Mark Hughes explains why Dan Slott is wrong about Superman not killing
When Superman snapped Zod’s neck in the climax of Man of Steel, a lot of people objected. “Superman doesn’t kill!” they shouted. What they should have shouted, however, is “Superman shouldn’t kill!” or “My preferred version of Superman doesn’t kill!” Because claiming Superman doesn’t kill is not true at all, and isn’t even up for debate. You may not like it, and he may avoid killing much more often than he kills, but the fact is Superman has repeatedly and consistently killed in the comics, from his very first stories right through most decades, and he’s still killing nowadays.The flaw in the audience's approach, naturally, is how it makes Supes out to be a real life person whom they supposedly met on the street. I've lost count of how many times I've discovered would-be fans insulting the intellect and embarrassing fandom for comicdom by acting like fictional characters are real life people yet exonerating nearly every assigned writer, no matter their talent or not.
Unfortunately, this article does have some faults of its own, including this decided mistake:
I’ve debated this issue many times, including most recently with The Amazing Spider-Man comic book writer Dan Slott (for the record, it’s one of my favorite Spider-Man runs of the last 30 years), who frequently brings up the issue on social media. He asserts nobody who understands Superman would write a story in which Superman kills, and any such story is an invalid interpretation of Superman. Slott and others insist Superman should never kill under any circumstances, and that despite some exceptions the overwhelming majority of Superman’s history proves he has a strict code against taking any life. It is further claimed there is never a no-win situation for Superman, and no story should be written putting him in a situation without an alternate to killing.Does that include Slott's tale where Dr. Octopus switches bodies with Peter Parker, and later takes sexual advantage of Mary Jane Watson? Even if Hughes is being "diplomatic", that's very dumb, especially if anybody outside comics finds out what Slott and company conceived over the past several years, and starts wondering why Hughes is willing to sugarcoat it. Besides, no matter how positively he speaks of Slott's writing, it won't change the man's mind, and he's already made clear he doesn't like Hughes' op-ed. But, this is an interesting note he brings up, about how there appears to be a segment out there who consider Supes "their" property, and in Slott's case, I think his opposition to the Big Blue Boy Scout killing in any circumstance ties in with his leftist politics, no matter how left-wing any writers who ever wrote Superman killing could've been themselves.
This absolutist position doesn’t just assert a preference for Superman refusing to kill, and doesn’t just argue it’s the best portrayal and the most consistent with the majority of stories — it insists stories violating this specific preference are invalid. That’s where I take exception, since it turns into nothing more than another fan preference stated as the only objectively right way to portray a character, imagining anyone disagreeing simply doesn’t properly understand the character.In Slott's case, I don't think he's even judging individual stories by their own merits, and if he's never criticized the writers and editors who greenlighted a particular tale, then his rantings become only more meaningless, to say nothing of selfish.
Hughes goes on to offer several examples of stories where Superman did kill, old and new, starting with those written by none other than Superman's own creators:
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1939, and he didn’t start out having a “no kill” rule. He was instead like most people — he knew killing was wrong, he didn’t go around killing people as a normal thing, and he opposed it except in rare circumstances. However, sometimes a unique situation arose where he might use lethal force to deal with a villain. It would be an interesting display of intellectual gymnastics to argue these writers didn’t understand the character they created. A less irrational claim would be that they understood him one way when he was first created, and then their views evolved over time — thus the character’s views evolved over time, too. However, any claim that Superman’s core progressive values weren’t already clearly displayed in those early tales relies on overtly ignoring the truth of what’s in those stories. It’s also more than a little disingenuous to suggest that external forces such as publisher preferences and an eye toward the youth market didn’t have some significant impact on the choice to slowly curtail his killing and violence.Yep, there were a few stories in the Golden Age where Superman did kill some criminals, and even in the early Batman stories by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, he killed criminals a few times, and even initially carried a firearm. This was all gradually toned down in the late 1940s, but what came before still stands as clear examples of times when flagship superheroes did kill violent felons. Which is not the same as murdering innocents, as the criminals themselves were doing. And all written by the very creators of these characters themselves. If Slott's got a beef against the idea, he should at least complain why he thinks Siegel and Shuster were wrong to bother with those particular stories. One flaw here though, is the stated year when Supes was created which was 1938; Batman was created in 1939. However, that minor flaw there is nothing compared to one made when Hughes brings up John Byrne's work in the late 1980s:
