Wednesday, February 06, 2019

My Heroes Have Always Been Killers

One of the very first articles I ever wrote was this extended essay about why Wolverine should e allowed to be a killer. The article was my measured response to a statement from then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, who was reacting to an X-Men story written by Chris Claremont where Wolverine (apparently) killed a couple of thugs during an X-Man Op. Shooter took exception to the killing, stating that “Heroes don't kill” a sentiment to which I took exception. This then was my response. 

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John “Duke” Wayne, who was presented with a medal from the Congress of the United States proclaiming him to be “An American,” killed someone in every movie he ever made...or at least that is the way it had seemed to me when I was growing up. Charlton Heston portrayed several Biblical and historical figures, many of whom were killers. Jimmie Stewart and James Cagney were killers, as were Edward G. Robinson, Bogie, and Bruce Lee, and so too is Tarl Cabot of Ko-ra-ba (from John Norman’s Gor series). They are all killers, yet all are heroes of mine.

Americans have always been big on hero worship, and I am no exception. Killing is wrong, but so many of my heroes have been killers that it is often hard to separate the man from the act. I suppose that the myth that good guys wear white and do not kill is inbred in all of us (or that is what they would like us to believe). We are told that killing is immoral because it says so in the Bible. The fifth Commandment says “Thou shalt not kill.” That settles it. Except that it does not...not really.

A truer translation of that Commandment would read “Thou shalt not commit murder.” That is to say that one should not callously and maliciously take the life of another. And in spite of what anyone tells you, heroes do kill. At least all of my heroes have. But now, even that is changing.

Normally I am a Jim Shooter supporter, but he made a statement that is so foolish that it borders on the ridiculous. In an interview that was printed in FantaCo Enterprises’ The X-Men Chronicles, Shooter stated: “I don’t want the (Marvel) heroes killing people...“This was in reference to the fact that the character Wolverine has been described as a homicidal maniac and that he has been shown clawing up several people to the point of death. To this (which was also brought up in the interview), Jim responded “...one thing that I am forcing Chris (Claremont) and Louise (Jones) to do is to establish that Wolverine hasn’t killed anyone.”

This has been done in X-Men. As it turns out, the men that Wolverine slashed up (in X-Men #133) were “repaired” with bionic parts. While that lets Wolverine (and Chris Claremont) off the hook, I am afraid that it only begs the question at hand. Why is it that heroes cannot kill? As already established, heroes have already done so. As a matter of fact, the history of the Marvel universe is replete with heroes who are killers.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, Combat Kelly, and Captain Savage all mowed down Germans during World War II as though the “lager-slurping goose-steppers” were wheat. Further still, Sgt. Fury came back as Colonel Fury, head of the international spy organization SHIELD, and he, along with his agents, cut down Hydra, AIM, and Secret Empire agents with equal abandon. There is also Marvel’s horde of Western heroes, Two-Gun Kid, Kid Colt, Night Rider, and the rest. These men would gun down owlhoots and polecats as soon as roll a cigarette. Granted, while Marvel publishes neither war nor western comics any more, they did publish, until very recently, the spy comic Master of Kung Fu. In MOKF there were several heroes that kill (Leiko Wu, Clive Reston, and Black Jack Tarr, just to name a few). As a matter of fast, in more than just a few of his martial arts confrontations Shang-Chi himself has taken the life of his foes.

I certainly agree that the medium should not portray graphic violence, and I am not suggesting a return to the “blood ‘n’ guts” of the early EC Comics. But heroes can kill. The most flagrant exceptions to Jim Shooter’s decree of heroes not killing are King Kull, Red Sonja, and Marvel’s number one selling killer, Conan the Barbarian. While Kull and Sonja no longer have regular comic books, Conan is still going strong. Now does Jim expect us to believe that Conan has neither killed, nor will he do so in the future? Somehow that seems more than just a bit far-fetched. Do you suppose that in the future Conan will be forced to carry a rubber “mercy sword” so as not to give off a bad image to the kiddies? He would be laughed out of the barbarians’ union.

What is the matter with killing? It is American as Mom and apple pie. And besides, there are still more killers at Marvel. Most of Marvel’s licensed characters kill; James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, and the rest of the Star Wars cast kill. Will Jim have all of them stop killing too? Still one can argue that licensed characters are just that...licensed, and that they were killers before they came to Marvel. Therefore, there is no reason why they cannot kill now. This would exempt everyone from Gullivar Jones to Indiana Jones. Somehow though, that does not seem right. If Wolverine cannot kill, no one else should be able to either. After all, the same kiddies who buy the X-Men are picking up Star Wars and Conan.

