Sunday, May 2, 2010

Why Context Matters When Defining Heroism

A chalk white face. A harlequin smile. A love for chaos brought about by fire and theatrics.

Both of these characters have one other thing in common: Alan Moore. He was responsible for the creation of one, and the defining portrayal of the other. The first, being V, the terrorist from his 1983 comic V for Vendetta. The other is his depiction of the Joker in his story The Killing Joke as a man driven to chaos.

While reading V for Vendetta, I noticed the constant smile on V’s face. Pasted against the chalk white of the mask, I could not help but think of the Joker. Later on in the story, while V sings “This Vicious Cabaret”, I was instantly reminded of the Joker serenading Commissioner Gordon in his effort to drive him insane.

Here’s the thing: After looking at these two, I started to see too many similarities to not write about it. They both embody one thing: Chaos. V aims for a day of “do as you please” anarchy, while the Joker wants to reveal the true insanity of the world. Both go to extreme measures to accomplish their goals as well, with V blowing up buildings and the Joker shooting Gordon’s daughter and putting him through hell, all while singing and dancing and waxing philosophical.

In The Killing Joke, during the climactic chase where Batman confronts the Joker, the Joker puts out his thesis statement: The world is crazy, you should be too. Consider Batman, for a moment, who after his “one bad day” decided to dress up like a flying rat and chase the scum of Gotham. That is his reaction to the insanity he sees around him: brute force and “by-the-book” methods. And, after all the success it seems to bring him, it’s no wonder that when Bruce Wayne is shown as an old man, he is bitter, conniving, and authoritarian if not fascistic. The Joker, in his demented way, sees the punch-line of life, and asks Batman, “Why aren’t you laughing?” to which, in trade mark stoicism, Bats replies, “Because I’ve heard it before, and it’s not funny.”

Of course Batman would not laugh. It’s rare that he does. While he and his arch-nemesis share a moment of uncharacteristic humor at the end of the novel, Batman is consistently portrayed as stoic and cold. Much like the leader in V for Vendetta, Batman is “Not loved… But I am respected. I am feared. And that will suffice.” He is emotionless authority, using the feelings of others to his advantage. Both the leader and Batman prey on fear, whether that of a potential criminal in Gotham or a civilian in a dystopian England, in order to prevent and combat what they stand against.

Granted, Batman is not the law, simply a force of law. Batman is more like the Finger in V for Vendetta, serving to enforce the ideals of the party. Batman works by the book, and while he is not an “official” part of the Gotham City Police Department, he is certainly endorsed and supported by them, as evidenced by the giant signal projected into the night sky. However, when he is no longer a proud associate of Gotham’s finest, there is a marked change in his persona. Batman becomes more violent, less controlled, and more and more of a fascist. Think about Kingdom Come, where in his old age he has an army of Batman robots policing Gotham in his stead, or in the lead-up to the Infinite Crisis event, where he creates a monitoring satellite, Brother Eye, to keep tabs on all metahuman activity.

But Batman is supposed to be the hero! Batman is truth, justice, and the American way! No, truth, justice and the American way is what Superman, the caped Kryptonian Boy Scout, stands for. Bruce Wayne had no time to be a boy scout. He was too busy trying to make sense of an insane world. In his book, Superman on the Couch, Danny Fingeroth questions whether superheroes represent a “Friendly Fascism”, and whether or not their knowing “when and how to do the right thing” shows a dependence on authority. Batman definitely falls under the umbrella of “Friendly Fascism”, and as evidenced above he really is not that friendly.
If Bruce Wayne is the fascist authority that V fights against, is the Joker simply a manifestation of the forces of freedom rebelling against an authoritarian? Conversely, if V is a force of unbridled chaos like the Joker, is he really a hero?

Is it a matter of context? Does the fact that V lives in a world of pure authoritarian order, and tries insert a little anarchy (his definition of freedom) make his terrorism acceptable? Does Batman’s use of a nigh-fascist authority to bring order to a chaotic Gotham make him a hero?
I would say that context does matter. Batman does cross the line frequently, with Brother Eye being a prime example of that. Bruce never learned the meaning of freedom, having had his innocence robbed from him by an incomprehensible world. It was just one bad day, like the Joker claims happened to him (though if he had a past, he’d prefer it to be multiple choice). V, in contrast, was free and (assumedly) had a decent life, but then, as a consequence of the new order, was thrown into a concentration camp. The leader in V for Vendetta was simply a fascist tired of an insane world that saw an opportunity to assert is ideas and did so with gusto.
So is Batman a fascist at heart? While not in agreement with many tenets of traditional fascism, he is a definite authoritarian. He abides by his code and his code alone.

The Joker: “Why don’t you kick the hell out of me and get a standing ovation from the public gallery?”
Batman: “Because I’m doing this one by the book… And because I don’t want to.”

Batman abides by his rules. If he wanted to submit to the will of the masses, the Joker would have a bullet in his brainpan. If he wanted to work within the system, he would be another Gotham cop like Jim Gordon. However, he doesn’t want to do either. He puts on his own brand of justice and law enforcement through motivation by fear, much like most fascist systems.
The real question that comes up is if Batman is a fascist, akin to the government in V for Vendetta, can the Joker be considered a hero in the same vein as V?

V as a hero is very interesting. Is he even a hero? By normal social standards in his society he is a murderous terrorist. He incites chaos in the most grandiose ways he can, with the 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s 5th playing while he blows up British landmarks. It sounds a lot like the theatrics of Batman’s greatest foe.

The key difference between V and the Joker is backstory. V has a clear motive. He is on the titular vendetta against to government which made him a medical experiment because he was some sort of minority, perhaps a Jew or a homosexual, which did not conform to the new order. In contrast, the Joker claims (again, he is an unreliable narrator with that whole multiple-choice past) that he is the product of “one bad day” which led him to see the insanity of the world around him. If we trust the Joker’s story, could it be safe to assume that he on his own vendetta against the dark knight?

If so, then he and V are even more similar, which gives more credence to their innate similarities and again brings about the idea of heroes in context. Batman was a hero when he brought order to a chaotic Gotham. The leader in Vendetta was a hero when he brought order to a chaotic England. V was a hero when he brought “a little anarchy” to that same, now authoritarian England. Is the Joker, in some twisted pathological way, a social reaction to the authority of the Batman?

Maybe, seeing as Batman does not really care too much for freedom. He doesn’t really know how to have fun. The only time Bruce Wayne really enjoys himself is when he is Batman. Bruce’s inner child, his innocence, and his faith in mankind were shattered by the shots that killed his parents. He has no trust in humanity, and he believes that they need something to keep them in line. He is that something. In this, Bruce is unique. Other heroes have an understanding of the need for freedom. Think about Hal Jordan or any of the various incarnations of Flash of Green Lantern. While all of these heroes fight to maintain order in their various cities/space sectors, they still understand the importance of and need for freedom. It’s no wonder that Batman and the various Lanterns were always on uneasy terms.

But, regardless, Batman is still a hero. For someone with no powers, save an un-drainable bank account and remarkable detective skills, he gets a lot done. He brings order where there is none, and keeps the chaos that is Gotham under control. Whenever Gotham is portrayed, either in film, television, or on paper, it is a city rife with corruption. Generally there is one honest cop, Jim Gordon, who works alongside Batman because, well, he gets the job done. Gordon doesn’t necessarily approve of Batman, but he accepts him as necessary for Gotham’s survival, just as the people in V for Vendetta accepted fascism as necessary for survival.

It just comes down the concept of “The hero we need”. Batman is the hero Gotham needs. It couldn’t be Superman or Green Lantern because Gotham doesn’t have a problem with super-powered criminals to the degree of Metropolis. Sure, Bats faces his own gallery of metahumans, but in a cage-match between his rogues gallery vs. that of any other of DCs longstanding heroes his guys get beaten every time. Sinestro or a war-suited Luthor would be able to blow them to pieces with a single blast. What is someone whose gimmick is a gun-umbrella going to do against the unleashed power of concentrated fear energy? The villains of Gotham are for the most part “normal” humans who are after small targets. They rob banks or steal diamonds. The Joker, at his worst, is murderous and plays crazy games. He is not out for control of the multiverse; he just wants to introduce a little anarchy.
Exactly like V.

The only difference is that context. Introducing anarchy in an unreasonably authoritarian society is perfectly acceptable for us. If someone had put on a Guy Fawkes mask and wrought havoc upon Nazi Germany, we would have cheered for them. If someone does it in a free and semi-rational society like ours we call them a terrorist. V to us is a freedom fighter. The Joker is a terrorist. The leader is a villain. Batman is a hero.

In conclusion, the key idea is that heroes are not defined by their actions or beliefs alone. There is a cultural surrounding that requires examination to truly decide whether or not someone is worthy of that title. Is the Joker a hero? No. Is V a villain? To some, yes. Is Batman a totalitarian? He crosses the line sometimes. It’s up to us as the readers to make the choice of who is the hero and who is the villain, or if they all fall into the same gray area of “sometimes”.
With that, I’d say that Batman, when not a bitter old man, is a hero. He may cross the line into questionable acts, but nevertheless he is the hero Gotham needs. He believes what he is doing is right, and for the most part, he is. He may not be the Boy Scout. He has his own concepts of truth and justice, and the American way is not necessarily his way, but he gets the job done, and in Gotham, that’s more than enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment