This is the second part of a post that will probably work better if you read the first part HERE. This whole blog probably works better if read in order. I’m trying to build something here.
The Joker struck a chord with readers, and returned to the pages of Batman and Detective often. Like the Caped Crusader, the Joker has gone through many permutations. In the TV show he was played by Cesar Romero as a petty thief with a gimmick. Even though the 1989 Tim Burton movie was inspired by the dark version of Frank Miller’s work, Jack Nicholson hammed it up as the Joker. He was more dangerous than Romero, but still primarily an over-the-top clown. Miller portrayed him as a psychopath with no morals, leaving behind a huge body count as the punchline of his jokes. In Grant Morrison’s original script for Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth graphic novel, released in 1989, the Joker cavorts around in fishnet thigh-highs and a bustier, commenting on the possible sexual connection in his obsession with Batman that was hinted at by Miller (DC toned down the eventual release of this book).
Perhaps the apotheosis of the Joker was Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland in 1988. There had never been a deadlier, or crazier version of the character. In this story he casually shoots and cripples Barbara Gordon (who was Batgirl, as well as the daughter of Commissioner Gordon). We see an origin story for him that may or may not be true. The end of the story is controversial for many reasons. Did Batman simply laugh at the joke, even though his friend Barbara had been maimed? Or did he finally end his arch enemy’s life by pushing him off the roof? This was originally meant to be an out-of-continuity story, so the latter ending is possible. Either way, Moore overtly makes the point that both Batman and the Joker are probably insane.
The Killing Joke was one of the primary sources the late Heath Ledger used as a base for his portrayal of the villain in the 2008 film, The Dark Knight.
Whatever portrayal of Batman you prefer his status as the dark mirror to Superman remains. It is difficult to talk about either of them without addressing the existence of the other. They truly represent two heroic archetypes that run throughout storytelling and literature.
I grew up as a fan of both the legends of King Arthur and the stories of Robin Hood. The Howard Pyle version of the latter was one of the first real books I ever read, somewhere around third grade. Robin Hood was a huge influence on me (and I’m still drawn to the imagery). In delving into my memory this may have been responsible for my first attempts at writing. I wanted to stage a play of Robin Hood and cast all my friends in the roles. This was not simply playing in the woods. This was an actual, “Hey, let’s put on a play in the barn” moment, only I didn’t want to do it in the barn. No, this was going to be outdoor theater-in-the-round. I wrote scripts based on the novel and cast my friends (I was going to be Robin, of course) and gave them lines to memorize. Though some of them seemed excited by the project and others indulged me nothing ever came of this. It was way beyond my ability to organize and make real.
As an aside… in sixth grade I was cast as Will Scarlet in a musical version of Robin Hood that my school put on. I’m pretty sure being the only redhead in the class was my primary qualification.
Anyway, as an adult I have read many more versions of each of these characters and delved pretty heavily into their history and symbolism. At some point I began to question why both of these spoke to me. And not only to me, but to generations of people. They seem, at base, to embody completely contradictory paradigms. After a lot of thought I came to the conclusion that it is because they both speak to ideals we have that aren’t really contradictory at all.
The stories of King Arthur, the Round Table and Camelot speak to the desire we all have for just leadership. We want the world to be fair. We want our leaders, our elected officials, our bosses, and our teachers to be just, to protect the weak and keep us safe from harm. Someone who will establish a golden age.
The eventual downfall of Arthur’s kingdom in the legends serves to remind us this probably isn’t possible.
And because we know that, the image of Robin Hood resonates as well. He is there to remind us that governments, or our bosses, or teachers, or anyone can be corrupt and that there are times we need to stand up against their rule and take our power back into our own hands.
King Arthur and Robin Hood are the balancing act of our societal desires. While they appear to be on different sides of the law, if nothing else, they both serve as an ideal of what we want the world to be. We want both, someone in power to save us, and the ability to be that savior ourselves.
Of course, I discovered that I was not the first person to conceive of this idea.
Film theorist Robert Ray, in his book A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980, introduces the concept of the Thematic Paradigm, wherein he refers to these ideas as The Official Hero and The Outlaw Hero.
The American Monomyth is a 1977 book by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, which I talked about in more detail in an earlier post. To briefly recap, it expands on the idea of the Thematic Paradigm by saying that there is a distinctly American narrative that calls for a reconciliation of these two ideas. They argue for the existence and cultural importance of an American Monomyth, as a variation on the classical monomyth as proposed by Joseph Campbell in his classic book, The Hero With 1000 Faces.
