Genocide Lite: Our Current Media Obsession

_A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic._Joseph Stalin.png

When I was growing up and watching the shows that went on to influence me, the villains were mostly cartoony. And not just by the fact that they were animated but also that their plans were quite out there. Think of The Joker in Batman The Animated Series, his plans were almost always just to ruin Batman’s day and maybe hurt a few people and rob a bank or two. Even Dr. Doom’s plans for Marvel weren’t huge, he just wanted to be left alone and rule his made up world. The villains all had tangible goals and their plots were usually just an inconvenience to the hero. It’s one of the reasons the egotistical Loki of the first Avengers movie was such a trip for me: I’m used to comic book Loki who rather just steal Thor’s underwear or something.

But as you’ve seen during this magical adventure we’ve had this year discussing framing, villains and villainy: you’ve likely noticed a theme. That theme is that the current bad thing of the era is genocide. And I don’t mean that hyperbolically. It’s literally the aim of most evil dudes in movies recently.

A Buzzfeed article recently discussed that the theme of the last 10 years of movies has been animals overtaking humans as dominant species as a social commentary for our misuse of the planet. But I think the real theme of current movie bad is the systematic or sudden removal of a large amount of people. You’ve seen me mention it over and over again as I rant about framing.

And it continues to bother me each time because I get more and more angry that the prospect of hundreds, thousands, millions of people can die in a narrative and we still side with the villain. So in today’s post I want to talk about when that shift seemed to occur in comics and movies and why it’s so terrible.

Earlier I mentioned the motives of comic book villains during the Gold and Silver age. Most of them had pretty small goals or mostly non-lethal lofty ones. There was a lot of desire to enslave a population or take over a planet or rob a bank. Many of the Gold and Silver age villains barely even had a body count back in the day. It wasn’t until the 70s or so that comic villains got more intense about wanting death as part of their domination. This actually starts to appear around the first introduction of Thanos in the comics during the 1970s. Thanos’ goal in the comics was to woo Lady Death and the only way to do that is to send her souls. She’s impressed by numbers (the O.G. size queen) and so Thanos does all he can to add to his body count to please his mistress. We didn’t get a shift in his goals being objectively genocidal until much later in the comics. Then his motivation becomes the weird meditation on resources we get in the Infinity War movie. We’ve seen comic book characters go down this route before. Parallax wants to eat the Galaxy in Green Lantern, Galactus wants to do…whatever his motivations are and that usually involves a ton of people dying.

The first mark in the shift of genocide as plot point can be seen in a comic that means a lot to me but I don’t get to discuss enough: Watchmen. Moore’s brilliant graphic novel tackles this issue incredibly directly with Ozymandias’ terrible plan being spelled out quite clearly: killing millions, to save billions. There, there’s the shift. Suddenly, the madman isn’t mad, he’s just an extremist looking for the most rational solution to a major problem. And I adore Adrian’s plan. His motivations to stop the war by zapping in a psychedelic interdimensional space squid to wipe out most of New York is flawed but that’s the beauty of Moore’s prose: you can sort of see where he’s coming from. But even though the framing tells us Ozymandias’ plan is rational for that universe, the way everyone else treats him after the reveal of his plan reminds us that this is terrible. The movie is a hot mess but the film also does a great job of demonizing Ozymandias’ dumb plan even though he uses Dr. Manhattan nonsense to vaporize a bunch of folks rather than the space cephalopod.

The only mass death in comics that could possibly rival death toll mounted by Ozymandias was House of M for Marvel. This storyline saw the end to mutants in the decades long run of Marvel comics and in a simple phrase more than half of the characters that made Marvel great simply vanished. It was a heartbreaking event in the comics and we considered Scarlet Witch to be a villain for years after her fateful choice: even if we could empathize with her grief that lead up to the choice to utter that powerful phrase, she’s still a monster for wiping people off the face of existence.

DC Comics did have Crisis on Infinite Earths and there were many many deaths as a result and Blackest Night which is a crisis entirely created by Booster Gold because he wanted to be the hero, dammit. But as we’ve discussed, no one considered Booster Gold to be a hero of anything.

