The Most Difficult Questions Usually Don't Have Any Answers

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In October 2011, Phoenix Jones, a vigilante superhero, was arrested by Seattle police.  His costume and crimefighting was not dissimilar to that of Batman: martial arts, body-armored suit, crime-fighting gear.

Most fans place Batman high on “all-time” lists partly because of his lack of superpowers.  He has a lot of money, lots of training, and a brilliant mind.  Like the sidekicks of the Silver Age of Comics, readers identify with him.  We might not come orphaned from a distant world, meet a mysterious wizard who grants us powers, or suffer industrial accidents which trigger a latent genetic code, but we could, with enough time and money, become Batman.

So, while it might be a shock, in retrospect it might not be a surprise that someone would be inspired by the Joker, another character who ranks high on “worst villain” lists.  His origin is uncertain… did his chemical bath trigger his insanity, or was it just an incident which pushed him over the edge?  Yet, aside from a mis-wired brain, he has no superpowers, and even fewer devices than Batman.  (Although his Golden Age and animated versions do have schemes which rival those of Rube Goldberg and Wile E. Coyote.)

As always happens when something like this happens, the police, media, and society always search for influences and triggers.  What media did he enjoy?    What paper and electronic trail did she leave?  Where there psychological symptoms?  Was there an inciting incident which pushed the suspect over the edge?  Did the individual retreat to a fantasy to cope with reality?  Did they have multiple personas, either online or on the street?  What caused them to do what normal people would never do?  (Thankfully, our definition of “normal” hasn’t changed, and we are still sensitized to horrific tragedies.)

In this situation, fantasy did have a large influence.  He seems to have been inspired by “The Dark Knight”, even in his random actions shooting some theater patrons, but not others.  Of course, given his mental state, if he had not been inspired by the Joker, he most likely would have found a different locale or method.

Criticism will be placed on Hollywood and how it influences society (Money Train, Scarface, The Matrix).  Rarely is it praised for influencing society, except, perhaps, when an action hero celebrity saves someone in danger.  Will there be discussion on how art reflects life, how art comments on society, how art can influence society?  Most likely not… that’s boring Ivory Tower philosophical talk.  Talking heads prefer to talk about more interesting things which entice viewers to watch and comment.

I hate to say it, but someone is going to label him the “cosplay killer” as soon as his mug shot is publicized.  Already, his red-haired profile picture from Adult Friend Finder has been publicized.  There’s going to be a lot of introspection forced onto fandom.
“Why do you dress up as a psychopathic villain?”
“What is it about the Punisher that you identify with?”
“You’re right…Batman is crazy.  Is it a ‘good crazy’ or a ‘bad crazy’?”
“Why are the villains the interesting characters in stories?”
“How does fiction influence you and your behavior?  What lessons are taught?”
“Do you use your fantasy fandom as a means of escape?  Do you use it to make your real life more interesting?”
“When you engage media, do you ever question the reality depicted?  The people killed, the property destroyed, what happens after the credits roll?”

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I don’t know if this marks the end of the grim reality which has infected superhero comics since 1985.  Antiheroes have existed for quite some time.  Is Travis Bickle a hero or a villain (or is he just crazy)?  Paul Kersey?  Harry Callahan?  Is Batman a hero when he breaks the law to engage in vigilantism?  Is Ernesto Miranda, arrested for kidnapping,  rape, and armed robbery; a hero or a villain?  (Possibly both, since he was retried and convicted after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, which forced police departments to inform suspects of their civil rights.)  Realism is a requirement for effective storytelling, although sometimes, there can be too much realism.  Sometimes, there’s not enough idealism or heroism.

I stopped listening to grunge music at work in my Twenties when I noticed it subliminally influencing my emotional state.  Has the Nolan trilogy done the same with viewers, many of them young and open to suggestion?  How influential can media be, especially if the viewer is open and receptive to a fantasy which allows them to redefine their own reality?  Even if they are not susceptible, does the repetitive message eventually enter the subconscious?  Does a well-crafted fantasy, one which builds a suspension of disbelief, affect a person’s perception of reality?  Religions would agree… parables and story can change the world.  Politicians do the same, with idealism.  Of course, in politics, dark themes, demagoguery, fear, hatred, prejudices can be used to tell a story, to demonize an opponent, or to give the populace something to fight against, a physical representation (or an excuse) of the problems they face.  Sometimes it’s a distraction.  When the lie is exposed (and all fictions are lies, even when they also contain truths), it can tear-apart society, as the populace mistrusts themselves and those in power.

I read a lot.  I remember a lot.  My mind is constantly wondering and brainstorming.  “What if…”  “Why not…”  “Has anyone ever…”  I’m influenced by so many things, and there are many long, dark tendrils which deviate throughout my memory.  I could create some very disturbing scenarios, if so inspired.  But I deny that dark nature, as I deny many hungers simmering inside me.  But if I had money?  Power?  An excuse (either to justify, or to avoid accusation)?  Would I?   What would you do if you could get away with it? (Or if you had nothing to lose?)

