Thursday, June 26, 2008

Geoff Johns, Comic Book Mass Murderer?

I came to a startling conclusion the other day. Geoff Johns is the comic book equivalent of Ted Bundy. Well, maybe that’s not true. Bundy was a serial killer who preyed on women. Johns isn’t that discriminating in his slaughter so maybe he’s more like Pol Pot or Stalin.

Do you think I am wrong? To prove my point, let’s take a look at John’s body count. I already talked about his picnic slaughter here. To clarify, it was a rant about the overwhelming amount of senseless violence in comic books these days but it was written by Geoff Johns. I forget what the final body count was but it involved killing lots of people.

Since I’ve already talked about his most recent work on JSA, let’s look at some of his earliest work. Johns had a celebrated run on the Flash that began in 2000 with issue 164. In that issue, Captain Cold freezes a police man and then shatters him. On the same page, different panel, Cold is shown kicking the policeman’s frozen head like a soccer ball. I should have realized something was wrong there but, honestly, I didn’t think of it. Maybe it was because the policeman had been turned into a big ball of ice. Maybe it was the lack of blood. Whatever it was, I didn’t realize that I was witnessing the beginnings of a body count that would make Stalin jealous.

But, Johns wasn’t done yet. Less than a year later in Flash 170-172, he managed to establish his bloody reputation. In issue 170, he kills the mother of a one year old child, and over the remainder of the issue and into 171, kills all the people that Wally West saved. My personal favorite scene is the two page spread of the morgue filled with dead bodies. But the coup de grace was in issue 172, in which a teenager is stabbed to death ON PANEL, and blood is seen running from his mouth.

What is going on when one of the industry’s best writers is a blood thirsty maniac? HELLO!? Does anyone see anything wrong with this?

Now I understand that violence has always been a part of comics. From the Spectre in the 70’s turning people to salt to D.G. Chichester blowing up the Staten Island Ferry and killing 33 people in 1993 (Daredevil #327). But, the Spectre is supernatural so there was no blood involved and Chichester didn’t show a single body he just stated a fact. But apparently that wasn’t enough violence because Johns has upped the ante to death on panel. And lots of blood to go with it on panel.

Now to be fair, let’s discuss some other current writers with big body counts like Ellis and Ennis. Both have managed to kill their fair share of people in comic books. But, in their defense, most of it was done in Max titles (Punisher) or in the Wildstorm Universe (Authority). In fact, their bloodiest work is over at Avatar. But, Max, Wildstrom, and Avatar titles aren’t the Flash. They aren't the JSA. They are adult books, aimed at adults, and marketed as such.

The Flash, unless I’m mistaken was still one of the biggest mainstream characters. Everyone knows who the Flash is because of his role in the all the cartoons from Super Friends to Justice League. If a new reader walked into a comic store I would expect them to be able to pick up any issue of the Flash and not be disgusted by the amount of gore in it. I'm not sure I would share anything Johns has written with anyone who wasn't already a Marvel Zombie or DC Dweeb.

While Ron Marz still holds the honor for most brutal killing with his “girlfriend in a fridge” story from Green Lantern, Johns has quietly managed to slaughter hundreds if not thousands of people in the DCU and I don’t think it’s a good thing. The "fanboy" covers on comic books are bad enough but adding blood and gore will only drive new readers away.


  1. Umm, yeah, because Grand Theft Auto has driven so many people away from gaming...

  2. You're comparing Geoff Johns to a serial killer?

    Wow... I have typed and erased a lot of comments about how terribly wrong the entire premise of this blog is, but I'll try to be decent and just say that maybe you should stop blogging for awhile and go out into the world to get some perspective.

    Geoff Johns is one of my kids' favorite writers. Justice Society is by far their favorite DC comic. The picnic scene is part of their favorite comic story ever -- that of Nathan and his kids. Citizen Steel and Cyclone and Stargirl are their favorite characters. And they're KIDS. The comic's audience is predominantly adults. If you think Justice Society or that picnic scene are violent, you really ought to check out more TV, movies, comics, books, cartoons -- absolutely anything fictional.

    Then after you go out into the world and grow up a little, maybe you'll also develop a sense of decency that would stop you before something like a comic book would inspire you to compare a person you don't even know to serial killers.

