Monday, February 27, 2006

Catwoman and the Moral Ambiguity of Killing

My comments on this post on Mortlake on the Schuylkill just begged to be a post. So here's what I said, slightly edited for clarity, and some more thoughts.

It's been interesting reading everyone's take on this. I suppose in part, one's reaction will vary depending on whether or not you believe some killings can be justified. Are Superman and Batman really taking the high road or are they simply out of touch? Not everyone can find another way. And some folks would say that not everyone has the courage to do what Selina did.

Way back when, in Magnum PI, Magnum killed in cold blood. A man with diplomatic immunity had killed his close friend and military contact and the most that could happen to the guy was that he'd be deported. So Magnum arranged an ambush and with no witnesses, blew the man away. The episode ended with the camera on Magnum as he fired his gun.

There is a difference in killing in self-defense and killing that is in essence an execution and in the latter, you'd better be right that the person you kill is the one who deserves it. It's a moral quagmire and one that can be debated without resolution for centuries, and has been.

I think you can look at the fact that the females were put in this postion in more than one way. That it is the usual sexism. Or that it is finally equal treatment, in that the females are allowed to be more agressive, are allowed to make the hard choices, and are then allowed to be shown dealing with that. These are the things that make characters more interesting, that add complexity to them.

I'd rather Selina be shown grappling with what she's done and is capable of doing, than Bruce acting out on Gotham and with anyone who tries to get close to him from his basic dysfunction that stems from his parents' murder. There have been times I want to shake him and say "Grow up, already." I'd love to see in many of the male characters the growth I've seen in many of the females recently.

I suppose that's one reason I love Roy Harper so much. He's had so much personal crap to overcome, and he has overcome it in a stumbling, very human fashion.

AND in answer to concerns re: what comes next...

I've never enjoyed playing that guessing game. If they screw it up, I'll be annoyed, maybe drop the book. But I prefer to see what they do with it. I've enjoyed most of what Johns has written and what DiDio has brought to the DCU. ADDED: I had worries that Pfeifer would do justice to a character Brubaker had written to perfection, and he proved himself more than up to the task.

I think a lot of what folks feel about Batman in this and the situation with other characters, ie Wonder Woman, depends on their own perceptions of the character. Me? I've thought Bruce has been a pompous ass for a while now. He's often right, but he's as often wrong. He came out looking bad to me due to the OMAC mess. I think Black Mask needed to be killed and Selina was probably one of a very few characters, as developed over the years, who could do it. Batman certainly couldn't, not without it being a complete character/personality shift. IMO.

And of course, he has to act superior to Selina or to anyone else who kills, given his feelings about it. Look at how he treated Dick when Dick joined the Bludhaven police force? Was Bruce right? Was Dick? Or were they both right for what they are and believe?

I think someday, when more women are writing comics, especially in the DCU, and are in charge of decisions overall; when there is a better balance between male and female characters, we'll finally see a wider spectrum of character personalities. Because right now, for a male hero to do what has become the female job (as either damsel in distress -- a role only males like Jimmy Olson was allowed to assume -- or the character to perform the morally ambiguous act) would garner an outcry of a different sort.

I look at the characters, not at their roles in the greater picture. I've never really read things into how gender issues play out in comics. I grew up with what would be considered anti-feminist views and became a feminist, not because of what I saw in fiction, but because of what I saw in the real world and from my parents teaching me that everyone deserves the same chances.

AND now....

I don't want Selina not affected by the killing. She took a life, albeit a despicable one. She wouldn't be human if she wasn't affected. Nor is she a soldier or warrior trained in the necessity of killing and its aftereffects. Even soldiers suffer PTSD. I write spy stories and deal with this issue. My various characters handle killings differently. Some act as assassins, some kill in defense, and others have made judgment calls for what could be considered executions. Each acts and reacts as per his/her personality, not to fill some gender role.

Has it been so long that no one remembers Dick "killing" the Joker? Bruce will always be Bruce, always self-righteous. As with any long established character, he's changed over the years. As with any longstanding character, he has a personality and has been interpreted by many writers over many years. He wasn't always anti-gun, but that's become a defining characteristic as times changed. Every decade or so, he's been returned to his roots. The campy Batman of the '60s gave way to a darker caped vigilante of the '90s, but the anti-war movement, the striking down of the death penalty, and the CCA battles and a whole change in public opinion pretty much prevented Batman from ever becoming an avenging vigilante.

I wish more male characters were ambiguous. The most I've seen such things played out was in Green Lantern/Green Arrow, where Ollie had seen the light and was as zealous as any convent to a cause, debating Hal whose eyes were first being opened to inequities. I saw Ollie's personality sharpened, I saw him become an arrogant, self-righteous jerk whose opinions I mostly agreed with, because he had to change in order to remain a viable character and not be simply a clone of Batman who used bows and arrows instead of batarangs. More typical, it's been the junior heroes who have struggled emotionally. Roy Harper and most recently, Dick Grayson.

