I’m not going to touch what happened in Colorado. It’s monstrous, and I have things I want to shout the same as everybody else. Shouting, though, is seldom wise and never calm, and wisdom and serenity are most important in the face of terrible acts.
So, to shift gears a bit and steer us away from the immediate and into the realm of the metaphorical (as is the wont and duty of every spec-fic writer), let us consider Superman and Batman. Of the two, Batman is much, much more popular. He has the best stories, the best writers, the best of everything. To call him ‘better,’ though, is to betray a cultural bias, not state a fact. Batman and Superman are poles on a spectrum of behavior. Their goals are identical, their heroic roles in society are similar, but their philosophical underpinnings are fundamentally at odds.
Criminals are, by nature, a superstitious, cowardly lot. To instill fear into their hearts, I became a bat. A monster in the night. And in doing so, have I become the very thing that all monsters become – alone.
All societies posit values through the heroes they idolize, and Batman is no different. If he is popular, it is because he scratches something we want scratched. So, what is that thing?
Batman is an avenger. He fights crime with terror. He responds to criminal threats with threats. He is the visceral, essential wish-fulfillment of a society which has lost hope in the goodness of its own societal framework. When you look at the news and recoil in horror at the terrible thing some jackass has done to someone else and you feel that deep, cold knot deep in your guts – that’s Batman. Batman would go and kick that guys ass. He’d break every bone is his goddamned body until he was weeping with terror and begging for mercy. And then, because Batman (because we) is the hero, he gives it to them. He gives it to them, though, with a promise: I’m letting you go, but if you ever…
Batman doesn’t mess around. He doesn’t pull punches. He doesn’t hold hands. He’s a regular guy who’s made himself superhuman by dint of his own personal obsessions, which is itself a perverse reflection of the American Dream. He devotes his massive wealth to populist causes, but we know and he knows and everybody knows that the real work to improve society happens on the street. That’s what we go to see – Batman making the people who terrify us quake in terror. His mania is our release; his story is stress relief for the modern urbanite who fears for their safety.
He’s also identifiable. He’s flawed, lonely, and mortal. We see ourselves in him more readily and wish to be him with more ease. His life seems at once idyllic and adventurous – wealthy, carefree playboy by day; courageous, brilliant hero by night. Every kid’s dream, right? Even once we grow up and see the cracks in Wayne’s psyche, we still find Batman’s life appealing. That says something about us. Something very important.
They can be a great people, Kal-El–they wish to be. They simply lack the light to show the way.For this reason above all – their capacity for good – I have sent them you… my only son.
~Superman, the Movie
Superman is different; Superman is not us. Superman is held to a higher standard than Batman. If Batman fails somehow, if corruption continues to spread despite his efforts, if he beats the Joker unconscious and the Joker lives to kill again, we accept this as part of Batman’s humanity. He doesn’t need to be perfect. Superman does and, to some extent, Superman is.
Superman’s the nice guy with the great physique and the gleaming smile who does the right thing, all the time. He works hard for little pay as a reporter, trying to tell people the truth. When he stops crime, there isn’t much fuss – they can’t stop him, they can’t harm him. He walks into the bank, bends the crooks’ guns in half, and marches them off to jail. He does this in plain sight; he is not frightening. He doesn’t use tools like terror or cruelty, even against those who deserve it. He smiles a lot. He’s chivalrous to women. He tells the truth.
Superman is not as popular as Batman, and it should come as little surprise that it is because of what Superman represents, ultimately, to the viewer. In Superman stories, it isn’t Superman who fails or makes mistakes. He is not culpable, morally or otherwise, in the terrors that afflict Metropolis. This is distinct from Batman who, as a wealthy person and a regular human being, is de facto embroiled in and responsible for the society in which he lives. The Kryptonian (and country farmboy) is not so tainted by the stains of humanity and the big city. He is a faultless paragon; if anyone has failed or made mistakes, it is us. While Batman holds up a shadowy mirror in which we may examine our own faults, Superman stands on a pedestal as an exemplum of what we ought to be.
Ironically, there is something harrowing about this. It’s all well and good to indulge in your darker side with Batman, but appeal to your lighter side? Ask you to do the right thing? Demand that you take the high road, like Superman does? We sneer at that. Some of you are sneering at that right now. “Oh, well, being good is so easy when you’re Superman!” you say, or “Superman doesn’t get dirty because the writers don’t let any dirt stick!” Well, maybe you’re right, or at least partially. The writers don’t let dirt stick to Superman, true, but expecting dirt to stick is simply cynicism. Superman sees in us something good and light and honorable and asks us to bring it out (it is not accidental, the Christian overtones in that quote I put up there). That’s hard work. That’s deeply dangerous thinking. Superman isn’t stress relief or visceral satisfaction, he is inspiration. He is a call to be better people.
