Justice is served!

Startin’ right in with Steve

Time for Ron and me to talk about one of my favorite vigilantes, the Scourge of the Underworld. (For those of you late to the show, you can read our previous vigilante discussions in : Eat hot lead, comics reader, What was the question again?, The Big Bang, Wicked good, Vigilantes R Us, In Darkest Knight, The not so secret cabal, A pretty butterfly, Jet and silver, Red goggles at midnight, and Irish rage, Catholic guilt.)

I’ve loved the Scourge from the minute he showed up in Iron Man #194 and blew away the Enforcer. The idea of a vigilante using disguise to sneak up on his victims wasn’t something I’d given any serious thought to before, but the idea really “clicked” with me. It combined with the inspirations from the Punisher and Rorschach already stewing around in my brain, leading me to create the Champions character that eventually inspired me to write Dark Champions and launched my career as an RPG designer. So I owe the Scourge a drink or two, at the very least.

This guy’s not so well-known, so I’ll start with a little background. In 1985-1986, Marvel ran an event called “the Year of the Scourge.” From out of nowhere a new vigilante, skilled at disguise and information-gathering, appeared: the Scourge of the Underworld. He showed up in most major titles of the period, but just for a panel or two, where he’d get close to a villain by impersonating someone harmless, shoot them with his trademark high-powered pistol (with its distinctive Pum-SPAK! sound effect), pronounce his battle-cry, “Justice is served!”, and then vanish. In this manner he knocked off a whole bunch of third-tier villains like the Basilisk, the Hatemonger, the Human Fly, Megatak, the Melter, the Miracle Man, and Titania.

But he was primarily intended as a Captain America villain, and it’s in Captain America #318-320 where his story truly plays out. He knocks off a couple of minor villains (Death Adder and the Blue Streak), by this time inspiring such fear among costumed criminals that they’re committing penny-ante crimes to raise money so they can hide out, or even turning themselves in for protection. This culminates at the end of #319 at an underworld dive called “the Bar With No Name,” where the Scourge, disguised as the bartender, guns down eighteen supervillains in one fell swoop. The list of victims features such luminaries as Bird-Man, Commander Kraken, Cyclone, Firebrand, Mirage, the Ringer, Shellshock, Steeplejack, and Turner D. Century.

After first considering the Punisher and the Foolkiller as suspects and dismissing them, Captain America finally lures the Scourge into a trap and captures him — only to have that man killed in a way that suggested (as had a few other clues along the way) that “the” Scourge was actually an organization of vigilantes, not just one crimefighter. Marc Gruenwald, who created the Scourge, later wrote a USAgent mini-series that clarified a number of matters pertaining to the character, including that “he” was in fact an organization, and that organization’s secret source of funding. (Though whether all that was the actual truth, or it’s changed since then in comics I haven’t read, I can’t say.)

So, what’s so great about all this? Quite a few things, from my perspective:

1. It’s a “big crossover event” that crosses into a bunch of titles (not the whole Marvel line-up — the X-books are notably absent, for one thing) without screwing those titles up. Even by the mid-Eighties the big crossovers were starting to mess up the flow of the ongoing story in some comics, because the individual writers’ ideas and agendas had to play second fiddle to the marketing-driven crossover event. The Scourge creates an “event” that takes place in tiny, dramatic bits, thus tying the heroes together into a “Universe” without making them slaves to the concept. Kind of reminds me of early Marvel, when the “Universe” was defined by one hero occasionally making a brief appearance in another’s book.

2. It’s a brilliant way of making a cool story out of a necessity. Let’s face it, the Marvel Universe is mighty overcrowded with villains (according to one statement in the USAgent mini-series, they outnumber the heroes twenty to one). A lot of them have become pretty much useless due to hero power creep (Commander Kraken, for example) or were pretty much just plain stupid to begin with (I’m looking at you, Turner D. Century). They’re basically wastes of creative space — until someone had the awesome idea of getting rid of them as a story, in-Universe.

(My main complaint here is that they haven’t kept doing it. If I were Marvel Editor-in-Chief, every year the Scourge would gun down four or five villains in various books across the main superhero line. Then, about once every five years, a major storyline featuring Scourge would crop up for 2-4 issues in Captain America or another appropriate book. That way you could keep culling the dead weight and drive stories.)