Superman is "truth, justice, and the American Way." He can't accept killing. He also can kill with a tap and has had to keep his powers in check unless going up against a being as powerful as himself lest he accidentally kill someone. He's not someone we can expect to sympathize with Wonder Woman or Selina and the choices they made.

Batman had taken a stand against what he views as murder -- any killing -- and his ego won't let him back down. His ego never lets him back down, even when he grudgingly allows himself a gesture of decency, most recently, in the latest Green Lantern (I'll review that soon). And his speech to Dick in the latest Nightwing was wonderful. He's right a lot of the time; just not all the time as he seems to think he is.

Wonder Woman, and to an extent, Catwoman, are characters who were never so clearly defined. They changed over the decades, becoming different things. Diana even went powerless for a stretch and there was a time she wasn't even Wonder Woman. Selina, too, has changed, and the mind wipe revelation was the best explanation of a retcon I've ever seen. And right now, percentage-wise, I find the female heroes in the DCU more interesting than the males. They are more emotionally complex. They struggle more with their feelings. They deal with issues beyond good vs evil. Roy Harper, dealing with the stigma of past drug addiction he can't seem to shake, fears for his daughter, and the aftermath of being shot 5 times and nearly dying, and Dick Grayson, struggling with the aftermath of his complicity in Blockbuster's death, are notable exceptions.

Some people will always view killing as unjustified murder no matter what, where others draw different lines. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about core concepts and their fuzzy borders. Applied to killing, muder can include or not executions, self-defense, euthanasia, etc. And yes, more female characters lately are excluding more types of killing from murder than the men, but we can't expect the men to turn around and say, Yes, Diana, Yes, Selina, you were right and we were wrong. Those bastards needed to be killed. It's simply not in their nature, as established over the years, to see it that way. Comics today, characters today if they existed for a lot of years, are still the product of all those years and stories.

There's a spectrum of gender-related personality. At the far ends are the stereotypical males and females, with most folks falling somewhere in the middle, at some point on the bell curve. That we are seeing female characters taking stands, making the tough decisions, doing the dirty deeds that need doing isn't, IMO, sexist or putting out the wrong message. It's simply good character development. How well it's handled is what concerns me, not that it happens at all. And I consider the lack of understanding of the men to reflect on their character, not on the storytelling. And I wish we would see more of this sort of thing with the male characters. Then trhings would truly be equal. When we no longer feel the need to discuss this issue.

At least, that's how I see it. And I could probably rant on about this for quite a while longer. But I won't. At least, not now. :)


  1. Anonymous8:51 PM EST

    Hi Shelly!

    Nice post, and I appreciated the comments you made over at Mortlake.

    I agree with just about everything you say. Catwoman and Wonder Woman made autonomous, defensible choices, and, personally, I applaud what they did. What concerns me, however, is that way in which their choices are being managed and interpreted by the guys that I'm calling "the architects of the DCU."

    For instance, Catwoman's mind-wipe/retcon is a prime example of a plot element mandated by "the architects": it certainly didn't grow out of what was actually happening in the book. If we're trying to explain how Selina Kyle went from an amoral thief to the heroic defender of Gotham's East End, Ed Brubaker's explanation, which takes into account the character's ability to learn from her mistakes (and triumphs) while autonomously managing the complex relationships in her life, makes really good sense. Having "the changeover" explained by mind-wipe mojo laid down by Zatanna is simply less satisfactory.

    That said, I think that Will Pfeiffer is doing an excellent job in wringing all that he can out of the mind-wipe that's now a component of Catwoman's past. In addition, as December's sales figures show, there's been a clear benefit to having Catwoman linked up with the wider themes and storylines that are currently roiling the DCU. (The book saw a considerable bump in sales.) It's just a shame that "the architects" of the DCU decided that a long-ago mind-wipe of Selina was the most effective way to achieve this beneficial thematic linkage.

    Finally, I too wish that more of the DCU's male characters were written in more nuanced ways. And your comments about the DCU's women are right on: they are a varied, complex, and interesting bunch. (Seeing that I have Catwoman, Wonder Woman, and Birds of Prey on my pull list, my comic store clerk asked me last week why I read so many of DC's "girl-titles.")

  2. I don't disagree with you. I guess, having had so many of my favorite characters retconned after Crisis on Multiple Earths into unrecognizability, I've gotten a bit jaded, and then learned to just ignore a lot of crap that comes with characters by committee. And I suppose I've gotten good at filling in the gaps on my own.

    Re: Selina, I can see that the mind-wipe doesn't negate what Brubaker did, but added a level of complexity to it. Maybe Selina's change was her doing, but now she's not sure. And yes, Pfeifer is doing a wonderful job with what he has to work with.

    There will always be corporate decisions driving a lot of the creative endeavors in comics. I've learned to accept that. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have been able to end my near-decade-long boycott of comics after Crisis on Multiple Earths and the loss of some of my fav characters; ie. Kara Supergirl to death, Helena Wayne Huntress to a complete rebooting of the character.

    So, I'm willing to see where the creators can take things and am enjoying this universe-wide connectivity. As a writer, I wish I could create something so all-encompassing.