John Byrne rebooted the Superman comics in 1986, and spent years writing and drawing the monthly comics. In 1988, issue #22 of the monthly Superman book featured the story “The Price,” in which Superman uses Kryptonite to kill the Kryptonian criminals General Zod, Zaora, and Quex-Ul (although actually, Zod is killed by Quex-Ul as the three slowly die from Kryptonite exposure). Byrne has been working in comics for more than 40 years, and spent years writing and often drawing Superman. He might have a different take on Superman than you prefer — since for example he treated Superman’s Earth heritage and his life as Clark Kent as the dominant influences and identity, while others prefer Superman to be first and foremost a Kryptonian whose super-identity as Kal the alien be his truer self. Both have strong merits in their favor, and both have resulted in wonderful, brilliant storytelling. Neither is “right” and neither is “wrong.” Byrne’s Superman was some of the best work of his career, as a creator who definitely had a strong understanding of the character.While Byrne did write the above story where Supes used lethal force on the post-Crisis version of Zod (who would eventually be resurrected), it's not true that he spent "many years" writing/drawing Superman, at least not in an ongoing series. He spent about 2 years (1986-88) writing and illustrating both Action Comics and the then new sans-adjective Superman title, while Marv Wolfman wrote Adventures of Superman for at least a year. Afterwards, Byrne went back to Marvel for a few more years and wrote/drew Avengers and Sub-Mariner's early 90s series. He did continue to write for DC, and I think wrote/drew some more Superman stories in later years, but more notably wrote Wonder Woman in the mid 90s, and unfortunately, by that time his talents were faltering.
Alan Moore wrote a 1986 imaginary tale “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” In part 2 of the story in Action Comics #583, Superman kills Mxyzptlk. This is not a canonical tale, but the idea we can’t consider stories outside of canon strikes me as dubious. Either you think Superman should never kill, or you don’t. Either a story is a well-written and faithful depiction of Superman, or it’s not. That this is a non-canonical story about the Silver Age Superman is beside the point — it is a great story and an accurate, wonderful depiction of Superman by a writer with a fantastic grasp of the character. Moore’s understanding of the history and the character is not up for rational debate. Superman subsequently ends his own career due to having taken a life, but that doesn’t change the fact he did it. This story makes a great case for a situation where even a Silver Age Superman with a strict “no kill” policy might wind up violating it at least one time.This is a little confusing: Moore's story was written as a curtain call for the pre-Crisis continuity, so it's not exactly an imaginary tale in the sense it was out of both pre-and-post Crisis continuities. Rather - and I'm sure Moore made the point in an intro to the story ("aren't they all?") - it was imaginary in the sense that the cast of characters didn't exist/weren't real people!
In “The Death of Superman” story culminating in Superman #75, written by Dan Jurgens, Roger Stern, and Louise Simonson, Superman kills Doomsday. This story not only represents a famous example of Superman killing, it also demonstrates a particularly strong overall point about the nature of Superman’s battles. When fighting against enemies who possess vast powers matching or exceeding his own, Superman would have to use his powers to their utmost, going to violent extremes in order to hurt or stop a near-invulnerable opponent. Hand to hand combat against a foe like Doomsday seems destined to leave one or the other of the fighters (or both) either gravely injured or dead. The vast destruction Doomsday causes means Superman cannot break away from the fight to try to develop an alternative plan that keeps Doomsday alive. So the fight continues until the damage from the fight inevitably causes both to perish. You’re free to try arguing Jurgens et al don’t understand Superman, but it’s a claim very few fans or professionals would treat seriously.While technically speaking, Supes did kill Doomsday in that 1992 story, Hughes appears to have ignored how, like Superman, even the monster's fate was reversed within a few years. As for Jurgens, Stern and Simonson, they may understand what makes Supes work as a character, but they didn't understand why sticking him in a publicity stunt was not the way to go about it. The whole story was just published to generate undeserved headlines for an otherwise overrated story that got collectors in a tizzy, and look how low the value of those issues is today on the market. Yet none of the above have ever apologized for lowering the bar as badly as the company wide crossovers have at DC, especially whenever they used those "events" as an excuse for killing off/denigrating any character they considered expendable. The premise in itself of being forced to kill or be killed is not a bad one. However, the context in which the above story was written was. And maybe the idea of "pyhrric victory" has to come under some scrutiny here too, because let's not forget that this was written as little more than an excuse to see Superman "die" before coming back.