It is telling to me that Batman is so much more popular than Superman. It isn’t just because Batman has had the better choice of talent (remember, the talent is attracted to his story, same as us), but also because we think we live in Batman’s world. We don’t have to, though, which is what Superman has been trying to tell us all these years. As a character created as a reaction to the Nazi brand of Fascism (which also built its power upon certain strategies Batman might recognize), he stands in direct opposition to visceral action as a result of that cold feeling in our guts. That feeling makes us love to escape into Batman, yes, but we mustn’t forget Superman, since his is the world and he the example that we all, ultimately, want to become.
Look, I understand that you’re just following orders, nameless army grunt, but do you honestly think that your little assault rifle is contributing to the situation in a positive way? Let me put it this way: I’ve been cowering behind this old Chevy for almost a full two minutes now, and I’ve watched you pump off, I don’t know, like a hundred rounds of ammunition into the giant, angry green monster over there, and do you know what you’ve achieved? Nothing. I ask you, how is the 101st bullet going to be any different?
You’re reloading? Again? What the hell is wrong with you? Stop! For the love of God, stop shooting the Hulk!
Do you even know the meaning of the word ‘bulletproof?’ Jesus, your buddies in the Apache Helicopter with the giant freaking Gatling gun didn’t hurt him, what the fuck do you think you’re going to accomplish? You’re just giving the freak some kind of long-distance shiatsu massage!
Oh…oh shit. He sees us. Oh crap oh crap oh crap. STOP with the fucking gun, asshole! What the FUCK is wrong with you?
Have you noticed that the more you shoot at him, the bigger he gets? You’re just pissing him off! Cut it out! I swear to God, if that big green fucker throws a trolley car through my ice cream shop just because you’re too fucking stupid not to quit while you’re ahead, I’m taking the yellow ribbons off my front door. No more care packages for you, dumbass.
HOLY SHIT! He just THREW A BUS at that other idiot over there! A BUS! What do you think you’re going to get? This isn’t Superman, buddy – he isn’t going to give you a stern scolding and deliver you to the local jail. He’s going to render your body two-dimensional beneath some massive projectile.
Seriously, you’re still shooting him?
You know what I think? I think you’re suicidal. That’s it. I think you want to die. What happened? Your wife leave you? Miss that promotion to Chief Goon? Find out you have terminal cancer? Look, maybe I can cheer you up, right? I do own an ice cream shop. You want a hot fudge sundae? Everybody gets cheered up by an ice cream sundae. Right?
Hey, what’s that shadow?
Oh…it’s a tank turret. In mid air. Shit.
If I live through this, I am totally suing somebody.
An acquaintance of mine, author Rich Steeves (check him out here), drew my attention on facebook to this post by comic writer Jim Shooter regarding violence, killing, and heroes. His overall thesis, in brief, is this:
My feeling is that each heroic character should be true to his core concept. Some few will not kill. Period. Most, I think, will kill in extremis. Some, of the new bad-boy “hero” ilk will kill when it is “fair” enough, but not really unavoidable. Some kill seemingly callously or carelessly. “It’s okay, they’re bad guys.”
Whether the characters at any particular level on the killing scale are “heroes,” I suppose, is up to the beholder. To me, the latter two categories might be protagonists, but aren’t heroes or heroic in my book. Doesn’t mean they aren’t legit protagonists, or can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done. Do them well, I say. True to their core concepts.
But be conscious of consequences.
I think this is both very true and something to keep in mind anytime we are writing about violence, heroic or otherwise, or even playing violent characters in RPGs. Killing–murder, by any other word – is a heavy and significant thing for a human being to undertake. It has weight – moral, psychological, perhaps even physical – and that weight ought to be taken into account.
If you’ve got a character who can blithely kill and then go about their business with no repurcussions, you are either dealing with a sociopath or someone who, through a variety of factors and psychological defenses, has somehow inured him or herself to the act. That’s a big deal from a characterization point of view. There are, of course, lots and lots of ways to interpret it, but I think forgetting about it or glossing it over is a bad idea. In the first place it portrays killing people as ‘no big deal’ – this isn’t true at all in the real world and, provided we are writing about worlds that are close parallels to the real thing, it should be the same in our own fantastic and speculative realms. In the second place, it’s lazy characterization. You mean your 18 year old protagonist just shot some gangsters with her father’s shotgun, and she’s not thinking about it afterwards? Really? It doesn’t have an effect on how she talks to people? How she feels about guns? How she feels about gangsters? Come on!
I very much agree with Shooter’s assertion that we must be aware of our characters’ ‘core concepts’. These kinds of things are easily violated or changed – the fundemental moral makeup of who you are isn’t under as much of your own control as you think. Yeah, Conan doesn’t give a damn how many fools he kills in bloody fashion – it doesn’t phase him. Do you know why? He has lived a life of constant hardship and pain and been forced to adapt. He is a damaged person, fundamentally. That doesn’t necessarily make him an evil man, or even perhaps keep him from being a hero (depending on your definition of heroism, naturally), but it is an aspect of his character we need to understand and appreciate. If we are portraying characters killing people, it’s something we, as writers, actors, players, or whatever else, really need to give some thought. If you ever want to see how it’s done, just look no further than Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven.
We all have it coming. Think about that.