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Comic Books (and Movies About Them) Aren't to Blame

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In the wake of the "Batman Shootings" in Colorado, and the flurry of media pieces speculating on whether or not the alleged gunman's violent act was somehow inspired by the movie or comic book franchise, I feel the need to relate the following story:

Back in the spring of 1996, I was visiting my sister at her California ranch. We were watching NBC's Dateline, a segment about Kentucky teens who had murdered the parents of a female friend. 16-year-old Rod Ferrell and his friends had been fascinated with vampires. The Dateline host speculated about what the cause of their violent behavior might have been. Could it have been the fault of popular fiction? (The cover of an Ann Rice novel fills the screen.) Could it have been comic books like these?

I leapt from the couch, screaming, as covers from the Vamps comics I had recently written appeared onscreen. I couldn't believe it. Dateline was blaming me for the vampire murders. (Truth be told, they were also blaming the artist, Will Simpson, our colorist, letterer and editor, as well as DC comics, Ann Rice and the entire pop culture of America circa 1996.) What an incredibly weird experience!

Still, this event was less disturbing than it might have been, had I not watched a friend go through something similar a few years earlier. Artist Charles Vess had drawn an issue of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman that had figured in a bizarre incident that took place in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, in 1990. Michael Houseknect, a student at Lock Haven University, had been found dead, in what appeared to be a suicide. Near the body was a copy of Sandman No. 19 and a note that read:

"It was his time to pay the piper!!!!!!! The SANDMAN. P.S. The Sandman will bring perfect silence to the world through eternal sleep!!!!!! ENJOY THE SILENCE!"

I spoke with Charles just after the body had been found. He told me that Neil was very upset and had said he would never write another comic book. Lucky for Gaiman's many fans, this did not come to pass. It was later learned that the victim's boyfriend, Michael McGarvey, had murdered Houseknect. McGarvey had arranged the scene to look like a comic-inspired suicide. Gaiman was quoted in the The Comics Journal, issue 148, page 26, as saying that he had become, "incredibly indignant about the whole thing for a month. I felt like somebody had tried to frame me for a murder -- which, in some ways, yes, they had."

Since 1954, when Fredrick Wertham's book, Seduction of the Innocent, became the center of a congressional inquiry and convinced a generation of American parents that comic books caused juvenile delinquency, violent events have occasionally provoked a "blame the comics" response from our news media. What Wertham's media acolytes seem to have forgotten is that, until quite recent times, most of the stories that human beings told were violent.

From ancient myths of battling demigods, to Grimm's fairytales, to the stories we thrill to in comic books and films, people love stories of conflict, crime and war. Why? Because the best stories tackle the big questions -- questions of life and death, loyalty and treachery, love and loss. Would you sacrifice yourself for a friend? Do you hold to your moral values, if it means risking your life? Will you show courage in the face of danger, or turn and run? Are you able to forgive betrayal? And if you fight the monster, do you risk becoming the monster?

Compared to this sort of life-and-death story, what we call modern literature -- tales of housewives addicted to painkillers, or college professors worried about tenure -- is pretty darn uninteresting! That's why there are so many lovers of so-called genre fiction. But do these stories we love incite violence?

I don't remember reading that Euripides' tragedy Medea, in which the title character murders her own children, spawned a rash of child-killings among the theatre-going population of ancient Athens. For that matter, present-day, church-going Americans still hear the story of Abraham and Isaac from pulpits across the nation. Do they feel the need to test God's love by threatening the lives of their sons?

The Knights of King Arthur, long hailed as paragons of virtue, didn't spend all their time chivalrously courting the "Ladies Faire." There was some hacking off of limbs going on in those legends, as Monty Python reminds us in a famous scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And it wasn't strawberry jam that Lady MacBeth was trying to wash from her hands in Shakespeare's play. It was King Duncan's blood.

Which brings us back to our vampire killer...

If you read 16-year-old Rod Ferrel's confession to the 1996 murders, you quickly see that he shows no sign of remorse and feels no compassion for his victims. When he talks about bashing in the heads of a middle-aged, Florida couple with a crowbar, he might have been describing the destruction of lawn furniture. Ferrel's own story is that of a classic sociopath, someone who suffers from what is now called antisocial personality disorder. His problems surely started years before his first brush with vampire fiction. Most experts say there is a genetic component to the disorder that may be triggered by a traumatic event. (And, no, reading a vampire comic does not qualify as traumatic.)

Ask any teen girl fan in love with the Twilight series which character she identifies with. It won't be the vampire, Edward, but the heroine, Bella. Killer Rod Ferrell, on the other hand, identified with the vampire. But he didn't kill because he read my comic book. Perhaps there's a case to be made that he was drawn to the living dead, because he was already dead inside. The same goes for the guy who sprayed gunfire into a crowded theatre in Aurora, Colorado.

Batman didn't kill those people in Aurora. Comic books don't kill. Neither do movies based on them.