3. It finally gives us an actual ruthless vigilante for the Marvel Universe. Sure, the Punisher sometimes fills that role. But as we discussed in previous columns, just as often he’s not as violent as we think, or circumstances work out in his favor so he doesn’t have to mercilessly gun someone down in cold blood. And more and more over the years the comics show him only fighting real world-type crime, not supervillains, despite the fact that there are lots of villains out there in desperate need of a bullet to the face.

The Scourge gets around all those problems. He targets only villains, and his creator’s motivation is a straightforward one: to make the world a better place, as a way of making amends for what he sees as his failures during his own costumed hero career in the 1940s. He even uses a method that doesn’t endanger innocents: up-close shooting. When confronted by Captain America, the Scourge refuses to shoot him (despite having a couple of chances to do so) and insists the two of them are on the same side. He points out that not only does he put an end to crime permanently, but claims he’s never shot anyone who hasn’t previously been convicted of a crime by a court of law. Assuming we accept that as true (whether for that one Scourge, or the organization as a whole), it sets him apart from the other vigilantes we’ve discussed in these columns, who don’t feel the need for such niceties. (It also raises the question of what the Scourge would do if confronted by a new villain in the midst of committing a crime.)

In short, the Scourge of the Underworld is just about the purest distillation of the vigilante concept you can imagine in a superhero world.

Nevertheless, he raises some issues. The first is: why invent a new character for this? Admittedly he ends up having an intriguing backstory, but that in and of itself doesn’t justify adding to the Marvel Universe’s population. Why not use the guy they already have who’s known for gunning down criminals: the Punisher? To adopt the same M.O. the Punisher would have to learn a new skill set — but Frank Castle’s a good soldier who can do what it takes to complete a mission. Training to disguise himself and impersonate people for brief periods of time is well within his capabilities. And that assumes you keep the M.O. at all. Most of the Scourge’s kills could be achieved just as easily with precision sniping, which we know the Punisher’s good at. Substitute in his pal Microchip for Scourge’s detective Domino, and you’re good to go.

If I had to guess, I imagine that even if the idea occurred to Marvel, it was rejected partly for marketing reasons and partly for story reasons. But I still think it has some merit. If nothing else I’d like to see what the Punisher thinks of the Scourge’s methods and results, and whether he adopts some of the same methods. (As far as I know the two characters have never encountered or even mentioned each other.)

Second, it fascinates me how the Scourge is a bellwether of his time. Someone at Marvel wants to get rid of a bunch of largely useless villains. What’s the method he comes up with? Kill ’em all. In the Sixties or Seventies I don’t think such an extreme solution would have ever received serious consideration — at that point I imagine Marvel would simply have created a super-prison, chucked all these guys into it, and then forgotten about them for good. But in the Eighties — with crime on the rise (thanks in part to the crack epidemic), the Bernard Goetz incident fresh in everyone’s mind, and a wave of new action movie stars gunning down bad guys in every cineplex across the land — solving the villain problem with a series of high-speed lead injections was just the thing.

Time to hear what Ron thinks. Ron?

Oh, schmerved

One of these is not like the others.

I  missed this whole thing in the 80s. After getting back into comics in 1986 or so, most of my attention was focused on pre-Vertigo DC titles (e.g. Swamp Thing), First Comics, Comico, Eclipse, et al., and – perhaps not uncommonly – the only mainstream superhero stuff I followed were the X-titles, although not for long. All that is to provide “wasn’t there, can’t see it from here” context for saying …

… I pretty much hate the whole idea. It’s not really the morality of it, although more on that in a moment, but rather that the villains – for whom, you understand, my heart beats more fondly than for almost any hero – shoot, even my favorite heroes are all ex-villains – were conceived to be so fundamentally stupid.

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t about “realism” because much as I’d like to pretend it is, it’s more about what’s going on – the nuts and bolts of stories. I’ll toss out a few related points rather than write an essay, with any luck prompting (i) a rejoinder from Steve and (ii) unstructured collective insights in the comments.

