In Catwoman and Cleopatra: Inkblots of an Age, I touched briefly on Frank Miller’s take on Catwoman and what it said about his—and the culture that accepts his portrayal’s—view of women. I didn’t touch on the rest of the story: his portrayal of heroes and what that says about him (and us if we play along). I had written on that previously, for they are very much connected in my mind, but with The Dark Knight Rises in production, my focus for “Inkblots” was entirely on Catwoman.
I’ve been regretting that all day.
Like a lot of Americans, I stayed up a little later Sunday night after President Obama’s address announcing that Osama bin Laden had at last been found and killed. The morning has brought some… very interesting moments.
Moment 1: Facebook
Norm Breyfogle, one of the true agents provocateurs of the comics world, wrote very simply in his Facebook status: “Oh. So?” I think it struck me because it came only a few days after the royal wedding which had a lot of Facebook action of the “Why do you care?” “What’s it to you?” variety. It’s a good question, because unlike William and Catherine, the gravitas of the event is self-evident. The man personified an ideology of hate and violence that holds no regard for human life or human dignity. He orchestrated the murder of 3,000 Americans on 9-11, and thousands more in bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, attacks in Bali, Jakarta, Casablanca, Riyadh, Istanbul, and the U.S.S. Cole. There is no question in anyone’s mind why this is the headline on every newspaper in the country today. But “Oh. So?” isn’t asking why it’s a headline, it is asking what that headline means to you. Any time an event has captured everyone’s attention and is the focus of so many people’s thoughts at the same time, it’s a good idea to ask why. It’s not belittling them for their interest; it’s pausing for thought and examining why is this news is important to me.
Moment 2: Cable News
So this morning I got up and turned on the television still tuned to MSNBC from the night before. I saw Joe Scarborough coaching some Wall Street commentator on an appropriate human response to the news. The guy had been going on about how oil and gold were down, and he didn’t know if that news would be any different if bin Laden hadn’t been killed. “Wall Street is about money,” you see, and “bin Laden didn’t have a big effect on that.” I was reminded of a Law & Order: Criminal Intent with Detective Goren describing a sociopath who had no actual human emotions so he was always “flipping through an emotional Rolodex, searching for the socially appropriate response” to simulate. Scarborough painted a nice picture for this guy, reminding him that those working on Wall Street lived and worked very close to Ground Zero, many lost friends and colleagues in the attacks, and that this event had great significance for those aspects of the human experience that are, oh you know, not tied to the price of gold.
It was, frankly, a pretty disturbing snapshot of the utter social, economic, and political dysfunction that has crippled this country for the last decade. I’m not saying we were Shangri-La on September 10, but anyone who pretends that the polarization, irrationality, and batshit insanity of the last 10 years is business as usual for the USA—or that it’s strictly a function of cable news and social media and has absolutely nothing to do with that September morning that brought such hate into the forefront of our consciousness—I’m sorry, those people are firmly stuck in Stage One Denial. I know it’s bad form to rush anyone through their coping process, but I’m sorry, after 10 years, it is way past time to move on and face the reality: America has been hurting. For a long time now. 9-11 hurt us, and pain finds avenues of expression… and a lot of them aren’t good. We’ve been losing our f-ing minds for nearly 10 years now, to the point where a guy on a national news program needs to be coached through an appropriate human reaction to the fact that Osama bin Laden is dead.
I’m not a psychologist, and I can’t say with any certainty if the criminal greed that nearly wrecked the world economy is a direct result of that triumph of hate on 9-11. I can’t say for certain that the glamorization of ignorance is, or the corruption or the religious mania or any of it. I do know that we weren’t born this way. Sociopathy is very rare in humans and there just aren’t enough naturally occurring amoral monsters to staff all the corporations, news networks, political action committees, etc. that have taken over the national discourse.
