of body-horror have appeared since EOB, which means that the powers that be are, if nothing else, entirely consistent. Whether they're ignorant, or trash-marketing knaves, or dedicated reactionaires will be something for the comics histories to reveal.

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  6. "Contempt" is not the right word. I wouldn't have written a comment if I wasn't a reader of this blog, and I wouldn't be a reader if I didn't enjoy reading your articles . More like "disagreement".

    Note that I voice my disagreement only for this particular article, and not some other cases (e.g. Spider-Man torturing Sandman).

    1* duh

    *2 Fellow... citizen? See 3. For torture see 5.

    *3 We don't know the specifics, but early in the story it's established that the skinhead guy (or more likely the organization he "works" for, either the Mob or a cartoony Cult, doesn't matter) has the police, including Gordon, grabbed by the bollocks. Whatever his actual "title" is, drug dealer, mob enforcer, pimp, or a combination of these and other things, it's clear that he's not an innocent bystander or a citizen, not even an ambiguous case of someone who is coerced into doing illegal things. He's a free man and his free actions affect the freedom of others (his victims). A career criminal. The police beating up this kind of thug is *very* different than beating suspects of petty crimes (suspects who may indeed be innocent).

    *4 see 3.

    *5 Yes, different. Beating up a guilty thug on the street to extract essential information to be used immediately (an urgent situation) is certainly A LOT different than using torture in controlled conditions, an interrogation chamber, or corporal punishment (the latter usually happens in muslim countries - I don't see anyone with common sense condoning such things when defending the right of the police to use relentless force when absolutely required).

    6* My terminology might be off because I haven't studied Law or went to police school etc.

    *7 How come beating a thug is tyranny? A THUG, not a suspect, a protester, a bystander. Being merciful and humanitarian also means recognizing the cases where it isn't just not necessary, but also potentially harmful.

    I recently saw some videos with someone pouring molten aluminum in fire ant colonies - it's a quick way to kill a pest without harming the surroundings. Yet, there were still people condemning the "cruel" man that killed those "poor ants".

    There's times when a humanitarian can step over the line too - it doesn't do good to society to be lenient towards obvious pests. There's also an old Aesop about a farmer who shows kindness to a snake. What happened to the farmer?

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    1. Hello anonymous:- I'll leave your response here, and I'll stay away from answering your points. I've had my say and you've had yours, which strikes me as fair. (Except that I'm baffled why you associate corporal punishment with Islamic nations in the way you do.I think that's a worrying and unfortunate thing to say.) We couldn't disagree more about this situation, and I don't believe that we're even using the concepts we are in similar ways, but I do think that your words illuminate what appears in the above post.

      I had no idea that you were a reader of this blog, given that your comments have no name attached. Indeed, I can't even be sure that you're the same commentor as wrote the above, although I do think it's highly likely. Posting a comment which is anonymous in the main blog as I did, and from which its writer can suffer no harm, struck me as a productive way to show why the likes of EOB are highly questionable texts. You are convinced that your views are common sense. But I tend to think less of Aesop's fable about the farmer and the snake, and more about the one concerning the wolf and the lamb. Power always finds an excuse to express itself fiercely unless it's strictly constrained.

      Or so I firmly believe ...

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    2. "How come beating a thug is tyranny? A THUG, not a suspect, a protester, a bystander. Being merciful and humanitarian also means recognizing the cases where it isn't just not necessary, but also potentially harmful"

      Which is something I hear a lot, but never see any substantiation for.

      The fact is that the guy is getting beaten by cops to extract information is torture. So is beating a guy just because he's a suspected criminal. Police are supposed gather information and take the guy for questioning - and then arrest them when they have the opportunity - rather than resort to physical violence whenever they feel like it. (And no interrogation is not asking nicely no matter how people ignorant of the practice claim otherwise.) There are laws in the United States against police doing this sort of thing and evidence obtained by physical beatings would be held inadmissable in courts and violate the Eight Amendment which protects against, "Cruel and unusual punishment." The fact is that beating people up for punishment or info is not a standard part of police procedure.

      And the fact is the law does not stop applying just because you did bad things. If you think it should be otherwise, please look at modern Russia. The whole problem with saying, "but it was just a thug," is in reality that's that mentality that authorities start applying to dissidents when they think that the law applies differently to "criminals." You don't have to look any further than examples of police brutality against black suspects or the way that striking workers were treated in the 1800s and anytime before the New Deal to see where this sort of approach leads.