The first is death as spectacle, which by this point had become nearly self-parody. The form I’m talking about started with the shock of Elektra and Phoenix, both taken terribly seriously and which remain fandom-dividers to this day. These were followed by the various individualized knock-offs mandated probably as sales-boosting tactics as well as a certain shift to focus on the top-marketing heroes without distractions, e.g. Spider-Woman, which at least pretended to be dramatic. But next? Death neithe ras drama nor even sales-booster, but as an expected feature, and also as a running joke – well into self-parody territory.

I’m not saying it utterly lacks appeal. I’m especially taken with the all-white costume which generates the effect of a black-and-white magazine character who has somehow escaped into the four-color world, which does match the themes perfectly.

Couple that with exactly what you describe in the movies and in general, the idea that a certain subset of society are criminals and the rest of are emphatically not. My take is that this simply removes the story from grounding with reality. It becomes confirmatory of a specific world-view rather than a reality-shock to anyone’s. I’m a huge supporter of even the most extreme material in service to the latter. I am generally disgusted with the former even when the world-view being supported matches my own (examples available upon request).

You missed a spot.

And that’s why “the villains are stupid” is part of this. Not because “they wouldn’t be, in reality,” which is more of the illogic that Steve criticized when people bitch about Batman and due process. But because villains are about things, and common as it is for this quality to be badly served in application, it’s a rare villain indeed who is completely lacking in potential. Here, though, they’re converted into the made-up construct called criminals, malevolent-meets-stupid people who do nothing but prey upon society, which itself, without them, would be excellent. Peaceful. Safe. Secure. Prosperous. Rewarding to the hard-working. Just, or rather, beyond justice because that’s not needed in a land finally purged of bad two-legged cockroaches.

It so happens that I think there do exist people who have committed to harming others to the extent that I can’t really think of anything to do with them beyond a quick cattle-bolt. But few of them are those who are called, in modern real life as well as in the media entertainment, criminals. It’s right in the guy’s name: there isn’t any “underworld.” The term literally makes no sense. Making him the scourge thereof turns the whole thing uninteresting – unengaging, irrelevant. If he decided there are Bad People who need taking out, I’d like to know what Bad is to him, and to see how it shows up – and this means he identifies it accurately, which is fine – across the range of the general population.

I’ll be happy to deal with the romanticizing of Goetz – which applies even to the most basic “what he did” unquestioned narrative – without clutching pearls and in full acknowledgment that any of us might kill another person, in the comments.

STEVE FIRES BACK

Fair enough. Not everyone has to like everything, after all. It would be a mighty dull world otherwise.

But I can’t agree with much of your perspective on this vigilante. I think the point you raise about the deaths of Phoenix and Elektra is an interesting one, but I also think that the fact that later deaths aren’t as deeply considered, or have such a strong impact, doesn’t mean that those latter deaths are “bad” or “less interesting.” In this particular case I think they’re just as compelling, in their own way.

For me, the observation that “a certain subset of society” is defined as criminal, and the rest are not, falls short. For one thing, it invalidates a huge percentage of great pulp stories, comic books, and movies over the past century, if not before. I don’t think that making such a distinction for entertainment purposes is a problem in and of itself (though of course a creator could abuse that power to advance an agenda other than entertainment). Even in the real world, a certain subset of society is, in fact, criminal. The issue for me is who defines “criminal,” and that is what makes the character concept of “the vigilante” such a fascinating (and analyzable) one.

Moreover, even if I accept as valid the idea that the “defining certain people as criminals” is per se bad/counterproductive, I can’t see how any such objection pertains in this case. At least in the primary storyline I wrote about, the Scourge (despite his name) doesn’t take on the entire “underworld” the way the Punisher, the Vigilante, Rorschach, and other heroes we’ve written about do. He specifically targets costumed criminals — or supervillains, to use the parlance — who have previously been convicted of a crime or crimes in a court of law. He doesn’t have to “define certain people as criminals” because his targets define themselves as criminals. They put on gaudy costumes to draw attention to themselves and commit crimes while wearing them. We as readers, and the fictional people in the Marvel Universe, have seen every single one of them commit serious crimes — usually multiple times.

This also touches on the issue of “what is Bad to [the Scourge], and to see how it shows up… in the general population.” He’s told us exactly what he thinks is Bad, not only by his actions (which are much more constrained and focused than any other vigilante we’ve written about) but by explicit statements in the story. Would it make the story better if we somehow dug into his psychology more? Sure (assuming that’s possible given that multiple Scourges exist — the guy who really needs closer examination is the founder who gives the orders). But the fact that the story doesn’t do this doesn’t mean it’s a poorly-done tale; it just chooses another focus.

