Here are four panels (five, technically) of Spider-Man punching bad guys.
(Amazing Spider-Man #3, art by Steve Ditko, July 1963)
(Amazing Spider-Man #369, art by Mark Bagley and Randy Emberlin, Late November 1992)
(Amazing Spider-Man #563, art by Mike McKone and Marlo Alquiza, August 2008)
(Amazing Spider-Man: Extra! #3, art by Fabrizio Fiorentino and maybe an inker or two, May 2009)
The first three images are comic book hits in the classic style: Spider-Man punches a guy, and his foe cleanly flies back from the impact. Sometimes there is a sound effect, sometimes there is a little stylized “explosion” at the impact point; there can be both, one or the other, or neither, that's all up to the artist.
The last one is something I’ve been seeing a lot lately, combining the classic hit but adding blood, and this is something I do not really care for.
I find it inappropriate, but I don’t mean in a prudish sort of way (because I enjoy a good slasher movie, after all), and I don’t mean in a “Won’t somebody think of the children?” knee-jerk way (because frankly, kids love blood).
I mean it is inappropriate for the representational nature of superhero conflict.
Let me explain that. Last week I said that superheroes allow us to tap vicariously into melodrama. Spider-Man’s sadness and the Hulk’s anger are not (or ought not be) realistic portrayals of those emotions, but rather representational of those emotions: stylized and enhanced.
Superhero conflict is similarly stylized and enhanced. Combat is just a physical manifestation of an ethical or philosophical conflict. Xavier and Magneto’s coexistence vs. superiority conflict is dramatized by having the X-Men fight the Brotherhood. Batman and the Joker fight to settle larger issues of chaos vs. order. In that first image, Spider-Man isn’t really fighting random burglars; he’s not even really fighting crime, he’s fighting his own inclination toward inaction, which is what got Uncle Ben killed in the first place (“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” and all that jazz).
(At the risk of veering off-topic: This whole thing is a very delicate balancing act. Strip an X-Men vs. Magneto battle of any deeper meaning and you’re left with a hollow, generic battle between random costumed characters. Make it too much about the conflicting philosophies and you’ve over-literalized it; then the X-Men and Magneto are just discussing their conflicting ideologies, and at that point you might as well abandon the superhero conceit altogether and just write a literary story about race relations or whatever. Finding the right equilibrium is where the true skill in superhero comic writing comes in.)
In the real world, however, you can’t put order in a bat costume and chaos in clown makeup and have them duke it out. Violence is just violence, and it doesn’t really solve anything other than immediate conflict. So violence for violence’s sake in a comic is pointless -- we have that already in the real world. It doesn’t mean or stand for anything.
And I abhor violence in the real world, but I love comic book battles and action movie fights. If you really hit Electro with as much momentum as Spider-Man does in the second panel above, you would probably snap his neck. But in the comic world, he flies backward bloodlessly and gets up in the panel after that. Because there’s no serious consequence, it’s fun and exciting. Heck, it's like some kind of wacky ballet, really. You can be a pacifist and root for Spider-Man (“Hit ‘im again, Spidey!”) because it’s not the violence itself you’re after, it’s the solution to the problem; because superheroes live in a representational milieu, they can solve problems via punching and kicking and you don’t feel too bad about it.
But when people start bleeding, that sort of shatters the representational nature of the fight, because now it’s real, and now there’s consequences. The burglars in the first image get knocked down and their story is done; I guess they wake up with maybe a headache but are basically okay, so there is no need to think about them anymore. But I look at the guy Spidey is whaling on in that last image, and I think “Jeez, that guy’s really hemorrhaging, isn’t he? He’s going to need medical attention; he might have brain damage, even.” An image like this makes it hard for me to root for Spider-Man; the violence is no longer symbolic.
It’s not like if I see blood in a superhero comic, I instantly cast the thing onto the fire. In fact, the hero bleeding usually works, as long as it’s not overdone; villains can be vicious, and a bleeding hero always tickles the suffering/Passion centers of the ol’ collective consciousness. But nine times out of ten, if Spider-Man punches a guy and a stream of blood flies from his mouth and/or nose? It adds a bit of realism, but this may not be what you ought to be going for in superhero stories.
(Similarly: These days when the Hulk rampages through New York, you've got thousands of displaced people and refugee camps springing up. I am not exactly sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, this kind of continues the injection of realism into the fantastic in the Stan Lee style, but I feel this might be a bit much. The Hulk's property damage was about as symbolic as the violence before, and now that it's firmly literalized, it's less easy to think of the Hulk as a "misunderstood monster.")
Of course, I could just be being an old man about this sort of thing. "Superheroes had a code when I was your age; they pulled their punches an' the villains rolled with 'em! Where is my tea?" Hm. What do you think, True Believer? (Josh: as an artist I would be interested in your take on this sort of thing.)