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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Certainly comics creators have as much right to use real life tragedies in their art as does any other creative artist -- after all, Goya and Picassa created artistic masterpieces based on horrific real events, and I regard Art Spiegielman's Maus, Moore & Campbell's From Hell and Derf's My Friend Dahmer as excellent comics likewise based on horrible but true crimes.  Of course, those were all very different comics than the fantasy fare most associated with comics.  I had no problem with Moore's use of Kitty Genovese in Watchmen because it was not at all gratuitous and was significant to the story itself and while Moore used the distorted version of her murder, that distortion was what made the the Genovese case internationally infamous in the first place.  She and the terrible way she died would hardly have been remembered otherwise by anyone except those who knew her in life 22 years afterwards, when Watchmen was first published, nevermind 50 years later. Moore used but certainly did not create the historical distortions. 

Moore problematic to me is when real life events are seriously distorted but purpoted to be accurate depictions, such as Mel Gibson having British soldiers force Americans into a barn, which they then lock and set on fire in his film The Patriot, set during the U.S. War for Independence.  Such an event never took place during that war and I regard it as abominable that Gibson included such a scene in the film.  Back to comics, I also didn't like that Roy Thomas had the Human Torch kill Adolph Hitler and that has become the cannonical way that Hitler died in Marvel Comics.  It's not that the Human Torch was shown in the act of killing (the apparent policy holding that Captain America never killed anyone, except for that spy who shot Dr. Erskine, during World War II, strikes me as exceptionally stupid) but that it puts an incredible fantasy element directly into a specific historical event in a way that I don't regard as particularly integral to the story (unlike, say, having the Comedian killing JFK and Dr.Manhattan ending the Vietnam War in Watchmen). 

To be honest, as a kid I liked the more realistic elements Marvel put into it's stories in the late '60s and early '70s, but as any superhero comic continues decade after decade the "realism" is stretched ever thinner.  In the Marvel or DC universe, with so many incredibly powerful heroes, it doesn't make sense that none of them were able to at least reduce the extent of the 9/11 tragedy or that none intervened to stop the mass murders in Rowanda or in the Balkans in the 1990s.  In the end, Superman, the Human Torch and Captain Marvel were as incapable of putting an end to the horrors committed by the Nazis as Betty Boop, Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse.  In a comic, Superman or Daredevil might have heard Kitty Genevese scream for help and swooped down to save her, but such a depiction I would regard as offensive.  Having fictional Walter Kovacs read about the murder of the real Kitty Genevese and having such a strong emotional reaction that he decides to become a costumed vigilante I don't see as objectionable at all.  Of course, the real offense is that such murders continue to be all too common and too many cases are never solved.

You raise a problem that transcends this discussion. Watchmen has the advantage of being alternate history; it follows the implications of a superhero world to one logical conclusion. History changes dramatically. But most superhero and urban fantasy lit makes no sense in terms of the real world. The genre's readers want superheroes, magic, vampires et cetera to exist, but they also want the world to resemble ours. However, if superheroes, magic, vampires, et cetera exist, the world would be profoundly different. Rowling's wizards and witches would rule the world, and no one could stop them. Society would be set up to deal with vampires, because we'd know they actually exist.

I can imagine a world where, say, one or two heroes with superpowers exist or very few vampires (allowing the suspension of physics, et cetera, that would permit such things to exist) and the world essentially being like ours. But the Marvel and DC universes, as they have developed? Forget it. We either surrender to the fact that these are stylized, fun fantasies (Captain Obvious pointed this out to me, once) or we read/write very different comic stories.

Of course, all of this problematizes the inclusion of real-world tragedies in these particular genres.

You bring up a point I've pondered (aloud on this board at times) about how any one of the Marvel inventions of the 1960s would have changed the world into something unrecognizable by 1970. Iron Man's jet boots alone would revolutionize both warfare and travel (they apparently don't need fuel), and the knowledge that cosmic rays cause benevolent mutation would have everybody from A.I.M. to the CDC figuring out how to use that. Pym particles alone would warp the world completely out of shape, if for no other reason than you'd no longer need the shipping industry, as everything you'd need to move from one place to another could be shrunk and put in your pocket. Adios, FedEx, trucks, transport ships. Oh, and invasion and assassination would become ridiculously easy -- how would you guard against ant-size armies that could become full grown in your back yard? Pym particles would revolutionize space travel, too, because you could send a rocket the size of a toy to the Moon with enough men, equipment and supplies to build a city (once grown to full size).

And, heck, Marvel had completely functional androids in World War II!

But, OK, comics have to turn a blind eye to that, because if they changed the world too much they'd lose reader identification. I can accept that.

