In 2008, DC Comics, publishers of Batman, continued a pattern of pumping dwindling sales by publishing a crossover multi-title event called Final Crisis. The publicity motto for that series was: the day evil won. Top editor and now Co-Publisher of DC Comics, Dan Didio, commented that the series examined the question: "What happens when evil wins?" It is a good question, and an ironic one for Mr. Didio to ask. The answer appears to be: evil wins the day that DC's Millennial virtual fantasies become a reality. What happens on the pulp pages and the movie screen now happens in the cinema itself. Reality has become just like a graphic novel.
In an Aurora, Colorado shooting 20 July 2012 at the Batman: The Dark Knight Rises midnight movie première, 12 people died and 70 were tragically injured. Predictably, America's media have launched into a heavily politicized and polarized debate about the right to bear arms, the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.
But this election-related argument will take public discussion far off track from the meaning and origins of this tragedy. Guns were not the only weapons used here, since Holmes lobbed tear gas grenades at the crowd, and his apartment is still sealed and under investigation by bomb experts. The apartment is booby-trapped and full of jars of liquid, mortar rounds, trip wires, bombs and incendiary devices, which Holmes likely learned how to make by searching for information on the Web. He also purchased his ammunition over the Internet. Thus, some commentators might begin to ask if we should censor the Internet as we control guns. In this crime, guns and bombs and the information on the Web were not the purpose, but means, to an end.
That end is a social malaise which saw the suspected shooter, James Holmes, tell police that he was "the Joker." And in fact, everything, from the gas lobbed into the cinema prior to the shooting, to Holmes's booby-trapped apartment, is very Joker-like.
The governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, sees this crime as an act of "senseless violence." But labeling 24-year-old Holmes, a graduate student who was in the process of abandoning his PhD in Neuroscience at University of Colorado, as 'insane' does not help to explain this crime. How did someone who was described by his old California neighbours as "clean cut, responsible and studied hard," and who graduated at the top in his undergraduate class in Neuroscience at University of California, Riverside, become someone who said he was "the Joker"?
DKR panels regarding a cinema shooting. Image Source: Inquisitor.
In DC's mythos, villains and heroes have almost switched places over the past ten years. In the 2008 Dark Knight Batman movie, the Joker declares that he is an agent of chaos. His speech is meant to chime with the times - the audience is meant to find a shocking line of sympathy within the Joker's marginalized madness. Coincidentally, a cinema shooting scene was included in Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns graphic novel from 1986. 2012's Batman film is partly based on DKR, when Batman becomes active again in Gotham after an absence, and the 1990s' story Knightfall, when Batman's back is broken by a villain called Bane; a friend of mine describes Bane as a sort of muscled Moriarty figure to Batman's Dark Knight Detective, the comic book version of Sherlock Holmes. The echoes here between reality and graphic novels and films are - disturbing.
DKR, along with Alan Moore's Watchmen and V for Vendetta, were 1980s' series which saw comics turn from mainly victorious heroes to what fans now call 'grimdark' in the so-called Modern Age of comic books. The Modern Age featured increasing violence, but more importantly, it showed heroes who were compromised and flawed. Heroes not only were maimed, crippled and defeated, they were ever more psychologically disturbed, until they became villains themselves.
Since 2003, Dan Didio's tenure as DC's chief editor and Co-Publisher has become notorious, according to fan opinion and industry gossip, because he has presided over a period when DC has taken grimdark to harsher and harsher levels. He and those working with him attempted to pump sales through excessive retcons and reboots of continuity (continuity is the internal history of characters built up by decades of monthly serial stories; a retcon arbitrarily erases past continuity for the sake of present storylines); hyper-violence; mass deaths of characters; heroes turning evil; more explicit sex and sexism; death as a form of entertainment; and dramatic anti-heroism. Under Dan Didio, DC's greatest heroine, Wonder Woman, murdered a villain; the Titans were tortured and killed off by the dozen until their entire heroic continuity was erased; Batman's special ops squad, the Outsiders, were torn apart by one character turning evil. These are just a few of hundreds of examples of what has happened to DC since 2003. You can see my posts on DC's 'revolving door of death,' the willful destruction of heroism, and a twisted victory of evil over good in series titles: here, here, and here.
This past week, Scott Lobdell, DC's Titans writer, confirmed at the San Diego comics convention that nearly 50 years of Titans' continuity no longer existed. What does this have to do with Batman and Mr. Didio's grimdark tenure at DC? The Titans are the team started by Batman's first Robin, Dick Grayson. During Dan Didio's time at DC Comics, the Titans franchise has suffered more negative editorial mandates than any other set of characters. These mandates finally culminated in the Titans' entire history being erased.
I believe this was done because the Titans represent the antithesis of grimdark and Mr. Didio's favoured A-list Silver Age heroes. The Titans are sidekick characters; these are second-, third- and fourth-generation heroes who offered a middle way between DC's original godlike, impossibly perfect, mythologically-derived superheroes on the one hand - and the alienated, ultra-violent and psychologically disturbed Modern Age anti-heroes on the other hand.
The Titans were very human heroes, who could fail and make mistakes. They became the heroes of Generation X, latchkey children who raised themselves. Because these characters always helped each other, they built their own groups and triumphed. Their victories always depended on emotional resilience, mutual love, courage and humanity. A Titan who fell would always have a cadre of friends for support. In the darkest of circumstances, these characters could climb back up and regain their heroism: they were antithetical to the Joker's chaos. They were the characters who rebuilt worlds out of chaos. The Titans showed the way out of the Didio era's grimdark dead end street.
By erasing the first Robin's contribution to the DC fictional universe, DC has lost a heroic model for our troubled post-Postmodern times: the young person who might fall apart, but who could, due to his or her heroic community, still survive and become a role model after a long and terrible struggle. Considering that this is a youth-oriented title, in a period when the youth are under great stress, that heroic model is no small thing for DC Comics to ruin systematically.
Instead, we are left with Mr. Didio's alternative, the sensationalized victory of evil - culminating in a massive reboot of DC's entire comics line into 52 titles in late 2011, coinciding with Mr. Didio's 52nd birthday. This was done in the name of marketing and rebranding to try to save the ailing pulp medium. The target audience for this ongoing reboot is Gen Y and Gen Z males, aged roughly 13 to 35. As for any other audience, animator Peter Chung maintains that many of the late Modern Age's impoverished stories and flashy art styles feed into comic book movie productions, animation and video games, which are DC's real money-making machines. The hyping of gore, death and heroic failure also relates to a nasty legal battle over the Superman copyright, in an epic real life story that runs back to the Great Depression.
The MSM are already labeling James Holmes the Dark Knight Killer. Holmes had dyed his hair red (?) and told police he was 'the Joker.' Is there a direct connection between the ultra-violent, moral emptiness of comic book content and what a disturbed Batman fan has done? Not necessarily. But maybe, if DC had provided another heroic model to young males over the past 10 years, we might have other news stories to hear tonight, which did not end in real life tragedy.
The next part to this post is here.
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