Kitty Genovese: Should Real-Life Tragedies Be Kept Out of Comics?

The first time I encountered the name of Kitty Genovese was reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' origin of Rorschach in Watchmen. At the time, I did not know that she was a real person who was really murdered. But I soon discovered the true story. In the Sunday Daily News, they wrote a compelling article on the upcoming 50th anniversary of the crime. The short version of it was hat a young woman was murdered late at night on March 13, 1964 in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York with over thirty people witnessing it and not one helped or called the police. They all gave varying reasons as to why not, some reflecting the "morals" of the times. It gave New York City the reputation of unfeeling apathy that it has yet to fully shed.

But should she be used as part of an origin for a super-hero, even  a vigilante like Rorschach or by an author of Moore's magnitude? What should be kept off limits? Granted personal tragedies are part and parcel to many super hero origins, most notably Superman and Batman. But those involved the destruction of a fictional planet and the murders of fictional parents. There were no actual people connected to those pretend hardships. Over time, the Kitty Genovese reference grew to bother me, much like Disney's Pocohontas who was also a real person, not a fairy tale who did not have a happy ending.

Both Marvel and DC have used real events and people to make their stories more authentic, usually it's the President or it takes place during Word War II. It could be in bad taste like having the Hate-Monger turn out to be Adolf Hitler. (Actually Der Fuehrer was used so often that I'm surprised that neither company has tried to revive him in the present time! Yikes!)

History, no matter if it was a century ago or yesterday, is filled of tragic events and terrible atrocities. Should there be a hero whose origin is linked to 9/11? Or the Ukraine? Or Iraq? If a specific incident is a major part of a story, does it diminish the incident?

Immortus rescued his wife from the Titanic. Lost In Space's Don West was inspired by the Challenger. Comic book Nazis are intertwined with Real Nazis. The lines between reality and fiction are increasingly blurred. But what is too much? Does anyone have any other examples that may have bothered them?

Do Comics have the right to use real life tragedies to enhance their stories?

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It might be hypocritical of me to say this because super-heroes were fighting the Nazis before Pearl Harbor (and I loved both The Invaders and The All Star Squadron) but those were different times. Many Americans had little or no idea as to what was really going on in Europe. The Jewish creators like Joe Simon and Jack Kirby knew and appear to be preparing the nation to get ready for the war that was surely coming.

On the The Weekly TPB - Astro City: Life in the Big City thread we were just discussing the story "Dinner at Eight," which has the hero, Samaritan, saving the space shuttle Challenger. In the series Ex Machina, the hero saves the second of the Twin Towers.

Like Alan Moore's use of Kitty Genovese, these are good stories and not gratuitous. In all three cases, however, I thought that someone directly affected by these deaths would be very upset if they read these stories.

My objection to Mr. Moore's using the Kitty Genovese story as grist for a story is more basic:  he got the facts wrong.  He bought into the accepted version of Kitty Genovese's death without realising---or bothering to check---that the accepted version is an exaggeration of what really happened that morning of 13 March 1964 in the burrough of Queens, New York City.

The exaggeration comes from a sensationalistic article, written by Martin Gansberg and published in The New York Times two weeks after the murder.  The article was a vitriolic indictment of the residents of Kew Gardens, the complex where Kitty Genovese lived.  The banner read:  "Thirty-Seven Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police".

However, the initial investigations, listed in the police report, along with subsequent interviews and research, provide the actual details.  Those who overheard Miss Genovese's murder may not have acted with utter heroism, but their actions were not worthy of such contempt, either.

A little after 0315, 13 March 1964, Winston Moseley chased Miss Genovese across the parking lot of her apartment building and stabbed her twice in the back.  Miss Genovese cried for help.  But it was a cold night and all of the windows of the apartment building were closed, so it was difficult to make out just what Miss Genovese was saying or what was going on.  As the documents recording the police interviews with the residents showed, many of them weren't sure just what they heard---it was a stray shout in the wee hours of the morning; others assumed it was a lover's quarrel or a revelrous group of friends or maybe a brawl between a couple of drunks.

One of the residents of Kew Gardens did look, however.  What he saw was a man who appeared to be accosting a woman---in the dark, he couldn't see Moseley's knife or the blood stain on the back of Miss Genovese's blouse---and he shouted at Moseley, "Let that girl alone!"

This witness saw Moseley then run off, get into his car, and drive away.

In shock, pain, and suffering from blood loss, Miss Genovese staggered toward the rear of her apartment building---an area with no overhead lighting and completely out of view of the windows of the flats in the apartment building.  Thus, there was no way for the residents of the building to see what happened next.

Approximately ten minutes later, Moseley returned to Kew Gardens and looked for his victim.  He found her slumped in front of the rear door of the building, a door which was locked, preventing her from getting inside.  Moseley stabbed Miss Genovese several more times, raped her, and stole $49 from her purse, then left her to die.  None of the residents of Kew Gardens saw any of this, but they heard more screaming.

O.K., someone might say, so the people in the building couldn't be sure what was happening, but they could have called the police, right?