Comics books are filled with possible answers to this question.  “100 Bullets” is one well known example of individuals given sanction to kill people without government punishment.  We know why Superman and Lex Luthor do what they do.  We generally know why we do what we do, although we rarely question it, since that behavior has been instilled in us since childhood.  But we never question how Altruism exists as a concept, especially under the Theory of Evolution.  Why do we help others, when Survival of the Fittest suggests that we’d be more inclined to rob your neighbor instead of watching their house while he is on vacation?  Kinship, vested interests, reciprocity, costly signaling (I share my wealth with others, and thus signal my worth to possible partners), and group altruism (my team has better teamwork than our opponent) are some explanations.

Is altruism considered a weakness?  “Nice guys finish last.”  Superman is labeled “the big blue boy scout”.  “Nice” is boring.  Stories written for “all ages” are considered childish.  We crave the unusual, the extraordinary, the taboo.  In moderation, that might be acceptable, even healthy.  Too much, and it might become addictive and unhealthy.  Many balance their recreation with Real Life.  Others become unbalanced.  Some tie a towel around their neck, and break a leg jumping off the garage roof.  Others put on a mask and break the law.  Both believe in what they do, and are either ignorant of the outcome or ignore the consequences.

I live in the City of Dreams.  People move to New York City to become famous, to become rich, to become successful, to become someone else, to start over.  Sometimes those dreams become broken, or shattered, or twisted.  But that happens everywhere to everyone.  How we adapt to disappointment, to ennui, to tedium, to God laughing at our plans defines whether we are heroes or villains in our own story.  When we feel like a spectator, that’s when trouble occurs.  “Look at me,” becomes a plea, and usually leads to unhealthy behaviors.

There are a lot of questions being asked in the wake of this tragedy, and while not all will be answered satisfactorily, it is hoped that some understanding can be achieved, and that this understanding can help others in the future.

Comments

  1. We’re still giving this murderer digital ink?

  2. Jim Keegan says:

    Good editorial.

    Unlike some commentators that I’ve heard in the news media, I don’t think comics or movies bear the slightest responsibility for the horrible shooting, but if nothing else positive comes out of this, I hope that at least people start to realize that the psychopath isn’t actually cooler than the hero.

    Just today I saw an interview promoting a new Batman comic, wherein artist Greg Capullo doesn’t say much about Batman, but he’s all over the Joker, saying — “What artist doesn’t want to touch The Joker? He’s just the coolest and the most badass, the most evil, the most insane, and so there’s so much to play with.” He goes on to say that he’s looking forward to going, “down the road of, like, Texas Chainsaw Massacre stuff,” saying that he and writer Scott Snyder will be,”turning the Joker up a notch, you know? If you can turn the Joker up any higher.”

    Now, I don’t mean to point any fingers at Capullo or Snyder — they’re just doing their job. I only cite the interview because it was a handy example of how creators seem to be in a race to out-crazy the last guy. All of the heroes are becoming morally-conflicted anti-heroes, and all of the villains have become Ted Bundy on crack!

    The anti-hero was once a fresh antidote to a code-controlled industry, but after thirty years, I’m starting to feel like I need to take a bath after every comic I read. I guess angry, antisocial, mentally-unbalanced people aren’t very appealing to me.

    I guess I long for the return of the “good guy.”

  3. will naslund says:

    I have great sympathy and compassion for the victims of the Aurora shooting, but that’s where it ends for me.

    To indulge in reactionary navel-gazing and/or fantasize about some magic prescriptive policy that will fix everything is to give the killer the attention and recognition he so desperately sought to achieve via mass murder. I refuse to do that.

    IMHO, the best way to deal with this tragedy is to insure that the victims and their loved ones all the support and sympathy they require — but to otherwise change nothing and do nothing save to try, convict, and execute Holmes in the most efficient and least publicized manner possible. We shouldn’t give him or his crimes a millisecond more attention than is absolutely necessary to see justice done.

  4. @Jim Keegan
    Good guys are absolutely real, They just don’t get the press time. Nothing sexy about guilt complexes.

  5. Frank Juliano says:

    We all have a responsibility to each other, regardless of influences.
    Whether the influences are defined as chemical, social, or the latest chapter of a filmmaker’s trilogy is unimportant.

    Responsibility begins on an individual level, but also extends to include anyone who functions as a member of a support system – this includes family, friends, casual acquaintances, right down to the person who stops to lend a hand when they see someone in distress.
    When these support systems fail – when we choose not to address troubling behavioral signs from those around us – the results can be devastating.

    I’m always disappointed to hear the old saw, “What would you do if you could get away with it?” emerge at times like this.

    My answer?
    You would do what you know to be the right thing in that given situation, because the people who care about you do not want to see you or anyone else suffer due to your actions.

    That’s placing the responsibility squarely where it belongs, influences & dark impulses be damned.

