The Villain With a Thousand Faces

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Aurora.

As I’m sure I’m not the first to point out, it could be the code name of a superhero, or a remote planet on which garish battles take place.

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But as we all know, it’s nothing so distant. It’s the name of a town where, as movie patrons settled themselves into their bucket seats, popcorn in hand, a tragedy unfolded.

The psycho next door? Aurora shooting suspect James Eagan Holmes.

So much has been written about it-now-charged shooting suspect James Eagan Holmes‘ motives examined and taken apart, his background combed through (“he was a loner,” they all said), the crime analyzed, the victims given voice, Christian Bale visiting people in hospitals-that there is no more to report. A man entered a movie theater, the place where we all sit down to be entertained, our appetites whetted for a summer blockbuster, and opened fire, killing a dozen and injuring five times that many.

This is to be a column about comics, graphic novels, and visual storytelling-not observations on current events, no matter how significant. But this incident is tied to ideas from comics books, and goes to the root of what they sometimes say about our culture and our times.

We all know this: superheroes are core to an American sensibility; comics, as a medium, are a uniquely American art form. Analogs from elsewhere, however inventive (like manga in Japan), are unquestionably descended from the groundbreaking work dating back to the 1920s and 30s by American cartoonists, superhero creators, and Walt Disney. Yes, you could argue that all of mythical literature, from any culture, is about the super-something, and illustrated stories go back a long way before the establishment of America (more on this in future columns).

But there is something unarguably American about the idea-taken apart artfully in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, to name just one-that we all can (and should) have aspirations to superheroism, to believe in “truth, justice, and the American way.” That you could be a a misfit, an alien, an orphan, or a freak, and that you would still have a way to be a hero, something greater. That, in fact, your differences may empower you to defend and protect, and that to do so would be noble and good, that your generosity might even be hidden behind a bland, unassuming secret identity.

Holmes’ alter ego: Batman supervillain The Joker, portrayed by Heath Ledger in the first Dark Knight film.

Yet, as the movie Unbreakable posited, you can’t have a hero without a villain; both are defined by a contrast against the other. Holmes is, in our reality, obviously mentally ill, his identification with Batman supervillain The Joker the product of a deranged psyche, a psychotic break. In his reality, inasmuch as we may know it or imagine what could drive him to do such a terrible thing, something else made sense somehow and he carried out his act.

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We live in dark, jumbled, confusing times. Our society struggles to keep up with advancements in technology, communication, and other forces beyond our control-in many cases, for most of us, beyond our awareness or grasp. We’re pushed ever faster in directions that will only be apparent as future historians pick through it all and make sense of it for us.

Is it any wonder that one of the first responses to this terrible tragedy was the hatching of a hundred conspiracy theories? What else can one do when confronted with such senselessness-against a neatly delineated canvas such as The Dark Knight mythos, no less, filled with ultra-violent images of good and evil fighting above our heads and above the law-other than develop myths to explain it all.

This same twitch occurred when Gabrielle Giffords was shot, and after 9/11, and many other tragedies that laid bare the fact that human beings are capable of great good and great evil, so much so that the artificial distinction between those two things is incontrovertibly hollow and meaningless. As I researched the material for my series of graphic novellas based on Malay folklore, I noted with fascination that supernatural visitations in that culture were reported most of all at points of interface, around events in which a society was put under some type of unendurable strain, like colonial brutality, urbanization, or a painful birth into the modern era. The belief in evil creatures and dark phenomena among Malay people is absolute, a necessary underpinning of looking at the world as a patchwork of light and dark forces. In my stories, I make the monsters literal so that one can see where and why they proliferate.

This gives me license to explore a very challenging idea: that the secondary horror of incidents like the Aurora shooting is that any one of us might be driven to despicable acts, if some madness touched us or if our ideas, our closely-held truths, were bent just a little this way or that. And so we shore up this idea of a hidden evil working against the good we all claim to know and cherish. But the world doesn’t really offer us these conveniences. We see this in political proclamations about “freedom,” so lacking in nuance. One day’s hero (and Holmes qualifies, in an everyday sort of way, as a young man of significant promise that everyone described as likable) can become the next day’s villain-or supervillain. These masks conceal the plasticity of such concepts, and their true irrelevance, as formless abstractions, in the harsh reality of our society.

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The adolescent fantasies that are so gratified, especially in boys, by good guys and bad guys battling it out in spandex (or in pixellated camouflage), can sometimes grow up to become Jared Egan Holmes. There is a bitter and inescapable irony in the fact that the body count of The Dark Knight Rises (or, for that matter, any action movie or blockbuster) far exceeds what took place in the theater beneath the screen in the town of Aurora, one in reality and the other in myth.

One of my favorite quotes is from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

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“Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have one before us, the labyrinth is fully known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

But not all make the journey with companions: they traverse other labyrinths, and emerge, alone, in darker places. Not everyone is released into a wider world after the confrontation with the beast at the center of the maze, as in Campbell’s reference to the myth of Theseus and the minotaur. Taking the full journey is not compulsory, and heroism is not the only end point. Mazes are, after all, more about getting lost than coming through.

Campbell spent some time looking into boogeymen, demons, and villains too, not just heroes, examining our projections of evil and how we represent it. Tom Hardy in a metal mask is just one incarnation. For one lunatic, at a midnight screening in Aurora, and in whatever moments that preceded the carefully planned slaughter, the world took on a starkly mythological cast, and a brutal crime became a sort of calming poetry, something that ordered other things not so easily understood.

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Writing about the dragging on of the Cold War, that time that bred a hundred superheroes and villains through which we expressed our fears about nuclear annihilation (in those days, cartoons exhorted kids to “duck and cover” if they saw the bomb descending; today, PSAs say “RUN. HIDE. FIGHT.” if an “active shooter” enters your workplace), Arthur C. Clarke said:

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For we have already met Darth Vader-and he is us.

Let us hope that treatment for Holmes can be accompanied by a bit of reflection about our own society, our own collective sanity, and why we must create these angels and monsters to express the battles that go on within us all.