Right.  And they did.  Police records show the local precinct received at least three calls about the incident---two of them in response to Moseley's first attack on the girl.  One man reported to the police that "a woman was beat up, but got up and was staggering around."

You have to remember, in 1964, there was no "911" system, in which a caller's location instantly appeared on the dispatcher's screen and to which police would be immediately dispatched.  In those days, to report an incident, you had to dial "0" for "operator"---unless you happened to know the number to the local police precinct---and the operator would connect you with the desk sergeant.  The desk sergeant would take your information, evaluate the situation based on what you could tell him, and then prioritise the call.  And if you happened to call while the desk sergeant was on the phone with another complanant, then you'd get a busy signal and have to call back.

A few minutes after Moseley's second attack on Miss Genovese, one resident, Karl Ross, realised she had been stabbed and called the police himself.  When the police received the word that victim had been stabbed (rather than a case of someone being beaten up or an even-less-urgent "somebody is yelling outside my apartment building"), the priority of the call was moved up and police arrived on scene within five minutes of Ross's call.  (And in New York City, even then, that's an exceptional arrival time.)

Miss Genovese was still alive.  An ambulance was summoned; it arrived at approximately 0415, not quite an hour after the first attack, but tragically, Miss Genovese died en route to the hospital.

Oh, one more thing.  During their investigation, the police determined that no more than twelve---not "thirty-eight"---of the residents of Kew Gardens had been in positions where they reasonably could have heard or seen anything related to either attack.

I find it difficult to fault the residents of Kew Gardens.  Yes, we could sit here and say, "Well, someone should have rushed down to rescue her."  We all like to think that, if we were in that position, that's what we'd do.  But every police department anywhere will tell you, unless you have particular training to deal with such things, they don't want you rushing down to save someone from an armed attacker; that will likely result in two victims.  Your job is to call the police---and that's what at least three of the residents did.

And as for the ones who didn't call, because they weren't sure what they heard going on, well, it's easy in hindsight to criticise them.  But think about it.  If you're awakened in the middle of the night because your neighbour's dog is barking like crazy, do you immediately call the police and report that someone is breaking into your neighbour's house?  Or do you roll over and try to go back to sleep, muttering, "I wish that damn dog would shut up!"?  Even if you do call the police, you're going to take a few minutes to consider it, or maybe take a look out the window and see if you see anything, before you reach for your phone.

In the Times article, Gansberg provided an account of one unidentified resident of Kew Gardens who saw the first attack, but wasn't quite sure what he saw, so he deliberated for several minutes before getting one of his neighbour's to call the police.  What the moralists keyed on was when Gansberg quoted the anonymous resident as saying "I didn't want to get involved."

So, as you see, the events of that night, the actions of the witnesses, and even the number of witnesses are far different from what the popular version of Kitty Genovese's murder relates.  It bothers me when these kind of urban legends are promulgated as truth in popular culture.  The same as the "A dying Dr. Charles Drew was refused treatment in a southern hospital because he was black" or "Jesse Owens was snubbed by Hitler at the 1936 Olympics" myths get promulgated as fact in popular culture.  Because they are more entertaining as moralistic tales than the factual accounts.

I think it was irresponsible on Alan Moore's part.  Not that he used the exaggerated account of Kitty Genovese's death as a source for a plot point---the exaggerated account did exist--- but that he didn't bother to insert somewhere that it was an exaggerated account.  By not pointing out the inaccuracy of it, it continues to perpetuate the false story as true.

Commander Benson said:

So, as you see, the events of that night, the actions of the witnesses, and even the number of witnesses are far different from what the popular version of Kitty Genovese's murder relates.  It bothers me when these kind of urban legends are promulgated as truth in popular culture.  The same as the "A dying Dr. Charles Drew was refused treatment in a southern hospital because he was black" or "Jesse Owens was snubbed by Hitler at the 1936 Olympics" myths get promulgated as fact in popular culture.  Because they are more entertaining as moralistic tales than the factual accounts.

  

Dr. Charles Drew's daughter once spoke at my church and specifically refuted the popular notion of what happened to her father. 

As to the question at hand, "Do Comics have the right to use real life tragedies to enhance their stories?" the short answer -- or, at least, my short answer -- is "yes."

Comics have as much "right" as any other creative medium has to use what happens in the world as elements of the tale being told. Comics have no less of a right than, say, Law & Order has to tell "ripped from the headlines" stories -- or, for that matter, The Good Wife, or NYPD Blue or Homicide: Life on the Street, or Dragnet, or anything else. To argue that comics don't have that "right" is feeding into the notion that comics are only for children.

I don't even understand why this is at issue.

I don’t see the inclusion of real life tragedies in comic books any differently than I do the allusion to them in popular songs, and there’s a long tradition of that, especially in the American folk music. Even so, the artists often get some of the details wrong. For example, Simon and Garfunkel’s song “Silent Night/7 O’Clock News” (which simulates a news broadcast citing actual events) mention Richard Speck, “accused murderer of nine student nurses” (actually eight). Also, Bob Dylan’s “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” gets some of the facts wrong (Carroll’s age, the number of children), but that’s forgivable because he altered certain details to fit the meter of the rhyme. I don’t remember the specifics of the version of Kitty Genovese’s death as presented by Alan Moore in The Watchmen, but wasn’t it the catalyst for Walter Kovacs’ decision to become Rorscach? If so, I find that forgivable, too, because obviously, judging from the article you read in Sunday’s Daily News, the exaggerated version persists to this day.

Actually, the article was written by Catherine Pelonero who researched the case for seven years and wrote a book, "Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences." She agrees with Martin Gansberg, a 22-year veteran reporter for The New York Times and went over all the contemporary accounts including now-defunct papers like The New York Journal-American and Long Island Star-Journal who interviewed many of the residents whose comments ran the gamut from "I was afraid" to "I attend to my own affairs" to "I thought maybe a girl was being raped- but if she was out alone at that hour, it served her right!" But not one said that they tried to call the police. In fact, it wasn't until 1984, the 20th anniversary that "new" facts popped up by residents wanting to salvage their neighborhood's reputation.

The basic truth was that a young woman was attacked twice and people who could have helped her or summoned aid did not.

As to using real life in comics there's a difference between creating a similar situation and using the real events. Do we really want to see a masked vigilante trying to avenge a loved one lost at Newtown or the Boston Massacre or that some super villain caused Super Storm Sandy?

I checked my information with the article "The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping", by Rachel Manning, Mark Levine, and Alan Collins, which appeared in American Psychologist (Sep., 2007) and with the findings of Joseph De May, a lawyer and historian.  Both of these sources relied on archival evidence, such as police reports, telephone logs, court transcripts, and legal briefs, as well as personally walking the murder scene.

Unless you've left something out, Philip, Miss Pelonero seems to have done nothing more than study old newspaper articles reporting the crime.  Anyone capable of critical thinking knows that a newspaper can slant an article to reflect a specific opinion, which is what I believe Mr. Gansberg did with his Times article, in the first place.

Leaving out any interviews with the building's residents, which, of course, could be self-serving, of the two general sources of information---newspapers or archival documents---I'll go with the documentary evidence.

As to your comment about a young woman being attacked twice and people who could have helped her or summoned aid did not, I would put to you, what should they have done?

Should someone have gone down and confronted Moseley?  Maybe, and perhaps that brave soul might have gotten lucky and lived to tell the tale.  But call your local police department and ask for its recommendation as to what to do in that kind of circumstance.  I already know what they'll tell you:  No, do not confront the suspect.  The police don't want two victims instead of one.  They'll tell you to call the police---which is what many of the folks at Kew Gardens did.  It's there in the telephone logs.  And the police didn't show up by magic.

The tragic flaw in this case is during the first attack, the residents weren't sure what was happening, so the ones that called the police didn't know what to tell them.  One reported a woman had gotten beaten up; another simply reported somebody yelling.  A busy police department won't assign those kinds of things as an emergency priority.  It was only after the second attack, when Karl Ross realised that Miss Genovese had been stabbed, and reported that to the police, that's when it got moved to an E-priority.

Philip Portelli said:

As to using real life in comics there's a difference between creating a similar situation and using the real events. Do we really want to see a masked vigilante trying to avenge a loved one lost at Newtown or the Boston Massacre or that some super villain caused Super Storm Sandy?

 

I'm not against it.

And even if I were -- which I'm not, as I just said -- I categorically reject the notion that comics writers don't have a "right" to do so. They have every right. One can argue whether they should or shouldn't have done so, or argue with the results, and the quality of those results. But there is no dispute over whether they have the right: They do. 



ClarkKent_DC said:

As to the question at hand, "Do Comics have the right to use real life tragedies to enhance their stories?" the short answer -- or, at least, my short answer -- is "yes."

Comics have as much "right" as any other creative medium has to use what happens in the world as elements of the tale being told. Comics have no less of a right than, say, Law & Order has to tell "ripped from the headlines" stories -- or, for that matter, The Good Wife, or NYPD Blue or Homicide: Life on the Street, or Dragnet, or anything else. To argue that comics don't have that "right" is feeding into the notion that comics are only for children.

I don't even understand why this is at issue.

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I remember Law & Order had an episode similar to the Kitty Genovese story.

I'm sorry I made it sound like I was  saying ONLY comic books shouldn't use real events to augment fictional stories. I find the practice in all media uncomfortable even though there are many examples of it being done well. Again though, "similar" is not the same as using actual names.

But there's a difference between using, say Jack the Ripper or Lizzie Borden, and Ted Bundy or Susan Smith. It may "just" be semantics but time, as they ay, does heal all wounds though some are still too raw.

ClarkKent_DC said:

Comics have as much "right" as any other creative medium has to use what happens in the world as elements of the tale being told. Comics have no less of a right than, say, Law & Order has to tell "ripped from the headlines" stories -- or, for that matter, The Good Wife, or NYPD Blue or Homicide: Life on the Street, or Dragnet, or anything else. To argue that comics don't have that "right" is feeding into the notion that comics are only for children.

I wholeheartedly agree. My previous comment as to the feelings of people directly affected by the real events portrayed in these comics is the same thing that occurs to me when I watch Law & Order. That doesn't mean that I want to prevent the stories from being told.

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