  3. Just shared your blog entry with my daughter and she wanted me to warn you that if you don't like Nazis and violence and people getting killed, then you'd better not watch Indiana Jones.

    Or are we going to see a blog soon comparing Steven Spielberg to John Wayne Gacy?

  4. I think Lee's point about the violence level being higher in comics then it used to be is valid. By using Geoff (one of my favorite writers) in the manner he did it may sound more like a personal attack, but I know Lee and it is not.

    The title is perhaps misfortunate.

  5. Ah, Lee...

    Back in the rant saddle, eh? :-)

    I acutally get what you're saying... kinda. I don't completely agree with it, but I understand where you're coming from. Johns IS a violent writer, but you skipped my personal over-the-top fave of his -- Infinite Crisis, which had arms pulled off and fist punches through skulls. Ah, good times.

    But as implied earlier, like it or not, this is what our culture is. PG-13 movies can be more violent (not to mention more sexually suggestive) than any Johns comic, and extremely graphic violent sexual video games -- while usually labelled "mature" -- are played by kids of all ages, more often than you'd suspect with their parents' blessing.

    I know you're a parent who thinks a lot about protecting his kids, but maintaining that comics should keep to the wholesome standards of the restrictive comics code past isn't fare to the medium. I don't want to live in a 50s Beaver Cleaver nightmare where we pretend bad things don't happen and we shelter our kids to the point they don't know how to deal with the real world until they are well over 25, if ever (a whole 'nother discussion).

    Even if we buy your argument, what age kids should comics be written for? What I'd trust a 12- or 13-year-old to read isn't the same thing I'd want an 7- or 8-year-old to read, but you can't expect the entire mainstream comics market to put out books sanitized for 8-year-olds consumption just because, once upon a time, comics were considered for kids. It's up to the parents to make the judgement whether a book is appropriate for the kids themselves based on their kids's personality. Even back in the day, parents who didn't want their kids reading EC Comics had to make those choices themselves -- well, at least until a near-fascist name Wertham decided he knew best what kids could handle reading.

    Don't be a Wertham, Lee.

  6. I'm relatively new to the blog, so please take my ideas with a grain of salt, since I do not know the history of the bloggers that well. I understand what Lee is saying, and agree with him. There is a preponderance of violence and sex in the comic world, just as there is in much of the entertainment industry. The equating of the two, however, does not let either off the hook.

    I hate to point fingers, but apparently many of the responders are running from a principal that denies an absolute truth, specifically in regard to what is "proper" in depicting sex and violence. To make statements such as "you really ought to check out more TV, movies, comics, books, cartoons -- absolutely anything fictional. Then after you go out into the world and grow up a little..." implies that what is proper is dictated by what is happening around you. The last part is also somewhat demeaning to the person you are speaking to, it makes it sound as if are speaking to a child and must thus speak as a child. Lee seems to be running from the other side of the fence: The state of society does not dictate what is "proper" and should not be used as an excuse. Please do not attack a man for holding a polar opposite view than your own. It’s rude.

    As for Lee's use of hyperbole in calling Johns a mass murderer, I believe it is a perfectly usable literary device, especially in a more casual medium such as a blog. To use a description like this in a more professional setting, such as a published magazine or comment on a highly public forum would be scandalous. Here, it is simply a use of strong emotion. And metaphors are not meant to be perfect descriptions of a thing. No adjective (which a metaphor is a type of) is. Blue does not fully explain blueberry. Thief goes a bit far in describing a ferret. Both are acceptable descriptions however, if one understands that they are not meant to define but describe the noun (or one’s feeling towards it). Ultimates 3 is not actual crap. It is crap, though.

    As for my own views on the subject at hand, I do not agree but am resigned to the violence and sex in comics. I know they are not necessary, though, so I do not give the writers and artists an out. Bone is an example of a comic which is very adult but perfect for kids. It can stay adult without using tits and guts. Violence, a staple of comics, can also be shown and used in ways that are not horrific. Most golden and silver age comics are perfect examples. Off panel deaths, little or no blood. This may seem somewhat strange, especially to someone like me growing up in the nineties and use to the “extreme” anti-hero heroes, but at the same time, I want some true heroes in the mix.

