Friday, July 15, 2011

Bronze Age Killers

Which hero was the first the break the unspoken comic book rule that heroes don't kill? And I'm not counting gun waving Batman or Machine Gun Bucky.

Those instances are from the somewhat surreal Golden Age when many heroes were soulless Nazi killing machines. The cleansing combination of Comics Code conduct and Silver Age sensibilities did an effective job of keeping the violence in GA comics from having  either a spiritual or literal impact on Bronze Age heroes. In more modern comics, the Golden Age violence has been referenced quite a bit. In some cases resulting in interesting stories, like Ed Brubaker's Captain America run. Others, like DC's failed First Wave line, not so much.

Still, in today's modern world of violent comics, you sort of have to wonder how we got here. Which heroes in the bronze age crossed the line first?

Normally, we associate this paradigm shift with Wolverine and Punisher, and rightfully so. (and possibly Deathlok to some degree.) But were they really the first heroes to mae killing in the Bronze Age acceptable? In those cases, they were seen as sort of antiheroes or rogue heroes whose exceptional behavior proved the rule. I believe nightly news era accounts of the Vietnam War have more to do with violence in comics than the Punisher's rubber bullets. Also, you can see this trend slowly creeping in if you look at other comics from the era. Here are a few examples.

In Avengers 117, during the classic Avengers/Defenders War, the Swordsman (albeit a hero who was once a villain) kills a man:

When I was a kid, this scene made quite an impact on me, and I have to wonder if it didn't play some small role in the Swordsman's death later on in the series (much in the same way that the Phoenix's burning of an entire planet caused Jim Shooter to demand she pay for the crime.)

Next is a death scene I dare you to have forgotten. The classic Cap/Baron Blood showdown from Captain America 257:

When I originally read that scene, I was really shocked by it. Still, the explanation that Captain America was originally a soldier who had most likely killed people during the war was satisfying enough that I didn't have the fan freakout that some people did.

My final example is one a lot of people either haven't read or don't remember, and that's when Princess Projectra makes Nemesis Kid pay the ultimate price for killing her husband Karate Kid.

At the time, I felt she was totally justified in her actions, but looking at it today, I have to sort of quibble with her excuse that she has the she can take the law into her own hands because she was born into the right family. :\

Again, I think we can all agree that the real leaders in the bloody revolution in comics were Wolverine and the Punisher, but I believe these examples indicate other writers were picking up on the climate change as well.

If I missed a similar death scene from the era, please let me know.

Have a great weekend!
- Jim


Anonymous said...

Good post! I might mention Green Goblin killing Gwen Stacy. He wasn't a hero, but it's indicative of a change in tone in comics.


MattComix said...

Hmm. Cap was killing a vampire I think it might count more as a monster-kill than killing another person. Unless there was a way to cure him that wasn't explored by the heroes in-story.

Comics current obsession with death trickled in little by little before it went totally out of control. I get the feeling early on the creators viewed what they were doing as a singular exception to the rule never really thinking that it would one day actually *become* the rule.

Maybe indirectly the first hero to cross was Spider-Man. Obviously he was trying to save Gwen but the lesson learned by publishers would seem to be "If the hero losing his girlfriend can sell books then all bets are off! Death=$$$!"

BrittReid said...

Baron Blood was already dead (or undead), so I don't think he counts.
Princess Projectra simply followed the law as established on her home world. Of course, if the execution wasn't on her planet or at one of her world's embassies, it might be a violation of local law. But since she has diplomatic immunity, nothing, except banishment from the planet (and the Legion, perhaps), could be done to her.
Did The Punisher's first appearance predate Avengers #117?
I don't think ANY non-villain has a higher body count than him, except The Shadow, and he'd been doing it since 1931 (and certainly added during his Silver Age run).


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