The Death Penalty in Comics

Yesterday's decision to execute Troy Davis in Georgia and the week's leading up to it has brought the topic of capital punishment (the death penalty) back to the front in North American society and really the world.  Despite being in Canada, a country where capital punishment is not an option, the events in Georgia still dominated a number of news organizations recently.  This case was quite infamous and I recommend reading about it if you are at all interested in the topic as numerous people including Nobel Peace Prize winners, former presidents and the pope all came out in favour of the man, in the end to no avail.  For those that know where I stand on such issues it is obvious where I stand on this one, but my point here is not to debate this case, but rather to look at how capital punshiment as it is portrayed in comics.  Comics book fans have very strong opinions on capital punishment at times, stating that even in a region where it is not authorized that they should for instance make an exception with the Joker (this sort of doesn't pay enough attention to the fact that he is criminally insane and thus should not be executed on moral grounds.)  Really though, capital punishment is never really mentioned in comics, except perhaps in passing.  There are a couple of reasons for this as I see it.  The first is that is is a complex issue, and it is not one which can really be glossed over easily in terms of a comic book story, or allowed to lay dormant in the background with being expanded upon.  More so comics do try to avoid offending readers and this issue is extremely polarizing.  As a case in point on this issue, over the course of one year period in comics capital punishment was touched on twice, in an issue of Birds of Prey and Batgirl (incidentally I reviewed these issues this morning if anyone is interested in specifics - they were Birds of Prey #17, and Batgirl #19.)  In the one case and offering the trickier side of the argument is Barbara Gordon.  As a member of the Bat family she is as dedicated to justice as the next hero, but here after the Joker has been caught after nearly destroygin New York City with a nuclear weapon, she informs him that he will be considered a terrorist and thus tried in Federal Courts where he could be put to death.  Of course this betrays the concept that he is criminally insane, but for Barbara she seems to not mind if the man that has brought her so much pain would actually be killed, albeit by legal means (although this is not consistent with her character.)  This is of course raises one side of the issue, that of a form of payback, an eye-for-an-eye so to speak and giving the family and friends of the crime a degree of closure.  Adversely in the issue involving Batgirl she was portrayed as interested in not letting anyone die in Gotham for an entire night.  In addition to the regular victims, she decides that this applies to everyone, including a man sentenced to death and on his final hours.  This means she has to break into a prison to stop his execution, even if she is just postponing it.  To her in the case (and in a more black and white application of morality) a life is a life and if she intends to save all lives that night she has to do so without prejudice.  This creates some confusion as Gotham is almost always portrayed as not using the death penalty (otherwise Blackgate and Arkham would be empty), but I figured in comic book logic it must have been like a New York/New Jersey thing where the city spills over numerous legislative regions.  These two story do offer a good though short examination of the complex issues at hand, and all things considered I can understand why the issue is not dealt with as much in comics, because the real world issues offer too many moral challenges in itself, that in comics the issue could become too real or too artificial pretty quickly. 
33 Comments
33 Comments
Posted by aztek_the_lost

One of the reasons people have problems with death penalty though (or at least why I think they do) is because of possible innocence, as comic readers we KNOW that the villains aren't innocent and we KNOW they're going to commit their crimes again so it's impossible to justify NOT killing them.

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Posted by cyberninja
Posted by entropy_aegis
Posted by Timandm

@aztek_the_lost said:

One of the reasons people have problems with death penalty though (or at least why I think they do) is because of possible innocence, as comic readers we KNOW that the villains aren't innocent and we KNOW they're going to commit their crimes again so it's impossible to justify NOT killing them.

THIS, actually, is an excellent point. It's very much like watching a Dirty Harry movie, or Charles's Bronson's Death Wish movies and cheering as the gun toting vigilante kills the bad guys. We SEE the crime. We KNOW who is guilty. We KNOW there is no redeeming these people, and so we see it as justice.... Wolverine kills often. We SEE the whole story and see that it's justified... So, we don't have that shadow of a doubt that the person killed could be innocent. (The recent murder of the child that would grow up to become apocalypse, might be considered an exception, but it was Fantomex who ultimately did the deed. We don't know that Wolverine would have carried it out)

But the issue is actually deeper than this for many people. For many, it doesn't matter if the convicted person is guilty. Many simply believe that all life is precious, even the life of a murderer. These people would argue that killing the murderer will not bring the victim back to life. They might argue that it is simply inhuman to kill when you don't absolutely have to. So, the question becomes one of morality; it can become very philosophical... And that type of debate/argument is NEVER going to go over well in a comic book.

