Jonathan Crane aka The Scarecrow first appeared in World’s Finest Comics #3 (1941).
A psychology teacher who was shunned by his peers, dressed poorly and became obsessed with fear. Scarecrows first story had no fear toxin or elaborate plots. He simply dressed up as a Scarecrow to scare people for money.
If his efforts to scare people for money failed, he resorted to violence and shot his victims with a gun. In later stories, the Scarecrow’s backstory was fleshed out giving him a tormented childhood, and later developing his Fear compounds through chemistry.
Drugs that whether in liquid,solid or vapor form would induce panic, fear and terror in his victims. His experiements on prison inmates lead him to further research and later experimentation upon the population of Gotham City.
THE TOXIN OF FEAR CHEMICALS
Jonathan Crane is a psychologist who uses fear as a weapon, making him a unique and intriguing character that offers insight into the nature of fear.
The Scarecrow’s greatest weapon is his mastery of the psychology of fear. He uses this knowledge to create fear-inducing chemicals and gadgets that he uses to manipulate and terrorize his victims.
The Scarecrow character highlights the power of fear and how it can be used as a tool for control and domination. It also demonstrates how fear can be used to manipulate people and exploit their weaknesses, even in seemingly rational and educated individuals.
Scarecrow specializes in creating personalized living nightmares. His drug of choice?
A fear toxin – that once consumed or inhaled induces an individual into a highly paranoid psychotic state where they experience their very worst fears and phobias as overwhelmingly powerful hallucinations more real than anything they could have ever imagined, true living nightmares… hell on earth.
The Scarecrows FEAR Toxin gives unholy life to mankinds worst imaginings, bringing forth deep dark mental contructs from the creaky crevices of ones mind, out into hallucinatory realer than real – seemingly three dimensional physical reality. Completely overwhelming all the bodies senses and natural biological processes.
The mind constructs or thought beings then are the result of the pysco-active properties of Scarecrows Fear Toxin at the physical level, bringing agonizing life to that which is purely of the mental abstract and deep unconcious realm of the sub-psyche, dreams, impressions and memories. Personal and Primal fears are dragged out of the dark dungeon in our mind, kicking and screaming into apparent reality.
Our bodies normal survival oriented fear response scales up or down in response to dangerous situations, physical threats and other fear triggers.
The scarecrows fear toxins however drive our bodies natural responses to fear at the biological level into overdrive allowing no cooling off period to return to homestasis.
THE BIOLOGY OF FEAR
Fear exists in human beings (and other animals that have a limbic system) as a survival oriented mechanism. If we were unable to experience fear, our chance of death from predators and dangerous situations increases, and we likely would be extinct as a species without the capacity for fear.
The Scarecrow also represents the dark side of fear. While fear can be a natural and necessary survival mechanism, it can also become a destructive force that consumes people and causes them to make irrational decisions. The Scarecrow embodies this aspect of fear, showing how it can be used to spread terror and cause harm.
How does fear work? Our body perceives stimulus in our environment through usually a combination of our senses such as sight, smell, touch etc.
For fear to activate the Amygdala part of our brain signals the Hypothalamus, which activates our pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is where our nervous system meets our endocrine or ‘hormone’ system.
Through these systems, our body is able to activate the fight or flight response. During a heightened fear response our blood pressure, breathing and heart rate increases, blood is driven to the limbs in order to take action by fighting or fleeing.
Adrenaline is dumped making us temporarily stronger and our senses are hyper aware to everything in our immediate environment, increasing arousal while narrowing our overall stimulus according to our biologies hierarchical systems.
THE MANY FACES OF FEAR
While fear toxins are the stuff of comic book fiction.. there are no shortage of real world toxins and altered states with truly horrifying effects. Take the infamous mysterious outbreak of mad bird behavior in 1961 that would go on to inspire a short story and was the likely inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s terror inducing film The Birds.
Domoic acid can cause confusion, disorientation, scratching, seizures and death in birds that eat the stuff, which gets concentrated as it moves up the food chain – Wynne Parry
A toxin(in this case an algae) got into the birds systems and drove them nuts with confusion and disorientation, which appears to humans at least, to be rabbid attack behavior. The Scarecrow uses his fear toxins to induce fantastical schizophrenic like responses and vivid hallucinations in his intended victims.
Whether they die of pure terror, attack their own loved ones or endure the episode is a gamble. The real world has no shortage of fear and hallucinatory induced confusion, slaughter and carnage. Let’s take a look at another example.
A Canadian man who was found not criminally responsible for beheading and cannibalising a fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus has been granted freedom from all supervision – The Guardian (Australian Edition)
The man on the bus believed God was speaking to him directly, and was found (known) to be mentally ill. His personal reality and falsified perceptions caused him to act in an un-characteristic manner, decapitating and hacking away and trying to EAT a fellow passenger.
When later interviewed and on medication for his condition, the man who formerly thought God was talking to him came to know it was not true and that his mental illness brought on episodes of “…hearing voices or having delusions. You don’t know what is real”.
There are many different types of altered states human beings can experience. Some causes include sensory deprivation, extreme tiredness or hunger, synthetic drugs, mental illness and more.
Scarecrows fear toxins are designed to work on multiple levels, driving our bodies normal natural biological fear process into overload. Like red lining a car, extreme prolonged fear creates real physical damage in a human body, starting at the cellular and chemical level, as well as causing the victim to act in a paniced highly irrational state due to the false data fed to their own senses.
FEAR AND MADNESS
We play with the idea that maybe we know our own fears of have conquered our fears, yet true primal fear is not something you can play with or casually entertain. It is a deep instense physical and psychological reaction to what is in our genes, our very biology own and what is happening directly in our immediate environment.
Primal Fear unchecked can lead us from ordinary states of fear into becoming a gibbering mass of quivering hysterical pure terror.
The Scarecrow’s personal playground and narrow obsession is driving a person to that very place. To the truly hysterical panic inducing, pants wetting fear that may even kill someone from stress or a heart attack. It may cause that individual to attack their friends and family or just leave them as helpless as a newborn baby, gasping for oxygen and raving like a lunatic.
While there are many types of fear and fear states, the Scarecrow continues to evolve his chemical cocktails, finding new chemical strains, new ways to instill phobias, psychological delusions, existential angst and more in his efforts to terroize the populace of Gotham City.
SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES
The Scarecrow is a complex character that offers a nuanced perspective on the nature of fear. Through his actions and motivations, he highlights the power of fear, both as a tool and as a source of terror. He also demonstrates how fear can be both empowering and debilitating, and how it can be used to control and manipulate people. In this way, the Scarecrow serves as a reminder of the need to understand and manage fear, both in oneself and in society as a whole.
“When it comes to the Joker, I think there’s a lot more self-doubt than there is with other characters. He really is his arch-nemesis. He is the devil in his ear. He tells you all the things you’re most afraid of are true about you.” Scott Snyder on the Joker as Batman’s nemesis
The Joker is a character that writers love to play with, a character open to various interpretations each rich in their own subtext.
