My application of the “killing stroke” trope to the combative mode may serve me in formulating an answer to one long and nagging theoretical problem: that of combative characters who are not overtly challenged by most of their opponents.
In THE SAD STORY OF SUPERHERO SADISM I mentioned that during the Golden Age characters like Superman and the Spectre (both, as all sagacious fans know, linked by the authorship of Jerry Siegel) only occasionally encountered opponents who could fight them in terms of “give-and-take” combat. Even other powerhouses of the period were given convenient vulnerabilities so that they could be placed into peril—said vulnerabilities ranging from a special weakness, like Green Lantern’s inability to influence wood, or something more generic, wherein a super-strong character like Wonder Woman could be downed by a blow to the back of her skull. At the time, my main rationale for still deeming Golden Age Superman and Spectre as combative heroes was that, even though their individual gangland-foes were no challenge, Crime as a Whole was a constant menace not to the heroes but to law-abiding innocents.
Now, as per my Cyclopean example, the “killing stroke” usually represents a weaker character’s attempt to marshal both skill and strength to overcome a more powerful enemy, usually in some appropriate way (a one-eyed monster is made to lose his only means of seeing his prey). But it’s occurred to me that if one reverses the valences of power in the killing-stroke paradigm, what one has is akin to “the curse of the gods.” Greek mythology in particular is replete with numerous stories of gods who strike impious mortals with curses that fit those mortals’ impieties. Lycurgus the reaper is made to reap his own kindred, Pentheus the foe of Dionysus ends up meeting being ripped apart by Dionysian maidens, and so on.
Again, while both of Siegel’s co-creations would have many fully combative adventures during and after the Silver Age, it’s important to point out that their combative status in the Golden Age doesn’t depend on the trope of the “back-and-forth” fight. Instead, Superman and the Spectre depend on a trope I choose to term “the reverse killing stroke.” In contrast to a relatively weak character who slays a more powerful entity via strategy, the practitioner of the “reverse killing stroke” is, like a Greek god, far more powerful than any of the mortals he blights. But, for the extrinsic sake of the story, this godlike hero can’t just destroy his criminal targets any old way. The superhero-god must use his power strategically, for the sake of imposing a divine irony upon the victim.
The second part of Superman’s debut story, retitled “the Coming ofSuperman,” shows the hero acting the part of a trickster-god. Once Superman ferrets out the identity of a nasty munitions-maker, obviously the Kryptonian could destroy or imprison the villain in any number of ways. But in order to make a good story, Superman badgers the fellow into joining the U.S, armed forces—at which point he’s forced to face the real-life conditions of the wars he’s fostered. To be sure, the hero allows this villain the chance to reform, but in other contemporaneous stories, the Man of Steel uses his power judiciously, in order to make the enemies of law and order destroy themselves.
The Spectre presents a more bald-faced evocation of the “wrath of God” motif, which may be one reason the character wasn’t especially popular in the Golden Age (nor have any subsequent treatments scored that well, with or without the emphasis on said wrath). Siegel didn’t seem to exploit the idea of the “reverse killing stroke” quite as artfully as he did in Superman, but there’s a little use of irony in the origin-story. After Jim Corrigan is slain by gangster Gat Benson and his two cronies, the heroic cop rises from the dead, empowered by the power of Heaven to war on crime. Not yet donning his crimefighting togs, Corrigan overtakes his murderers, and the first one to meet Corrigan’s gaze instantly dies. Not much irony there. Yet the second death is more accomplished. When the second thug fails to kill Corrigan with bullets, he unwisely tries to grapple with the dead policeman. He pays for this “impiety,” since touching Corrigan causes the thug’s flesh to dissolve, making him into a living skeleton for a few macabre seconds, before Corrigan decisively slays him. Curiously, the gang-leader Benson is spared, as Corrigan merely allows him to fall unconscious and to be arrested. In subsequent stories, some of the Spectre’s killing strokes had an ironic appeal, and others were nothing special. Arguably the Bronze Age series by Fleischer and Aparo exploited the gruesome potential of the concept to greater effect, in that the Ghostly Guardian consistently devised dooms for dastardly villains that would have fit the EC horror-anthologies.
So, can one call any aspect of these godlike punishments “self-mastery?” Certainly such “reverse killing strokes” don’t engage one’s sympathies in the same way as the normative killing-stroke. Nevertheless, Superman and the Spectre must be judicious in order to destroy evildoers in an ironically meaningful way, and this ties in with my general concept that self-mastery entails a form of self-limitation. Thus the killing strokes used by these heroes to deter criminals can be deemed a special form of strategy-combat, and thus qualify for the combative mode even without a lot of back-and-forth battles.