The topic of “who are the real criminals” (or “who really deserves to have Justice served to them”) is definitely one worth discussing — I’m sure it’ll come up in our discussion of the Foolkiller in our next column, for example. But I think that taking issue with “the idea that a certain subset of society are criminals and the rest of are emphatically not” simply doesn’t work with regard to the Scourge. Sure, someone else not wearing a costume may deserve the Scourge’s brand of Justice just as much as, or more than, his victims. But that doesn’t invalidate the Scourge’s actions, or render them immoral or foolish when his targets who are, in fact, criminals beyond any shadow of a doubt. At worst it’s a waste of good crimefighting resources.

Nor do I think that the purpose of “reality shocking” the world-view of a reader is, or should be, the only/true purpose of comic books, or any other form of entertainment. For one thing, I think the idea that every story has to be “shocking” or “transformative” does a disservice to entertainment as a whole — particularly so with regard to popular entertainment forms like pulp stories, comic books, and TV shows that have to generate a large amount of content on short deadlines. Not everything can be new and exciting and impactful in the same way as, for example, the death of Jean Grey.

I don’t think that criticizing stories, characters, and events in entertainment for being “confirmatory of a specific world-view” accomplishes much. It seems to me that virtually every story confirms some world-view, even if it’s a world-view held only by a small number of people (presumably including the creator of that story). For example, the death of Jean Grey confirms the view held by Jim Shooter, and a lot of other people, that serious actions should have serious consequences — in effect, that you have to sleep in the bed you’ve made. And the fact that it confirms that world-view doesn’t make it any less a good story.

I certainly agree that every villain, at least in theory, has potential. In an ideal world, every villain would not only have potential, he’d get to realize it at the hands of a talented writer and artist. But if we become upset that some villains end up getting treated as disposable, we’re simply shouting at the rain. The reality is that if you publish dozens of comics for dozens of years, you end up with some villains that just aren’t nearly as interesting — or who have nearly as much potential — as others.

Finding a way to clean your house of a few dozen — out of thousands — of these less intriguing villains that generates an interesting story is a good thing, in my opinion. That’s why Gruenwald never shows the Scourge killing anyone who even remotely matters in the Marvel Universe. If he disposed of someone the writers and editors felt they could craft a good story with, he’d be making the MU worse in the overall scheme of things. But when the most prominent villain he kills is Death Adder — who can’t even talk — it seems to me that we don’t need to waste any time or brain space worrying about the lost potential in these villains.

In conclusion I have to say: clearly we picked the correct vigilante to write about just before we wrap things up with the Foolkiller, where all these issues come center stage in a really compelling way. See you next column. 😉

Next: Not a dream

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Posted on April 24, 2016, in Guest posts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. If I get what you’re both saying, it seems to me that Ron’s objection is that the Scourge treats criminality as an identity, instead of a pattern of behavior that people might or might not engage in (and might or might not be justified or “right,” depending on their society and a host of other factors). And the Scourge story, as far as I know, never raised that question. Plenty of these convicted supervillains were likely guilty of armed robbery and nothing more malevolent. And yet it’s the death penalty for all of them.

    Sorry. Interrupted. More later.

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  2. Let’s burst it out a little. It’s been clear to me since the start of the series (and to Steve too; we chat about this stuff off-line every few weeks) that “comics vigilante” of this period is a mash-up, not one single thing. But it’s a significant, historically meaningful mash-up that certainly means a thing, and we’re messing about trying to get what that it is, from various angles that strike one or the other of us as useful.

    Some of the mash-up is stuff that really isn’t to do with vigilantism as such – the anger management, the gun as such, a certain range of hair-style, the veteran issue, and a couple more.