Most of the genocidal villains we get in comics and movies are framed as bad guys because that’s what bad guys do: they suggest that removing an entire section of population is expendable. Think of Star Wars: Darth Vader wipes out an entire planet and we know he’s a bad guy for it and earlier when Vader is still just annoying Anakin, he slaughters a bunch of children and Tusken Raiders and it is firmly shown that he is a bad guy for that. And even though Vader is ultimately a very sympathetic character, we don’t ever forget that he’s still a mass murderer.

Speaking of the 2000s, it’s around this time that genocide seemed to be less of a taboo. By this time, I was watching a ton of anime and several series flirt with this idea: you’ve heard me discuss Death Note frequently but also Bleach flirts with a subplot of wiping out souls and Soul Reapers for the sake of a goal, Trigun hints at this with Knives’ subplot and even if it isn’t straight up death as the goal, several anime focus on purity or a unique group rising to the top. Japan is very eugenics-friendly, which should terrify everyone. Media be it Western or eastern has a ton of focus on Chosen Ones and more pure people and if any part of that sounds scary to you, good. We’re on the same page.

Here is the problem with romanticizing genocide and eugenics: we’ve had actual genocide happen in the world. Hitler wanted to remove Jews and other “undesirables” from Germany, Pol Pot wanted to forge a new future by eradicating the past, ethnic minorities all around the world face persecution and death simply for being a little bit different. This is a real thing with real consequences and our continual sugar-coating of the slippery slope nonsense logic that continues to minimize the dangers of racism, misogyny and homophobia only makes those problems worse. When Thanos’ idea in Infinity War doesn’t sound so crazy, that’s a problem. When Killmonger’s Reconquista sounds logical, that’s a problem. We live in a world that is full of natural disasters, terrorism, racism, homophobia, sexism, hatred, bigotry and population concerns: these are real problems and to far too many people the idea of simply poofing some folks out of existence sounds like a great way to solve all of these complex problems.

I think it’s a sign of the times that genocide seems to be our main macabre obsession as was slavery and colonialism were the macabre obsessions of the Gold and Silver age of comics. We have to confront that if eugenics, social Darwinism and wiping out parts of the population for a “clean slate” ticks any box for you, you are on a dangerous path. I’ve had to confront that in myself and it’s made me infinitely more critical of the media I ingest.  

I hope you enjoyed this discussion on the deaths of too many fictional characters.

I promise the next topic will be lighter.

 

My Top 10 DC Characters

“Why do we argue_ Life's so fragile, a successful virus clinging to a speck of mud, suspended in endless nothing.” ― Alan Moore, Watchmen

After Infinity War left me so burned, I found myself turning to DC for some comfort. I’ve been a comic book fan for decades and I’m strangely 50/50 when it comes to the two main houses: Marvel and DC. When people ask me which one I prefer I often give them a pretty blanket answer:

Marvel for the heroes. DC for the villains.

This is a pretty diplomatic answer but anyone who really knows me that despite my numerous times playing Tony Stark, DC has held my heart for a much longer time than Marvel can claim.

So to rekindle the forge of my heart that has been pillaged after Infinity War, let’s go over at least 10 characters from DC that mean the world to me. Just like the last time with my Top 20 Animes, this is in no real order but you are welcome to read whatever you like into the order that will inevitably form from the chaos that will be this list.

I think I have to put up a spoiler warning for some reason. Just in case I say something that blows your minds.

