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.