      And saying there's a difference between being tortured in a locked room and being tortured in an alleyway is hair splitting nonsense.

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    3. Hello Adam:- One of the things that amazes me is how little regard many folks have for the legal safeguards which have been developed over time to defend their rights. I suspect much of this is that few are well-taught about legal and human rights. In 20 years of teaching, I never came across a student entering Sixth Form who had a clear idea of what the rule of law pr human/legal rights are. But then, few are well-taught about politics, and so we have a culture/s where the most terrible ideas can pass as sensible, even necessary. To hear British citizens wanting to be free of the "tyranny" of human rights, to hear of Americans who seem unaware of the due process clause in the fifth and fourteenth amendment .... The vacuum that exists because of the lack of high quality political education in schools all-too-easy gets filled by taken-for-granted assumptions which are worse than nonsense and actively dangerous.

      And as you argue, this commentor is talking dangerous nonsense.

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  7. Perhaps this comment is coming a bit late (and a bit short), but I just wanted to say that I found your article to be particularly relevant and timely given the recent news reports regarding Stanley Wrice (and similar unfortunate cases) in Chicago.

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    1. Hello There:- Coming from the UK, I fear I hadn't heard about Mr Wrice until you kindly raised the issue. I fear it's been a long day, and it was hard not to respond emotionally to such an utterly tragic tale. Your point is well made and welcome, and as such, neither late nor short.





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  8. Terrific response, but I would add a couple things.

    First, the idea of "superheroes in the real world" should not be the same today as it was in the 1980s, because "the real world" is different today than it was when Frank Miller and Alan Moore were crafting that corner of the genre. Most importantly, urban crime in the U.S. is a much, much less severe problem no than it was then. When movies, like DIRTY HARRY, were released they reflected a siege mentality that derived from a rapidly increasing crime rate. They advocated a bad solution to what was considered a worse problem. Today, the exact opposite is true. Crime is in a prolonged decline for a wide variety of reasons, including demography, environment and improved policing. The legacy of overly harsh solutions has become a much bigger issue than crime itself. The world Johns depicts is every bit as much a fantasy as Batman '66 was. I just don't know why a sensible person would want to go there.

    Second, the core premise of Batman is that one genius can change on a large scale organization (i.e. criminal justice in a major metro area) when given sufficient resources and motivation. The best part of the Chris Nolan movies was the acknowledgement that lone geniuses never work alone. They are the center of groups of like-minded people. If two of Batman's earliest key allies are this corrupt, then what does it say about his goals? Are we really supposed to root for oppressors to be more effective at being oppressive?

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    1. Hello Dean:- I know you'd agree that the 'superheroes in the real world' model most follow today is a crass reworking of Moore & Miller's mid-80s work. But even if the original work had been drawn from in a less crass way, and as you say, it's been almost 30 years from Watchmen and TDKR. We could debate for a long time about how the crime-rate in the west has changed and the hypotheses that attempt to explain it. (I'm particularly fond of the one that suggests that the massive reduction of lead in petrol has had a major effect on positive cognitive development.) But whatever model one chooses, your point stands; writers such as Johns and DiDio are as apparently ignorant of current affairs as they're baffled by the most basic legal and ethical issues. Why not try building a model of crime based on the hyper-rich's appropriation of wealth, status and power, or -as Gail Simone did in Secret Six - on psychological theories of the causes of crime?

      "Are we really supposed to root for oppressors to be more effective at being oppressive?"

      You put it tremendously well. I fear that the answer is "yes". We are supposed to be thrilled by tyrants who pretend to be serving the greater good. And the day Marvel played The Punisher as hero, and DC did the same for Deathstroke, was the beginning of a serious decline. When Wolverine becomes a member of the Avengers, it's no surprise that the Avengers themselves should end up as a profoundly reactionary concept.

      Mind you, then there's Al Ewing's Mighty Avengers, which challenges all of that. Little shards of light, just when you least expect them to appear ..

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  9. To a certain extent, glorification of torture is inevitable in superhero comics, especially where Batman is concerned. The man is violent and brutal; even if it's "for a good cause", the sheer amount of physical damage he's caused would make him a monster in real life. My ability to enjoy Batman comics is grounded by the fact that it's just fiction; in the real world he'd be a terrifying example of how some people are bent on being threats to society.

