Saturday, May 5, 2012

Villains Are No Joke

Last night before bed, I read The Killing Joke, which I had unearthed in the course of cleaning yesterday. It was not very smart, I admit, to read this right before trying to sleep; it wouldn't leave my mind. 

Wikipedia discusses how the depraved treatment of Barbara Gordon in the comic is focused proof of a horribly misogynistic mindset, particularly in comic books but also in the wider world. That on its own is a post I wish I had the skill to write, because it ties in with my point of view on the problems of women in combat and the way I believe we will move forward in gender relations (hint: it's not through total equality). But the article also says that a lot of experts have called The Killing Joke the ultimate Joker story, and that's today's knot to untie. Or, more accurately, to fiddle around with until it's un-untieable. 

At the Thursday program at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, I sat through a day of lecture with Donald Maass (who is pretty wonderful, if you ever get the chance to hear him speak, and not remotely what I expected). It didn't resemble any lecture I've ever attended; there was a lot of prompting by him and a lot of writing by us, and not a lot of actual lecture. One of the topics was what makes a compelling character, and we started with protagonists and moved on to antags. Great great heroes are characters like Frodo, brave and self-sacrificing but flawed and susceptible to weakness, or Scarlett, relentlessly flawed but utterly compelling. Heroes seem to behave under stress either how we know we would behave, or how we sincerely hope we would. Great great villains - well, I hoped the first one to come up would be Hannibal Lecter, because I wanted to hear from an expert what was so great about him. 

Hannibal fascinates me, for quite a few reasons, and I remember freewriting many years ago in an attempt to figure out what makes him so urgently interesting. I decided that his draw came from the fact that his only motive to do such appalling things was preference - that he liked to eat people, and that was sort of all. Presumably he got some pleasure out of killing, too, but the key was that he just enjoyed cannibalism, one of the most ingrained taboos of Western society. 

How did he get that way? This is the question that keeps the reader reading (along with "what is he going to do next?"), but there's no answer that could possibly satisfy us. Also, the fact that - and I'm no psychologist, but this is my theory - he's totally sane, not actually unhinged but just with a different set of ethics than 99% of the population, is quite frightening to the average reader/viewer. If he was unhinged, I don't think he'd be able to accomplish what he does, be as methodical as he is. 

A villain who didn't come up, but to whom I've given a lot of thought, both before and after this lecture, is the Joker. I think Nolan's vision of the Joker (the Joker via 9/11, as it were) is quite different than the comic version, and while I was reading The Killing Joke I was thinking of Hamill, not Ledger. But when I was done, my mind went back to Ledger, because the Dark Knight Joker evokes many more character questions for me than the comic Joker. A character who just wants to watch the world burn - so why does he make the specific choices he does? Is he sane, or not? What leads him to value his own life at all? Does he have an ego, or is he 100% id - the total opposite of egocentric, with no personality recognizable to the DSM? And the question Batman seems to be asking all throughout The Killing Joke: how do you defeat this creature without killing it? 

I was disappointed that The Killing Joke presented an origin story that I think we as readers were supposed to buy. Ledger's Joker, with several explanations, none of which explained anything worth knowing, was much closer to what I would have wanted from this character. Like Hannibal, no explanation of how he got this way could possibly satisfy; he is too far away from us. He just is a cannibal; he just is a terrorist. 

From here, I could move on to explain how I integrated these lessons into the villain in my own book, but it doesn't really interest me this morning. Instead, I'll leave you with an idea that I'd love to have contradicted by people who've read more graphic novels than me: Alan Moore genuinely hates humanity. I think he really believes that the human race is bad at the core. While redemption is a powerful idea for him, it doesn't seem to me that he really believes in it. Commissioner Gordon's plea for Batman to show the Joker that "our way works" made me laugh out loud in my bedroom last night. Give me a fucking break. The Joker won't ever see that, not ever, and Gordon is four goddamn years old if he actually believes his own words there. Alan Moore doesn't buy it either, if you ask me - the idealism of that panel was utterly out of step with the rest of the comic. It all seemed artificial, suddenly; all at once, it was obvious that I was reading a comic book. 

And finally, I'd like to note that every single panel of that comic was a spectacular work of art. Visually, it was completely arresting, more so than any graphic novel I've read. (Although I admit that's not saying much.) It reminded me of walking through a museum. Well done, all. 


DeAnna said...

Right. I'm not the biggest Batman fan/scholar, so this is just a WAG.

1) By the time of The Killing Joke, it was pretty widely accepted that the story of Batman was about a crazy guy trying to keep himself under control.

2) Also widely accepted, that Batman's enemies tended to represent the crazy side of his psyche, and none more so than Joker.

