Moral Dilemmas: Just a Little Casual Murder
Hey all, welcome to a new series where I attempt to tackle various moral and ethical quandaries unique to comic books and the superhero genre. Is it murder when you kill a future incarnation of you? Are you responsible for the crimes a cosmic entity committed while inhabiting your body? Would all of the Hulk's personas be culpable in a crime any one of them committed? Y'know, that kinda jam.
And yes, I am listening to the theme song to Law & Order as I write this.
I wanted to start with a brief discussion about what I refer to as 'casual murder'. My first memorable experience with this was when I was 11 and reading the Maximum Carnage event in the Spider-Man titles.
As an avid Spidey fan at the time the crossover was a big deal, and I think it may have been my earliest exposure to a linewidth crossover event. For those unfamiliar, it was a 14-part story that focused on Carnage, the spawn of Spider-Man villain Venom, joining forces with other murderous villains to wreak havoc and bloodshed across New York. It prominently featured Carnage murdering civilians left and right, which was the various writers way of letting us know they mean business and to push Carnage up a notch in the supervillain spotlight.
For the most part it worked as Maximum Carnage is looked back upon by readers my age as a key story arc, and a feather in the cap of a villain that spawns stupid listicles like this one.
Now as an 11 year old reading comics, I had already been exposed to plenty of death and murder, but for some reason this arc made an impact on me. And not in a, "Oh coool, Carnage is rad" kind of way. I found myself feeling dismayed by the treatment of relatively faceless characters devoid of any characterization or personality. I felt legitimately bad for all of these casual victims who were just there as faceless kill points to get a villain over. So at an early age, I quickly became accustomed to the concept of 'casual murder' and its use as a method of reinforcing a character's despicability, or possibly worse, as a punchline.
Casual murder can take a lot of forms, from the Joker killing his henchmen for no good reason:
The Punisher killing and army of goons:
Faceless mass murder:
And so on.
Casual murder is now essential comic book shorthand in stating that someone is bad, and for the most part we let it slide without bugging us too much. In the case of the Nemesis panel above, it's like reading a statistic. We know it's bad, but it's difficult to really feel much about twenty thousand fictional people we were never introduced to.
When a ton of henchmen get murdered we do the mental gymnastics (if we're not completely lazy) that they made a decision towards criminality and it's kinda ok to take some mirthful glee in their death. It's fine when Wolverine slices down a bunch of ninja goons and it's fine when Harley Quinn slits the throats of Mr Freeze's lackeys with her ice skates.
Watching (alright I binged 2 seasons in a few days don't judge me) Harley Quinn is actually what brought this subject to mind. It's rife with so much casual murder that it's part of the language, but every once in a while the language is muddled a bit (if you apply some base level morality at least). My main example is King Shark, one of the most affable characters in the cast. He's constantly biting off the heads of thugs and tearing goons in half, and again after some mental gymnastics we're ok with it because it is part of his sharky allure. The trick is there's a spot in season 1 where after thanking Harley for not assuming his strengths lie in being a shark monster and instead using his tech skills and allowing himself to be true to himself, he immediately bites the head off a security guard.
Yes, it's a funny punchline. The trick is though, we've now had a main character we consider to be very likable bite the head off of someone who is not a criminal. And I know I'm allocating too much concern towards a gag from this show which bends the traditional rules of morality into a pretzel, but a sort of unspoken rule in the language of casual murder has been broken.
Yes, virtually everyone murders in this show. Even Superman and Batman murder by the end of season 2, and while sometimes we don't count parademons as sentient beings, the context of this show has them spooning and speaking coherent sentences so yes Superman just casually murdered a bunch of sentient creatures.
Harley murders, Ivy murders, Joker murders, everyone murders. For the sake of Harley and Ivy, in general we let that go because they are the stars of the show and they're killing goons or corrupt politicians or whatever. For Joker, we know he's evil and we're supposed to delight in his evilness. I'm not saying that we should be ok with all this murder, but in our consumption of fiction we've adapted certain allowances: Commissioner Gordon can gun down a bunch of thugs in a comical manner because they're Two-Face's goons and we know they were trying to kill Grodon, while the Queen of Fables can murder a family picnic because we already know she's truly deplorable. Once you step out of those constraints though and have a likeable character (villain though they may be), murder a non-villain in cold blood unnecessarily and with no consequence, then it causes a slight pause in the mental gymnastics.
Though not for too long, this is Harley Quinn after all. It is a fun murderfest in the end.
Casual Murder is an odd mental shorthand in writing, and it's an odd moral concept to reconcile with when you think about it. It's accepting the concept that the unnamed and the statistics can be used as cannon fodder to illicit a base emotion. It's ok that the Punisher killed over 2000 unnamed goons because we don't know their names or life stories. We just know they were bad because they were goons, so yay Punisher I guess. Likewise, it's too bad that bus load of unknowable people were blown up by the KGBeast, but now we know the value of the KGBeast as a threat.
I'm not trying to guilt anyone into feeling bad for accepting casual murders in fiction. I will say though, I really did appreciate the gag in Harley Quinn where a goon named Carl is shot with a cancer ray:
Just try and consider the feelings of the next henchman you see horribly killed in a piece of fiction, is all I ask.