As an archetype the Joker is a Trickster – he disobeys societies rules and conventional behavior. He is a shapeshifter, a clown, he is the best class of criminal that Gotham has ever seen.
Where Batman is about control, precision and discipline and serving a higher good, the Joker is about unrestrained spontaneity and wild glorious mayhem in a whirlwind of chaos. He serves only himself. If he has a higher calling it is to cause as much harm and destruction to the people of Gotham while fucking with Batman’s mind any way he can.
Joker as Trickster
The classical Trickster archetype performs a range of functions.
In its most benign form the Trickster is a playful mischievous character (sometimes a shapeshifter) who brings attention to whatever is repressed in our individual or collective psyche. A Trickster is often an inversion of social norms.
The Trickster then is not only a character in a story, but an outer analogue for our own inner psyche. Whatever we are afraid of, whatever we keep repressed or don’t want to face, whatever is unpopular of should not be spoken of in polite society – the Trickster is going to bring attention to all of these things in its own unique way.
With the Trickster (and all archetypes) we are able to take an interior event of our psyche (1st person) and project it on to a character or archetype (3rd person) via story, film etc – in a way that personifies the qualities of that archetype. All archetypes (according to Carl Jung) live in our Unconscious mind, both individually and collectively.
This 3rd person mental abstraction (or character, exterior) then allows us a chance to work with the archetype and reintegrate our own often unconscious or disowned qualities back into our psyche (back to 1st person interior).
While classical Jungian psychology allows for and encourages a healthy relationship with archetypes, to the modern world we are most familiar with archetypes through stories – movies, novels, comics, animation, art etc. The Trickster often is an inversion of our values, of whatever we outwardly say is important. But if the Trickster were merely the opposite of who and what we are, then there would be no truth in the Archetype.
So while the Trickster may appear bizarre, abhorrent, or at least unwelcome, it is merely a reflection of a part of our psyche that we refuse to look at, to integrate or become familiar with. The Trickster then is ultimately a servant of the mind, it exists to allow us a change to come to terms with the ideas we struggle with in a playful way. The Trickster is also a representative of primal forces likes sex, death, procreation and animal instincts.
Archetypes exist in all of our world stories, myths, and legends. They reoccur whether we want them to or not for all stories are reflected aspects of ourselves, and the purpose of stories is not just to entertain but pass on symbolic life lessons and help us transition into different eras of our lives.
Stories and symbols (such as Archetypes) can contain coded information that interacts with out mind at different stages of our lives, the same story can have very different meanings as we grow and evolve. Stories then are also a kind of technology for passing on information critical to human growth. Art is not only essential to human growth and development, but has always been and will always be part of what we are at a fundamental level.
The Joker reoccurs throughout Batman mythology and follows Batman around like a bad smell. You just can’t get rid of him. For Batman to kill the Joker is to become that which he hates – those who would enforce the philosophy of death/execution on any they disagree with. For all of Batman’s psychological hang ups, he believes in the right of all people to live, he will even risk his own life to save those who would do him harm.
This could be viewed as a virtue, or as further evidence of Batman’s nuttiness – why the heck would you go out of your way to help someone who is trying to kill you? It’s one thing to say pull out an unconscious criminal from the wreckage of a prison bus hanging on the edge of a cliff. It’s another thing entirely to try and save someone from falling off a building who is awake and firing bullets at you while you do it.
The trickster is an alchemist, a magician, creating realities in the duality of time and illusion. In mythology, and in the study of folklore and religion, a trickster is a god, goddess, spirit, man, woman, or anthropomorphic animal who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior -www.crystalinks.com/trickster.html
Joker as Shapeshifter
The Trickster archetype can also be a shapeshifter, taking on the form of the opposite sex or an animal – which goes some way to explaining the different versions of the Joker across different media, and his personality varies according to whoever the current popular writer may be. The Joker’s ad hoc multiple origins and rebooted continuity (depending on what era of Batman comics you are reading) also fits with the Trickster archetype. Trying to understand the Joker or pin him down is futile.
Heath Ledger’s Joker famously made up multiple origin stories that he would tell to people just to keep them guessing. One ongoing theme in the comics is Batman trying and failing to understand the Joker. Joker’s personality and methods shift with his various incarnations. A shapeshifter is ultimately whatever it wants to be, but also sometimes reflects a twisted version of the values of the hero or protagonist.
Trying to figure out what makes the Joker tick is like asking what is the essential nature of water. Is it liquid, steam or ice? The answer of course is that water is all three of these states, and it will shift between them depending on the conditions of its environment. The Joker can change persona’s and origin stories as easily as changing clothes.
The Joker’s Many Incarnations
Bill Finger gave us the first version of the Joker, a career criminal and killer with a clown motif. Later as the Joker’s background was expanded it was established that he had been a regular criminal who fell into a vat of acid. Instead of dying a painful death – his skin and hair were chemically bleached, his mouth was damaged giving him a permanent grin. He dressed in a purple suit and went with the whole “clown prince of crime” theme. But these elements were not added until years later, so in his earliest appearances, you would assume the Joker’s face to be make-up.
Further adding to the Joker’s origins was the Red Hood persona, a simple red helmet and cape that created a new mystery man in Gotham whom Batman and Robin would have to catch. While the Joker has had a number of redacted origins over the years, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson deliberately kept the Joker’s origin ambiguous and unknown. It was only later writers who made attempts at adding a true origin to the character, or more accurately an origin of who the Joker was before he was the Joker.
The Red Hood as a gimmick is a common one in superhero genre material. Create a “mystery” character, and tease out who they really are for as long as you can, keeping the readers on the edge of their seats. The strength of this trope is that the character can be anyone, and when revealed, often the character is not whom you suspected – because the writers usually don’t know who it is either. So they throw out multiple clues for different people the mystery person could be. Then they may change the identity at the 11th hour, leaving readers puzzled and often quite angry with all the false clues.
With the censorship and forced overly conservative stories throughout the 1950’s the Joker became more a criminal who played a lot of gags on Batman, and was not particularly threatening.
It was not until the 1970’s that the Joker got his teeth back, and returned to being the more sadistic gleeful killer and maniac he had been in his earliest pre-comics code appearances. When Neal Adams and Denny ‘O Neil worked together on Batman, they made a deliberate attempt to take Batman back to his Gothic roots.
Gone was the barrel-chested smiling cop Detective, and in his place was was the lithe gymnastic Batman, the first Batman who looked like he really knew martial arts, a globe trotting James Bond in a Batman costume. This 1970’s Batman incarnation was the beginning of the modern day Batman and paved the way for the Dark Knight we know and love today. As Batman grew darker and more Gothic once again, so the Joker returned to being more of a maniacal killer, and less an annoying clown.
From the 1970’s onward the Joker has gotten progressively darker, more psychotic, more… ‘evil’ for lack of a better word.
Frank Miller made the Joker an integral part of his Dark Knight Returns story. While the Joker’s role in Dark Knight Returns is small, it sets up the nature of the ongoing adversarial co-dependent relationship of Joker and Batman for the next several decades up to the present day.