    I would have included the secret identity issue or rather, identity crisis relative to one’s actions per se, in that list, but it turns out to be more core after all, even it looks like mere genre convention. Hiding one’s face is a big deal in human social affairs, and in comics it takes on nuances beyond the socio-political realities. There’s a lot of range from the mask being one’s true face (which I argue applies very well to the O’Neil tradition for Batman, but turns out to be exactly and admirably incorrect for Rorschach), to the other extreme of the mask being an excuse to retreat into a more objectified world. Not much of it has to do, interestingly, with literally keeping one’s identity a secret. The Punisher’s name and face are well-known; he wears his mask on his chest.

    I want to focus on two issues which I think do lie right at the core; they both have to be there, but they only pretend to be the same thing.

    The first is the law. This is the literal core-definition of vigilante, when actions purported to be law-enforcement are carried out without official sanction. In this context, the word “vigilante” is literally criminal, but on the other hand, I described in a previous comment the two conditions under which both the people doing it and a fair amount of the populace are OK with it. Arguably if that’s not the case the term is irrelevant and the guy is merely a loon.
    But if it is, then the term “law” becomes becomes close to reality, because in reality, there is no The Law. Laws are never anything but pieces of paper, and what concerns us is policy. The vigilante (whether KKK or Deacons for Defense, to dramatize my own view of the two conditions) is actually perfect correct to say, if I can do it, and if it works out the way I’m aiming for, and if you can’t stop me, then it becomes law. Whether anyone writes it up as a piece of paper later is a secondary issue.

    This is also why the built-in contradiction of someone like the Punisher ranting about “criminals” and “law-breakers” while committing first-degree murder “to uphold the law” isn’t merely stupidity, or for that matter, psychosis. He isn’t talking about the pieces of paper.

    The second is passion, or perhaps the better word is mission. The character’s life-experience is simultaneously distinctive, which is to say, extreme, and identifiable, which is to say, ordinary. What he or she went through is exactly what the rest of us do, only more so, and therefore what he or she says and has begun to do, is what we would say and do too. Lose that, and again, the character is merely a loon.

    As I see it, these two things are completely independent although they can intersect. I’m finding that I’m particularly intolerant of the implication, in many of these titles, that they are not independent, such that an insistence upon an extreme version of one is taken to be (in fact is textually identified as) justification of the other. It’s nothing but sloppy logic.

    I don’t know if I’m making clear why I find the Punisher compelling (particularly his earlier version, culminating in the Daredevil appearance), which incidentally wasn’t the case prior to working on these posts, but find the Scourge contemptible not only as a character, but as a story device too. It’s because he’s hiding behind the pieces of paper. Saying, “each one was convicted in a court of law” is wuss vigilante. What is he, a bailiff? If a guy doesn’t get convicted, is he off-limits for the Scourge? If he gets convicted but receives a suspended sentence, is he fair game for the Scourge? Take some fuckin’ responsibility, man.

    The larger issue is “what is a criminal” as we batted around in the post, and that one definitely can get worked over here too. Let’s see some more comments.

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  3. A few random comments:

    1A. Regarding the idea of masks, I think it’s worth noting that the Punisher fought crime without one for twelve years without anyone knowing his real identity. I think Marvel made the conscious decision not to reveal it to keep him more mysterious and intriguing. When his limited series came out in 1986, they broke down and told us his real name on literally the very first page. Ever since then anyone in the military, mercenary, espionage, terrorist, or crimefighting worlds seems to know it.

    1B. As a side note on the issue of masks and society — Ron, if you’ve never read Jack Vance’s short story “The Moon Moth,” stop whatever you’re doing, track down a copy, and read it. I think it’ll prompt some thinking on these points, or at least serve as an entertaining example. It’s been anthologized frequently.

    2. If I’m following your thoughts on mission — on experience and response — and I like to think I am, I find myself in partial agreement. I think one thing that makes these characters so compelling is that they’re “identifiable.” We can envision what happened to them, happening to us (unlike, say, going up in a rocket and being hit by cosmic rays, or being from an alien world).

    To a certain extent we can also envision doing what they do: taking up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. Who among us hasn’t thought to himself, “If only I had a gun/lasers built into my car*/political power/a lot of money/a giant robot, that guy would get what he deserves”? But the fact is even if we had a gun, most of us would never use it, for all sorts of very good reasons.

    What sets these vigilante characters apart — what makes them larger than life, dramatic, fascinating, worth reading about — is that they don’t follow that limit we impose on ourselves. They transcend the moral/legal restriction that’s allowed something bad to happen, putting themselves in a position to stop the Bad Thing. They’re more concerned with getting a Good Result than Following the Rules (in other words, with the potential consequences to themselves of violating the restriction).