Campbell’s monomyth was made famous in the 80s in a series of interviews with Bill Moyers released as The Power of Myth. In it he describes The Hero’s Journey: a hero ventures from the normal world into a supernatural one, winning a decisive victory there and returning with a ‟boon.” There are probably millions of pages written about the Hero’s Journey, so I won’t go into it here (the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth is a good introduction to the idea if you haven’t been exposed it).
In contrast, Jewett and Lawrence define the American Monomyth as: ‟A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.”
America is a melting pot, based on the idea of the rule of law and the need for a unified community. ‟We the People” is in our founding document. E Pluribus Unum, a Latin phrase meaning ‟One From Many,” is on the great seal of the United States. That very term, United States, speaks to our cultural belief in the idea of an Official Hero, someone who represents the common good.
But we’re also a nation founded by the idea of rugged individualism. We were founded by those brave enough to leave their old world and travel to an unknown future. We’re a nation of ‟pull yourself up by your bootstraps” pioneers. The first distinctly American culture heroes were figures like Paul Bunyon, Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill, solo heroes all (not counting a certain blue ox). The solitary cowboy, the lone gunslinger, was almost our official mascot for years. This individual spirit makes the Outlaw Hero a very appealing figure as well.
Jewett and Lawrence’s thesis is that the American concept of the hero is an attempt to reconcile these seemingly conflicting ideals. The lone gunslinger saves the community, but then no longer has a place in it. Cue the ride into the sunset. Thanks, solitary heroic figure, for allowing the rest of us to have order.
Superman and Batman, of course, fulfill these roles. In Miller’s Dark Knight Returns we see an expression of the Thematic Paradigm with Superman in the role of Official Hero and Batman as Outlaw Hero. In this version, Superman has become the official hero and representative of the American government. It is “Truth, Justice and the American Way” taken to jingoistic extremes. This is visually represented in his first appearance in the story when we see the stars and stripes of the American flag resolve into the red, yellow and blue of the Superman sigil. In this world Superman has become little more than the imperialist tool of a corrupt government (one led by an obvious avatar of Ronald Reagan… this was the 80s after all). To be a superhero at all in this world one had to be approved by this government. As a result very few were left. The big blue boy scout had become the big blue stormtrooper. This was obviously an example of the official hero becoming corrupt, something the outlaw hero needed to step up and address.
Enter Batman, who had refused to become a government stooge and had instead, retired. When the Dark Knight returns, he does so as the outsider hero, stepping up to save the community in a final epic battle with Superman. He wins, of course (aided, not coincidentally by Green Arrow, the DC avatar of Robin Hood, who had also refused to work for the government), and then leaves again, founding a resistance movement that exists in hiding. The hero redeems the community and leaves, fulfilling the tropes of the American Monomyth.
Though Batman is the hero of the piece, and Miller’s disdain for the government and Superman’s role in it is obvious, Batman is not presented as entirely without blame. He may be the redeeming Outlaw Hero in this tale, but remember, this is the story that makes the point that his existence is what brought the evil to town in the first place. In this case the appearance of the Outlaw Hero is what motivates the true outlaws, like Two Face and the Joker. The government may be corrupt and overstepping its bounds, but villains like the Joker represent a true evil and chaos that will destroy not only order, but society in general.
While we yearn for the ideals of both the Official and the Outlaw, there are obviously dark sides to both of these ideals as well.
What freedoms are we willing to sacrifice to a ruling body in order to be safe?
Does taking the law into our own hands only lead to more lawlessness?
The superhero allows us to embrace both. In most stories Superman is not a government toady, but works outside of the law, following his own moral code. Only by a long history of good works is he not considered an outlaw. Batman on the other hand, has an ongoing relationship with Commissioner Gordon, and is a member of the Justice League, giving him official status as well.
The superhero has straddled this fine line pretty much from the beginning. The secret identity marks them as outsiders and outlaws. Their preservation of the status quo marks them as official.
Whatever your preference in type of hero, or in portrayals of Batman, there is more to the idea of madness than the dark side of the concept or wondering if the hero is crazier than the villain. The term Bat-Mania used to describe the craze that accompanied the television series is appropriate. The word fan comes from fanatic, which implies a level of crazy devotion.
The initial success of Superman and Batman in the late 1930s, of the concept of the superhero, was immediate and overwhelming. Sales of comic books skyrocketed, and the superhero was the primary cause. Suddenly everyone was publishing superhero comics and the craze began.
The Superman had arrived.
Lightning had struck.
The madness had begun.