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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Commander Benson said:

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.

I think Alan Moore inserting some kind of footnote into the story would have interfered with what was being portrayed. Also, when Watchmen was published in 1986 how many people were aware of the uncertainties in the Genovese story? The importance to me was that the recollection of Rorschach knitted the story together strongly. The impact of Dr. Manhattan is omnipresent. He apparently had a hand in creating the odd-looking cigarettes that are seen throughout the story but never explained (filtered to prevent disease?). It is stated that Dr.Manhattan developed the color-shifting, emotion-detecting fabric of the dress that Genovese in this timeline ordered. Rorschach is going with the news story of her attack. The story fits in with his view of the world as full of irredeemable people. Making his "face" from this fabric ties everything together. As strong as this sequence is, I still hope that none of her loved ones read it.

A compelling reason to write a roman a clef version of a fictional story based on real events if is the writer wanted to change the ending. Chester Gould did so in the 1930s when he told his version of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping but he gave it a happy ending. Presumably readers would recognize the truth behind the fiction, anyway, so I don't see a compelling reason to fictionalize the events unless it was to change the ending. (See Frank Miller's version of David Lettterman and Paul Shaffer in The Dark Knight Returns, for example.) I enjoyed the real world backdrop of The Watchmen (the war in Viet Nam, Watergate, etc.) but with superheroes thrown into the mix. In any case, the Kitty Genovese story was already 20 years old by the time of publication, a matter of historical record more than a current news story.

In many cases Law & Order does this, changing the endings and sometimes mixing one "headline" event with another.


  Jeff of Earth-J said:

A compelling reason to write a roman a clef version of a fictional story based on real events if is the writer wanted to change the ending. 

Jeff of Earth-J said:

A compelling reason to write a roman a clef version of a fictional story based on real events if is the writer wanted to change the ending. Chester Gould did so in the 1930s when he told his version of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping but he gave it a happy ending. Presumably readers would recognize the truth behind the fiction, anyway, so I don't see a compelling reason to fictionalize the events unless it was to change the ending. (See Frank Miller's version of David Lettterman and Paul Shaffer in The Dark Knight Returns, for example.) I enjoyed the real world backdrop of The Watchmen (the war in Viet Nam, Watergate, etc.) but with superheroes thrown into the mix. In any case, the Kitty Genovese story was already 20 years old by the time of publication, a matter of historical record more than a current news story.

Then there's Inglourious Basterds, which I won't spoil, save to say that it quite freely changed a historical fact to provide a happy ending, without changing names.

Commander Benson said:

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.

 

It also bears mentioning that, before the advent of the 911 system, policing wasn't structured around rapid response to calls. I don't think we fully appreciate how different it is today. 911 put police officers in cars, rather than walking beats, and built the expectation that when someone calls that easy-to-remember number officers will show up within 15 minutes or less.  

 

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.

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.

I don't know how much we could expect Alan Moore to research the history of the Genovese case for a single panel. Or even the entire work. And the panel reflected the tenor of the news coverage at the time -- which fed the worldview of the Rorshach character.

I'm fine with comics (or other media) using real-life tragedies/horrors, but I reserve the right to be annoyed at how they use them. The Elizabeth Short/ Black Dahlia murder is hardly news (1947) and I was fine with James Ellroy writing a novel, later adapted into a Hollywood movie. He was constructing an interesting and obviously fictional account of what might have happened. I was annoyed when American Horror Story introduced the story, to no real point, so they could feature an actress playing the real-life murder victim in a gratuitous sex scene.

And yes, we really need to stop repeating the urban legendized version of the Kitty Genovese story, though it's hardly the most egregious of those things accepted as "well-known facts" (and Watchmen only presents the story as Rorschach would have heard and responded to it)   However, promulgation of urban legends is another thread.