Most of us cannot agree on this issue in real life where it's been debated for decades? At least in this country (the U.S. I mean.) This topic simply would not go over well in comics. The same is true for abortion; its simply a topic that would not go over well in comics...

Posted by super_psycho

This is the reason why i like razzatazz's blogs so much..

Posted by joshmightbe

In the real world Joker would probably be executed because he shows malice and forethought in most many of his murders which would pretty much void an insanity plea, Jeffrey Dahmer ate people and he couldn't pull off the insanity plea so I'm guessing a guy who'll spend weeks planning an intricate scheme to murder someone regardless of how bizarre the circumstances would be considered sane under the rule of law

Posted by joshmightbe

@Timandm: Not all Wolverine's kills have been justified like the few times he went berserk in a bar and killed a room full of people, it's happened at least twice

Posted by Timandm

@joshmightbe said:

@Timandm: Not all Wolverine's kills have been justified like the few times he went berserk in a bar and killed a room full of people, it's happened at least twice

you could be right about that. I don't recall reading a specific example of that happening (where he killed innocents) but it makes sense that it would happen; in fact, it seems likely... But then, that differs from the times he actually makes the decision to kill someone for something they have don't... When he chooses to kill someone, he's sort of acting as judge and jury... In a berserker rage, there's no judge or jury, just a killing machine. Also, there were times when he's been possessed and killed people, but I don't consider those HIS actions... Like recently when Daredevil, while possessed, killed Bullseye.

Posted by joshmightbe

@Timandm: I don't know if all those guys in those bars were innocent but neither did he and regardless of what brought it on the fact is he's killed people for no reason at all which to be honest is actually worse than killing someone knowingly

Posted by Timandm

@joshmightbe said:

@Timandm: I don't know if all those guys in those bars were innocent but neither did he and regardless of what brought it on the fact is he's killed people for no reason at all which to be honest is actually worse than killing someone knowingly

I guess we differ on opinion on that one. I don't think Daredevil is responsible for the death of Bullseye. Daredevil was possessed by a powerful evil entity at the time and not in control. In the recent "Hell" story arc where Wolverine was possessed by a bunch of Demons, I would not say he is responsible for the people killed... Demons were using his body... And when he is in a Berserker rage, he's not making conscious choices. He isn't making any choices at all... Maybe if I saw an example of one of these times, and could see that it was his choice to go into this berserker rage... But like I said, I don't recall any of these incidents.

Posted by joshmightbe

I agree that he isn't responsible for what happened while he was possessed but as far as the berserker rage thing goes that's all on him because being really mad is no justification for killing someone. Pretty much every wife beater and child abuser has tried to use that as an excuse more times than can be counted, it doesn't work for them and it doesn't work for Wolverine

Posted by Timandm

@joshmightbe said:

I agree that he isn't responsible for what happened while he was possessed but as far as the berserker rage thing goes that's all on him because being really mad is no justification for killing someone. Pretty much every wife beater and child abuser has tried to use that as an excuse more times than can be counted, it doesn't work for them and it doesn't work for Wolverine

Fair point...

Posted by cody1984

@RazzaTazz said:

Comics book fans have very strong opinions on capital punishment at times, stating that even in a region where it is not authorized that they should for instance make an exception with the Joker (this sort of doesn't pay enough attention to the fact that he is criminally insane and thus should not be executed on moral grounds.)

