Goodness knows, anything goes, and here's something of the proof of that. For hardly anyone who's reviewed the killing of Damian Wayne in Batman Incorporated #8 has even bothered to mention the poor dead boy's age. With that being so, it's hardly surprising that I've only come across Martin Gray - here - arguing that the sight of "a tiny child brutalised and skewered while pleading for his life" is in itself an upsetting one. Instead, The Boy Wonder Returns has been mostly characterised in terms of its fannish entertainment value, with reviewers typically, if not exclusively, acclaiming it as 'insanely' good fun mixed with a "classic" and "tragic" climax. The panel-to-panel progression of the murder from set-up to stab-through has been chin-stroked over and, mostly, cheered, with the details of its inter-textuality dissected in detail. Similarly, the death's been discussed in the context of Grant Morrison's long-game as a writer of Batman, and evaluated in terms of its success in delivering the apparently requisite blood'n'guts which last week's conclusion of Death Of The Family opted out of. Anything but the fact of Damian's age and the details of his passing have tended to clog up the column inches.
Even the few who've expressed disappointment haven't, as far as I can see, thought to mention the fact that this is a 10 year old child who's being presented suffering in such an unnecessarily harrowing way. Indeed, there's even been complaints, and on some of the blogosphere's biggest sites too, that the killing itself isn't "quite gruesome" or "iconic" enough. One reviewer even took the time to bemoan the fact that Chris Burnham's artwork had obscured the exact detail of the physical trauma causing Damian's end with some judicious shadow. From that less satisfied end of the peanut gallery, unflattering comparisons have also been made with the sight of Jason Todd being beaten to death with a metal bar by the Joker, and the piercing through of Elektra of Bullseye, as if the meaning of such a death lay in the degree to which it raised the bar where body-horror is concerned. Yes, it seems that there's a canon of thrillingly brutal super-person deaths, and a series of generally agreed criteria which governs where a new killing can be ranked within it.
Yet what do we see, and what should we see, when faced with the scene of Damian's murder. His body run through by a colossal blade and then raised high into the air by the same? The whited-out eyeholes of his cowl framed to express horror, his child's hands grasping at the same sword which has done for him? His utter helplessness, the gruesome and unimaginably painful experience of being so definitively impaled? A boy, perhaps, and his death?
Of course, if the 10-year old Robin is to die, then it's best that we care about it. But quite why the audience is assumed to need such a scene to make it care is a mystery. How desensitised, how lacking in empathy, would the reader need to be before the very fact of Damian's death failed to move them? After all, this isn't a panel which increases our understanding of Damian's heroism, or indeed any aspect of his character. It doesn't tell us of anything that we haven't already been told, and it fails to achieve a single thing that a shot with a touch more restraint and respect still might. All this does is shock us, or at least attempt to. It exists not for the sake of plot, but to thrill us with its sense of transgression. Yet with no little irony, it doesn't seem to have been perceived as transgressive at all. It relies on the audience wanting to experience not just the tale of a child's murder, but the details of his horrible, miserable, painful, lonely end. The pleasure offered here is that of staring into the eye-pieces of a child superhero as he's brutally murdered, and nothing else.
Anything goes, of course. Indeed, the so-called New 52 has sold comic after comic with a purposefully prurient scene of superheroes being stabbed through with one lethal object after another. Yet that convention too appears not to have been considered relevant by those whose reviews I've read.
Why does this scene exist? It exists to make entertainment out of a boy's last, baleful moments. Beyond that, it has no purpose at all. If an objection to that needs to be spelled out, then all of this is less a matter of anything goes, and more a case of pretty much everything having already gone.
With my grateful thanks to Martin Gray for the scans of this issue, since I read it first on Comixology and then couldn't find a hard copy anywhere. Thank you Martin Gray!!!
To those who've written reviews which have raised these issues, and regardless of whether you reached a similar set of conclusions to mine or not, my apologies. I read almost a quarter-century of reviews before writing this. I'm truly sorry that I missed yours.
And, yes, I know, it's only comics, it's only fun, that there's nothing wrong with body-horror for its own sake, that Damian will probably be back via Lazarus Pit or body transfer or clone shenanigans, and so on and on. But, you know, it's a %£!$ kid who's been run through while pleading for his life, and so I guess I'm out of step on this one. Let the cries of "Wertham!" arise from anyone who can bothered ...