In Joe Kelly’s story “Trial By Fire” in Action Comics #782, Superman destroys Imperiex and Brainiac by sending them back to the big bang. He claims it spreads their consciousness throughout time, but I’m noting it here as an example of Superman using a “cheat” solution where he presumes something isn’t lethal that pretty clearly seems lethal. Effectively rendering someone intemporal and without literal “life” sounds no different than destroying a living being’s body and assuming their spirit/soul/consciousness/life force will live on forever in another form. Their mortal forms perished, and their immortal spirit will exist in some alternate plane of reality, effectively removed from our conception of life and consciousness and self-awareness to be spread across time forever.Yes, that's a valid argument there. Even alien life counts as living entities. But, Hughes decidedly blows it when he sugarcoats the reputations of some of the following writers:
We could also point to Dwayne McDuffie’s “Intermezzo” story in Action Comics #847, in which Superman kills a Sun-Eater. Or Scott Lobdell’s “Prelude to H’el on Earth: They Will Join You In The Sun…” in Superman #13, in which Superman ignites oil to blow up a Kryptonian dragon. Or Geoff Johns’ run on Justice League in the New 52, where Superman kills parademons. These are all great writers who understand Superman and who write stories within boundaries of ethical behavior understood to have a strong moral core but also flexibility about what precisely defines “life,” and when a situation leaves no other choice but to take a life if there is no other way to save countless other lives are at risk. That’s precisely the sort of less rigid a conception of Superman’s morality that existed when he was first created, and then also existed in many other eras and stories throughout his 75 year history.Boy, he really tries my patience with this! McDuffie may have been a talented writer (although even he had some stories in the mid 2000s that were dreadful), but citing Lobdell and Johns as "great"? Sigh. Does he even know about Lobdell's confession? Even if he didn't commit the gravest offense, he still did something very galling, and that makes it difficult to believe he understands morale. Especially when some of his own writing lacks it. And Johns stuffs his writing full of situations that are either repellently violent, or just contrived and rely far too much on limp nostalgia. Hughes forgot another New 52 story Johns cooked up nearly 4 years ago, where Dr. Light, who'd been retconned into a rapist in 2004's Identity Crisis miniseries, was now turned into a de facto good guy who gets incinerated by a mind-controlled Superman in Justice League #22. If you think that's mind boggling after all the embarrassing writing several years prior, it is. And above all, for a story where Superman does end up taking a life, even under brainwashing effects, it's a very bad one indeed. Definitely not an example of talented work, yet Hughes inexplicably overlooked it. I'd sure like to know what he thinks of that kind of tale, from a writer whose work on the Flash was particularly nasty, and featured at least a few instances of allusions to sexual harassment/abuse that were superfluous and disgusting.
And there was also a Wonder Woman-connected story in 2005 where former JLA financier Max Lord, already depicted out-of-character murdering 2nd Blue Beetle Ted Kord in Countdown to Infinite Crisis, another horrible story co-written by Johns, was then depicted controlling Superman into committing violent destruction in a story by Greg Rucka. And guess who [briefly] killed Max in order to stop him from mind-controlling Supes? Wonder Woman. But that's not really the problem: what was, aside from the distasteful misuse of Max, is that Superman then lambasted WW for taking a life, even if it was meant to save Supes from getting innocent blood smeared on his hands. To make matters worse, Batman was also negative about this. Mind-numbing? You bet. Most bizarre is how the two male members of the flagship trinity are considered invaluable here, yet the female, in a manner of speaking, becomes the sacrificial lamb on PC's alter. As an example of WW killing, that was one of the most poorly written in its own way, and Rucka's never apologized for it, to my knowledge. I'd honestly like to know what Hughes thinks of that too.
