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Drawing the Line

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, July 14, 2018

We live in a world that can be exceedingly beautiful or appallingly harsh, and everything in between. And as art reflects one's experiences, emotions and questions about this world, it's unavoidable that both the themes of amazing beauty and the themes of absolute terror, disgust and horror will surface in it. From the abstract to the very concrete, even when it comes to terrible things, art can, does, and will reflect both the beauty and the terror.

There's no limit to how extreme you can go with beauty. We all love looking at, reading and experiencing beautiful things.

But what about the terror, the harshness, the horror? How far can you go in your art when depicting that? How far should you go?

There is no single answer, and I'm not going to try and dictate one with this newspost. But I do want to explore it with you.

There is a great approach floating around out there in the cyber-ethers, about how you should go about certain themes in your narrative (be it a novel or a comic or a movie or a webcomic) that are extremely harsh, toxic or traumatic, in the form of a list of questions:

1. What am I trying to do with this scene where something absolutely terrible, horrific and traumatic is being displayed? What is its function?

2. Is this scene (or sequence) necessary to the plot? If I take it away and swap it with something that is still terrible and horrific but on a smaller level, will my plot fall apart? Will my story lose impact?

3. What will this story focus on and in what way- the victim or the perpetrator? Who will be the one the audience will be called to co-exist in the course of this story? In the end, who will end up being glorified as superior to the other?

These are wonderful questions, and they don't get to elicit the same answers across the gamut of stories and contexts in which those stories unfold. Some stories warrant the harsh extreme. Some stories don't, and come across as some kind of porn or exploitation of the premise of that extreme harshness.

Themes like suicide, rape, child murder, child abuse (sexual and/or otherwise), torture, genocide, ethnic cleansing, lynching, and so on are harsh even if depicted off screen or off stage. The human imagination will fill in the blanks (and often even more harshly than with an actual representation center stage). So even touching upon them should be done with caution and extreme respect and only when absolutely necessary.

And sometimes such themes are absolutely essential to the story we are trying to tell, to the message we're trying to convey and to the impact we need to make.

But very often they aren't, and they are casually used as dressing to make a story that is rather shallow appear as serious, powerful or ‘gloves off’ and therefore ‘edgy’.

The line that is drawn is very thin, and it's very easy to simply go overboard when it's unnecessary, or not go where one should when it IS necessary.

The questions I listed above are a good compass, and while some may argue that some things are off limits no matter what, I don't think that is the case. Everything needs to be communicated, everything needs to be explored no matter how harsh, no matter how traumatic- but in the proper context so that it won't be trivialized, fetishized or glorified in a manner that it should never be.

I have purposefully avoided to give examples in this brief discussion because I would like you to do that in the comments. What are some works, from movies to webcomics to novels, that have done it well and what are some that were more hit and miss? Why do you think so?

We'd love to know!





AmeliaP at 4:43PM, Aug. 1, 2018

Oof, great article! I never understood how action movies had their "heroes" in an insane body count performance without much blood, even when the "baddies" were exploded with a grenade. Man, I tell you, I cut my hand in a little accident and my finger looked like a bloody (no pun intended, it hurt) fountain. "What are some works, from movies to webcomics to novels, that have done it well and what are some that were more hit and miss? Why do you think so?" "Crossed" by Ennis comes to my mind. I'm okay with that blood, but their constantly sexual assault scenes are exhausting. I got his point, but if a writer uses the same trick more than 3 times, it gets old for me. Another comic that gave me nightmares was "Torpedo", a fumetti. I've never seen a protagonist so EVIL. Yeah, he was THAT evil. Speaking of which, I noticed many European comics protagonists are the devil incarnate.

KimLuster at 6:23AM, July 16, 2018

Of all the 'line-crossing' stuff mentioned, I feel I haven't shied away from it! I've just avoided being too gratuitous!! But in a sad indictment of our times, I'm more nervous about depicting minorities, addressing hot political and cultural topics, etc., than I am about depicting a child molester!! It's just so volatile these days, and so many on every side are just too reactionary and tribal about it!! The child molester, sadly, isn't near as likely to start a crap-throwing war!!