    And stuff like what Lee describes (I haven’t read these or the JSA) is too much for large flagship titles. Kids DO pick these up, and DC (Marvel even more so) needs to adjust accordingly. They have a responsibility to making sure that they are not hurting the children that are picking these things up.

    As for bringing up Wertham, Werthan was right. However, he ran with it way, way, way too far. I mean WAY too far. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t right, though. Look at what is allowed now versus 1940s. Society has been affected. We don’t bat an eye at a lot of violence and it’s normal to see bikinis plastered everywhere. The words “modesty” and “chaste” have become synonymous with “outdated.” I’m surprised “peaceful” isn’t a synonym for weak.

    Remember the old times, Lee. I pray I get to see us try and return to them. We never will, but as a guide, they will hopefully lead us to where we need to be.

    And there’s my two cents.

  7. Ok, I'll agree the serial killer comparison can be taken the wrong way. But really, reading the tone of the article, I think Lee is just being extreme - exaggeration is used in conversation all the time (calling someone a Nazi just when they are strict about something for example) thus if someone told me I was like Stalin because I killed lots of people in my comic book stories I doubt I'd take it as if they actually thought I was Stalin.

    Also, I agree with Lee to an extent. I've been cringing while reading Invincible lately (a book which I really like) because of the amount of death and gore. I understand the fact that tragedy can define a hero, but there has been a visible surge in the amount of degenerate violence shown in comic books that aren't Max (or the equivalent) runs. I think there are fewer books out there that I could hand to one of my friends kids.

    I don't think the problem here is really the body count, but the depictions of violence. Maybe it's not the writers, maybe it's the artists (wouldn't know without seeing the scripts). Maybe it's the colorist - I've spoken to one colorist who said they had wanted things more bloody in a book they were working on but the writer vetoed it. Either way, I do think that comics would still tell great stories without the amount of depicted detailed slaughter out on the shelves today.

    I really like Geoff's stories, he's an amazing writer. I honestly didn't think twice about the JSA picnic scene. I would, however, hesitate in handing off GLCorps to a kid who's parents hasn't let them watch R movies yet. JSA too perhaps. Not to say they'd need to be old enough to make it into the movie theater, just that there parents had decided their kids would be okay with higher violent content.

    Also, as a side note, I don't think comics should have ratings or other such nonsense. I do know quite a few parents who ask me for suggestions on what comics to buy there kids though - I tell them Mouse Guard, Bone, LoSH - the real reason I don't tell them to pick up JLA is because it makes no sense =/ The cartoon is better.

  8. Vaneta

    Calling Johns a killer is truly irrelevant and not what I getting at. With all apologies to Johns, I shouldn’t have compared him to Ted Bundy. But, he is one of the bloodiest writers I’ve seen on mainstream books. And, I’m just putting a face on the growing trend of over the top, extreme violence in comics these days.

    To be sure, comic books are a wonderful medium and allow for all sorts of expression. There are also tons of ways to get whatever you want from comics. If you want sex, go read one of the Eurotic titles. You want Goth black humor, go read Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, you want violence and sacrilege, go check out Avatar. That’s all well and good but I don’t want these things in mainstream comic books and I don’t think that its necessarily acceptable to find them there.

    If we stick to the movie reference, Indiana Jones was PG-13 with some explosions, some violence, some language, but nothing overly graphic. I agree that it’s “violent” but it’s almost cartoon in it’s nature. Nazi’s get shot. Are there big blood splatters? I don’t think so. A Nazi gets stabbed. Do we get a close up of the wound? I don’t think so.

    In comparison, the movie Saw was R with extreme violence and gore and if we were lucky it had sexual situations and nudity too. There is a big difference between those movies and the audience they are targeting. The level of violence in Flash (and most Johns books) is closer to the movie “Saw” than it was to “Indiana Jones” and that’s the problem. Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman live under different standards than the rest of comic books. The Icons have to because they are exposed to a larger audience. The Flash is part of this core group but no one seems to care that it’s excessive.