  • The Joker
    • Now, it’s irresponsible to have any DC list without mentioning Mister J. He’s probably listening and would be very offended if I left him off this list. Now, I have a love-hate relationship with The Joker. As one of the most iconic villains ever, he’s sort of the Crown Prince of Edgelords and folks who think they’re very dark and deep and post his comments and quotes on forums and social media. My attachment to The Joker is a little more personal. I fell in love with The Clown Prince of Crime in Batman The Animated Series where Mark Hamill’s voice allowed him to be equal parts threatening and hilarious. The Joker has come a very long way as a character. He was at first a mostly cartoonish troll to and now he’s mostly a snarling Hot Topic model. But what makes The Joker so good ties perfectly into the version that is my personal favorite: The Killing Joke. This is The Joker at his best and with enough Kierkegaard to beat any philosophy minor into the ground. The Joker’s main mantra of “Everyone is just one bad day away…” is a powerful one and one I connect to. As someone who (like Batman and Jack Napier) has had a series of bad days, I absolutely deal with the demon of using pain and trauma as a rationalization towards the darkness inherent in all of us.
  • Etrigan
    • Gone, gone, the form of man…God, are there more iconic lines? I love Etrigan the Demon. He’s an older than you think comic book character who was a demon in the time of King Arthur. He’s sworn to fight against Morrigan the Enchantress and oftentimes Klarion the Witchboy (one of my many sons) but he’s also just as likely to be enchanted by Morrigan and be used as a tool for destruction. Etrigan’s design and old-timey speech won me over easily and even though he’s not a well known DC character, I still love him and I have considered getting his little spell tattooed on my body somewhere.
  • John Constantine
    • Still no Batman. Sorry, we’ll get to Bruce but I have to talk about the Hellblazer himself. So John Constantine is a strange case. I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t know much about him before the wildly popular TV show and the mediocre Keanu Reeves movie that I don’t hate. His character is an interesting one. He’s one of the rare cases of a bisexual character but this was of course, back in the day when bisexual was just analogous for “whore” but Constantine was very proud and aware of his status as a tool. Constantine is a demon-hunter with literally every vice you can imagine and his design, brooding mood and his ability to play well with others made me cozy up to him very quickly.
  • Jason Todd
    • See? Getting closer to Batman. There will be Batman on this list. Just not right now. Jason Todd is a fascinating character study in a comic creator making a character that everyone hates and then immediately punishing the fanbase for hating them. Death in the Family broke me as a youth and his violent death a the hands of The Joker left a massive scar on the hearts of the fans, me and Bruce. And the timing of his death is so important it hurts just as much as a crowbar to the left cheek. Jason Todd dies just after The Killing Joke and Batman’s inability to kill The Joker was one of the biggest reasons The Joker escalated and took Jason Todd from Bruce. The Joker couldn’t break The Bat by taking out Barbara, so he went after his metaphorical son. Jason Todd died for our sins and came back as an even better version of Batman: The Red Hood. It’s all so metaphorical and meta and I love every part of Jason Todd’s journey from way too smart for his own good kid to a vigilante who is at times more effective at cleaning up the streets of Gotham than Batman is. Now, better is subjective. Depending on who is writing Jason, he’s almost like a proto-Damien Wayne (we’re getting to that little anger cinnamon roll). Jason’s often written as a stark opposite to the first Robin, Dick Grayson. While Dick was nice, talented and affable; Jason was snarky, moody and already had the jump on Bruce by their first meeting. We meet Jason Todd as he’s trying to lift the tires and rims off the Batmobile. Jason Todd is the anti-Dick Grayson and you love or hate him for it.
  • Damien Wayne
    • I’m really skirting around The Bat here, I know. We’re getting there, I promise. But first I wanted to talk about this little ball of anger, pragmatism and a little bit of Raas al Ghul magic. Damien is Bruce’s son by Talia al Ghul (even though this was stupidly ret-conned I will stay with this headcanon, fight me) and he is just as wonderful as you can imagine that combination of two angry people can be. Damien’s practical, blunt and emotionless but it all makes sense considering his background training under his grandfather. Damien’s past means that he is guarded and reserved and may be based on skill one of the best and most capable Robins that have ever served at Batman’s side. And with how reserved and confident he is, it’s wonderful to see him break down.I mean, come on, Damien was convinced his Father was too soft on crime so he sent the Court of Owls to kill his own dad! How intense is that?
  • Booster Gold
    • No context. Just love him. Don’t @ me.
      • Just kidding. There was no way I was going to leave it at that. Booster Gold is hilarious. He’s a time traveler from another dimension where he’s super popular but now wants to be even more famous and does all he can to self-insert his way into the narrative of popular storylines. Because of his knack for wriggling his way into other people stories, he tends to do more harm than good. Hell, most of the bad things that have happened in DC lore he has somehow managed to be part of. Also, Booster Gold is one half of the greatest bro-mance ever with Ted Kord, the original Blue Beetle. What’s amazing is that Booster Gold has zero super powers, he’s just the right amount of narcissistic, talented and confident that he just skates into any situation and has the right tool for the job when he isn’t the one setting the fire to get credit for it in the news later that day.