This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Regardless if someone is insane or not if they break out of prisons and/or asylums dozens of times and go on killing sprees with no way possible of keeping them locked up or reforming them then it is a moral obligation to put them to death so they don't kill other people. This is one area where real world logic doesn't apply since in comics prison guards are always stupid and/or corrupt making it easy for prisoners to get out. In the real world prison breaks do happen but the worst criminals don't break out of jail several dozen times going on killing sprees each and every single time. The justice system while flawed tends to actually work in the real world it obviously doesn't in the comic book world or you wouldn't have recurring villains. This is one area where I honestly don't see much of any controversy arising if Marvel decided to have certain states execute super villains when they capture them since it would actually make sense and we don't have the dilemma like we do in the real world were someone might be executed and be innocent of the crime. This is also a reason why people like a character like the Punisher viewing him as needed in the marvel universe since he kills his enemies but wouldn't want him in the real world since he is not needed and would be dangerous to society in the real world. The problem with this statement of yours is your not separating real world from fiction which is something most people do when they read comics. I'm not trying to be mean; I'm just stating the reason why I think you believe what you stated.

Posted by Roxanne Starr
@RazzaTazz
 
Troy Davis was convicted of murdering a police officer. His appeals were all in vain.
 
There was plenty of evidence to prove that he was the murderer.  
 
All the witnesses from the very beginning were sketchy characters. 
 
The Death Penalty is still the punishment for killing a police officer in Georgia. 
 
Troy Davis received the Death Penalty. 
 
His last words were, "I'm innocent."  His last words were a lie.
Posted by TheGoldenOne
@Roxanne Starr: How do you know he lied?
Edited by Roxanne Starr
@TheGoldenOne said:

@Roxanne Starr: How do you know he lied?


Physical evidence. 
 
The media kept playing up all these unreliable witnesses (I think there were 7...out of about 40 who had given testimony to the prosecution) and almost always failed to mention the murder weapon... 
 
His gun...which he fired...killing the police officer. 
 
There was no phantom "Other Guy." Nobody saw the "Other Guy."
Posted by The_Peter_Cosmic

Realistically, criminals in comics could be sentenced to death all the time and we just don't hear about it. Any popular villain is going to break out of prison for another crime spree far before his appeals are exhausted.

Posted by Timandm

@The_Peter_Cosmic said:

Realistically, criminals in comics could be sentenced to death all the time and we just don't hear about it. Any popular villain is going to break out of prison for another crime spree far before his appeals are exhausted.

This is actually an excellent point. The fact that we don't see things happening in comics does not mean they are not happening.

We don't see Notary Publics stamping their seals on legal documents, but we can assume it's happening.

We don't see people scrubbing toilets in the comics, but... well, let's hope SOMEONE is doing it...

Posted by DoomDoomDoom

In real life the death penalty doesn't make sense from either a financial or ethical perspective.

In comic books the only incident I familiar with involving capital punishment is when the emotional entity of rage "The Butcher" first appears in GL.

Posted by Shadow_Thief

With as often as comic characters come back from the dead, locking them up has a higher likelihood of keeping them out of the general population longer. ;)

Posted by Kairan1979

Talking about capital punishment in comic books - I only remember the issue of Astro City when the superhero Silver Agent was falsely accused and sentenced to death. He could escape using time traveling, but he didn't as it turned out after his death, he was innocent. Now there is a statue of Silver Agent with the inscription "To our eternal shame".

Posted by _jackbauer

Capital punishment is categorically wrong in all cases.

Posted by MartinNL

@DoomDoomDoom said:

In real life the death penalty doesn't make sense from either a financial or ethical perspective.

Totally agree! Especially when reasoned from an ethical perspective. I don't understand how in any civilized society such a savage act as a death penalty sentence can be justified. It's just inhumane.

Posted by Kairan1979

@MartinNL: so let's be civilised and release a serial killer after several years in prison, so he can kill again? That's NOT justice!

Posted by RazzaTazz
@Kairan1979: I dont think anyone is advocating letting killers go free, it is not the same thing.  
Edited by MartinNL

@Kairan1979 said:

@MartinNL: so let's be civilised and release a serial killer after several years in prison, so he can kill again? That's NOT justice!

That is totally not what I said or meant to imply in any way. And I agree with you that letting a convicted killer go free would not be justice (and I'd like to add) AT ALL. What I did say, or meant to say at least, was that I find the death sentence immoral and unethical. Life-long imprisonment to me is a much better solution for convicted killers. Also, that way, if a mistake was made in the process, at least it can be reversed. If no mistakes were made and someone did intentionally kill someone, life-long imprisonment is a punishment much worse than the death penalty imo.

