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Saturday’s Power Fantasy

Even for August, a month I heartily despise anyway, this one’s been pretty spectacularly horrible.

Bad news from every direction, national and international. Wars breaking out, rioting in the streets, horrible celebrity death. Even Ebola alerts, for God’s sake. Closer to home, we’ve had one work setback after another, the heat’s been ranging from merely miserable to out-and-out unbearable, summer road construction seems hell-bent on making sure it takes hours to get anyplace we might want to go anywhere in King County, checks that were promised are not showing up… honestly, if I were King of the Universe I’d have called an audible three weeks ago and just said forget it, August is over as of now.

Since that’s not feasible, I’ve been hiding out with my DVDs, books and comics more than usual. At the end of each workday, it’s all I can manage. Escapist fare.

But here’s the part that’s kind of embarrassing.

See, the stuff that relaxes me… it’s all pretty horrible as well, when you get right down to it. It’s dark and violent and nasty and usually involves a lot of guns and fisticuffs and stuff that blows up.


Conan the barbarian. Mike Hammer. Jack Bauer. The Warriors. And so on. We have a houseful of that stuff. Lately, as far as my reading is concerned, it’s been all about Robert E. Howard, and also generally just wallowing in pulp vigilante fiction.

Recently-arrived comics collections for me have mostly been war stuff, Jonah Hex…. books like that. Lots of mayhem and bloodshed, not too much serious examination of the human condition.

Now, I can tell you why I think a great deal of that stuff is well-crafted and entertaining, and I truly do believe that it’s harmless… certainly, I don’t think violent entertainment leads to school shootings or juvenile delinquency or anything like that.

But here’s the thing. I myself am really not action-oriented at all. I’m bookish and nerdy, a schoolteacher married to a social worker. Julie and I are pacifist types who frown on those people hollering for us to take military action in the Middle East, and are deeply suspicious of politicians who talk about getting tough on crime and taking back the streets. Guns terrify me.

But in my choice of entertainment, I always seem to gravitate towards the no-nonsense hard guys who solve problems with their fists and think due process is for sissies. Certainly, I love cerebral characters like Mr. Spock and Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, and we have a lot of their adventures here at home as well– but those stories are not comfort-food relaxing to me in the way that stories starring Richard Wentworth or James Bond are.

(Let me just briefly add that when I talk about James Bond, I mean Ian Fleming’s Bond, the one in the books. The one that Doctor No quite rightly characterized as a blunt instrument in service to the Crown. The guy in all those amazing Frank McCarthy cover paintings on the Bantam paperbacks. That Bond. Accept no substitutes, especially not the smirky movie ones.)

But if I ever were to meet any of these guys in real life, I’d be horrified by them. Especially the righteous-yet-casual killers like Jack Bauer or Richard Wentworth. At least James Bond and Jonah Hex worry once in a while about the direction life is taking them, or the tremendous body counts they’ve piled up.

Moreover, I know how absurd most of this stuff really is. I have lived in high-crime neighborhoods for most of my adult life. There’s nothing particularly cool or glamorous about it. It’s mostly about poverty and squalor and desperation. When we hear gunfire in our neighborhood, it’s just plain scary, not “badass.”

But even so… violence and mayhem has been my go-to place for escapism and relaxation practically since I was old enough to understand fiction in the first place. Adam West Batfights, the Herculoids and Space Ghost, the magnificent brawling of James West… that kind of thing was instantly home for me as a six-year-old, and today, over forty years later, that’s still primarily where my fantasy life takes me.

And yet I have to own up– I’m a bookish nerd who hates violence in real life. So am I damaged goods somehow? Some sort of pathetic wannabe secretly longing to visit similar assaults on real-life crooks and bullies? A sad little man wallowing in images of sadism and brutality?

Well no, I don’t think so. That’s the argument all the people who want to ban this sort of entertainment generally make and it’s just absurd on its face, because there are too many of us out here that love it and still lead perfectly normal lives. We’re the ones that made Wolverine a star, that made Liam Neeson’s Taken a surprise hit, that keep Bruce Lee a cult figure decades after his death. We can’t ALL be mentally ill closet cases, and I daresay that most fans of the stuff are about as scared of fistfights, gunfire, and actual violent crime in real life as I am.

So what’s it all about then? What’s the appeal?

Well, I think it probably really is about adolescent power fantasies, but not the creepy kind the ban-the-violence folks get so worked up about. It’s not about the part where you get to vicariously live through a hero who’s able to use violence casually and without consequence, no matter how much we might cheer when Ajax takes down the Baseball Fury in The Warriors.

