Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

DC's Batman Shooter: The Day Evil Won

Cover art for DC Comics' Final Crisis (2008) by J. G. Jones © DC Comics. Image Source: Wiki.

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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  1. I've been waiting for you to comment on this since
    yesterday. As I've said in my journal we live in a culture that worships violence, the more violent the act, the more sexist and degrading it is the better it is, and that rings so true in today's comics and movie industry. Every single day on message boards I read comments which say this character or that character should die, does human life mean so little even in a fictional world we would throw it away as if it were nothing. I don't have any answers nor does anyone else. But perhaps it's time for creators including myself to look in the mirror and wonder what kind of message we are sending out to the world.And is it one we truly want to send.

  2. Thank you for your comment cerridwyno9. Above all, of course the focus of concern, sympathy and condolences goes to the victims and their families.

    We must have sympathy also for DC's creators, including Mr. Didio, who are in the business of creative entertainment. Therefore, I was not suggesting that creators and entertainers bear blame for a lone, sick gunman. Eminem addressed this in 'Sing for the Moment': "They say music can alter moods and talk to you/But can it load a gun for you and cock it too?/Well if it can then the next time you assault a dude/Just tell the judge it was my fault and I'll get sued." We don't know if James Holmes was even a comics fan, or just watched the 2008 Batman movie. According to HuffPo, guards say he is still in the Joker character in prison.

    Clearly we live in a grim savage world, and it is not surprising that artists, writers and marketers working in pop culture will reflect some of that chaos and nihilism.

    My point in this post was to reflect on what the heroic alternatives to that picture were, and to ask why those alternatives are being erased from DC's canon, rather than permitted by editors to still contribute to DC's heroic picture. Many thousand people can read a violent comic and will not commit a violent act. But for that one person who is on the brink, has no friends, and his fantasy life is all he has, maybe a heroic story that shows a way through the madness is very important. The Chronicle for Higher Ed states that Holmes had had problems with his PhD comprehensives in June. That might have closed a door and triggered serious problems. I could equally have written a post, not about violence in comics, but about problems with how universities handle troubled grad students. In either case, that might not answer what happened here.

    All the same, it might be helpful to look at the grimdark path in comics and meditate on what happens when someone takes grimdark literally. These are powerful tropes and themes. Even when creators overuse them to increase sales, they are playing with fire. More than ever today, it is really easy for virtual reality to slip into reality, and scary tropes translate easily.

    Incidentally, the Titans title dealt with several variations on the insane loner, most notriously, the Judas Contract; this blog has a large section devoted to Terra and that storyline (see the blog's 'Terra' tag in the right margin). There is another important Titans story where Vic Stone, Raven and Gar Logan prevent a lone gunman from killing innocent civilians. NTT 35 (1983) "Siege."


    In the Titans titles, the theme of helping someone who was totally alienated and retreated into violence and madness came up repeatedly: with Grant Wilson (start of NTT series) - not a success for the characters; with Steve Dayton, Gar's step-father (throughout the NTT and NT series, mixed results); the Judas Contract; Siege; and several times with Raven. Because of Dick Grayson's pivotal role in both franchises, the health of the Titansverse is directly related to how DC is treating the Batverse. The Bat titles have been inflated in recent years, with very dark themes, while the Titans have dwindled down, and the special heroism they projected was undermined. In short: I meant to say, we need a group of heroes who send the message, no matter how alone you feel, you always have friends. No matter how bad it gets, there is always a better way than despair.

  3. Please call Muireannpendrgon or wolfsbane since those are my creative names on deviant, Cerridwyn is a name I came up with a few years ago and haven't figured out how to change it.
    and your right, we should have some sympathy for creators,my point was and I'm sorry if it wasn't clear was thought maybe we as a society are just as much to blame, and it's times like these I really wonder this.

    Your absolutely right in the regard that we need positive heroes like Dick now more than ever, we need to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that there is hope.