    The appeal of Jim Gordon should be different, though. If Batman is the greatest detective / scientist / ninja, Jim Gordon is the greatest cop -- not in the sense of being borderline superhuman, only that he is the man who will do what a good cop should, no matter what. So having Jim Gordon beat a criminal -- I was going to say "suspect", but we don't even need to go there, make him a full-blown criminal -- it undermines everything that makes Jim Gordon a worthwhile character. And I don't buy that it was a necesary formative experience for him; Clark Kent didn't need to kill his parents to learn that killing is wrong, with decent people it's assumed that they can generally tell right from wrong.

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    1. Hello There:- Your welcome comment made me realise how my opinion of fictional masked vigilantes has changed over the past decade or so. Why was it, your words made me wonder, that I now struggle to see figures such as Batman in the 'fictional' context that you describe? It's one of those many cases where a visitor's comment to the blog has given me the chance to think about my own opinions - as unimportant as they are, of course, in any scheme of things - in a new context. The answer that's come to me is that society has so changed since 9/11 that I can't read fiction as I would have before. To say that I believe this isn't to suggest that the point you argue in your first paragraph is wrong; that's obviously all a matter of personal judgment :) But my feeling is that the 'heroic' fiction of the post-9/11 era has all too often often bolstered a reactionary agenda. To turn on the TV and watch the recent primetime-aired edition of The Mentalist in which Patrick Jane suffocates Red King, for example, and to read the show's producer argue that the show's fans demanded such a savage execution, is to realise again that this is an age in which the likes of torture, revenge and so on are commonly presented as ennobling acts. Along with that adoration of frontier justice all-too-often comes a contemptuous portrayal of society, the rule of law and so on. In such an environment, what was once merely 'fictional' has for me become even more heavily politicised. In the past few years, we've had Spider-Man, Captain America, Moon Knight and Gordon 'nobly' torturing others, we've had Batman conspiring with Man-Bat to murder, Batman beating the Joker when there was no reason beyond vengeance for doing so etc etc; this, I can't help but believe, is a broader context in which the fictional nature of characters comments upon - and reinforces - real-world political trends.

      At the same time, there are comics which open up debates against the reactionary agendas; Waid's Daredevil, Ewing's Mighty Avengers, Gillen's Young Avengers, Simone's Batgirl and so on. It's not the masked vigilante itself - or any one example of it - that I'm concerned with. But the context in which I read the genre has changed. As such, it's not Batman-yah! or Batman-nah! for me, but rather the way in which the characters are used which is my concern. I think it's possible to use Bats in a way that opens up a debate about social and political issues, and that doesn't involve him being a monster. (Or if it does, uses that to make a useful point about being one.)

      If I disagree with you, I'm not meaning to say your reading is wrong. It is, of course, a question of opinion. I certainly agree with you about Gordon. He is indeed a cop who - as Miller's Year One shows us - who has been associated with corruption and learned from the experience. He's an example of how decency can reassert itself despite the ubiquity of a corrupt system. (He was never so morally lost that he descended to the worst excesses of EOB. As you rightly say, a character doesn't have to sink to the absolute depths to be redeemed. Mind you, Johns and Franks clearly mean Gordon to be seen as a heroic torturer, so I fear they didn't intend this to be an experience JG learns from.) In Batman, as you say, Gordon is the good man, subject to temptation and error and yet all the more admirable because of it. He's an example that the system can work if it's not too self-obsessed and self-interested. Sadly, EOB - as you say - ignores all of that and peddles the ugliest of rightist stereotypes instead.

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    2. You're more than welcome to disagree with me, I don't take it as a condemnation of me and everything I stand for.

      That said, I think we need to go back to the 1980s to see the start of the brutality in DC comics; it's not a post 9/11 thing, but a continuation of what was already in full bloom in the pre-9/11 world. We had a Robin beaten to death, we had a Batgirl crippled / stripped / photographed by the Joker, we had "Dark Knight Returns" competing with "Watchmen" to see who could be more cynical about our heroes. Later on we had our Hal Jordans turning evil, our Green Arrows getting blown up, and so on -- DC took on an attitude very much like a teenager desperate to prove to everyone that he's not a kid any more. There is still a strain of that in DC's work, but fortunately it's been tempered by good writers who don't buy into the lazy trick of ruining the good and calling it "mature".

      Geoff Johns is an interesting case: he gets the appeal of solid Silver Age heroes, but he also doesn't mind getting graphically brutal for (what often seems to be) no real reason. Wish he'd focus on the former and quit the latter.