To Miller’s Joker, Batman is his world, without him Joker’s life has no meaning. Without the “game” of playing with Batman, Miller’s Joker becomes a catatonic nobody, until Batman returns from retirement.
Meanwhile, Miller’s Batman (having moved on and retired from being Batman) has no real interest in the Joker, other than stopping him once again after they both come out of retirement. A brutal fight ensues where the Joker dies after repeatedly stabbing Batman is something of a sidebar in the larger story of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. Yet that scene remains one of the most defining moments in the history of Batman’s encounters with the Joker. The Dark Knight and the Clown Prince coming alive again to face one another, two archetypes locked in an eternal symbolic struggle, the warring conflicted selves of man’s psyche.
Grant Morrison’t Joker is both villain and temporary friend when he assumes yet another identity during the R.I.P. and Return of Bruce Wayne / Batman Incorporated story arc.
Morrison plays up the trickster angle of Joker being both benevolent and potentially harmful. Menacing and deadly in one story arc, benevolent and seemingly a friend in another story arc. I won’t give any spoilers here even though the run finished a number of years ago. If you have not read Morrison’s run on Batman it is great fun, as is Scott Snyder’s NEW 52 Batman run.
Scott Snyder’s interpretation of the Joker has become the most depraved and disgusting version of the Joker yet. While there are elements of Snyder’s Joker that I just don’t agree with, he clearly set out with a particular unique vision of Batman and the Joker, and he accomplished what he set out to do in his five year run. It is no easy task to come up with a different take on a character who has been around for 70+ years and exists across a diverse range of media.
The other notable portrayals of the Joker in the modern era have been Paul Dini’s – both his incarnation in Batman Animated –voiced by Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame, and the Paul Dini penned Arkham Asylum game series by Rocksteady Studios.
In the Arkham Asylum video games and Batman Animated series Joker is a wild fun mix of his various elements and incarnations. More toned down violence in the Mark Hamill voiced cartoons, while more ramped up over the top and graphic violence in the video games. This is the same character, again, morphing and twisting to suit the audience (meaning the age ratings and what level of violence was permitted).
He’s the same clown putting on a show, no matter the venue. If you thought Deadpool was very “meta”, self-referential, funny and psychotic – then you really need to experience more of Mark Hamill / Paul Dini’s Joker tales, because the clown prince does murder, mayhem, psychosis and hilarity better than the Merc’ with a Mouth any day of the week.
In Batman Animated the Joker manages to be just as menacing and scary as any other incarnation -despite writers having to cater to network television rules for children’s entertainment – thanks to Star Wars’ Mark Hamill voicing the animated Joker in a fan favourite performance – on and off from 1992 to 2016. That’s 24 years. No other performer has even come close to playing the Joker for that length of time.
Mark Hamill gave us a version of the Joker who was over the top, the right mix of laughter and menace. To satisfy the requirements of a network TV show, the Batman Animated version of the Joker could not be overly violent or shown to be directly killing people in a show aimed at kids. But clever writing that satisfied the censors still managed to make him a menacing character, particularly in the direct market animated feature Batman Beyond: Revenge of the Joker – where Hamill’s Joker gets cut loose – he is every bit the gleeful sick sadistic psychopath made famous in the comic books.
In live action we have the big three icons – Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. Each bringing a unique vision of the Joker to life.
Cesar Romero’s Joker was a comical joking buffoon, a slapstick clown who jumped around everywhere and was very animated and over the top. Many fans found Frank Gorshin’s Riddler to be closer to the Joker from the comics. Cesar Romero’s Joker while clearly a unique take by a talented actor just has no menace at all. He’s more annoying than scary.
Compare him with his opposite in Heath Ledger’s Joker who is all menace with little to no humor. In the middle you have Jack Nicholson who is both deadly and funny. While Keaton’s Batman is a world away from the comic book Batman, Nicholson’s Joker is much closer to the comics, only one-upped by Mark Hamill who manages to be the most definitive Joker on screen in Batman Animated.
Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a great performance that veered between gleeful lunatic and unapologetic homicidal maniac. Burton’s Batman and Joker went back to Batman’s roots, emphasizing the Gothic elements of Batman like O’ Neil and Adams in the 70’s. Nicholson’s Joker was true to the earliest golden age appearances of the Joker. A career criminal who falls into a vat of acid and emerges as the Clown Prince of Crime.
Visually, Nicholson’s outfit is the closet to classical Joker we have seen on the big screen. In contrast Keaton’s Batman look is remarkable different from the comics being all black, rather than black/grey or black/blue. Keaton and Burton’s Batman look (the film and the costume) set the tone and style for all future theatrical incarnation’s of Batman, and even cosplayers today typically go with the all black costume when dressing up as their favourite Dark Knight Detective.
Heath Ledger’s Joker is a fan favourite performance, some would even say it was the performance of Ledger’s career. A more urban Joker whose hair is matted, whose face is a mess, but who still wears a nice suit with a dirty almost punk rock feel to it, Ledger’s Joker was all menace. A gleeful sadist who loves to torture Batman with indecision and doubt and keeping everybody guessing what his real plans and intentions were.
Another interesting take on the Joker was the Brian Azzarello / Lee Bermejo graphic novel “Joker”. This take sees the a hired goon tag along with the Joker for the day, and we see him get up to all his usual tricks. It’s a great read, and noteable for showing a more realist take on the Joker. Not so much his personality, but the overall setting and mood is closer to say Marvel’s the grim tone of The Ultimates or Watchmen than the usual Batman monthlies.
Origins of the Joker
The Red Hood first appeared in Detective Comics #168. In a rather convoluted page of exposition the Joker reveals to Batman the “one secret I’ve kept from you all these years”. That Joker was a lab worker who decided to steal $1,000,000 and became the Red Hood. He later swam through a chemicals making his getaway which bleached his skin and hair.
The Joker / Red Hood story is a bit silly, as were many Batman stories of its era. His origin would be told and retold over the decades, each time adding to or taking something away from the various stories he has told about who he is and why he exists. Fans still argue the true origin of the Joker to this day, and some theorists will state factually that his earliest origins are “most true”, but given 70+ years of fiction, and various writers – those details are up for debate and interpretation.
Allan Moore did his part to confuse things by writing The Killing Joke graphic novel. Moore wrote it as an out of continuity one-off story. One where he crippled Batgirl/Barbara Gordon. Then when DC published it, they went ahead and made it canon. Leaving poor Babs permanently crippled, something Moore has said he regrets adding to Batman. More ideas for Joker origins are thrown up in the air in The Killing Joke, which became a semi-canon. Until they were not any more. Well apart from Babs being crippled. They kept that part for some reasons and threw out pretty much everything else, until DC’s NEW 52 where both Joker and Babs get rebooted.
Joker as Mythic Archetype
In Snyder’s NEW 52 Batman story “End Game”, hints have been dropped that the Joker may be immortal. With images of the clown prince showing up old in photographs taken before Batman and the Joker were born.