  4. NP I'll use Wolfsbane - I always liked that character. This is a terrible event and it provokes a lot of soul-searching. The 12 deaths and horrible injuries, are a painful shocking event for victims and survivors; it is hard to stop thinking about how sad it is. We have to give thanks and credit to the emergency staff and police and other officials who are dealing with the aftermath.

    I think it is important not to let go of the soul-searching, to understand what went wrong. There can be many different causes that all make sense on their own, which combine in a perfect storm to make a 'senseless' crime.

    Heroic stories were created to help humans deal with violence, fear, death. We need real heroes, not broken basket cases dressed in spandex. It doesn't matter if the cognitive dissonance inspired by broken heroes sells stories in the short term: it is a losing strategy.

    I remember when Brightest Day came out and fans were hoping that DC was embarking on a new era of heroism. Then Johns, I think it was, held a press conference saying: no, no, no, this isn't about hopeful heroism. When fans complained too loudly about grimdark, especially about what was done to Roy Harper pre-reboot, DC closed their boards. There has been an 'our way or the highway' tone to these changes and revamps. DC was going to push the envelope come hell or high water. There were a lot of posts online from DC's end complaining about fans not having the right response to these bright new ideas (which meant MORE grimdark, plus reboot to erase selectively or wholly heroic continuity). Unfortunately, maybe the members of the fanbase who constantly expressed dismay may have had a point. ...

  5. ... Again, it's not that DC's creators should not explore dark themes, or that if they do, they are to blame for a horrible event like this. It is just that they are the purveyors of popular mythologies. They hold the light of heroism in trust. They are not all-powerful creators who can do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want with these characters. They are man-handling ancient human archetypes, which were here long, long before DC ever existed, and will still be here long, long after DC is gone.

    Thus, DC's heroism should include a component of good actually triumphing, of the forces of good having a chance against all odds. The reason the Judas Contract worked was partly because Wolfman and Perez had built up the Titans very strongly. Then the characters were broken down in storylines in 1984-85. In the 2000s, creators went straight to breaking down the characters without ever having built them up at all. You cannot constantly relentlessly and hopelessly deconstruct and destroy these characters in an ever-widening moral vacuum.

    And here is the worrisome point: if DC finds that more gore, violence and wanton sexism are selling well to their young male demographic, maybe that is a really bad sign. A more subtle issue is the company-wide retcon, because whether the editors understand it or not, they are teaching a whole generation of young male readers that erasing the past is OK. But we all know that the past is the source of tradition, responsibility and accountability; it is also the source of law and order - via the courts and the history of their judgements. Historic facts make up the fabric to hold our society together.

    In fact, as we have seen from real life and other fictional examples (such as 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'), those who erase and rewrite the past any way they want in order to acquire power to do something are at best amoral. Most serious historians I know would probably look at this reboot example and see evil in it. DC's anti-historicism is extremely disturbing. To label it as a 'fresh new start' and to see nu fanboys parrot that line out and believe that it is sensible to eradicate the past in a fictional universe just because you can, and write over it like an erased disc, is monstrous. Because what happens in fiction can all too easily carry over into reality.

    Like I say, if there is a growing market for violence and grimdark, mindlessly feeding that demand is not necessarily a good idea, even if it is profitable in a short term business sense. In the long run it will not pay.

    I still believe that stories of true grandeur and moral substance have far more power and saleability than Grimdark Of The Month. For that matter, you can see other contemporary comics examples, such as the 'Walking Dead' published by Image Comics, which are very, very dark. But the hero, who indeed does kill in a terrible world, is still a hero. Now, how can Image manage that - and DC can manage no better than the Joker's chaos? It is because the Walking Dead aims at something higher. I have a post in this blog on Faulkner accepting his Nobel Prize in which he discusses this:


  6. It disgusts me how you could trivialize this tragedy this way. You should be ashamed.

  7. Quite obviously, Anon, I do not think I am trivializing it at all. It is a serious crime. I am asking: how did this happen?