What I couldn't accept -- and why I stopped watching True Blood -- was when a cop pulled over the central couple and the vampire hypnotized him, made him forget they saw him, and stole his badge and gun. Because, as you say, if we knew vampires existed we'd be set up to deal with them. In True Blood, the world knows vampires exist, especially in New Orleans. So the New Orleans Police Department would be ready to deal with vampires. I don't know how they'd do that, actually -- maybe always team a vamp with a human cop? But however they'd do it, they'd do it, or at least they'd try to do it. In True Blood, the cop bullies his way into the scene like there's nothing on Earth that can stop his badge. Like he'd never even heard of vampires. And he gets taken advantage of so handily that it begs the question: Why aren't vampires ruling this world?

That was the day I stopped watching True Blood.

In the case of the Harry Potter world I think that rule by wizards and witches would tentative, as we saw the need wands for the most part and sheer numbers could overwhelm them. In the case of most comic book gadgety like shrinking by pym particles I always figured it was just too expensive to it in a mass produced way.

JD DeLuzio said:

You raise a problem that transcends this discussion. Watchmen has the advantage of being alternate history; it follows the implications of a superhero world to one logical conclusion. History changes dramatically. But most superhero and urban fantasy lit makes no sense in terms of the real world. The genre's readers want superheroes, magic, vampires et cetera to exist, but they also want the world to resemble ours. However, if superheroes, magic, vampires, et cetera exist, the world would be profoundly different. Rowling's wizards and witches would rule the world, and no one could stop them. Society would be set up to deal with vampires, because we'd know they actually exist.

I can imagine a world where, say, one or two heroes with superpowers exist or very few vampires (allowing the suspension of physics, et cetera, that would permit such things to exist) and the world essentially being like ours. But the Marvel and DC universes, as they have developed? Forget it. We either surrender to the fact that these are stylized, fun fantasies (Captain Obvious pointed this out to me, once) or we read/write very different comic stories.

 

Of course, all of this problematizes the inclusion of real-world tragedies in these particular genres.

 

 

Back in the 70s, Reed Richards made a temporarily de-Thinged Ben Grimm an exoskeleton which gave him something like 80 or 90% of his Thing strength. I imagine one or two industries would have a use for those!

For the reasons discussed, the early novels / issues / episodes / movies / of a contemporary fantasy series often make the most sense. The new tech / discovery hasn't had time to influence the world yet. Of course, we're several years into the current Marvel movies and Iron Man's suits only get used by a couple of people.

Curiously, the same problem (well, it's not the only one) plagues those conspiracy theories that involve some amazing new science-- people, say, who believe that HIV was bioengineered or that the WTC was brought down by secret superthermite tech. The new tech comes out of nowhere (no history of research leading up to it), never gets used again, never gets duplicated by a rival lab, and has no long-term consequences on society. Science and engineering just don't work that way.

Except, apparently, in the Marvel and DC Universes.


Captain Comics said:

You bring up a point I've pondered (aloud on this board at times) about how any one of the Marvel inventions of the 1960s would have changed the world into something unrecognizable by 1970. Iron Man's jet boots alone would revolutionize both warfare and travel (they apparently don't need fuel), and the knowledge that cosmic rays cause benevolent mutation would have everybody from A.I.M. to the CDC figuring out how to use that. Pym particles alone would warp the world completely out of shape, if for no other reason than you'd

That was one of the aspects Moore brought to many of his more or less self-contained series -- the ways in which society would be changed by superheroes & extra-ordinary gadgets.  Within just the course of it's publication period of about 8 years, the Miracleman series evolves from that doesn't appear to be all that different from the reality we live in to one that is significantly different.  The "heroes" take over the planet, and we're left to wonder if it's really for good or ill.  We really are like toddlers playing with matches, but are the god-like heroes really that much better?  How different would the world of 2014 be if Reed Richards was an octogenarian super-genius who discovered the power of cosmic rays in 1961 and had the means to travel to distant, inhabited planets since 1963?  Basically, what if all the iconic Silver Age characters had aged realistically and their powers and inventions had a realistic impact on the world?  Well, of course, quite a few would be dead by now and our imaginations can take us either to utopian heaven or distopian hell.  As it is, the heroes and villains will fight one another as long as enough people are willing to pay to see them do so in one format or another.

As I wrote in the Invaders thread recently, Thomas took the scene of the Torch killing Hitler from a panel in the return of the Torch story in Young Men #24 (1953). My guess is it was inspired by the burning of his body after his death. In the real world the Soviets, who took Berlin, located the body but kept this secret and claimed for a time that Hitler was still alive. The resulting uncertainty might be a reason why the theme of Hitler's survival occasionally popped up in comics post-war (e.g. in the cover story of Quality's T-Man #6 [1952]). Hugh Trevor-Roper was assigned to investigate his death and his investigation was the foundation of his book The Last Days of Hitler (1947).

I'm not a fan of history rewriting either, but I'm less bothered by the Torch's role in the death of Hitler than the Hate Monger's being established as genuinely Hitler (in Super-Villain Team-Up ##16-17). I prefer the approach of Fantastic Four #21, in which whether he was the real Hitler or not was left open (and - spoiler warning - he died at the end).