3) While I don't think the comics creators ever intended us to think that Joker was literally one of Bruce's alter egos, that would be kinda awesome.

4) Bruce isn't just some crazy guy, he's a crazy ubermensch.

5) Batman's villains, in one way or another, are also ubermensch, and tend to have a break with reality in some way, and it's that that makes them uber.

6) In the world of ubermensch, the greatest gift you can give someone is to make them ubermensch. (This comes from reading a semester's worth of Nietzsche in college.)

7) Why does Hannibal do what he does? Ubermensch, creating ubermensch. Why does Joker do what he does? Batman...almost an ubermensch. If only he would give up on this not killing people crap...

8) So the real question becomes, are there ubermensch? Or just crazy people?


Katharine Coldiron said...

I think we can take it as read that Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin. Certainly Moore does. But Batman's motivation is always clear, in that he never stops whining about his damn parents. The Joker's is less so. There's a long sequence in The Killing Joke where the Joker advances the idea that the best solution to human agony is to lose your mind, and you could argue that this is Bruce's solution, too. He can't solve the problems that plague him without putting on a suit and being a vigilante.

I like that you brought ubermensch into this, I think it's totally appropriate for a discussion of superheroes/villains. But it seems like you're saying that the Joker is more uber than Batman, in that he's willing to kill for his ideals and Batman isn't. And if we wanted to bring Rand along for the ride, I would argue that Hannibal is pretty much the ultimate Objectivist rather than an ubermensch.

I think it's possible to interpret uber as just crazy, "beyond" in a non-positive way.

Also, for what it's worth, I think Nietzsche was largely nuts.

Ian said...

Alan Moore doesn't just hate humanity; he hates everything with the fervor of a Jonathan Franzen.

Katharine Coldiron said...

I gather that's true in his personal life, but I've never been sure whether it's what he wants to get across in his writing.

BTW, I removed the comment below because it was a duplicate, not because it offended me. :)

Katharine Coldiron said...

On the phone with me, Matt noted that the audience of The Killing Joke can be presumed to have read all the previous Joker origin stories in other books, and the dialogue toward the end, where the Joker says sometimes he remembers it one way, sometimes another, is a wink to that. He also thinks it's possible that the proposed origin story here is actually a subtle and elaborate parody of origin stories in general. So I might have misinterpreted all that. I don't think it changes that much about this post, but I did think it was worth adding.

Denise said...

I can't comment much on the Batman-verse because I am woefully under-read in that area, though I now want to read The Killing Joke. Actually, I went to a Free Comic Book Day event yesterday and saw someone with a Dark Knight comic so I was already thinking about this. But what you said about Alan Moore hating humanity, and misogyny, did make me think of one thing. I've read a fair bit of horror, a lot of it King, but several years ago (maybe as an undergrad?) I read American Psycho. It is one of the only things I've read that really horrified me not (just) because of the events that happen but because of the mind that created it. If you have only seen the movie then I feel like you have not gotten the full picture. At times (and I haven't read the book since), I felt like the story, which is actually kind of cool, was just a platform for the author to put in words these inhuman ideas floating around in his head. I don't know much about the author, but I've seen a few interview quotes where he discusses how personal the book is to him, and it feels personal as a reader. I've talked to men who've read it and didn't find it more disturbing than other similar works, but as a woman reading it I felt... afraid. Almost more so than if it were a true story. I felt like, yeah, sure, this is fiction, but the mind that created this is real... and people shouldn't be able to harmlessly imagine something THIS awful. And I didn't think it was necessary in order to make the point that the book was making. So I conclude that Ellis creeps me the fuck out. As a person. It's partly the thing that you said about Hannibal-Ellis isn't nuts, so the idea that he can come up with these atrocities is that much scarier to me.

The Joker is such an awesome villain, and such fertile ground for all kinds of commentary about humanity. I'm looking forward to reading that issue and seeing how it comes across. In the Dark Knight movies (and don't get me wrong, I like them), I don't think they go so far as to make you doubt humanity, even though the story line of the Joker corrupting Dent is in the same vein as what you're talking about in the The Killing Joke. I feel like they mean for Batman to redeem the Joker ultimately (and Dent), and it sounds like that's a different feeling from what you get from Moore, as dark as the films are. I don't know that Hollywood would allow for anything darker. I'll be interested to see the comic!

Katharine Coldiron said...

(Is this Denise D. or Denise S.? I never thought I'd know two Denises who are both well-read and smart, but there we are...)

Do read The Killing Joke. One good thing about it is that it's almost a one-off in terms of length. It looms so large that I was surprised at how brief it is.