      If politics were at the root of it I'd be blaming it on Reagan-era thinking, but I don't think that's it either. And that's probably for the best, both for the stories and the readers, if for no other reason than, American politics makes for implausible fiction.

      At the heart of it, I say DC wants to be more like Marvel, but they don't quite get how to do it without wrecking what makes them DC. At its most basic level, DC heroes are willing and even enthusiastic heroes, while Marvel heroes are reluctant and unwilling heroes. What works for the one doesn't work for the other. You can't make Superman a sad sack who resents that his powers complicate his personal life -- DC tried that back in the early 80s and it didn't work at all. (But by the same token you can't make Iron Man a hero who fights crime simply because he can; Tony Stark needs a more personal motivation.) And where violence is concerned, you can't make Batman or Jim Gordon the sort of person who revels in violence or suffering, because that goes against their heroic core.

      (There are some people who think Batman is in it for revenge; they need to go back to Batman school. Batman wants to keep others from suffering; that's all the depth he needs, and more importantly that's all the depth that actually works. Try to "improve" it by making pain or guilt or grief his motivation, and you end up with someone who is more broken than whole. You end up with the Punisher, someone who works just fine at Marvel, not so much at DC.)

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    3. Oh, and I wanted to comment on this:

      "In the past few years, we've had Spider-Man, Captain America, Moon Knight and Gordon 'nobly' torturing others"

      Captain America in particular is interesting. Show me the comic where Captain America tortures someone or acts unprincipled, and I will show you a comic not written by an American. I'm not playing "no true Scotsman" here, I mean that the perception of Captain America is probably very different depending on whether you're an American or not, and that will have a heavy impact on how you write him.

      If you're an American, you most likely tie Cap to the mythology of World War II: evil encroached upon the world, men from all walks of life heard the call, and risked their lives to face down evil. That is how Americans see WWII, and Cap is the embodiment of that -- unbreakable in virtue and resolve, humble and decent to the core. Even his weapon of choice is non-lethal and is designed to protect. That's how Americans like to see themselves; Cap is the image we see in the mirror.

      But a non-American won't have the same vanity and is more likely to see America as the big unprincipled "might makes right" nation -- justifiably so -- and will put some of that into Cap. If America tortures then why wouldn't Cap?

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    4. Hello There:- I wouldn't ever deny that the moral coarsening of the superhero book is a problem with deep historical roots. Indeed, I wouldn't want to suggest that there was ever a period where the politics of the superbook weren't contradictory and even chaotic. Yet there was a liberal humanism which became more and more influential in the post-63 period, when Stan Lee began to retreat from the worst excesses of his Reds-under-the-bed period. To make a crude generalisation, it was a period which extended right up until Moore's departure from DC. But for me the key changes in the superbook which showed where things were going were the introduction of Wolverine and the Punisher in the 70s. As isolated characters rather than typical characters, they were extremely useful in allowing ethical and political issues to be discussed. But as the comics biz took what I'd regard as the 'wrong' lessons from Watchmen and TDKR, those killer vigilantes became more and more common. It was a move towards supposedly "adult" and "darker" work which, as you rightly say, also involved events such as the Death Of Robin. All of these influences saw the super-book moving rightwards away from what now seems like a more humane period.

      But I would still argue that the post-9/11 period has taken that material and used in a way that's more typically reactionary. (There are many creators and editors who haven't done so, of course. I'm just generalising for the sake of argument.) Both within and without comics, the idea that the ends justifies the means has become ever more prevalent. Worse yet - and I think this is the key - the idea that torture and murder ennobles while the law and the state are the enemy of freedom and security has become ever more common. In many ways, it's not the frontier justice that counts, but the anti-statist agenda that it's been more and more bound up with. (24 once seemed an outrageous programme. Now it seems a typically mainstream example of pseudo-heroic storytelling.) I've no doubt there's many more influences here than politics. Putting Wolverine in the Avengers made perfect financial sense, after all; but doing so meant that The Avengers incorporated a serial killer, and that changed the things the franchise could stand for.

      By which I mean, this is a situation which has many causes and deep and varied historical roots. But I think a watershed was passed with the post-9/11 period, and I think it reflects the sad decay of public morals and political knowledge in both the UK and the USA. A purely personal and undeniably biased belief, of course.

      As for your Cap-and-torture hypothesis, it's certainly an interesting one. Ellis's use of torture in Secret Avengers was supposed, or so it's been often argued, to function as satire. If that was the intention, it was satire ineptly argued. I would point to the fact that Cap's portrayal has changed drastically in the last 5 or 6 years. Bendis presents him as a bute and blowhard who is somehow always militarily and morally correct. Hickman has taken that to even further extremes, having Cap represent universal virtues to a universe that otherwise would fall beneath invading powers. And Hickman's portrayal of Cap and Hawkeye's savage and entirely incompetent assault on a group of Skrull refugees in Infinity #1 would seem to me to be further evidence that ends justifying means, might making right, and the flag justifying any excess are all too common in Cap's recent history.

      The other writers of noble-superhero-torture scenes are, to my knowledge, all American. (Slott on Spidey, Johns on EOB ETC.) I think that points to a general culture which involves creators and editors from both sides of the great pond.

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    5. "Putting Wolverine in the Avengers made perfect financial sense, after all; but doing so meant that The Avengers incorporated a serial killer, and that changed the things the franchise could stand for."

      Bendis could have fixed that with about four sentences from Captain America. "Logan, a word? I know that, in your career, you've killed a lot of people, but to my knowledge there are no murder warrants out for you. So it may well be they were legally justified under self-defense. But understand that Avengers do not kill, even in self-defense; if that's not a rule you can work with, now's the time to leave." Bam, fixed in a fashion that allows both characters to be true to themselves.

      There was an old "Wolverine" comic (mid 90s) where Logan was a guest instructor to Generation X, and was advising them that you don't get into a fight at all unless you're willing to kill to win. "Logan's views are his own and do not represent the views of Xavier's School," their regular instructor Banshee interjected. "I've heard that song before," Logan responded, "but the tune always changes when the wolf's at the door." Under Cap as written correctly (yes I'm saying there's a "correctly"), the Avengers don't change the tune.

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    6. Hello There:- I fear I can't buy into your idea of how Cap might behave re: Wolverine. Surely the law is the law whether there's a warrant out or not on Wolverine? If Cap knows that Wolverine is a mass murderer, then it's surely his responsibility to make sure that Logan faces the legal consequences of hs actions? There's plenty of secret conspiricies and undetected criminals that Cap has brought to justce. Why should Wolverine be any different? That is, to my mind, to problem with Wolverine and, more recently, Octopus-Spidey being in the Avengers. If the Avengers are aware that they've members who place themselves far above the law, then something exceedingly dodgy is being said about the law itself. Of course, if that was being discussed, then there's nothing but good that could come out of it. I'm not arguing for morally spotless protagonists. But in the context of a distinctly reactionary political age, allowing the "noble killer" to pass as a largely uncriticised hero is a dubious business.

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    7. In the US anyway, self-defense is a legal defense against murder. Self-defense even extends to protecting others under immediate attack. There are some strings attached, though: you can't be the antagonist, and (in most states anyway) if you have a reasonable opportunity to flee rather than engage, you are obligated to flee.

      So while there's a lot of killing when Logan's afoot, I put it to you that he rarely if ever picks a fight, and since half the people he fights have the ability to teleport or move at incredible speeds, I'm not sure how often Logan is in a lethal fight that couldn't fit under the category of self-defense. And, I see that as something Cap might have researched.

      So I see that as the difference between Wolverine and, say, the Punisher.

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    8. Hello There:- I would suggest that X-Force operated as an assassination squad for Cyclops' Utopia. Though Wolverine's career has often undoubtedly involved a variety of situations and motivations when it comes to killing, X-Force will forever damn all involved from where I sit.

      But I don't mean that to sound strident. It's just a personal take, and I'm more than happy for it to remain so. My best to you :)

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    9. And I have to admit, I don't follow X-Men all that closely. For me, "X-Force" is that Nicieza / Liefeld comic that followed on the heels of "New Mutants". I guess I shouldn't doubt that Wolverine has gotten more murder-happy over the years; time was he killed because he had to, not because it was cool.

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    10. Hello There:- And as you said in a previous response of yours, there are many stories in which Wolverine's murderous behaviour is quite justified. What's more, the work by, for example, Jason Aaron, Paul Cornell and Kieron Gillen presents a character that I can often both admire and sympathise with. The problem is, I think, that the uses of the character have been so many and so frequently unfortunate that Logan has developed a history that damns him no matter what is happening in this book or that.

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