Ironscarf at 4:56AM, July 16, 2018

I remember drawing a scene which the writer described as a guy whose chest had exploded. I approached it the same way as I would draw a car, or a bunch of flowers - find the necessary references and draw it. Looking at the medical references, I thought the internal organs were a thing of beauty. It didn't occur to me, or the writer, that people would be horrified by the result but we did get a slap on the wrist from the editor. Personally I prefer less is more. What you don't see can be much more frightening than what you do.

Genejoke at 11:51AM, July 15, 2018

Continued. It made me feel dirty getting into the head of a character like that and trying to make him sympathetic. It's very easy to demonise people so I wanted to portray something that would churn my stomach to learn of a friend and to write the othet character trying to reconcile that revulsion with the affection they felt for them. I have no idea if I pulled all that off but for me that was the line because it wasn't trivialised by OTT action or cheesy effects.

Genejoke at 11:47AM, July 15, 2018

I have little issue with showing things, the trick is in the how much you focus on it, but there is always a line. I found used books distaste for going near her line interesting. I've done a few short stories that have come close intentionally and how they mafe me feel was interesting in itself. One was a somewhat cheesy horror and i was going for cheap shock value and used cliched characters. The racism and brutality didn't bother me to write but I was concerned about peoples reaction to it. The other one was about a guy finding a friend dead and reading his suicide note, where the dead guy reveals he was a paedophile. The intent being that I wanted to question how it would make you feel to lose a close friend and learn the truth of them. I always intended it to be more text than visuals and assumed that approach would be easier for me to do the visuals for. Writing it was hard. I wrote the suicide note in the first person and wrote away the characters darkest secrets and desires...

bravo1102 at 5:21AM, July 15, 2018

The actual battle sequences in "Glory" and "The Patriot" finally got early artillery's presence on the battlefield correct. no neat little explosions but bouncing cannonballs that take out EVERYTHING in their path. That being said "Gettysburg" still captures the battle without any gore at all. But people die too cleanly. People don't grab their belly and fall down. A line of men getting shot by canister at point blank range would be shredded into a stack of flesh and gore. They added gore into "Gods and Generals" and it hit home harder just how nasty the 18-19th century battlefield because people didn't die cleanly. But some of the best combat action is in old movies where you don't see the guy get shredded, but the reaction of the guy next to him. Or from the classic "Breakthrough" when William Campbell knocks out the tank and the guy tells hi to jump and he screams "I Can't, I got no legs!" You don't see anything but it hits you in the gut.

mindcat at 7:35PM, July 14, 2018

Personally, I believe that graphic displays of horrific scenes can be necessary to get a point across. Movies like Blood Diamond portray extreme violence and I believe the shock factor was needed to wake people up. Now people want "guilt free" diamonds and some good came out of terrible events that actually happened. The way I see it, there are some people who would day, "No, that's too graphic." But there are other people who have experienced horrific events in their lives. And they are thinking, "Now others will know what it's like."

bravo1102 at 12:28PM, July 14, 2018

@usedbooks hits on something here. "It's a Good Life" is 1960s TV. Nothing is explicit and everything is inferred, but IT IS SO DISTURBING! My sister can't watch "Little Girl Lost" because it is THAT DISTURBING. You don't need graphic anything to do something really visceral and disturbing and scary that really hits you. And then there are Japanese gore films or the old Gordon Lewis gore movies which are blood and gore everywhere but stupidly silly. And sometimes you can tell someone just went to the butcher's shop and got a bunch of guts and threw them around.

usedbooks at 12:14PM, July 14, 2018

The thing is "the line" is relative. Like Oz said, tone has an effect on where that line is and the nature of the material. The audience has expectations. Monty Python can play volleyball with dead guinea pigs if they want, but it doesn't belong on Full House. When I watch something like MacGyver, I'm not expecting a body count, so if it turns into that, it is disturbing. It would not phase me at all if I was watching James Bond.

usedbooks at 11:38AM, July 14, 2018

My specific examples of episodes of things I will not watch again due to disturbing me include the Twilight Zone "It's a Good Life," a season one MacGyver episode with rampaging ants, and another MacGyver episode with a chemical that causes rapid aging. I'm very conceptual in what disturbs me. I am also disturbed(more angered) by bad writing, particularly deaths that serve no narrative purpose, pathetically poorly written characters, and animals used as cheap story devices -- especially when killed off (SITCOMS do that with some poor rodent pet and play it for laughs; screw you if you write that stuff on a family show).