The logical rational answer, the answer Batman has to go with is that the Joker is playing another cruel trick. The answer is that after taking a rare chemical called Dionesium (the precursor of Lazarus pits) the Joker is miraculously healed from life threatening injuries. The kicker is that photographic evidence exists putting the Joker at a least a century or two old. Older than Gotham itself. In Snyder’s end to his Joker stories (Death in the Family and End Game) the Joker gleefully torments Batman with the idea that he has been around a long, long time and is possibly immortal. Batman refuses to believe it of course, and the tale is left open ended for the reader to decide the ultimate truth of the Joker’s story, which again plays into the Archetype of the Trickster – a storyteller with multiple origins and many twisting lies and tricks.
In interviews with the site ComicBookResources.com Snyder and collaborator (artist) Greg Capullo talk about their vision for the Joker in the NEW 52.
CBR: What was your and Greg Capullo’s thinking behind that and how he appears now versus “Death Of The Family,” or even that very first “Batman” issue when Dick was pretending to be him in jail?
Snyder: The most important thing is that he looks scary, you know? The other most important thing, when we were talking about him, was that he looks reborn in some way. Classic, but a little bit darker. We talked about different possibilities. We talked about the purple suit, and then we realized, no matter how you cut it and what the suit is, it just makes him not scary in a lot of senses. So for us it became about giving him the black suit with the purple handkerchief, give him a more funeral look. Make the hair shorter on the sides, make sure his eyes are very wide, very bloodshot, the wider grin with the clownish chin and nose. Make him a little less witchy and a little more scary, someone who is in the shadows, looking at you, who is clearly a Joker, young and restarted. He’s come back saying, “This is it. If I’m moving on, I’m starting over without you.”
The cover to Batman #40 depicts and angelic Batman about to stab a Joker themed demonic creature with a staff / spear adorned with the Bat-symbol. It’s a great cover that emphasies the mythical archetypal relationship of the two adversarial characters in symbolic form.
Snyder: And to me, the reason Batman is inspiring isn’t only because he terrifies criminals, but because he empowers us to go out and overcome our own fears, and to overcome the worry that what we do doesn’t mean anything, and that we can’t make a difference, we can’t change our situation. Batman is the ultimate example of how you overcome tragedy, or you take chaos and random violence and turn it into something meaningful.
Greg Capullo: Are you trying to say that they’re kind of like married, kind of like the yin and yang?
Snyder: Exactly. And I think Bruce knows that in some way. The Joker represents everything he fights against all the time.
Trickster characters are often inversions of popular beliefs and attitudes. Tricksters take whatever is repressed, hidden or unconscious and bring it out in the open for everyone to see.
The very act of bringing unconscious material to light makes the Trickster character if not unpopular at least confronting and unpleasant.
Not all trickster characters are malevolent, Bugs Bunny for examples is a lovable non-threatening character who plays tricks on his nemesis (Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck), he is playful and challenges the ideas, values and perceptions of those he encounters.
Examples of classical mythological Trickster figures include half man-goat Pan, norse God Loki, and the African spider god/godess Anansi.
Modern Trickster figures include Bugs Bunny, Beetlejuice, The Joker and Dr. Who.
Joker as friend or benefactor to Batman
The trickster is not just a serial pest, but also acts in service to a higher purpose by bringing to light the very ideas and values we may find repulsive, and cannot stand to see in another, but which are in fact deeply embedded within our own psyches.
The more we are bothered by an other’s behavior, the greater the chance that there is some aspect of ourselves we are repressing, or refusing to own.
In this way, the trickster can symbolically help us to see our own Shadow qualities through story, song and performance.
Once these qualities or aspects of our own psyche are brought our attention, we still have to do the work of what Carl Jung refers to as “individuation” – being the war of opposites or dynamic tension between our higher and lower natures from which the “work” of real psychological growth and maturation into fully human beings comes.
The Joker at times has become a friend or benefactor to Batman (at least in his own warped view of reality). Joker sees himself as challenging Batman to be the best Batman he can be. He claims to know Batman better than anyone, as aspect that both Scott Snyder and Grant Morrison emphasized in their respective runs on Batman books.
Joker as Madman and Cipher
The Joker as a foil to Batman reminds him of his own darker impulses, and is a constant reminder of walking next to the abyss but not falling into it. Of Batman not giving in to to his impulse to simply kill the criminals and lunatics rather than catch them.
In the mythical sense, the Joker can be viewed as an aspects of Batman’s own personality given personification. Where Batman does not kill, and rarely laughs or makes Jokes, and is all about discipline and control – the Joker is wild unrestrained Chaos. Pure hedonism, the embodiment of lower animal drives and desires which in themselves are not evil (fight or flight response, sex, death, survival etc) but which unrestrained make us no better than living in an animal state of consciousness.
However, animals generally kill for food or to protect themselves, whereas the Joker kills for the sheer fun of it, making him in a sense even less evolved than an animal. He is sub-human, a gross perversion of culture and humanity reflected back on itself.
The Joker is decadence and self-indulgence and greed and excess and wanton destruction of self and environment personified.
He is chaos and a man like Batman who looked into the abyss of his own soul and rather than finding the line between his higher and lower impulses, fell in love with chaos and and raw unimpeded impulsiveness.
Will the real Joker please stand up?
The Joker can be a blank slate, a blank canvas onto which a writer can project whatever they need to for the story they wish to tell. Joker is the dark side of humanity twisted beyond recognition, a gross reflection of the chaos and unpredictability of life itself. His meanings and symbolism change with the times, reflecting cultural patterns and ever shifting values. In more conservative times he is the silly annoying clown who is more of a pest than a true threat. In more progressive times Joker is the psychotic mass murdering lunatic, always pushing the boundaries of sanity and crime as an art form.
The Joker is the nameless nobody criminal, who reinvented himself as the costumed Red Hood, who reinvented himself becoming the Joker, the clown prince of crime, avatar of chaos and madness.
Whether the Joker is genuinely insane, or merely plays at being insane because he loves to hurt people and cause trouble is up for debate. There is no “correct” answer, both versions are valid, and each Batman writer creates their own version of the Joker, with evidence to support their views in the Batman canon.
Scott Snyder’s Joker seems to be a true psychopath who enjoys murder, mayhem and torture, and his recent End Game storyline is possibly building the Joker up as as some sort of immortal, devil or pure archetypal trickster character.
The deliberate invocation, or even the suggestion that the Joker may be more than some criminal lunatic who dresses like a clown makes for compulsive reading, and leave the reader with a sense of confusion at the end of the tale.
Similar ideas have been hinted at in stories such as Dark Knight Returns, that Joker and Batman give each other meaning, and that the Joker continues to push himself to new depravities just to fuck with Batman.
An End to Madness and Laughter?
The Joker’s characterisation varies by writer and era. Sometimes he is a loveable fun trickster, at other times career criminal. He plays at being a gang leader only to routinely kill his employees. Joker has been a lunatic, psychopath, sadist and clown. Or any combination of these qualities depending on what elements a given writer wants to emphasize.
The strength of the Joker, and the Trickster archetype is that he can be put into just about any kind of story, and he works. Like water that once poured into a glass becomes the glass, the Joker becomes whatever is needed in a given story. He is the clown prince of crime, career criminal, lunatic, shapeshifter, trickster and more. He is all of these things and yet not limited by any of these facets of his personality. He evolves and devolves, taking on new forms for new stories.