See, here’s the component of the fantasy the crusaders always ignore– a big part of it, maybe the biggest, is that the good guys win. Evil is defeated, the guilty are punished, and virtue is triumphant. The reason Jack Bauer gets away with being as horrible as he is on 24– and make no mistake, Jack Bauer is an awful, awful person– is because he is never ever wrong. His every despicable action is justified by the fact that he is preventing a national disaster, and his actions always turn out to be the right ones. All the people he pistol-whips and tortures and hurls off tall buildings absolutely have it coming, and ending them is necessary to save the rest of us. The couple of times the show toyed with the idea of Bauer being fallible or human, it was a huge needle-scratch mistake and they backed off it almost instantly, because that’s not what the audience showed up for. (Fallible in his actual counter-terrorism activities, I mean. Bauer is nothing but fallible in his private life, which is what makes the show interesting. He’s a superlative agent but a terrible human being. On the other hand, everyone else at CTU — everyone that’s not a double agent, that is, they have the worst screening policy ever– is nice, but also incompetent. Clearly it takes a real asshole to save the world.)

And I think you’ll find this infallibility of method is true for all of the vigilante types throughout the years. Every superhero that ever put on a mask is doing it because it’s the only choice left. Just financing a social-work program in Gotham’s ghetto or becoming a policeman would not be sufficient for Bruce Wayne, but that’s not the point– it’s also not sufficient for Gotham City, either. A place that has enough criminal crazy to keep Arkham Asylum as full as it is clearly needs a solution as extreme as Batman.

The appeal isn’t the violence itself. It’s that it’s simple and cathartic and effective. It wouldn’t be at all satisfying for Batman and Robin to beat the shit out of a roomful of thugs only to see them all walk on a technicality. The second a masked hero stops being an agent of order, decency, and the status quo, he also stops being a hero, and a lot of the oxygen gets sucked out of the endeavor. Sure, you get stories like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen that play around with that idea a little bit, but I maintain that those sorts of meta-contextual superhero stories are never going to be as viscerally satisfying as, say, “For the Man Who Has Everything,” the Superman story from the same creative team. There is no moment in Watchmen that packs the fuck-yeah! power of Superman gritting at Mongul, “Burn.”

Which is, by the way, a really horrible thing for Superman to be doing with his heat vision… except that nobody reading the story thinks about anything other than cheering him on, because Mongul totally has it coming.

That’s the kind of cathartic takedown I’m talking about, and I think it’s what separates this particular brand of violent entertainment from something genuinely reprehensible like snuff films. It’s not about the physical harm. It’s about the comeuppance, the serving of justice ….as loud and fast and hard as possible.

We never get to see that in real life. In real life, loud confrontations always make things worse, even when they don’t get physical. More often than not, we don’t even have an actual target for the hostility and resentment that builds up at life’s general unfairness. That’s why, especially in months like this one has been, I find such comfort in spending time in fictional environments where you can actually see those targets and they get what’s coming to them.

Because, believe me, if there was a way to beat the shit out of this last month until it repented, I’d be all for it. And you’re on notice, September.

See you next week.

24 Comments

It’s funny how the original comic book version of FOR THE MAN WHO HAS EVERYTHING, the shock of the “Burn” moment is seeing Silver Age Superman lose his shit like that.

By the time it was adapted in the JUSTICE LEAGUE cartoon we had already seen the DCAU Superman casually incinerate a legion of Parademons when enraged and unsuccessfully attempt at least twice to out and out kill Darkseid. Hence in their adaptation the entire episode feels less of a taboo-crossing game changer the way the orignal treted Mongul’s plot, and more like a truly rotten day for everyone involved that “Burn” here seems more cathartic than shocking.

I agree with every last word you wrote; I’d just add that, in addition to (like you and Julie) being more or less a pacifist who’s afraid of firearms, politically I’m a complete antifascist and cannot stand real-life instances of people taking the law into their own hands, yet much of my relaxation/comfort food reading involves vigilante superheroes, often considered nothing more than symbols of the fascist Ubermensch ideal…

By the way, you have my complete sympathy on the bad month you’ve been having: usually I like August, because it’s usually a slow month when I normally take a vacation and catch up on some reading. This year, however, I’ve just been drowning in work, and it looks like it’s going to stay that way at least until the end of September.

Yeah, I like this stuff too. It’s pure relaxation, escapist fare that my wife just doesn’t even want to understand. But, like you, I’m a school teacher and a fairly laid back, non-violent guy. However, if that makes me a mentally ill closet case, I’m okay with that.

Good article Greg. I felt the same way about August this year. Now I’ve got some important reading to do.

We’re a mirror image.