    I would contend that if you ask Joe Public about the Flash he would say that it’s a simple superhero, good guys v. bad guys story. Something they would, without much reservation, show their child. Is that what Joe Public would find? Certainly not in a Johns Flash story. It’s more on par with Kick Ass with 12 yr olds chopping peoples heads off.

  9. Bjooks,

    Mix 1 part too much work, 1 part too little sleep, 47 parts alcohol, and wwhhheee doggie Lee is typing stupid things on the computer again. It’s hard to top me some days in terms of pure stupid. ;) It’s late now so this is kinda hit/miss but bear with me…

    You’re right, I missed the Infinite Crisis one and I skipped Avengers where the Red Skull gassed a whole town. I was lazy and didn’t dig up the specific references. I felt the Flash was bad enough.

    I think the biggest complaint I have about Johns is the blood. It didn’t bother me when Captain Cold was smashing policemen because it wasn’t quite as obvious. It wasn’t until there were multiple stabbings, pools of blood, and trails of blood from eyeballs that I got offended. I think he could show the exact same scene in shadow and it would have the same impact. Is there a need to see the act? Is there a need to see the blood? I think Johns is a very good writer but I think he could be better if he wasn’t so obsessed with the gore.

    I understand that society as a whole is more violent these days and the amount of sex and violence that children are exposed to isn’t all that healthy. You can argue either way but the boundaries keep moving father and farther out and I’m hard pressed to believe it’s always for the best.

    As I said, there’s plenty of comics out there for every taste and opinion. I just feel there are some that should be closer to PG than R. I don’t want to be Wertham but I would like the tools to be able to make a judgment.

    Maybe we do need a rating system. Or more appropriately a rating system that has some clear lines in it. I believe Flash is rated all ages but I find it hard to believe scenes of people being stabbed to death and torn in half is all ages.

  10. Oh yeah... Thomm. People have complained so much about GTA that I doubt this is a person anywhere that doesn't know what that game is about.

    And, I imagine there is a parent or two that either didn't buy the game or took it away because of the content.

    Not all. I'm sure there are some wonderful parents that purchased it for their 4 yr old. BUT, if the word is out then I am sure it made someone think twice.

  11. Well, my point on GTA was that it contradicts your point that the violence would damage sales for JSA and other such flag ship books. I don't own it and don't have any plans to, as I don't even have a gaming system.

    More importantly, I'm pretty tired of all the nonsense running throughout this about the wonderful good old days. It's pure falacy to say that society was less violent in days gone by. In point of fact, unless you live in a crappy urban neighborhood plagued by the illicit drug trade, this country is considerably less violent than it was from 1939-1969 (arbitrarily selected dates that cover a large chunk of most people's good old days).

    Sure, the depictions in popular media were less violent or sexual then, but the world around was certainly not. It was plagued by racist lynchings, strict class borders, sexist delimning and religious persecution. And that's just in the US. It was not Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best. It wasn't even I Love Lucy, given the ostracizing most white women who married a Cuban would have faced were they not a Hollywood star (or their Cuban husband a very Euro stock Cuban).

    By contrast, I live in a society now where I, as white a white guy as you're likely to see, and my black wife have never had any problem with anyone telling us we can't do anything. Hell, the most harassment we've had has been from drunk black men on subways (who knew it could happen more than once?). Furthermore, I'm an atheist who works with Catholics, various protestants, Jews and agnostics, all quite happily and without conflict because we've all learned to respect one another's views.

    Sure, a lot of people are still ignorant of other parts of the world and more esoteric beliefs, but they aren't condemning them out of hand, either. This, I think, is a product of what many who like to be angry most of the time call the politically correct. I guess it's a terrible thing that people are nicer to one another. But I digress.

    Finally, I think those here who are arguing that Lee is engaging in hyperbole to make a point still need to recognize that the hyperbole is not, on its face, obvious, and even if it were, no one who's the object of such hyperbole is going to like it. Just ask Jim what he thinks of being called a nativist. Calling a nasty insult just hyperbole, without stating in the original that it was hyperbole, is simply disingenuous and a tactical retreat when the extremity of the original statement is realized. It's a sort of non-apology apology akin to "I'm sorry if what I said offended anyone." You're not really sorry for what you said. You're just sorry someone's mad at you.