  • Hal Jordan
    • I’m sure many of you are surprised. I’ve always said how much I prefer Kyle Rayner as a Lantern and Earth’s sworn protector and many of you know that Green isn’t even my color when it comes to the Emotional Spectrum: I’m a very proud Star Sapphire.  But Hal’s just such a great character, especially since his post-Crisis and with some of his New 52 edge. The writers have leaned in a little to his naive, good boy attitude and as long as we ignore the movie that no one likes talking about, I think he has an interesting power set and the fun creative edge of the hero the U.S. often needed. Many folks give Jordan a hard time for choosing dumb constructs, but hey, he does his best. He takes a lot of the best parts from his predecessor, Alan Scott, and turns them into a genuine and authentic person who is just happy to be a real hero in more way than one.
  • Zatanna
    • This magical minx was really never meant to be center stage. Her costume at first was revealing, her powers were mostly for show and she never really got to shine much outside of being the plucky assistant and occasional magical expert Batman needed. But she’s still one of the rare instances of a female character that does anything for me. I do think post New 52 she’s a little overpowered but that comic books and it’s fine. I’ve always admired how fun she was during her appearances on Batman the Animated and while her time in Justice League: Dark paints her with way more melodrama, I’m here for it.
  • Raven
    • Another magical girl? Yep. She’s one of the few female comic book characters I can relate to. And no, not just because she’s a moody, edgy, all-black clad, super goth. I mean, sure, for lots of those reasons. But there’s plenty of other reasons there, too! She’s also very empathetic, but her empathy doesn’t mean that she’s always kind. I absolutely can relate to that. Her past is something she is actively trying to run from and hide, I can also super relate to that. And realistically, depending on who is writing her: she is absolutely on par with Superman just based on magic and ability alone. What’s not to like?
  • Batman
    • So as an angsty person, I’m contractually obligated to put Batman on this list. I don’t have a choice. Superman is not boring but he’s also not super relatable to me. He’s very aspirational, as in, I wish I had even a fraction of Clark’s anything but Bruce, despite how unattainable he actually is; there is something intensely human and vulnerable about him. And it’s only in realizing that maybe he’s not a great person that makes Bruce Wayne so compelling. He’s insanely flawed. He has a secret plan to be able to not kill but emotionally and physically break all of his friends in the Justice League just in case any of them were to go rogue. He’s paranoid, driven and his absolutely subjective moral compass punishes relatively low-level offenders while ignoring larger threats because he enjoys the game too much. He pretends that he has some great code about not killing but he’s doing more harm than good keeping The Joker alive and even when The Joker has taken so much from Bruce Way, The Bat refuses to, just on some false moral high ground, to end the Clown. And while we can all look to Superman to have the right answer and do the right thing, depending on who is writing Batman, he may be the biggest villain in all of Gotham. It’s one of the reasons Batman: White Knight has been such an amazing read, if you frame it from anyone else’s point of view, The Gotham Bat is no hero. But many people can relate to Bruce Wayne. I know I could. I lost my parents, did my best to be better than my past and did all I could to make sure that the world was a better place than the one that ensured that I become an orphan by 20. Bruce operates similarly, he wants the world to be a better place while also struggling with the weight of the name he was born into and uses more than one mask to hide years of pain, trauma and feelings of inadequacy. He’s the most human character DC has ever created. We’ve all in some way felt like Bruce Wayne even if we aren’t all billionaire playboys with genius level intellect, a hidden basement space full of bats and paramilitary weapons and an ability to connect the dots that would make Sherlock Holmes even say that some of the connections was a bit of a stretch. Batman is complex and he perfectly reflects the concerns of the eras he’s in. He stands in for a type of justice that many find more satisfying than waiting for proper police procedure. Sure, if the cops get the criminal, there may be a mistrial. If Batman gets him, we’ll that crook will never crime again. But also consider when I was introduced to The Gotham Knight. It was during the amazing Batman the Animated Series run where he was the most balanced he could be. Bruce was vulnerable, suave, capable but still was just skirting around the confines of the law. The animated run did a perfect balance of handling Batman lore from his Silver Age appearances and continues to inform how actors and writers now handle The Gotham Bat.

This was a fun Top 10 and honestly, if given more time, I’d likely have a very different list that better reflects the years of lore I’ve allowed myself to fall into DC has been creating characters and weaving stories that have touched the lives of millions for decades now and these comic books will always have a special place in my heart. This list is personal, highly subjective and is in no way an accurate representation of even all the characters I like but simply don’t have time to go into further detail. Drop me a comment below if you’d like for me to do a similar treatment to any other property or query!