Each new interpretation of the Joker adds something to the collective archetype of “The Joker” in Batman media. Each writer or actor that comes along has their choice of which elements they want to use from all the interpretations so far, as well as adding something unique of themselves to the character.
One of the great things about the Joker is that if you don’t like a particular version – there is always a new interpretation right around the corner.
The Joker and Batman have a symbiotic relationship, as do most classic heroes and villains throughout literature and film, each hero and villain representing the aspects of human potential and personality through stories. Within each person are all archetypes and possibilities, the different aspects of our psyche being reflected symbolically in stories of exciting characters having adventures, facing challenges and becoming more than what they were, or simply entertaining us with a mindless distraction from our daily lives.
When we read a comic book the page is flat and two dimensional, but beyond the borders of the panels of simple ink on paper – our imagination soars as we expand those worlds to infinite dimensions. We see hear and feel the moments of simulated joy, sorrow and high drama our heroes and villains encounter. Those larger than life characters, however spectacular they may be ultimately remind us of how human we are.
“In mythology and religion, the trickster deity breaks the rules of the gods or nature, sometimes maliciously but usually, albeit unintentionally with ultimately positive effects. Often, the bending/breaking of rules takes the form of tricks or thievery, and their actions often end up changingthe rules in the process of breaking them, much like an act of “civil disobedience”. Tricksters can be cunning or foolish or both; they are often funny even when considered sacred or performing important cultural tasks.” – TVtropes.org
He’s also arrogant, self-absorbed, gruff, emotionally unavailable, unapologtetic, rude and just rough around the edges.
Batman is kind of a jerk, isn’t he? Yet we still like him.
As much as I like Batman’s good qualities, I have to admit I have more in common with his personality flaws and bad habits, than his good habits.
And in a strange way, it is kind of comforting. If Batman is rude and arrogant, it doesn’t excuse my own lousy behavior in any way, but it does let me see that I am not the only guy who is like that. Batman’s flaws just make him more human. We don’t usually see Superman being a dick to other superheroes, but when Batman does it, well he gets away with it because he’s Batman.
It is not like I get up in the morning and decide to be an asshole to people. But it happens whether I want it to or not. So sometimes you’ve just got to do your best, when shit goes wrong, and not get too caught up in the whole drama of it.
Batman can be cool and stoic as he is ultimately responsible only to himself. And while I may be somewhat stoic myself, if I am like that all the time, eventually my friends and family will stop talking to me.
There is a point where being a loner can come back to bite you in the ass.
Of course Batman has his Bat-Family, he is not a true loner any more – at least in the modern Batman comics he has all sorts of friends, associates and people he can rely on for support. From Lucius Fox to Jim Gordon and his whole Bat-Family including the various Robins, Batgirl, Red Hood, Batwoman and more.
Nav K over at my favourite comicbook Blog GIRL ON COMICBOOK WORLD highlights some of the key reasons we enjoy Batman in the first place in a couple of excellent posts that I have read twice now, because they were so damn good! So don’t miss them.
I’ve finished Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biography, and I am currently reading Gandhi’s autobiography, both men are personal heroes to me for very different reasons.
One thing that really struck me about both books was the honesty and straight forward stating of bad habits, flaws and imperfections.
We want our heroes to be bastions of moral virtue.
In the case of fictional characters like Superman, we can enjoy a morally superior hero. But it is a fantasy, real life is much messier. Even the best of us has done some pretty horrible things, that we often deeply regret. Heroic figures, whether real, imagined or however exaggerated are icons we want to look up to and emulate. But while some flaws are unforgivable (the hero turns out to be a serial killer like Dexter for example) other more ordinary flaws humanise our heroic figures.
In the case of Ah-Nuld and yes, even Gandhi, both men are big JERKS! Both men are also bold icons – one is the guy in the nappy who helped kick start the movement for Indian independence from British rule. The other is a guy who traveled back in time to blow some shit up while wearing dark sunglasses and talking in a monotone voice.**
Arnold cheated on his wife, which he talks about in his book pretty candidly, he is not proud of his actions. Gandhi went to see a prostitute, smoked, ate meat and did all kinds of very un-Gandhi like things before he matured into the man who is revered around the world today.
What I love about both of these autobiographies, is that both men did some really dumb things, and were big idiot jerks to their family and friends (reminds me of someone) but that they had the courage to talk about their faults, their flaws openly in their books. This does not excuse their behavior. (**The Terminator was a character, Ah-Nuld did not really travel in time, as far as you know…)
But that bold self-analysis and honesty is one of the qualities I love about Batman, he KNOWS how flawed he is, and he doesn’t try to hide it or pretend otherwise.
Batman often gets angry, frustrated, becomes even more of a loner, rejecting food, his friends and sometimes even sleep.
He gets to a place where he psyche/mind is unbalanced. But Batman has Alfred, the various Robin’s and other friends to help him through these times.
For Batman, it is not just a flaw that he does things which are ultimately harmful for him, it is his “normal” behavior, so his friends do his best to manage his behavior, because you are not going to stop Batman being moody, withdrawn or angry.
Like a storm at sea, eventually the dark moody Batman comes back to his everyday level of dark moodiness, back to his baseline or psychological norm.
Why do we look up to a guy who is so dysfunctional? Why does he remain iconic and popular despite his flaws? Why is Batman such a classical romantic and mythic figure, and just plain gosh darn cool, despite being a flawed arrogant jerk?
I feel that a big part of Batman’s popularity is because of his flaws. It humanises him. It makes him more relatable to everyday people than the demi-gods that Batman walks amongst in the JLA. Batman is the cultural myth of the self-made man, the person who succeeds in bettering himself through hard work, persistence and determination.
Batman is a Zen-Yogi-Martial Arts Warrior for our times. He sits right in the sweet spot between realism and purely romantic fiction. In some stories he is very concrete, very much influenced by the real world, and he hits like a brick to the face.
In other stories Batman is a Gothic horror story, a semi-mythical figure straight out the collective unconscious mind – he torments criminals, preying on their fears, while in other stories he is the world’s greatest Detective, the guy who never gives up, and won’t stop until he solves the case, catches the killer, a manhunter who doggedly pursues his quarry to the ends of the earth. Whether realistic or mythic, Batman can work in a whole host of different contexts, and it all plays to the strengths of the character.
BATMAN ACTS, HE DOESN’T ASK PERMISSION
One manly quality I love about Batman is that he takes action, and he doesn’t ask permission.
If we have to ask permission for every little thing we did in life, nothing would ever get done.
There are rules and laws in society that are ultimately designed to protect us as well as penalise us.
But did men like Teddt Roosevelt or Abe Lincoln sit back and let the law of the land dictate how they would live their lives? Did they “ask permission” before they took the action they felt was necessary to improve themselves?
The law aside – a man acts, he doesn’t ask permission.
Batman didn’t ask somebody if it would be “okay” to punch crime in the face a little now and then when nobody is looking. He goes out night after night and performs his duties, and he doesn’t give a damn who likes him, who hates him, who fears him. He only cares that he makes a difference in the world
In one view of this behavior and attitude, it just makes Batman look like a jerk.
But another view, expressed in the Indian spiritual classic Bhagavad Gita states:
When he [the virtuous person] renounces all desires and acts without craving, possessiveness, or individuality, he finds peace.” Bhagavad-Gita 2:71
“Always perform with detachment any action you must do; performing action with detachment, one achieves supreme good.” Bhagavad-Gita 3:19
And further passages talk about the devotees relationship to the Supreme Lord, or Godhead.
“Disinterested, pure, skilled, indifferent, untroubled, relinquishing all involvements, devoted to me, he is dear to me. He does not rejoice or hate, grieve or feel desire; relinquishing fortune and misfortune, the man of devotion is dear to me. Impartial to foe and friend, honor and contempt, cold and heat, joy and suffering, he is free from attachment. Neutral to blame and praise, silent, content with his fate, unsheltered, firm in thought, the man of devotion is dear to me. Even more dear to me are devotees who cherish this elixir of sacred duty as I have taught it, intent on me in their faith” 12: 16-20
Now, Batman ain’t religious and neither am I frankly.
But I want you to take a look at that above passage, and you can take the word God and replace it with “Justice” for Batman. Batman serves not the laws of the nation, but his own highly personal concept of Justice, which to me is closer to the classical notion, the Socratic Ideal of Justice, than, well, your modern concept we have when we watch the average episode of Law and Order or whatever cop show / legal crime drama you are into.
If Batman is too concerned about what others might think of his War on Crime, or too busy seeking permission to punch crime in the face, he is not going to be a very effective Batman.
Recently, someone on the Q&A site Quora asked the Question: Why does batman betray the JLA? (referring to the JLA story Towel of Babel by Mark Waid in JLA#43-46, 2000)
“Tower of Babel deals with Batman’s perceived betrayal to the superhuman community by keeping and concealing hidden records concerning the strengths and weaknesses of his allies in the JLA, which include plans to neutralize his allies in a fight. His files are stolen by the criminal mastermind Ra’s Al Ghul, who uses them to defeat the League through a coordinated attack in order to prevent them from interfering with his latest scheme, the reduction of the global population.”
My answer to that question was that Batman betrays the JLA because he is always three steps ahead of everybody else in the room. He’s usually solved whatever problem the JLA is facing and will do whatever it takes to save the world, stop the enemies, world ending threat etc, save Liz, meet up at the Winchester until this all blows over – even if it means he seemingly betrays the JLA.
The simple answer for me to that Quora user question is “For the greater good”
Batman will sacrifice himself if it means saving the day. He doesn’t do compromise, and he doesn’t care who gets annoyed along the way, or if he betrays his “friends”.
He’s selfless but also a son of a bitch, and he knows it.
He’s smarter than you and he knows it.
He doesn’t care if you think he is a jerk.
He’s Bruce Lee, he’s James Dean, he doesn’t give a fuck what you think, what you stand for, whether you want to help him or stab him, either way he would die to save you because he values Life, he just gets real grumpy about the way he expresses it.
In the JLA Tower of Babel story Batman betrays the JLA, or at least it appears that he does. Batman had “fail safe” key plans on how to take down each of his fellow more powerful league members – in case they went crazy, were mind controlled etc. A super-villain obtains Batman’s plans, and uses them against the JLA. During the story the JLA find out that Batman created the plans to take them out (if they went crazy/evil etc) and they feel betrayed.
It’s a cool story, and well worth reading. The trade is quite cheap, and you will find it easily enough if you search for “JLA Tower of Babel”. Don’t miss “Rock of Ages” which is another classic JLA story with Batman in a key role that really shows how devoted and fanatical he can be to his cause.
So we know Batman can be a jerk, but at his core…
Who is Batman?
Fans each have their own favourite version of Batman. and the question of who Batman really is, is up to each BATFAN.
Is Batman the real person who puts on the mask of Bruce Wayne?
Or is Bruce Wayne the man who puts on the mask of Batman?
For me the answer is obvious, Batman doesn’t do things half-assed, he puts himself 100% into whatever he does, and when he became Batman, he stopped being Bruce Wayne.
My personal vision of Batman is that Bruce Wayne is the mask, and Batman is who he really is.
Who that Batman is from day to day may seem somewhat schizophrenic. Not literally, but when you see Batman in his own core books – Detective Comics and Batman, contrasted with Batman in the JLA, Batman and the Outsiders, the Batman and Robin books, we get different equally valid interpretations of who Batman is and how he acts.
It is hard to pin down a definitive version of Batman, but core values and characteristics may him easy to identify, no matter what book he appears in (not including Elseworlds and alternate universe stories where Batman may be evil, a vampire or whatever) I talked about Batman’s core values in a popular article a while back:
And I also made up this nifty chart table thingy with what I personally feel are the core values, characteristics etc of the Batman across different media.
The values etc that have become part of how Batman is portrayed over several decades of fiction, to become what we collectively can refer to as the Batman Franchise, or Batman Media.
Missing any of these basic “ingredients” in the recipe for Batman (which is subject to change and interpretation, not set in concrete) makes it easy to see where particular interpretations differ from Batman’s core values, or just go plain wrong (in my opinion) in the case of misunderstanding the character all together. Of course other fans and writers may disagree.
Now, nowhere in that box ‘o words does it imply that Batman is a jerk. Yet, he is a jerk, more often than not.
That is, if we consider normal human relationships, how we relate to and love each other etc.
Batman is not a social butterfly, and while he can fake human interactions as Bruce Wayne, how much of that is genuine, and how much of that is his acting ability- which I would compare favourable to a professional actor, just see Batman’s undercover personas like Matches Malone for example to see what I mean – is debatable.
At times Batman is cold and aloof, and sometimes we see him as warm and gentle, but these times tend to be rare. Nobody would accuse Batman of being a “softy”.
Batman trains the various Robin characters in a harsh and unforgiving manner, like a martial arts instructor or armed forces instructor would – to prepare the student for combat / warfare etc. But Batman/Bruce Wayne also cares deeply about his adopted sons, the various Robin characters, Batgirl, Jim Gordon, Lucius Fox and his other extended Bat-Family.
The original Batman went it alone, and if he had kept going that way, he would have been dead for sure by now. I like to think that Batman’s core BAT-FAMILY don’t just keep him alive in a practical way, they also keep him more human, less of a robot.
In Scott Snyder’s run on Batman in the NEW 52, the Joker tells Batman that his Bat-Family make him weak and soft. I feel they do the opposite.
The man who has nothing to live for dies a quiet and sad death.
The man who has everything to live for, especially people he deeply loves and cherishes will NOT go quietly into that good night, but will rage against the machine, he will rise up every time you knock him down, until his dying breath. Because he cares, because he fights for a better tomorrow that he may not live to see. Because he knows that deep down, as callous and angry as he may be on the outside, on the inside Batman has the heart of a saint.