If you're pro-death penalty and don;t find anything immoral or unethical about it then that's your opinion. I suppose we would just have a different view of the world then and that's fine. Anyway this is getting a little too political I guess and I think is not what the TS intended to start nor is it what this board is for, so this is the last I'll say about it. :)

Edited by DoomDoomDoom

@Kairan1979 said:

@MartinNL: so let's be civilised and release a serial killer after several years in prison, so he can kill again? That's NOT justice!

@RazzaTazz said:

@Kairan1979: I dont think anyone is advocating letting killers go free, it is not the same thing.

Usually serial killers get locked up for life, which is cheaper than having to go through the system of appeals to achieve a death sentence.

Personally and coming from a philosophical view point what is the point of the whole court system besides punishing offenders and deterring other criminals? nothing, punishment and deterrence of future crime and maybe if you live some where a little more liberal, rehabilitation. Death is not a punishment, and for a society to basically come together and say it is okay to kill someone who has killed is just as brutal as the first killing. We can't use someone as an example like that especially if studies have shown the death penalty does nothing to deterring crime. In a country full of "Christians" where is forgiveness? To put it simply there is no justification for murder by an individual or the state.

Sorry, didn't mean to rant but this is one of the few issues I get heated on.

EDIT: I also find it odd that a lot of the people I know who are support capital punishment are also pro-life...go figure.

Posted by Kairan1979

Let's get back to the topic. We were talking about death penalty in comic books.

Edited by Afro_Warrior


Kairan1979: You're right, it wouldn't be justice, but i dont think that is what anyone who is against the death penalty is advocating.  As far as i'm aware over in the US they do have sentences involving life without parole, and if i'm honest i think that's a better and more suitable punishment then the death penalty. Or at least it's one that i can alive with my personal ethics. 
 
I just can't see a justification for the death penalty because of the risk of human error, and the possibility that an innocent person will be convicted and killed. A perfect example is Cameron Willingham who was executed in 2004 for setting three fire's throughout his house that killed his three children. Now i assume alot of people who support the death penalty would agree with the execution of someone like that. Yet only a year later, evidence was provided in an arson case with the exact same type of arson indicators as the first case that proved it was a simple house fire with no underhanded cause. To put it simply their was no arson in the Willingham case and a man who had already lost his three children was imprisoned for 12 years before being executed.  
 
Bit of a rant their i fear.
Posted by DoomDoomDoom

@Afro_Warrior said:

I just can't see a justification for the death penalty because of the risk of human error, and the possibility that an innocent person will be convicted and killed.

That's another great reason.

@Kairan1979 said:

Let's get back to the topic. We were talking about death penalty in comic books.

@Kairan1979 said:

@MartinNL: so let's be civilised and release a serial killer after several years in prison, so he can kill again? That's NOT justice!

yeah... let's do that lol.

Posted by theik2

I don't think the death penalty is always wrong.  In the comic world the death penalty doesn't mean much because 'dead' characters are always coming back to life.  It doesn't matter really. 
Edited by Daveyo520

I was thinking about this a ton the other day. As in Gotham should have it. They try to get away with saying they are all crazy and put them in Arkham, but they know what they are doing, they plan out and murder people with intent and know full well the consequences. They are fit to stand trial. Many serial killers are insane to the same level that Batman villains are and they go to jail and are put to death. Arkham or any sentence at a jail just isn't good enough for the Joker, because he is just going to escape and kill tons of people. Villains like the Joker will also never reform so a life sentence to think about what they did isn't good enough either (he will also escape), so the best you can do is sentence him to death and hope they do it before he escapes. Comics provide much worse people then in real life and have a little more justification on putting them to death. Now if Arkham was 100% escape proof.... that is a different story.

The only real reason they don't is because if they do Batman would run out of villains and there would be not point of the comic anymore. Batman himself would most likely be against the death penalty however.

Also a great example of the death penalty in comics is All Star Superman and Lex Luther.

Posted by PikminMania
@RazzaTazz: Can somebody remind me why Tory Davis was being supported by some many people?