As I recall, according to the collection The Outer Space Spirit the late Spirit story "A DP on the Moon" (1952) was originally done as a Hitler survival story, but changed before publication. A reviewer of the Spirit Archive with the story here cracks that "the world wasn't ready for Iron Sky yet". Actually the Nazis-on-the-moon theme had already been done in Skyman's feature in Big Shot (with Hitler!) and (without him) Robert Heinlein's novel Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), and these are just examples I happen to know about. The Skyman story was a serial: I don't know exactly when it started, but It was underway by #73 (cover-dated for Jan. 1947). Space Western ##44-45 (1953) instead had Nazis (and Hitler) on Mars. This Nazis-in-space theme was presumably partly inspired by Germany's leading role in missile/rocket development. Fritz Lang's 1929 silent movie Frau im Mond ("Woman on the Moon") was about a moon shot.

Well, one thing I'm pretty sure of: If Reed Richards and his family gained super-powers in 1961, I doubt they'd have ever fought a single super-villain. Who on earth dresses up and fights crime as a vigilante? Who would even think of that? What criminal with special abilities would call attention to himself in a gaudy outfit?

They'd all be working for the military by now. Whose military would be the question.


I read your description of Roy Thomas' inspiration for that scene after my first posting here, Luke, and in that context, especially knowing Thomas' fixation on Golden Age stories, it's more understandable.  I fully agree with you about the Hatemonger -- it was much better to leave his true identity ambiguous.  BTW, from my reading, Stalin knew he had Hitler's body, but he felt it would be better for the Soviet Union's long-term interests if his western allies thought it possible that Hitler was still alive, somewhere.  Of course, that possibility quickly became a staple of many varieties of fiction -- Lee & Kirby didn't come up with anything particularly novel in that aspect of their tale.  Interesting that although Hitler became a sort of proto-type for a particular type of villain, like say Dr. Doom, Dormammu, Darkseid or Thanos, few comics writers have made their megalomaniacal vilains quite as truly horrid as Hitler was.  Even Thanos or Dr.  Doom turn out to bd not all that bad -- at least in comparison.
Luke Blanchard said:

As I wrote in the Invaders thread recently, Thomas took the scene of the Torch killing Hitler from a panel in the return of the Torch story in Young Men #24 (1953). My guess is it was inspired by the burning of his body after his death. In the real world the Soviets, who took Berlin, located the body but kept this secret and claimed for a time that Hitler was still alive. The resulting uncertainty might be a reason why the theme of Hitler's survival occasionally popped up in comics post-war (e.g. in the cover story of Quality's T-Man #6). Hugh Trevor-Roper was assigned to investigate his death and his investigation was the foundation of his book The Last Days of Hitler (1947).

I'm not a fan of that kind of history rewriting either, but I'm less bothered by the Torch's role in the death of Hitler than the Hate Monger's being established as genuinely Hitler (in Super-Villain Team-Up). I prefer the approach of Fantastic Four #21, in which whether he was the real Hitler or not was left open (and - spoiler warning - he died at the end).

As I recall,  according to the collection The Outer Space Spirit the late Spirit story "A DP on the Moon" (1952) was originally done as a Hitler survival story, but changed before publication. A reviewer of the Spirit Archive with the story here cracks that "the world wasn't ready for Iron Sky yet". Actually the Nazis-on-the-moon theme had already been done in Skyman's feature in Big Shot (with Hitler!) and (without him) Robert Heinlein's novel Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), and these are just examples I happen to know about. The Skyman story was a serial: I don't know exactly when it started, but It was underway by #73 (cover-dated for Jan. 1947). Space Western ##44-45 (1953) instead had Nazis (and Hitler) on Mars. This theme was presumably partly inspired by German's leading role in missile/rocket development. Fritz Lang's 1929 silent movie Frau im Mond ("Woman on the Moon") was about a moon shot.

Funny that in the first couple of FF issues, the FF's superheroics are all pretty much out of sight of the public eye, but in issue 3 they're treated like celebreties.  Guess word must've gotten out about their fighting off invasions by the  Moleman's monsters and the Skrulls.
 
Captain Comics said:

Well, one thing I'm pretty sure of: If Reed Richards and his family gained super-powers in 1961, I doubt they'd have ever fought a single super-villain. Who on earth dresses up and fights crime as a vigilante? Who would even think of that? What criminal with special abilities would call attention to himself in a gaudy outfit?

They'd all be working for the military by now. Whose military would be the question.

Well, if you made up someone like Hitler, who would believe it? Right now there's a series at IDW titled Three that is set in ancient Sparta, with the underlying premise based on Sparta's actual set-up -- and it's so awful you'd never believe it in fiction. History is replete with events and systems that nobody would believe in fiction!

Incidentally, since I linked to that Spirit Archive review, I should note that while the reviewer thinks the young man who spins the story in "Design for Doomsday" was supposed to be Wally Wood, he's more likely supposed to be Jules Feiffer (as some of the GCD's pages for printings of the story assert; the story was also not drawn in Wood's style). Wikipedia's page on Feiffer currently has an image of him from (it says) 1958, which might be compared to his depiction in the story (shown in the review).

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