Eventually when I branch out more with the books and movies I discuss on this blog I’m going to date myself even more than I have with my commentary on video games. One way in which my perspective is hugely dated, as someone born in 1988, are my thoughts and feelings about comics.
In mid-childhood I read a few comics derived from Jurassic Park, Sonic The Hedgehog and occasionally Batman. I believe my first run-in with Bruce Wayne with panels and word balloons had to do with my grandparents from the lower forty-eight (what we Alaskans call the rest of the States) who had sent me a package of presents. I don’t think they had any way of considering what my tastes at the time were- they appeared to have sent me things that my dad (their son) would have liked at my age. This included several comics that, to my six-year-old mind, looked blandly unattractive. The only character I recognized was Batman, as I had seen Spielberg’s Animated Series and my uncle had taken me to see the Joel Schumacher films which were new at that time. I read a brief story about the Bat and a female accomplice fighting some technologically animate zombies and that was that.
When I actually began reading comics in earnest as a teenager, ordinary super heroes were nowhere on my radar. A close friend of mine had turned me on to Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and a brief look at Watchmen at another friends’ home put Alan Moore on my list of authors to check out. For the most part, though, The Sandman was the first comic that I was truly grabbed by and even now, at age thirty, it remains my favorite comic period. I also briefly followed mangas like Angel Sanctuary and Dragon Ball Z (although I saw the DBZ anime first on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block). Every now and then my dad would share Heavy Metal comics with me.
I briefly encountered the world of Gotham again in Gaiman’s Black Orchid story and inevitably I found Moore’s The Killing Joke. Rather predictably, the Christopher Nolan movies were the first time I actually dwelt on those characters and their mythos in a very long time. In recent history I’ve also gotten hooked on Fox’s Gotham (I actually enjoy watching Robin Lord Taylor as Penguin more than I enjoyed Heath Ledger as The Joker).
Lately, though, I was away from my hometown for job training and had the chance to explore in what, for me, was a large comic book store. I knew vaguely that I was interested in reading something that involved Jason Todd as Red Hood. Eventually, I settled on the New 52 story The Joker: Death Of The Family.
Fairly early in the story we find drug-addled Gothamites attracted to a cult of personality revolving around The Joker. This seems like it was sparked somewhat by a recent public demonstration. In Batman’s narration, he makes it clear that legally protecting the rally under the freedom to assemble was a terrible idea. Later in the story we learn that a sort of “Joker gas” is causing much of this chaos but there are other nuances. After we see a few people getting drugged there are some subplots that involve gangs of Joker copy-cats who seem to be systematically plotting kidnappings and bombings which the drugged victims seemed too frenzied to slow down for. An otherwise lucid and calm psychiatrist in Arkham is drawing Joker-influenced doodles on a piece of paper in a way that tempts the reader to think he is part of the movement of Joker emulation. Evidently, this isn’t all because of the Joker gas and many ordinary citizens are truly smitten with The Joker.
This reminded me of a conversation I had with the same friend that pointed me in the direction of The Sandman when I was younger, regarding the film The Dark Knight Rises. My friend said that the movie portrays ordinary people as too fickle and unstable to govern themselves and require a stern, authoritative personality to keep them in place. I don’t know if she mentioned the way in which Nolan modeled the rioters and followers of Bane after the Occupy movement, but I do remember that being brought up in more than one review. I said that Selena Kyle was a kind of audience insert- that in the context of The Dark Knight Rises Selena represents the everyperson, and why an ordinary woman or man would be disappointed with the status quo and wish for revolution. My friend insisted that Selena was nowhere near present enough for that narrative layer to be apparent to the audience. I hesitantly took her point; Selena’s presence was diminished somewhat near the middle and the end of the film.
Now I understand that, unless you have some sort of academic credential, talking about things like archetypes can seem murky and abstract to the point of being meaningless. In this case, though, I think there’s something to be said for a pattern expressed in more than one way through several different creative minds. In both the Christopher Nolan films and Death Of The Family, ordinary people are totally mindless know-nothings who can’t survive without a firm hand from authority. I don’t think I would be going too far to say that the zeitgeist in which the first Batman story was published, America at the beginning of World War II, cast a shadow over the concept. There was even an issue of Superman in which the Man of Steel went to Germany to lay some hurt down on Hitler. It would probably be more surprising if the classic DC stories and characters exhibited no pre-occupations with fascism. Even then, though, there are still more consistent indications of fascism within Batman. When Frank Miller wrote Holy Terror in the wake of 9-11, a comic about a super hero taking down Al-Qaeda, he originally wanted it to be a Batman story (the original title was Holy Terror, Batman!).
What also complicates this are differences between archetypal, subconscious influences, and open and frank discussion. In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, for example, we see mob violence happening for a variety of reasons. There are protesters who feel like super heroes have compromised everyone’s safety by making the police go on strike and emboldening criminals. There are people called Knot-Tops who may at times express specific ideological motivations or might just erupt in a spontaneous bloody frenzy. Rorschach submits his diary for publication to a radically conservative ‘zine and Ozymandias markets toys and perfume based on himself and other superheroes. Both the people who inspire the masses and the masses themselves are shown to have a diverse array of motivations which are all shown in sympathetic and unsympathetic ways. It makes sense to say that Watchmen discusses power fantasies in those who feel powerless. When consistent attitudes express themselves through innumerable different writers over several decades, though, there is probably something going on other than simple authorial intent.
The possibility that Batman channels a subconscious attraction to fascism is not the same as saying that the story and anyone associated with it are fascists, though. If anything, discussing things like this can make the expressions of subconscious fascination more fruitful. I always thought that an essential function of villains like Ra’s Al Ghul, Azrael, Red Hood and The Phantasm is highlighting a fundamental insecurity in Batman as a fictional person: is he a force for good or is he a moralizing thug? The presence of actual moralizing thugs like Red Hood and Azrael makes questions like this inevitable and makes characters who experience conflict over them more compelling.