  12. Lee, don't worry -- after that last one, with your rants I try to look at what you're intending to say as opposed to how you said it. Never let alcohol get in the way of a good rant, eh? LOL

    For what it's worth, Johns' violent streak -- specifically the Nazi killing picnic -- did disturb me when I was still reading JSA, but it didn't shock my conscience. Nor did it bother me as much as when the creators (Ross, in particular) talked about how Obsidian was being "molested" by other writers, and then laid claim to him, put him in the JSA, then relegated him to the shadows never to be seen again (at least at the point I dropped out a year later). But that's another issue from that other rant.

    Should comics have a better rating system? Sure. The one Marvel tried is a flop because no one knows what the ratings are or what they mean. What would be best if if the MPAA would quit being so selfish and let their widely-familiar (if technically useless as currently practiced) ratings system be used by other media. Or else if the diverse media outside the MPAA (TV/video games/comics) would create one shared system so that everyone can understand what the ratings mean. With a system like that, the public would be educated enough that it might work.

    Even then, parents have to care enough to actually pay attention to what their kids are reading/doing. So many folks seem to think that if we sanitize the culture, we can create a kid-friendly ideal. I'm not saying you're among those folks, but I'm just tired of the absurdity of these "protect the children!" movements, which seek to not actually protect the children so much as they selfishly try to make the greater culture as similar to their own moral beliefs as possible... all so they themselves DON'T have to pay as much attention to their kids. The irony drives me crazy.

    If we really want to protect the kids, then wouldn't it help the kids more if we just pro-actively take kids away from the parents who don't care what their kids are watching or reading as opposed to try to change what's seen in the media? I mean, if "protecting the kids" is their motivation, why trust these uncaring parent to make smart judgments for their kids? Why trust them to keep their kids from getting run over or something equally dangerous if you can't trust them to keep "dangerous" comics out of the kids' hands? Yeah, I'm taking this to the ridiculous extreme, but I think it would keep kids safer than cleaner comics would.

    I don't think that comics have to be written to the least common denominator audience simply because they are "flagship" titles. Different books can have different audiences. Even if you don't want to, its okay to tell a kid that they're too young to read the book daddy is reading even though they really want to, even if its one you kinda wished you could read with them. I may be a flamin' liberal, but I'm conservative enough to think that the free market is big enough for flagship books that are PG-13.

    As always, the discussion here is entertaining. Cheers!

  13. With regard to having "flagship" titles that you can read to your kids or have your kids read, the answer is simple. Back Issues! Really, there are tons of great stories out there for kids to read. What difference does it make if the book is 20 or 30 years old? I had my son, Eric, read Iron Man Annual #5 this week from 1982. I said, "I want you to read the whole thing". (He usually just looks at the pictures and reads some of the dialog). It took him an hour and he really liked it. I've got enough books already to last him a lifetime.

    Still, I certainly identify with Lee's exasperation of the more graphic nature in the more mainstream titles. While the art in the latest Action Comics was exceptional, it was pretty bloody with Braniac killing people at the beginning (a Johns story). Ironically, I hope to trade my Skarr, Son of the Hulk for this issue and Skarr carried a mature readers label and I didn't find it nearly as graphic as the Superman book. This week, She-Hulk and Mighty Avengers were both highly sexual (I skimmed these in the store -- I don't buy these titles regularly). Anyway, the graphic violence and suggestive scenes ARE much more present in "mainstream" comics these days. It partly way I'm pretty dissatisfied with most of the "mainstream" comics.

    Yes, there are some excellent kid-friendly books out there, with Amazing Spider-girl being the best monthly title. It's more like the old 70's/80's stories. Some of the Johnny DC and Marvel Adventure books, while good are aimed a little too low, I think. From what I hear X-men First Class is another good monthly.

    I don't see the market changing much. At least they're trying to offer some titles to younger readers. Yeah, it would be cool to buy your kid the new Superman or Flash book, but at $3 or $4 a pop, you can buy a back issue instead.

    What I really want to know is did Jim come up with this title too, like he did the last one? I wasn't bothered by Lee's hyperbole, it was obvious, especially if you read this blog a lot.