  6. What-Ev says:

    “change nothing and do nothing save to try, convict, and execute Holmes in the most efficient and least publicized manner possible.”

    Right…one more death, that’ll fix everything. Great message to send, “what do you do with a murderer? Murder him!”

    Life in prison. No chance of parole. Institutionalized murder in the name of “justice” is still murder…but hey, maybe we can get some woman dressed in a Wonder Woman costume to snap his neck and bring things full circle.

    May the human race survive to see a day when nobody has any reason or feels the need to kill anyone ever in any circumstance.

  7. Joe S. Walker says:

    “Why are the villains the interesting characters in stories?”

    One reason is simply because they’re the active characters. They make the story happen.

    Also, memorable villains tend to have some complexity. They’re often rebels against the established order of things, which makes them sympathetic if you have a grievance with it.

    It doesn’t help that nowadays heroes don’t behave much better than villains.

  8. Synsidar says:

    The recurring use of villains in the comic book stories does raise questions as to how effective they are at making any kind of valid point about anything. A Super Friends type story is written for children, and the moral point of it is clear. The adult stories, though–it’s been claimed that Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, et al. are good for thousands of stories each. They’re not, though. Repetition of a theme is as deadly, over time, as repetition of plot elements is. If the moral of a story is that Good triumphs over Evil, then Good actually has to triumph and vanquish Evil. Chasing Evil away for a few issues isn’t a triumph. However many stories a hero might be good for, a villain such as the Joker is good for one or two. Three? That would be stretching it. Once it’s been established that he’s Batman’s opposite, he’s been defined completely. There’s nothing more to say about him. He should have been vanquished decades ago. Using him again and again doesn’t serve any purpose except to glamorize the very Evil that the heroes are supposed to be fighting.

    SRS

  9. Why would anyone label him the “cosplay killer”? He wasn’t dressed a comic character. He was wearing full body armor. I know he supposedly referred to himself as the Joker, but nothing in his dress or demeanor is related to the Joker. Even the photo from the adult website shows him with orange hair, not green hair. His mugshot appeared on Friday and he has brown hair.

  10. You could say that, Rick (I actually agree with you) but why does the media jump to any conclusions? They’ll say nearly anything to keep this story going. They’ll blame this on video games, for instance.

  11. MattComix says:

    “I don’t know if this marks the end of the grim reality which has infected superhero comics since 1985.”

    I hope so. For one it’s sucked all the fun out of superhero comics even to the point where action has just been replaced with cheap shock and gore. For another, it’s a lopsided view of reality in the first place.

    There’s more to reality than just the dark side.

  12. I’m still skeptical of media reports that the shooter called himself “the Joker” — it fits a convenient narrative, but I’ve only seen it corroborated by anonymous sources and one guy from the NYPD (who is presumably not actively involved in a case in Colorado).

    That said, whether he deliberately styled himself after a Batman villain or not, the shooter certainly tapped into that zeitgeist — the over-the-top, theatrical villain, leaving traps for the police and then warning them they were there, as a game to see if they could beat them.

    And there’s the implacable, ineffable evil of the whole thing — I keep thinking of Alfred’s line in the previous movie, about men who don’t want anything rational, can’t be reasoned with, just want to watch the world burn.

    All that and the entire history of Batman can be described as a story of the pain and suffering brought on one man when people he loved went to a movie and never made it home.

  13. Rupert says:

    Trying to make sense of a senseless act is futile…as your title intimates.

    As for the list of reasons to be altruistic, I think people can also be altruistic because it makes them feel good.

    And Synsidar, maybe you should tell Marvel and DC that their characters have run out of stories. Not surprisingly, the only “valid point” they care about is the decimal point (and how many numbers are to the left of it). I think if you consider the “journey as the destination” you’ll see there is an endless number of stories that can be told about Spider-Man, Batman and Superman.

  14. george says:

    AP couldn’t resist noting the suspect’s hair was dyed a “comic-book shade of orange-red.”

  15. horatio weisfeld says:

    I don’t care what color this guys hair is or why he says he did what he did.

    I would very much like to see this person burned at the stake (without pre-strangling), drawn and quartered or receiving the Vlad the Impaler treatment (can all three somehow be done at once?)
    I would be willing to personally provide my dullest butter knife, light the match and/or grease the (preferably knotty) pole.
    … but unfortunately I can’t do any of that, cause I’m against capital punishment, as I believe it is disproportionately administered along racial lines.

  16. Saber Tooth Tiger Mike says:

    People kill for different reasons. Some people kill because they are angry, isolated and have convinced themselves that a homicide/suicide combo is the way to leave this cruel world. Some people kill because they enjoy it. They are psychopaths. There’s no treatment for psychopathy. Believe it or not, there are people out there who enjoy killing. They fantasize about it until they carry it out. Psychopaths are not mentally ill. They just enjoy murdering people. The smart thing would be to find them and castrate them before they pass on the heritability of their dispositions on to their kids but because they really successful at passing their genes on, by using charm or coercion ,their genes will always be floating in the gene pool.

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