Jim’s attitude seems to be that portraying Wolverine as a homicidal maniac encourages young children to go out, have adamantium claws implanted in their wrists, and carve up their friends. To any rational person this seems hardly likely. Still, the issue at hand is violence, and violence is very much a part of superheroing...and killing is a part of violence. Bad guys kill, and sometimes (though not as often) good guys kill, too.


Much to his credit, Jim Shooter did say that when Chris is ready to have Wolverine kill someone, he would want Chris to, “... play it out, address that new conflict...have the guy brought to trial. Let’s see if it’s OK for him to kill someone. Let’s see if it was self-defense. Or was it not necessary? And if it wasn’t, what do they do?” What he had in mind was probably along the lines of what happened to Iron Man in issues #124-127 of his own book, when he blew away (literally) the Carnelian Ambassador. As it turned out for Iron Man, his armor was being controlled by Justin Hammer, and thus Shellhead was exonerated. Yet, what Jim has failed to realize is that Chris has already addressed the issue of Wolverine killing.

There are at least three specific incidents in which Wolverine has killed, or potentially killed; the first lime was in X-Men #116, while the X-Men were in the Savage Land. Wolverine, Storm, and Nightcrawler were attempting to save Cyclops, Banshee, Colossus, and Ka-Zar from Garokk and the High Priestess Zaladane. As they entered the citadel where their friends were being held, they chanced upon a guard. Wolverine stated “... this guy’s mine.” So saying, he stalked forward. In the next panel we saw Nightcrawler and Storm wince in horror as we heard the telltale “snikt” of Wolverine’s claws, indicating that he has cut down the guard. (One cannot help but to wonder if Jim will ‘‘force” Chris to have the X-Men return to the Savage Land and show that the guard never truly died, but survived, and was “rebuilt” with dinosaur parts.) The second lime he “killed” is the aforementioned time where he carved up those three goons at the Hellfire Club. The third incident took place in the X-Men’s 1981 annual (#5), when they went up against the forces of the Badoon in defense of Arkon’s world.

For the first killing, I would like to take as Wolverine’s defense the same as was taken by the writer of the letter column of the now defunct comic Shanna the She-Devil. In issue #2 of that book, Shanna was held prisoner by the Slavers. While in her cell she faked a fight with her pet jungle cats Ina and Biri (also taken captive), pretending to be in great danger. The guard, not wanting any harm to come to Shanna — as per his master’s orders — rushed into the cell to protect her. Once he was in the cell, Shanna had the cats turn on him and claw him to death. The fans were outraged. How. could such a thing come to pass?

Well, the person who answered the letters (I believe it to be the author of the book) put it this way: “We wonder...if, instead of Shanna and the leopards, it had been, say, Sgt. Fury pretending to get into a fight with Dum Dum (as Shanna did with Ina and Biri) in order to lure a Nazi guard into his cell (as Shanna did with the Slaver) and then shooting him in order to escape.” The answerer went on to say that “...in the last analysis, what Shanna did was necessary in her role as a SHIELD operative.”

The same can be said of Wolverine. He is, after all, a military man, and thus thinks along strategic lines. If he had merely knocked the guard unconscious, the guard could have regained consciousness and sounded an alarm, thus preventing the X-Men’s escape. Dead, the guard was resolved as a possible threat. In a combat situation (which this was), any military man would have done the same thing.


While I am on the subject, I would like to (belatedly) address a criticism of this event that was raised by Richard Howell and Carol Kalish in The Comics Journal #49. They had objected to the “moral” Storm’s admiration of Wolverine’s “immoral” act of killing. They seemed to have had overlooked just what she meant when she compared him to “...the great cats of the veldt. When he strikes there is no mercy in him.” She was not truly admiring him, but rather she realized that he could no more feel mercy for the guard (his foe) than could a cat for its prey. Storm could no more object to Wolverine killing than she could to the cat killing. Both only do so when it is necessary. Further support for this stance comes from, oddly enough, Shang-Chi. In Master of Kung Fu #97, Shang’s Siamese cat caught a dove, tortured it, and left it for dead. This upset Leiko Wu, and she mourned for the bird because it never had the chance to be “... what it could have been, what it should have been.” Shang’s reply was short and to the point: “... the cat, Leiko, never had a choice to be anything else.” Storm understood this of Wolverine. So too should Jim Shooter.

It is within this new light that we are better able to understand the second “killing” incident in X-Men #133. Four men with automatic weapons were stalking Wolverine. In the fight that ensued, Wolverine sliced up three of them and convinced the fourth one to drop his gun and tell him where the rest of the X-Men were. Was it wrong of Wolverine to kill the men? Perhaps; but as previously established, it is as much a part of his nature to kill as it is to breathe. Breathing is a necessary act to live, and sometimes to survive (especially against automatic weapons), it is necessary to kill. Once again, in a combat situation, Wolverine had to be sure that his foes would no longer pose a threat to him, and the only way he could do that (he felt) was to kill them.

Wolverine once defended these very same killer instincts in a conversation with Nightcrawler (issue #140) in this fashion:

Kurt, in my life l’ve been two things: a wartime soldier and a secret agent. As one, my government paid me to kill; as the other they licensed me to kill. I was very good at both jobs. They liked that an’ I got the medals and commendations to prove it. A man comes at me with his fists, I’ll meet him with fists. But if he pulls a gun — or threatens people I’m protectin’ — then I got no sympathy for him. He made his choice. He’ll have to live — or die — with it. I never use my claws on someone who hadn’t tried to kill me first. I call that self-defense.
No one condemns the cop on the beat for killing the armed assailant, yet Wolverine is being punished for the very same act.

In the third incident, the X-Men had been summoned to the aid of Arkon and his warrior world against the might of the Badoon. Once more, just prior to battle, Nightcrawler questioned Wolverine about the use of his claws. Wolverine responded thusly: “They ain’t here for show, ‘Crawler. Of course I’ll use them. This is war, pal, an’ I’m a soldier. The Badoon are the enemy. I’m gonna show them the same mercy they’d show me.” Kurt persisted with his objections and Logan responded by saying, “Lay off, Kurt! I don’t hear you askin’ Sashia an’ the warlords their intentions.” Then as if to add impact to this statement, not four pages later Sashia (one of Arkon’s warriors, and the one who summoned the X-Men) hurled a knife into the chest of a Badoon. If the Badoon did not die, it was not for the lack of trying on Sashia’s part.

Wolverine, it seems then, is the only hero who is being prevented from killing, for virtually every other new X-Man has killed, and not one objection has ever been raised. Colossus (under instructions from Cyclops — making Cyclops just as culpable) killed Proteus. To be sure, he did not use a gun or claws, but he stood there on that castle battlement in Scotland and landed a haymaker on Proteus with that organic steel fist of his, knowing full well that it would kill Moira MacTaggert’s son. Then there is Nightcrawler, who has attempted to dissuade Wolverine from killing; he, too, has killed. Twice.

The first time was related in a flashback in X-Men Annual #4: Kurt told how he slew his gypsy half-brother Stefan. Granted, it was done at the request of Stefan (Stefan foresaw the day when he would tum evil and extracted the promise from Kurt to kill him) and Nightcrawler really did not want to kill Stefan, but he did, in fact, do the deed. The second time Kurt killed was a year later in X-Men Annual #5. During the battle with the Badoon, they had engaged the stargate in an attempt to teleport more troops to aid in the subjugation of Arkon’s World. While the gate was activated (and when undoubtably troops were being transported). Nightcrawler fired a blaster into the matrix of the gate, causing it to explode. It was never specifically stated that anyone (on either side of the gate) was killed in the blast, but if no one was, it would have had to be a miracle of no small proportions.

Even the gentle Storm has killed. Though we have never seen the act, she refers to it in X-Men #152. After having had re-exchanged her and Emma Frost’s personalities to their own bodies with the persona exchange module, she cried out, “Hear me, Emma Frost! As a child I swore never again to kill. But tonight, I’ll break that vow.” (Emphasis mine.) Needless to say, she did not kill Emma Frost, but one must ask, whom, then, did she kill? And what were the circumstances surrounding the act? There is another who has killed, Professor X, mentor to the X-Men.


In a flashback related to Lilandra (X-Men #117), Majestrix of the Shi’ar Galaxy, he met and killed, in a psychic duel, the evil mutant Amahil Farouk. Unlike the killings of his students, this was no act of self-defense. The Professor actually sought out and challenged Farouk to the duel. Conceivably the Professor could have said to the offer to join Farouk, “No, but thanks for the offer,” and then left the bar and went home. But no, he had to not only refuse Farouk’s offer, but stay, pick a fight with him, and then kill him. Why could he not just have stripped Farouk of his powers? Perhaps it is as Wolverine stated in X-Men Annual HS, “Killing comes with the territory. It can’t be avoided.”

Jim Shooter has claimed that his heroes will not kill, and he has held up Wolverine to make an example of him...yet the killings go on. In issue #38 of Micronauts, Commander Rann related a story of when he was just Prince Rann. He told how he was assaulted by several assassins, whom he dispatched with a grim finality. And as long as the subject of the Micronauts has come up, all of them have killed, or at least potentially killed. In all of their high-pitched lasersonic battles with the forces of Baron Karza, and later the Force Commander, if no one has “bought the farm,” it’s again not for want of trying. For example, when the HMS Endeavor is involved in a dogfight at several meters (several kilometers to the Lilliputian Micronauts) and a ship is shot down, someone must die in the resulting explosion and/or crash. Just because the reader does not see any broken and twisted bodies in the ruins of the demolished ship, it does not make the deaths any less real.

In Thor #316 we did see the broken and twisted body of the Man Beast, thus we do know that he, at least, is dead. He was rendered into that state by the noble Thor and his honored companion, Iron Man. Now while it is true that in his guise of the Hatemonger, the Man Beast was definitely a threat to mankind, but did these two heroes (sworn to the protection of life) have to callously blow his aircraft out of the sky? Somehow, they seemed to feel that this oath only applied to human life, and not to other forms of sentient life.

If that, then, is the case, perhaps they should have a talk with Cyclops. For in X-Men #155 he refused to kill alien Sidrian Hunters who were menacing him, Storm, and his father Corsair (along with all of Manhattan in the process). “This is no. time for scruples, boy.” Corsair told his son. “They have no compunctions about killing you — or anyone else who gets in their way.” “It’s an act of self-defense,” then you would say. “The hero must kill to remain alive, to fulfill his mission and protect innocent life,” you cry out. “Kill them, after all they are only inhuman monsters...they don’t even look like us.” All these things and more the reader wants to scream at the reluctant Cyclops, but he still refused to kill. Thus, it fell to Corsair to do the dirty deed.

Still again, it is odd that Cyclops refused to kill the Sidrian Hunters, when it was so painfully obvious that they would kill him and that they had nothing in common with the human race. Cyclops seemed to feel no remorse when he ordered Colossus to “duke it out” with Proteus (with whom he had, had very much in common as both were human and mutants). Cyclops knew full well that Colossus in his armored form was lethal to Proteus (who was going to kill Cyclops just as dead as the Sidrians would have). This, then, seems to have become a serious character flaw in Scott Summers’s personality...as he sees nothing wrong with ordering others to kill, but refuses to soil his own hands. Upon closer inspection, the flaw is not in Scott’s personality, but in the logic (or lack thereof) in Jim Shooter’s edict.

Now, there is the argument that the genre of The Micronauts, Conan, Master of Kung Fu, or any of the other “killer” comics presumes that killing is okay; this is absolute nonsense. For the Micronauts, Shang-Chi, Leiko Wu, Reston, and even Conan in his own way, are every bit as moral as Wolverine and the rest of the costumed superheroes. Just because a hero is wearing “long underwear” should not mean that he is restricted from killing his foes, while his uncostumed cousins are free to slaughter at will. Now, while the world is not quite ready for Psycho-Killer Comics, (and I am certainly not advocating such a return), I do not feel that the distinction is not only arbitrary and unfair, but fuzzy at best. Especially when the only one who is being chastised is Wolverine, while everyone else’s killings — including those of his own teammates — go by unnoticed. Policy must be evenly enforced, otherwise it is just so much meaningless drivel.

Wolverine is a homicidal maniac and a soldier. It is the basic appeal of his character. It would be more shocking if Spider-Man were to kill a foe intentionally, because it is just not in his character. On the other hand, killing for Wolverine is very much a part of the game, and no one is more surprised when he uses restraint and does not slay his foe.

Then, by way of adding injury to insult we are force fed What If? #31, What if Wolverine Killed the Hulk? Claremont goes through great pains to establish the character of Wolverine as a psychopathic killer, then goes through even greater pains (by order of Shooter) to establish that Wolverine has not killed; finally, we, the readers, have to suffer through this travesty of a story. (A more believable storyline would have been perhaps, What If the Hulk Had Whaled the Living Daylights Out of Wolverine? “Killed the Hulk” indeed.)

Yet when all is said and done, the final defense of Wolverine’s actions rests ultimately with Wolverine himself. In his own words to Storm as she threatened to kill the White Queen (from X-Men #152):

“... anyone can kill, Princess. It’s easy, I know. What takes courage an’ strength-what separates the humans from the animals — is not killin’. Some people are warriors, darlin’ — born to kill. That’s me. And some exist to show us there’s a better way. That’s you. There’s so much beauty in you ‘Roro. It’d be a shame to spoil it for the likes of her.”
Thus, we see that while Wolverine is ever the killer, he kills neither capriciously, nor indiscriminately, but only with a purpose and with malice aforethought. He kills solely to protect his own life, the lives of friends, and the lives of innocents who are under his protection. Most importantly, he kills with the full knowledge that not only is the act of killing itself wrong, but that someday, somehow, he will be called upon to account for his actions by a higher authority. And when that clay comes — which surely it must — he will use as his defense that he did what he felt he needed to do, as each situation dictated, and furthermore he will accept whatever punishment or reward as that authority sees fit to deal to him.



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As a postscript to this tale, after this article appeared in print, I happened across Jeff Rovin Warren Publishing and Seaboard Periodicals at the time. When I showed Jeff my portfolio, he told me that he had just read this article in Amazing Heroes, and he offered me work on the spot. It was that meeting that (quite literally) launched my writing career into the stratosphere.