Where Superman would be evacuating the planet in a hypothetical doomsday scenario, Batman is the guy who will be there till the end, helping the helpless, and dying right next to them if he can’t save them. Batman won’t abandon those most in need, because it is not in him as a human being to do that. The very idea of not helping others, and being a proactive force for good is painful to Batman.
He never gives up, never surrenders, and he absolutely WILL….NOT…STOP.
So he may be a jerk at times but perhaps we can forgive him, after all, he is Batman.
Pain is direct feedback from his immediate environment about what his body can and can not do.
Batman has the presence of mind to be aware of pain, while not being overwhelmed by his physical pain sensations.
The suffering that comes with physical pain Batman transcends by refusing to let the signals of physical pain overwhelm his consciousness. He refuses to let his mind and judgement be clouded by physical pain.
He still feels every bit of the pain, but he does not let that physical signal that travels along his nervous system into his brain turn into mental/psychological suffering because he does not mistake the experience he is having (pain) for who he is (Batman).
Batman accepts that physical pain and injuries are part of his mission. He is not bothered by injuries, other than that they slow him down or prevent him from completing a task.
In one way of looking at Batman’s behavior, Batman abuses his body by pushing it too hard. Another way of looking at his behavior is that Batman refuses to let physical limitations prevent him from accomplishing a task in his war on crime.
Of course there are limits even to what Batman can endure and some types of pain and injury will cause immediate dysfunction and render Batman incapable of doing anything other than calling for help or retreating to heal before coming up with a new plan, tactic or strategy.
We too should know the Bat-Wisdom of when to ask for help, when to retreat, and when to heal and recover.
There are times in life to listen to the signal of pain, and back off from what we are doing – like at the gym or during sport – if we experience an injury, the smart thing is to stop what we are doing, rest, get treatment and use active recovery.
But then there are times when we must push past pain signals and ignore what our body is telling us. We must act in SPITE of pain. We must not let our body run our mind.
We must choose without any external signals to know when to push past limits, and when to respect them. Either way requires a conscious intelligent decision, rather than blind reaction.
For example you wake up and your house is on fire. You children are asleep and you must get them out or they will die.
Your body is screaming at you from the pain of inhaling smoke fumes, you may get burnt during the process or injured by debris or tripping on objects. The door handle burns your hand when you touch it, but if you do not open it you will die.
If you fail to transcend pain, your kids will die.
These are the times to rule our body with an iron fist and ignore the signals to simply get out of the house and live.
The greater perceived potential pain of death and loss helps to us to look past the immediate physical pain and very real present danger.
These are the times to be like Batman, to transcend ordinary circumstances and find our inner hero who will preserve the life of his children and family at all costs, even if it means sacrificing his own.
While we may have to perform a heroic act perhaps once in a lifetime, Batman goes out night after night and does his job, he fulfills his calling to simply “Be Batman”.
Pushing past pain just to kick a ball harder, or lift a weight heavier serves no higher purpose. They are ultimately selfish goals.
It may feel subjectively great, even euphoric to break one of our own athletic records in the moment, but what is more valuable?
Beating some personal record, experiencing a moment of euphoria that may come at the cost of months of rehab after we abuse our bodies – or the saving of a human life?
We must know our own strengths and limitations in life, and we must equally know when to gently move through them gently and respectfully, and when to break down walls like Batman in the Batmobile busting through police blockades and barriers – not just because we can, but because it serves a higher purpose.
Batman knows his priorities. He doesn’t doubt himself, or his mission.
He doesn’t care about setting athletic records or lifting a heavy weight for the sake of it.
Batman’s training is ALWAYS practical. That heavy weight lifted in the gym translates into lifting a heavy fallen beam during a fire that has pinned some poor soul to the ground, and will be dead in a matter of moments.
That gymnastic leap, tuck and roll means he can dive through a window, his cape, cowl and gloves protecting him from serious cuts from the glass.
Those brutal training scenarios where he deprives himself of food, water and yes, even oxygen means that Batman has mentally prepared himself for all eventualities, and has a plan for how to beat every impossible scenario he can conceive of. Batman has a rich mental bank of scenarios and escape plans for every type of situation.
While he plans and prepares, Batman must remain focused in the present moment. Ever alert to opportunity and new possibilities emerging that he had not yet anticipated.
While Batman is a master planner and strategist, he is also an expert at off the cuff spontaneous creative simple solutions to difficult problems. He is the MacGyver of the Superhero world. Batman is a master in the fine art of masculine improvisation.
Give Batman a box of matches, a watch and a toothpick with some gum, and he will escape from an impossible trap, build an airplane or defuse a nuclear bomb before he has even had breakfast all while he is bleeding to death with a concussion and a dislocated shoulder.
There’s still something about the character [Macgyver] that strongly resonates. And that resonance actually goes a lot deeper than pop culture; it in fact points to an universal archetype of manliness, and a trait of masculinity that has been valued and celebrated across times and cultures: improvisation. – Brett and Kate McKay / Artofmanliness.com
Whether doing the impossible, or making the extraordinary part of his daily routine, Batman applies personal excellence to all he does in life. He transcends pain not as a masochist, but because his job demands it. He can’t afford to fall to pieces going into a burning building to pull someone out any more than a real life fireman can.
Batman can’t afford to get sloppy and let his physical sensations and emotions overwhelm his decisions on the street any more than a real life cop can. Fear and hesitation in the field can mean death comes sooner than rather than later. However the right kind of fear also can keep us alive. It takes training to trust your instincts under high stress situations, and you know Batman has trained himself for exactly that.
While it is impossible to literally be Batman, we can all learn a little from Batman that we can apply in our daily lives. Batman did not turn into a Superhero, urban vigilante and Champion of Justice overnight – he got there through gradual slow training, making mistakes, experimenting with his own life. He made 1000’s of mistakes on his way to greatness. And he will make a 1000 more mistakes as he continues to evolve as a human being.
The Art of Batmanliness then involves not only transcending pain, but knowing your limits.
It means knowing when to push forward and break down barriers, and when to retreat and lick your wounds, growing stronger with each new stimulus, with each new piece of feedback that life gives you. And being like Batman also means that every time life knocks you on your ass you have the bravery to stand back up and fight on or retreat and replan your approach to your mission.
The man who gets knocked down and stays down beats himself.
The man who gets up no matter what is impossible to beat.
Is that he is such a well defined character, with such specific values, and a particular look and feel to him, that you have to have some sort of reaction no matter if you encounter him in a comic book or a film.
Batman is iconic not just because he is popular and well known, but because he was designed to be iconic from the beginning.
The silhouette, color scheme and chest insignia make him instantly recognisable. Costumes and colours are key features of designing Superheroes.
Scott McCloud has a great section in his book Understanding Comics on color and specifically the colours of Superheroes, take a look at the two pages below.
Great stuff, I never get tired of reading McCloud’s ideas and theories.
Good characters such as Batman have strong values that distinguish them from other characters.
Crap characters that are ill-defined are easily mixed up with similar characters.