All that aside, some of the above are examples of writers who, if they wrote stories where Supes took lives, Slott's never had anything critical to say, which makes his singling out the Man of Steel movie as a pet peeve quite peculiar. Especially since, as noted before, Richard Lester's 1980 movie saw Supes kill Zod (and either or both his 2 cohorts jumped to their deaths). Here's more from Hughes about Slott and company's mindset:
One of the go-to talking points of Slott and others who argue strenuously against Man of Steel and the notion Superman will now have a strict “no kill” policy arising from his experiences in that film, is to say “he shouldn’t have to kill to know killing is wrong.” Which sounds like a great point, until you spend any time actually thinking about it in depth.This is a very strong argument Hughes has presented, and it's surely the best one you could make for when killing is appropriate: self-defense, and/or defense of innocent lives in peril. But unfortunately, there are people out there (the dark backwoods of Europe, for example) who believe it's wrong for innocents to defend themselves against violent felons, and I've got a bad feeling even some of Slott's ilk might side with that position, since their standings on gun control strongly suggest that. I don't think I've ever seen Ron Marz, another writer of extraordinarily questionable morale with similar positions, praise women who defended themselves either; not even encouraging them to learn martial arts for this purpose. These are also bunglers who believe concerns about the darkest contents of Islam are wrong. At the same time, it's ironic that writers who have an aversion to killing in real life see nothing wrong with forcibly dark storytelling in superhero comics and other mediums.
Let’s just apply that rationally to reality for a moment. We all know killing is wrong, and we avoid doing it because it’s wrong as a general rule. But we also don’t condemn people who kill in self-defense against a mortal threat. Or soldiers fighting a war we feel is just. Or police trying to stop an attacker putting someone else in mortal danger. How seriously do most of us take an argument claiming EVERY killing, in ANY situation whatsoever, is wrong and unacceptable? Would you have said that to Jews defending themselves against Nazis in the Warsaw uprising? Would you tell that to a woman who kills an ex-boyfriend trying to kill her? Of course not. I think we can all agree, nobody in their right mind would make such claims.
I’ll go one step further: would you tell someone they are immoral if they use lethal force to defend themselves against a rapist? Is the threat of extreme violence — but not necessarily threat of actual death — grounds for using lethal force? How about if an attacker breaking into your home is about to break your spouse’s back and cripple them for life, would you refuse to shoot the attacker if you had a chance to do so, on the grounds it’s immoral to use lethal force to prevent “merely” a crippling injury to your spouse? Or what about if someone is beating a child badly enough to put the kid in the hospital and break the child’s bones — if a mother shot that attacker to defend her child, how quick will you be to tell her how immoral she is for using lethal force? Again, even in these situations where a life is not in literal danger, I would bet we can all agree that no rational person would argue (in any absolutist sense) that the people using lethal force in self defense and in defense of others in these scenarios is unethical.
None of us have to kill to find out killing is wrong. But we’re also all smart enough and rational enough that none of us have to be personally attacked to realize there are exceptions to the “killing is wrong” rule, where killing is acceptable and — in some cases — could be said to be the most moral thing to do.Of course, let's remember that this is because of what the early writers did to establish certain moral codes and other characteristics. That's what makes Kal-El the protagonist he is. Hughes continues to look back at the MoS movie:
There are also many people who know killing is wrong, and who realize there are exceptions to that rule, and who wind up in a situation — at war, as a cop, or just as a victim of a violent dangerous attack — where they do have to personally use lethal force. And many such people are forever changed by it, feeling severe emotional trauma, remorse, and even guilt despite being justified in their use of lethal force. They might develop an even more extreme perspective on the issue of use of violence and killing, becoming pacifistic in some cases. Would anyone seriously think it’s a rational, honest argument to say, “They apparently had to kill someone to figure out killing is wrong,” or is that a grossly simplistic and disingenuous attempt to mischaracterize the situation? The answer is pretty obvious. So it’s not hard at all to imagine scenarios where good, moral people are confronted with situations where they have to kill, and then are subsequently driven to adopt a strict “never kill again” policy. Would anyone like to go up to these folks and tell them they’re lousy role models, terrible inspiration, and lack strong ethical values?
Likewise, the claim is often made that if it’s justified to kill a particular villain during a particular moment to save lives, then it follows that Superman could/should always kill every villain who threatens lives, and should hunt down villains and kill them before they threaten humanity. The problem with this argument is, it makes no sense unless you would argue every cop should always kill every criminal who has taken lives or is threatening lives. Do we in fact believe that once someone has ever killed, they can or should just go around killing all other threats and potential threats? Of course not. Here again we see an extreme claim asserted for Superman that would never seriously be asserted in another context. And saying, “Superman is different, he isn’t like other normal contexts” is frankly a senseless counter-claim, offering no substantive points to demonstrate how Superman is different in any way that negates the applicability of these comparisons. If anything, the fact of Superman’s strong moral code means he should be even less likely than a regular person to become jaded by killing.
In Man of Steel, Superman shares humanity’s general “killing is wrong” belief, and his powers make him even more careful and averse to using violence, but when he first starts out as a costumed hero he doesn’t have the experience to develop firmly established guidelines governing all of his different uses of force against all manner of threats and scenarios. But like every single other person who ever existed, Superman’s beliefs can become more clearly defined and more nuanced — or more straightforward — as he gains experience and as he sees the consequences of actions and inactions.And again, I don't see why somebody who supposedly is uncomfy with Superman killing in the newer movie doesn't make the same argument about the older one, nor why none of the comics writers' efforts matter. It also makes no sense if Superman can kill alien tyrants but not human tyrants. Whether a sentient entity is from this tundra or another world, what matters is that they're made of flesh and blood, and have brains that function to distinguish between good and evil. And since we're on the film now, it's strange why people who had issues with Superman killing Zod didn't think to criticize some more valid topics like the frequently dark direction the movie took, including the omission of Superman's red tights, one of the most petty mandates the people in charge imposed. Or, isn't it strange they'd have a problem with screenwriters like David Goyer, who's got a SJW complex not all that different from theirs? In the end, Slott's decidedly just looking for something to bellyache about for the sake of it, and no doubt he despises Hughes for bringing attention to this subject.
So this Superman who knows killing is wrong and who avoids using his powers to harm others, suddenly confronts near-invulnerable villains out to destroy humanity. When fighting such a threat for the first time, he struggles to overcome his lifelong avoidance of violence and over-use of his powers, and he tries to stop them as best he can, improvising as the situation develops. But finally, Zod makes it clear he is going to go on a rampage of killing and destruction, and either he will kill Superman and every human on Earth, or Superman will have to kill him instead. It’s a struggle with no end in sight. Lives — every life on Earth, in fact — are constantly in imminent danger, and now the Phantom Zone option is gone so there’s no route to imprisoning Zod or stripping his powers. There is no alternative outcome Superman is aware of, since even knocking Zod out doesn’t guarantee he won’t revive before a solution for imprisoning him is discovered.
The fight eventually has them struggling in a location where humans are trapped and the villain is seconds away from murdering the trapped humans. Putting his hands over Zod’s eyes (the favorite alternative offered by most critics of Zod’s death) would injure Superman and allow Zod to then kill the people anyway, possibly win the entire battle (since Superman would be injured), and murder everyone else on Earth. Likewise, trying to fly up and away with Zod doesn’t stop Zod from staring at the people and still frying them to death. Every supposed “better option” I’ve seen suggested is glaringly flawed and risks Zod killing the family and everybody else on Earth.
So in that moment of split decision, even a Superman who knows killing is wrong and who spent a lifetime being careful with his powers might kill Zod. And it’s not because he needed to kill to figure out it’s wrong — it’s because intelligent, rational people can know something is wrong and can refuse to do it, but then find themselves trapped in situations forcing them to do the thing they knew was wrong and refused to do before, and the outcome can make them return not just to a refusal state but to an even more absolute determination than before. This is because, despite simplistic absolutist conceptions, killing and death are not always absolutely equivalent, and not every instance of killing and death is absolutely equivalent to every other instance.
Could the writers have intentionally written the story to construct a way of avoiding it? Sure, it’s entirely made-up and none of these people are real, so they could write anything they wanted. But that’s not a serious answer to the larger issue at all. That’s dodging, that’s implying writers are required to intentionally actively avoid stories that don’t conform to the demand “nothing can ever happen that puts him in a situation where he faces a moral conflict between taking a villain’s life to save other lives.” That’s not really an argument that Superman never kills, it’s an argument that we have to avoid writing stories where he might have to. It’s a demand to avoid situations that truly TEST Superman’s “no kill” rule. Not a real test, anyway, since the assertion is stories must be structured explicitly to avoid really testing it at all, and there must always be an alternative option provided.
I think Hughes did right to argue about why it's not wrong to kill in self-defense or to save innocent lives in danger, if anything. Still, it's a pity he had to go the "diplomatic" route and make positive statements about the work of specific modern writers whose work is rock bottom no matter how they depict the Big Blue Boy Scout in his moral code approach. All that does is let a lot of modern hacks get away with denigrating famous creations for the sake of their own narrow visions for what superhero comics should be.