I keep comments like this in mind when everyone complains about all the video games kids are playing today, oh they’re so violent, what’s going to happen to the youth of today?

I gre up reading Conan the Barbarian, The Shadow, and James Bond. Sure I had Cap too – but that was when he was smashing boats into Neo-Nazi compunds and blasting them with rayguns! Stan Lee and Jack Kirby godness.

I turned out all right – I am also a teacher. Funny World

I think you ought to check out Killing Monsters by Gerard Jones. It has some interesting insights into what you are talking about.

Teachers be crazy, yo!

Greg:”But if I ever were to meet any of these guys in real life, I’d be horrified by them. Especially the righteous-yet-casual killers like Jack Bauer or Richard Wentworth. At least James Bond and Jonah Hex worry once in a while about the direction life is taking them, or the tremendous body counts they’ve piled up.”

Actually, the Spider’s not entirely unconcerned about the mental cost of his ruthless vigilante activities. In JUDGMENT OF THE DAMNED, there’s a scene where he applies the Spider’s mark to a dead body. When Wentworth does it, he is not in disguise as the Spider. Later on, he finds out out that someone witnessed the deed, and that this person (not recognizing Wentworth) noted that the man applying the mark was hunched in the Spider’s familiar posture:

“His shoulders… hunched? It was true that when he wore the disguise of the Spider, he assumed that twisted shape to conceal his true form and carriage. But this night it had been Wentworth, not the Spider, who stooped to place the seal on the dead man’s forehead!… Had Wentworth, stooping to implant that seal as he had so many times before, subconsciously hunched his body into the menacing crouch of the Spider? Somehow, the thought terrified Wentworth a little… Where did Richard Wentworth cease as an individual and the Spider begin?”

And, in another novel (Aaagh, I can vividly recall the scene, but I can’t conjure the title), there’s a scene where Wentworth shudders as he eyes his trick lighter and thinks of all the men that it has marked with the Spider’s seal.

The wonderful TV series, “Prisoners of Gravity”, that ran in late 80s/early 90s in Canada, was a talk-show that dealt with different themes in sci-fi, fantasy and comics every episode. The episode on violence featured interviews including Keith Giffen, Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore, and a sci-fi author, whose name sadly escapes me, who explained that audiences cheer the gruesome deaths of villains not out of some sadism or enjoyment of blood and gore, but because those gruesome deaths restore a karmic balance in the narrative. We need to see that the consequences of wrongs inflicted by the villain are sufficiently punishing, which often means nasty, to fulfull our need for an ordered, just universe. Sadly, fiction is the only place to turn to consistently find that sort of comforting order in the world, where crime doesn’t pay.

I always caution against the either-or scenario that culture doesn’t affect us (eg we’re not violent for playing video games) because that’s reductive and not true. Culture affects our political beliefs, our ideologies, our opinions, etc. Culture helps shape and is shaped by the society that produces it. Yet, I won’t go so far as to say that culture entirely shapes us; rather it’s a dialectic.

That’s why I can hold two seemingly contradictory beliefs in my head: 1) action heroes don’t make us more violent 2) action heroes reflect and help shape political belief.

The action hero craze of the 1980s and Reagan’s society are not discrete. They bleed into each other.

I know, I know: an opinion of nuance in reaction to another opinion of nuance? On the Internet? It could never happen!

The action hero craze of the 1980s and Reagan’s society are not discrete. They bleed into each other.

Oh, absolutely. It’s mirrored in comics too; it’s no coincidence that the Punisher went from being a villain to having his own hit book in that decade, as well. Talked about that in this column from a few years back.

Once again, I recognize a lot of myself in the thoughts you express, Greg. I’ve also had a crappy few months, and I also find myself taking solace in comfort food. The last couple of days I’ve been watching old episodes of COLUMBO and THE ROCKFORD FILES on Netflix and really enjoying them, along with more reassuring superhero fare.

Have you read Chuck Klosterman’s latest book, I WEAR THE BLACK HAT? He has a great essay in there about how we would perceive Batman in the real world, without knowing any of Bruce Wayne’s backstory. We’d think of him closer to a Bernie Goetz instead of a Caped Crusader.

Well said, Greg. Thank you.

Hmm, John, binging on Columbo and Rockford Files sounds awesome.