Maybe, just maybe, this will give us the closure we need to pull ourselves together and remember our shared humanity, that we are, as Dickens said, “fellow-travellers to the grave and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
Moment 3: The Morning Email
The good folks who email me regularly think a lot about heroes, super- and the other kind. They think a lot about what it means to have the courage of your convictions, to stand up for what you believe and to take a stand against what you feel is wrong, to give of yourself to make the world a better place. So I woke up to a good few messages pondering if it’s ever really kosher to be celebrating the death of another human being. Now, I don’t claim to be a moralist, a philosopher, or a great social thinker. I can only say that, in my opinion, if any of the four billion people on this planet renounced the right to that consideration, it was bin Laden. If there is anyone who renounced that status as “another human being,” that’s the guy.
For me, the Hero Narrative in all this comes down to another of those commentators on MSNBC this morning. There was a lot of talk about kids who have grown up in a post 9-11 world. The one thing that struck me was this one woman who said: Now we can teach them “bad guys get caught.”
In her brilliant satire “How To Write Suckitudinous Fiction,” Holly Lisle lists the tenets of what I call Millerism: a world of no true heroes, no real villains, where all is moral relativism, shades of gray, and toxic levels of pretentious nihilism. If we examine her commandments for creating those hero-less worlds of hopeless and despair, we’ll see bin Laden’s story violates most if not all. In other words, in violating those Millerist commandments, it fulfills all of the requirements for a true hero tale:
Item: Bad guys get caught. There’s no relativism here. Osama bin Laden was truly a bad guy. Sometimes there is a right and a wrong, a Good and an Evil, and orchestrating mass murder gets you that capital E. Without 9-11, mainstream comics still would have realized eventually they were marching to a dead end under that banner of No Real Heroes and Dystopia for All. Stories of heroes are universal and timeless, from Gilgamesh to Star Wars. They’re what we do as a species. We make up these stories to explain ourselves to ourselves, and those stories celebrate what we can achieve and what we aspire to be. “People suck” tends to play for very short spurts in very specific social climates, usually when we’re approaching zeroes at the end of a decade, century or millennium. Hm. The return to heroism and hope is our way. It’s what we do. We make sense of our world and we persevere. We chronicle what we have learned in these stories. Comics would have learned as all their predecessors did, but the emergence of such absolute and undeniable villains—and heroes—that emerged from 9-11 has certainly sped up the lesson. (So did their standard bearer declaring that what drove him nuts about the industry was “Crying Fireman comics.” Nah, he has no problem with heroes. No sir, not a one… But I digress.)
Item: The bad guy was caught because somebody caught him. I’m not going to go through every one of Lisle’s commandments, but I do want to highlight the one on self-determination. Because one of the other things mentioned about those “kids” who came of age on 9-11 was how many joined the military, how many of our troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq joined because of the September 11 attack, and what validation this victory brings to them. “Self-determination states that things could be better than they are, and believes the individual can do something to make them get better. In permitting your characters to express self-determination, you would be suggesting that your characters—those malcontent bastards—might in some way wish to see their worlds improve, or might even take a hand in improving them, or might have confidence in their own competence or the functioning of their own minds.”
As much as we have been divided about the wars in the Middle East, the one thing that left and right have held together on is support of the brave and extraordinary men and women who joined—who were not drafted, but made a conscious choice to use those precious early years of their lives risking their lives—because they recognized an Evil and wanted to fight it. There is simply no finer example of why we revere heroes in all cultures and in all ages—it is that impulse, that motivation to give of yourself to make the world better.
It’s not psychosis, it’s not a psychotic obsession made of anger and hate. The soldier and airman, like the fireman—and like the Batman they both read about when they were 12—dare to think the world can be better and that they can play a part in making it better.
Daring to think you can make a difference and then daring to do it. Maybe you don’t approve of the way they chose to go about it, but the motivation behind the act is what makes us better today than we were yesterday.
There is plenty for the Advocates of Heroism to take from the news that after almost 10 years, Osama bin Laden was hunted down and ended. “Shot in the eye” might not be a phrase most of us are comfortable with, but it is a story of Good versus Evil, of perseverance, self-determination, and of hope.
Hm… Hope. Maybe I’ll let Holly get the last word on that. For the aspiring Suckitudinous Writer:
“Thou shalt mock hope as plebian. Hope implies improvement—things getting better, people triumphing. Hope is a sneaky way of saying that everything ISN’T relative, and we mustn’t have that.”