I don't have any problem with mixing the real and the fictional per se, but I do remember being more annoyed with than immersed in the 9/11 scene in Ex Machina. I felt badly for the relatives of the deceased should they read it, and I felt like it was a cheap ploy to increase the importance of the central character. Just like DC's decision to keep Superman out of WWII for fear of cheapening the sacrifice of the soldiers in the real world, I don't feel like Ex Machina should have used the 9/11 deaths so cheaply. Yes, it was a turning point for the character, but it's not like Ex Machina is a household name or that this particular tragedy was necessary to tell that story.

But I defend the right of the author to use it.

JD DeLuzio said:

I was annoyed when American Horror Story introduced the story, to no real point, so they could feature an actress playing the real-life murder victim in a gratuitous sex scene.

This is probably where I would draw the line of beyond good taste.  Not the sex scene, although I suppose that could be part of it, but portraying actual people as fictional characters.  It's one thing to mention them, or show them doing something they've publicly been seen doing, but getting into their heads or showing actions that are just theorized or are out and out made up just seems really iffy to me.  Likewise, I think it's in poor taste to fictionalize active religions... but maybe that's just me.

Philip Portelli said:

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?

I don't actually have a problem with this, especially something like 9/11.  It's such a significant part of the American consciousness, that there are times that if it's not referenced, stories seem diminished.  It seems to me, there are times when a fictional event's acceptable and others when referencing the true event is almost required for the story to be effective.

It's a tricky call. The bottom line should be: Does this add to or detract from the story?

Mentioning 9/11 in an offhand manner is like dropping a bowling ball in the soup bowl, but if you don't mention it in the manner described above, is that the wrong call?

Using my Ex Machina example again, before I read the first issue a number of people said "You've got to read this! The twist ending is amazing/astounding/fantastic, etc.!" Then I did read it, and recoiled. And I think it colored Ex Machina for me until the end of that series; I never quite warmed up to it. But others thought it really made the book.

So: Tricky call.

Coincidentally, a book was published four days ago as I write this. The title is Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America by Kevin Cook.

The 50th anniversary of her murder is next week, March 13. It is the latest attempt to debunk the myths surrounding her murder, and has good reviews. At just over 200 pages it's overpriced at $25.95, $18.45 at Amazon. I'll probably buy it after it is in paperback.

...Is the NEWS's story still up , Philip ? Can you link to it if so , please ? (I get too distracted whenever I go to the News's site ~ Besides which , they don't make their front page prominent there ~ Can't find it at ALL .~  anymore .)

  Was it a " Justice Story " , BTW ?

  Does the News still run that feature ?

  My mother told the story of how she once had an offer to write a Justice Story , and turned it down , thinking that it was a series of stories about miscarriages of justice when in fact it was more conventional " crook-gets-caught " true crime !!!!!!!!!



JD DeLuzio said:

I'm fine with comics (or other media) using real-life tragedies/horrors, but I reserve the right to be annoyed at how they use them. The Elizabeth Short/ Black Dahlia murder is hardly news (1947) and I was fine with James Ellroy writing a novel, later adapted into a Hollywood movie. He was constructing an interesting and obviously fictional account of what might have happened. I was annoyed when American Horror Story introduced the story, to no real point, so they could feature an actress playing the real-life murder victim in a gratuitous sex scene.

And yes, we really need to stop repeating the urban legendized version of the Kitty Genovese story, though it's hardly the most egregious of those things accepted as "well-known facts" (and Watchmen only presents the story as Rorschach would have heard and responded to it)   However, promulgation of urban legends is another thread.

It's probably worth mentioning too, that it probably wasn't Kitty Genovese' cutting edge new-fangled moving-patterned dress that Rorschach pilfers in that timeline. I think it's hinted that this is another of Rorscach's fantasies. He convinces himself that it's Genovese' dress, in other words. Whatever about what actually happened, the commonly understood version of the Genovese story had a huge impact and struck a deep chord, and Moore plays on that. Wherever society was at that point, people were ready to believe the story and believe it was a typical case.

It was somewhat central to first year psychology courses. I first heard of it from my sister, who was at college, then I read Watchmen, then I covered it in my own 1st year psyche course. still have the book somewhere. I vaguely remember they might have pointed out the less-damning revisions, but by that point the case's importance lay in where it had taken society and social studies in the meantime.

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