I’ve long been a fan of the character of James Bond from the original Ian Fleming novels. In them Bond was definitely a philosophical, brooding figure who would often reflect bitterly upon the dirty, violent work that he was called upon to do. He drank and smoked too much and he couldn’t hold down a long-term relationship. He was constantly thinking about handing in his resignation. The first woman he ever fell in love with, Vesper, turned out to be a double agent who committed suicide. Years later, when Bond finally met someone else who he wanted to spend his life with, Tracy di Vicenzo, she was murdered on their wedding day. After that it seemed that he was going to spiral down into depression & self-destruction, and the only thing that finally snapped him out of it was the opportunity to gain revenge and kill Blofeld, the man who had murdered his wife. So, yeah, the literary Bond never struck me as especially suave or romantic, but was rather an intriguingly messed-up individual who Fleming put through the physical & mental wringer.

It really has been. Those shows were both really well-crafted and had the PERFECT actors for the lead roles. :)

I can sympathize a great deal here. In my teen years, I fed on a steady diet of Mack Bolan, James Bond, John Millius, and the triumvirate of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Norris. And, yet, I hated the Punisher and still do. I paid money to see The Exterminator II (during which, the main thought in my head was, “What was I thinking? God, this is awful!”). At the same time, I was getting into Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion. Bodies are hacked, cities are laid waste, and the hero is tortured by it all. Somewhere in all of that blood and testosterone was an internal voice of reason. I grew out of that phase, in part by being in the real military (Navy), rather than living in the fantasy one of screen and men’s adventure. War doesn’t seem so cool when you are watching a city being bombed, on a tv in a restaurant, knowing you have to go into work the next morning for the organization that is doing the bombing. You start thinking about what you may be called to do in this war.

To this day, some of my favorite films are those 60s-era war/actioners, like Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone. At the same time, movies like All Quiet on the Western Front (the book even moreso) and Paths of Glory have tremendous resonance. It’s a weird dichotomy of enjoying the stories of a group of highly trained men carrying out a dangerous mission and being drawn to the stories of the people destroyed by the inhumanity of war.

I loved pro wrestling for the same reasons I loved comic book battles: good vs evil. Yet, the human toll that the industry was exacting pushed me away, as so many performers were dying in their 40s (my age). When you step back, you start seeing the darker undercurrent inherent in wrestling, comics, and action films. We want to see good triumph over evil, since it so rarely seems to; or, at least, seems to take so long to do so. You start to question your own philosophies, since you are drawn to this stuff. Are you sick as well?

I still find that I am drawn far more to the heroes of light, than those who fight fire with fire. I will always be a fan of Superman, because he does his thing because he can; not because he seeks revenge. I despised the bloodshed of Man of Steel, because it just didn’t get the character. Superman isn’t about pummeling bad guys. He’s about preserving life. You don’t darken Superman; you let him be the light in the darkness. He might get nastier with a Darkseid or Mongul; but it’s because of their casual destruction of life. However, when they endanger someone else, Superman’s first instinct is to protect them, not take the fight to the villain.

Do you ever think you might be a pleasant, laid back guy *because* you read violent fiction? I have a friend who’s pretty tightly wound, bitter and angry at the world. He’s a smart guy, college graduate, but the other day he said something astounding: “I hate fiction.”

Maybe he’d be happier if he read some James Bond or Travis McGee…

And, perhaps, that’s the attraction. we get our baser instincts out of our system via these types of stories.

couldn’t agree more with your article greg this week for only in fiction can characters like the punisher and in a way batman get away with doing some of the stuff they do including the punisher making some baddie a corpse for in real life that would have then in a jail cell for fiction just lets the mind be able to walk on the dark side including superman telling mongul to burn mostly for giving him his hearts desire and then ripping it away with the black mercy .

The author was Brian Stableford. Here’s the link to the whole episode, pretty relevant to this article about violence in fiction, and just plain interesting besides:

http://www.tvrage.com/Prisoners_of_Gravity/episodes/316810

For my part, the darkest delight I ever took in a violent comic may have been Ennis’s Punisher MAX #2, where Punisher attacks a funeral being held for the mobsters he’d killed in issue #1. I think it was precisely because it was so dishonourable and indecent and “against the rules” that I found it satisfying. It was nice to see it suggested that some scum don’t deserve the basic dignity of mourning, ’cause they’d caused so much grief and mourning themselves.

Kind of chilling, ’cause I’d never seen that sort of scene before.

Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

This week’s column reminds me of how Denny O’Neil’s once commented how Sternako described the Shadow as not just supporting the death penalty, but embodying the death penalty, so O’Neil only convinced himself to write the Shadow by having it take place as a period piece and focusing on the Shadow’s agents. O’Neil has elsewhere expressed his disdain for Don Pendleton, Robert E. Howard and Mickey Spillane.

Who is Richard Wentworth?

Who is Richard Wentworth?

The Spider! Essentially, the Shadow but with the gloves off. Will Murray once said, “The good kids read the Shadow. The bad kids read the Spider.” More here.

Cool, thanks!

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