Characters such as Spider-Man, Hulk, Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman are easily identifiable by their unique look, costume and colours, and their personalities, villains, world/setting/background in their respective fictions.
The more simple a characters costume, potentially the more iconic it is. The more symbolic it is not only of the character, but the values they embody, the adventures and fantasy they stand for and the genre they appear in.
The repeated use of the same colours for superheroes (particularly from the 1940’s-1960’s) came to symbolise the characters themselves as Scott McCloud discussed in work magnum opus Understanding Comics.
Now, I can’t draw to save my life. But take a look at my scribbles above and see if you can recognize the characters from their colour schemes and iconic symbols. Hint: that one with the Bat symbol is NOT Batman.
You can see from my terrible picture that superhero colour schemes may have come about due to the technology (or lack of) at the time for printing what was basically works of art on glorified toiler paper – but they are still recognisable even when a someone like me scribbles down somewhat abstract interpretations of genre classics.
The colour schemes that were a limit of technology came to be an essential feature in the iconography and design of superheroes. Today we have a far more rich and deep colour palette available for both digital and print productions, not to mention colour separations and special lighting effects comparable to movies that just were not possible in the 1940’s. I am glad that limitation was there, because without it, superhero fiction may not have developed the same iconic tropes that they are known for.
While it’s easy to look at a classic Superhero and notice how ridiculous they look, an important feature of Superheroes is that they are larger than life. Their costumes, colours and chest symbols make them instantly recognisable, and distinguish them from ordinary mortals and other types of generic Heroes from different genres.
One of the reasons it is hard to create an original superhero characters today that are as instantly iconic as Superman or Batman, is that it is very hard to distinguish your character from all the other characters that have already been created.
Like walking into a restaurant where every table is full, many of the great iconic costume designs, colour schemes and basic personalities and superhero archetypes are already taken.
This makes it hard for a creator to distinguish their character from all the similar characters already in print.
Sometimes a creator will do something unorthodox that makes the character stand out in some way, what you would call in video game terms a “modifier”.
A modifier is simply taking something familiar and changing one or two things about it.
For example if you are playing a first person team based shooter – on a tropical island – a generic Mercenaries vs Marines game or whatever. An environment modifier may be to change from day to night. An objective modifier may be playing capture the flag, team death match or whatever, while a thematic modifier may be now one team is all zombies, and the other team are humans with very basic weapons such as knives instead of RPGs.
Taking this modifier example to superhero fiction we get simple, but powerful ideas such as:
“This guy is like Batman… but he kills everybody” (moral/behavior modifier)
“This guy is like Superman… but he’s a Nazi in World War II” (setting modifier)
“Here’s a Wonder Woman character… who is openly gay” (character value modifier)
You can take any basic hero archetype and modify one or two things. You keep the archetype recognition value of costumes, powers, chest symbol etc. But you make something just different enough that people think “hhmmmm… interesting” or “boy that looks like gimmicky crap”.
Until we read the imaginary story from one of the above three examples (or a review) we don’t really know if the elevator pitch is any good or gimmicky crap. There is a fine line being being clever and just making a spectacle for the sake of spectacle. Most of the time we get crap in comics, and sometimes we something unique or actually worth reading.
Some writers, such as Warren Ellis manage to do the gimmicky and bizarre stories, with loads of spectacle to get reactions from people, but he also has substance in his stories (most of the time).
It is easy to churn out gimmicky stories that get attention.
“Superman and Batman as gay lovers” (Apollo and Midnighter from The Authority)
It is harder to do the gimmick, but have a decent story to go along with it
“Superman and Batman as gay lovers… in a morally complex Orwellian world where the JLA has decided to take over the world for the benefit of humanity, who are too useless to look after themselves.”
Three examples of commercial superhero fiction that COULD have been gimmicky crap, but turned out to be pretty good that I really enjoy are:
The TV series HEROES – which can be described as “powers without costumes”
Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass (character and story) can be described as “costumes without powers”
Brian Michael Bendis / Michael Avon Oeming’s POWERScan be described as “detectives without powers who investigate the crimes of those who do have superpowers.
These three ideas manage to make themselves easily understood, while distinguishing their intellectual property from all the other similar comics, novels, TV, films etc already out there with subtle modifications to superhero genre tropes
While quality can vary during a project, I feel that Powers, HEROES and Kick-Ass were all really solid ideas. They were entertaining and managed to do something new with something familiar (superhero genre conventions), or at least they felt fresh and new, even if we had encountered some of the same ideas in other stories. They may not maintain the same quality all the way through, but the initial idea and execution is solid.
To do something interesting in the superhero genre, you either have to create something that is very very very good so that it can stand out from other works. Or do something that is so unique and different that you can honestly say it has not been done before.
Or do both.
Be unique and very very good,
and the property is more likely to be noticed amid the noise of other properties,
but quality is no guarantee of success.
Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic book is very very VERY good. I really enjoy reading the book, and also watch the brilliant AMC adaptation of the show. However if The Walking Dead was with a minor publisher that had crap distribution, it likely never would have sold as well, and it never would have been turned into a successful television show on a swanky network like AMC that does “proper television”.
Fortunately The Walking Dead was published by IMAGE comics, a company started by comic books writers and artists that values creator rights and royalties. If The Walking Dead had been published by a smaller publisher, we most likely would have never heard of it, let alone have our friends and relatives telling us how good it is. My mother watches The Walking Dead, and she has never read a comic book in her life, or watched a Zombie film. She has watched all of Joss Whedon’s Angel at least twice though. So she does enjoy some genre material.
If The Walking Dead had been published by a bigger brand publisher like DC or MARVEL then Robert Kirkman would have had no real stake in the intellectual property. The Walking Dead most likely never would have been made into a television show. It probably would never have built much of an audience as DC and Marvels’ bread and butter is superheroes, not zombie fiction.
Because of the success of The Walking Dead as a property, and Robert Kirkman’s success as a writer, we got to read fun projects like Marvel Zombies. Where the entire Marvel Universe is turned into Zombies and they eat the whole planet, before leaving to eat people on new worlds with the powers they absorbed from eating Galactus. The Incredible Hulk eating Silver Surfer’s head in one of my favourite scenes from Kirkman’s Marvel Zombies series. It is as gut-wrenching and disgusting and grim as any issue of The Walking Dead, but it is also laugh out loud hilarious throughout the series. Even Robert Kirkman himself (in the trade collection introduction) could not believe what Marvel let him do with their iconic characters.
Superhero fiction then works best when we know the genre tropes. Writers can surprise us by subverting or modifying these tropes to make something new, or that at least FEELS new, or interesting.
I love post-modern superhero fiction. But I wish more of it was hilarious like Marvel Zombies, and less grim and boring like Allan Moore’s Miracleman.
Yes I just said that. Miracleman is brilliant and important and blah blah blah. But it also DEAD BORING! It doesn’t even have one good zombie in the whole story!
Give me Mark Waid’s Irredeemable any day of the week over Miracleman. It has any evil Superman that tries to kill the whole planet. It’s 30 issues of exciting superhero fiction that manages to be iconic, subvert genre tropes and it is not CRIMINALLY BORING!