PaulEberhardt at 8:14AM, July 14, 2018

The thing with my example is, that the terror part never loses its impact or shock value, because it is very inventively done, so it can actually cross the line in the way referred to in this newspost. There are other cases like, Die Hard 4.0, say, where the action/violence/etc. just loses its power because it's so overused (at least that's the way I remember it). Same goes for beauty as well, even if it's admittedly harder to cross a line there, but there's certainly more than one or two Disney-sequences that manage to.

PaulEberhardt at 8:05AM, July 14, 2018

The violence in Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series - which I otherwise like a great deal - is sometimes a tad more graphic than strictly necessary even for its gritty atmosphere. Can't really blame the author, though, since he's a trained archaeologist and knows that nothing you can make up will be nearly as brutal as historical battles and campaigns really were, so he seems to reckon that credible fantasy warfare has to match that level of grossness. If only the rest wasn't so well written and laced with a great sense of sometimes quite subtle humour, and that's probably why I forgive him as a reader.

Banes at 7:41AM, July 14, 2018

The movie Misery toned down a big scene from the novel, involving the Protagonist's feet. It was much worse in the novel, and the filmmakers believed that if they'd stayed true to the book, they would not have had a hit movie with staying power (which they did). They would have had a movie that people vaguely remembered and had a horrible scene in it involving feet.

Banes at 7:38AM, July 14, 2018

There was a horror novel I was reading as a youth about some kind of haunting/demon. In an early scene, a young, mean girl is assaulted by a demon and it turns her hair white and drives her insane. It was so off putting that I didn't continue with the book, but on the other hand, I remember it decades later. Though I don't remember the name of the book and would not want to read it. Food for thought for writers, maybe?

Banes at 7:35AM, July 14, 2018

I can remember a couple TV shows I watched as a kid, sitcoms that were usually either very light comedy with some corny emotional stuff showing up here and there (I do like that stuff and my writing has been influenced a lot by that stuff). But then they'd do a sexual molestation episode that would seem really out of place in the context of the series (Diff'rent Strokes and Family Ties both did molestation episodes). I don't know if I'd call these good or bad - I didn't like them as a kid (I would just switch off, mentally...not feeling disturbed; I just didn't want to watch it)

Banes at 7:31AM, July 14, 2018

For some reason, my mind went to the movie "Dirty Work" and the surprisingly realistic reaction to a prison...assault.

Ozoneocean at 7:11AM, July 14, 2018

This is only for serious comics, obviously :) Pinky TA shows death in war of adult human male soldiers, something we've been taught to rationalise as acceptable in civilised society. The same with men who're "bad guys". But depending on how you look at it killing is always pretty severe, their deaths are no better or worse than a woman or child. I always wonted to show a bit of that in Pinky TA.

usedbooks at 4:23AM, July 14, 2018

(I worry that on the rare occasion I veer toward "the line," it cheapens my work or makes it seem like a bid to be "edgy.")

usedbooks at 4:05AM, July 14, 2018

I don't like drawing/writing horrific things myself. Tbh, it has happened in Used Books. Last time I wrote something really disturbing, I knew it was because I unleashed an antagonist who would be nothing less. Staying true to character is a top priority. But my skills are at the level of that old b&w movie technology. I am unable to show the horror on a technical level. Heh. I lean toward the suggestion approach. (In fact, I just put finishing touches on a horrific story angle. It's all aftermath with no victim to be seen.)

usedbooks at 3:58AM, July 14, 2018

Modern special effects have injured the horror genre. I feel like showing the suggestion of horror used to be partly because technology limited what could be shown realistically. But with technology that can, showing any horror in detail removes the horror. It takes it out of the fear camp and launches it into disgust. I have never liked full length horror/chiller, but I'm addicted to horror anthologies. There are some episodes of old series that horrify me on a deep level and I will not watch again. Newer anthologies' "most failed" episodes to me are the CG-focused body horror displays. It's not scary, just gross, and my mind instantly drops the suspension of disbelief at that point. It becomes less immersed in the plight of the characters and more like watching a carnival act with the "Huh, neat trick. I wonder if it's all digital or if they are using practical effects."

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