I don't like Ellis either. I've tried to read other work of his and have given up, and I've read excerpts of American Psycho only, not the whole book, but enough of it to know that I'm not interested. I feel the same way about Chuck Palahniuk - I read two books of his and decided that whatever he was saying, he wasn't saying it to me. It reminds me strongly of Saw and the whole torture porn subgenre; I really, really, really like horror movies, but I won't watch that stuff. It's needless depravity.

I'm gonna disagree with you and say that I think The Dark Knight is an exceptionally dreary vision of humanity, because although there are uncorruptible forces (Lucius Fox, Commissioner Gordon (despite his atrocious cruelty to his family), Bruce himself) at work, the most compelling character and storyline is the Joker, and he gives the audience the impression that he can't be defeated. I think the Dark Knight Joker is very, very different from the graphic-novel Joker, but I believe this idea carries nicely from one medium to the other. Also, Dent succumbs utterly, flipping from all good to all evil, like heads to tails; no middle-ground Batman-esque shit for Two-Face.

Which leads me what I think is Nolan's ultimate point, slightly but essentially distinct from Moore's: the world is a gray area, a pretty dark place with pretty dark ethics, even for people who are trying to do good. No Harvey Dent can abide for long without being blackened and defaced - and even if he can be redeemed later, he will always carry that corroded other within him. (For Moore, if my theory is right, Dent could never be redeemed, and any good-doing is fruitless against the inner rottenness of people.) This is a point that resonates deeply in post-9/11 America. It's a very big part of why The Dark Knight is such a successful piece of art, and why I think Superman is unlikely to catch on again for a really long time. Nothing about Superman is gray, and Batman is nothing but gray.

I also disagree that Batman has the capacity to reform and redeem the Joker. I don't think that's possible. Maybe I'm just accustomed to him as a villain, fixed in my idea of him as a bad-doer, but...I think he's irretrievable. I find it really interesting that you think he could be fixed. And you're totally right that he's fertile ground - but then so is all of this, so are superhero stories in general.

Jeez, could I be any wordier? Sorry!

Denise said...

Ahhh, I don't think that Batman can reform the Joker at all. I think that Batman redeems the Joker to society. Of course, as I said, I'm speaking only based on the film, but I feel like there were two pro-humanity points in the film's ending: 1) No one on the ferries goes through with blowing up the other one. They say some nasty things as they contemplate their own mortality, but I feel this is supposed to be a a feel-good moment, especially when the guy throws the detonator out the window. 2) Batman takes the fall for Harvey so that society can maintain faith in goodness. This is complicated, of course, because the public is being deceived. And it could be argued that they are only maintaining a complex illusion, pushing the revelation date (of darkness) further into the future, etc. But I felt like... Harvey is human and yes, we are all susceptible to darkness. And some people might be irredeemable if they give in to it. But that is different from saying that at the core we are all bad. I thought this was what you meant that Moore was portraying. I feel like by taking the fall for Harvey, Batman preserves humanity in Gotham... at least for the time being. I don't know, I'm really not well-versed in this. But the idea of Moore hating humanity...that's not what I got from Nolan so it struck me as a difference.

Denise said...

Sorry, I meant to say this is Denise D. And I wanted to say that I do agree that the film is dark, for all the reasons mentioned, and especially because of the grayness. I think considering it in a post 9/11 world is interesting and particularly relevant. I'm looking forward to the third one!

Katharine Coldiron said...

Oh, I see what you're saying. You have a really good point. I would quibble that Batman isn't in a position to redeem anybody to anything, but I'm not especially a fan of Batman's philosophy. And he's definitely the good opposite of the Joker, so yeah. Good call.

1) I tend to think the lesson of the ferries is somewhat darker - that sure, the Joker's ability to manipulate is not absolute, but more worryingly that normal people are much worse villains than are convicted criminals. The Joker's experiment failed, but it could just as easily have gone the other way, if you ask me. Kind of

2) True, but I see Batman as naive when he takes that action. Dent's corruption was inevitable and Batman's heroism turns on deception. Bruce gets smeared AGAIN, the poor schmuck. I've always thought that Batman was fighting a losing battle in Gotham, and you're spot-on when you say that he's preserving humanity in the city for the time being.

You're precisely right in what I think the difference is between Moore's vision and Nolan's. Moore has it that we're all bad at the core and are sometimes swayed by goodness (kind of the complete opposite of Christianity), and Nolan thinks the world is not one thing or another and that good is what ought to win. This is all in my opinion; my knowledge of Moore is far from complete and I still haven't seen Nolan's first movie.

Katharine Coldiron said...

On yr second comment, hi Denise! :) And it's funny that we're talking about this in such detail, as it's a movie that I don't actually enjoy. I'm not positive I'm going to see the third one in the theater. But that's a whole other conversation!