    This is why I tend to get frustrated when people say (and sometimes comic writers write) that the Punisher (or Batman) is motivated by revenge. He wants revenge on the Mob, on the underworld, on the specific criminals who killed his family. Maybe he does, on some level, but a desire for revenge alone doesn’t lead to a years-long crusade that puts his life in danger every day. The Punisher’s ultimate motivation, like Batman’s, is to obtain the Good Result: that other people not suffer what he suffered at the hands of evil men. He doesn’t want revenge, he wants to protect society. When he’s well-written, that comes through; when he’s not, he’s just another bland action hero in a silly shirt.

    The paradox, as you say, is that a vigilante must step outside the constraints of society to protect society: an Aristotlean dilemma for sure. For years I’ve tried to craft an RPG that captures this conflict and uses it to drive the narrative of the game, but I still haven’t made it work quite to my satisfaction. Someday….

    *: I, for one, have certainly never daydreamed about using car lasers to zap other drivers out of existence. That would be mean-spirited.

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  4. So, I’m kinda fascinated by this “Year of the Scourge” thing, because it may map onto the things I think are prerequisites in a vigilante story. I think about those as first, a situation where something need/ought to be done, and second, a failure of the expected people/methods/institutions/etc. to do so (at least to the satisfaction of someone – the more someones, the better). What I see with the Year of the Scourge is a … editorial, I guess … problem with a proliferation of villains, often minor-ish, and an absence of how to deal with that. Enter the Scourge. Now, to be compelling, you need to do something interesting with those prerequisites (and to be vigilante-oriented, you need the law/policy/societal sanction issues, sure). And it seems Steve and Ron disagree about just how interesting the Scourge STORIES are – but as setup, I’m struck by how well he fits as vigilante-response to a practical comicbook (or more accurately, multi-book editorial management) problem.

    All of which is probably minor reorganizing of what y’all have already said. But I’ll add this – I think that if we look at JUST the two prerequisites, (which could be collapsed into “Someone needs to do something about [all this crime]!!)”, we can see why someone like Goetz is subject to under-considered romanticizing. It is true (for some people) that something needed to be done, and he did something. Never mind the details (and it pains me to even type that), that’s a [gargggargarckk…] victory, right?

    PS – Knowing Ron’s admiration for Vance, I’ll bet he’s familiar with “The Moon Moth.”

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  5. Never have I engaged in badinage with Ron regarding Sieur Vance, so I was uninformed of his interest in one of my favorite purveyors of written entertainments. 😉

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  6. I missed this post, maybe it was not notified or i was busy, but I just read it today. And I have to say that I agree with Ron, but that’s not the full story. See, I DID read the original SotU stories at the time. And I remember hating them. And I am not using the word “hate” lightly. Yes, i considered the character boring and uninteresting, the storyline uninspired, but that would not rate a “I hate it” result. The hate was for two core concept:
    1) if a character is “considered stupid”, the most “intelligent” things to do is…. kill him off in a panel as a joke, or remove it in some way. Well… WHY? There is a limited space in the list of characters? There is some worry that a new “marvel handbook of a list of characters” would be too long? Or that some high-brow reader attracted by Watchmen would find Cyclone too silly?
    I mean, it’s obvious that Gruenwald and others considered some character too “silly” to be useful. After all, who can use silly characters, like… Rocket Racoon, Groot, Deadpool, Squirrel Girl, Kraven the Hunter, or even Kilgrave? These are characters, each of them, that were considered stupid, because who would ever be interested in them?
    Some author, when he doesn’t have any good idea about a character, says “I don’t have good ideas about them, better leave them for people who do”. Others, say “if i don’t know how to use them, it’s obvious that the reason is that these are stupid character. Let’s remove them and leave only the characters that I like”.
    2) “Murder is what makes a comic book intelligent”. This was very common: hordes of comic book authors reading The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, and all they could get from their success is “people like them because there are more murders, that is what makes these stories be so successful”. And we got Scourge, Spawn, the Death of Superman, and all these “dark and edgy” comics book that drove most of the readers away…

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