    In the coming week, these questions will be asked. They will not be trivial, nor will the people asking them be considered to be trivializing this incident.

  8. An interesting perspective on "Why did it happen" here :


    Phil B

  9. Thanks for the link, Phil. Yes, this is what I was driving at. Criminals are responsible for their actions: we can't blame society for everything. But criminals do come out of society, and therefore it is reasonable to ask what is going on in society that made this nightmare a reality.

    I don't know if investigators will look at comic book content as well as film and video game content. But they should, even if there was no direct correlation in Holmes's mind between violent pop culture content and the crime. Web reports indicate he thought he was (or pretended to think he was) the Joker and thought he was inside a film. Again, he could be pretending that to plead insanity. But he also sent a notebook about the planned crime to a psychiatrist at his university before he committed the crime. This is an inverted scene straight out of Watchmen. Rorschach leaves his diary at a newspaper before he goes on his last mission, where he is killed for refusing to keep mum about an evil conspiracy. The diary at the newspaper is his ace in the hole.

    One could certainly argue that the bleak comics content of the past decade offered ever more violent and amoral themes and that possibly this has not helped people who are already on the edge and already awash in violence, porn, and death imagery.

    So is DC's grimdark era to blame? Batman has been pushed to become DC's main brand under Mr. Didio, and it is a very dark brand. I suggested here that the one comic book **which was connected to DC's Batverse** which gave readers a way through darkness was the Titans, a title relentlessly (some feel, deliberately) mishandled over the past decade. The Titans had several times dealt with the isolated loner who turns murderously violent. Thus, the one title which was a platform for another message other than grimdark amorality, and spoke to exactly this situation, was gutted in the period when Holmes would have been exposed to the comics medium.

    Can grimdark be held accountable for this terrible crime? No. But ironically, when DC does positive outreach (they have a heroism outreach project in Africa, for example, and had anti-drug comics in the 80s) the company is more than willing to take credit for its good impact. This makes the negative impact of their increasingly gore-filled and morally troubled books fair game for debate. ...

  10. ... My point is that if they want to offer grimdark, fine. But they should also provide a spectrum of heroic alternatives. Whenever DC has offered some positive heroic role models in the past ten years, they have canceled the series. Doom Patrol is one example of a superteam which was important for war veterans who suffered from amputations or PTSD. That's because Doom Patrol's heroes are all survivors of terrible traumas, and sometimes they have survived death itself. When Doom Patrol was canceled last year, some fans pleaded to keep it going precisely because it was the one title with a positive heroic model for war veterans and the trials they face. Doom Patrol is the ultimate book about alienated loners who have been abandoned by society; as a result the DP characters could easily become villains, because why should they thanklessly help the people who rejected them? The Doom Patrol *choose* to be heroes even in the face of trauma, social rejection, criticism and alienation. This is a very important message today.

    As for whether grimdark is really a cause for concern: anyone who does not read comics need only scan some Didio-era books (2003-present - Cry for Justice is a good example) and look at major comics forums to see established fans' concerns about grimdark and the inversion of heroism. It is a real and serious trend. Under Mr. Didio, over 600 of DC's characters were killed off in ever more violent titles (the books are constantly openly conscious about said violence - you have characters commenting on the gore and deaths), and then the company's fictional history was erased. That fatal combination is **not** a good message to send to young males (it's ok to kill to clear the field, then get a fresh new start by erasing historic record?). It was pursued consciously and methodically by the company to drum up sales. But when many fans complained, the company closed down its message boards, and replaced them with integrated social media. That 'talk to the hand' manoeuvre doesn't send a good message to young males either. The tone from DC is 'our way or the highway' and they are not listening to genuine public concerns about the messages they are sending about flawed heroes and tabula rasa continuity.

  11. An example of DC's latest Batman content:


  12. Update: DC acknowledges the escalation in extreme violence in its content and claims it will 'review violence in their output' after the Connecticut shootings: