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No Stranger to Fiction: Bird On A Wire

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Wednesday, May 5, 2010
A Word In Your Ear: Burton's revolutionary use of the superhero as metaphor for the tormented artist continues to impact our culture, event today.
Tim Burton's 1989 adaptation of Batman introduced the notion of the superhero as metaphor for both the celebrity and the tortured artist.

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky.
And as I wonder where you are,
I’m so lonesome I could cry.
—Hank Williams (1923-1953), “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”


There are millions who know his name
Everybody loves him.
Why is it that he feels so alone?
Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise crazy
Just be glad it’s him, not you.
If you had Tom Cruise’s troubles
You might be Tom Cruise crazy, too.
You’d flash your big white shiny smile
And buy expensive shoes
But you’d be the only man on Earth who couldn’t enjoy Tom Cruise.
—Jonathan Coulton (1970-present), “Tom Cruise Crazy”


Growing up in oppressive suburban America, Tim Burton felt trapped. And in a place filled with nothing but white picket fences protecting white houses filled with white families, what creative individual wouldn’t? It’s no wonder, then, that the acclaimed auteur of such films as Big Fish and Ed Wood found himself struggling with depression, fighting to escape from the box suburbia attempted to trap him in.


It’s a theme inherent in most of his work; in his retelling of Planet of the Apes, the astronaut Leo Davidson finds himself in a backwards society, trapped by those who would make him a slave as he attempts to return to his homeworld. The recent Alice in Wonderland subverts gender expectations of your usual Burton film—and for the period in which it takes place—as young Alice Kingsley rejects British customs and instead decides to make her own way in the world, taking what most people of the time would consider a man’s job.
  
Finally, there’s Batman, the story of a depressed loner isolated in his hometown whose life has led him down an unexpected path where he has to constantly be one step ahead of the rest of the world, lest he be imprisoned and trapped forever behind the bars and fences of a local Asylum, there to waste away and spend the rest of his days trapped in the box society crafted for him.
 
This analysis of Burton’s work is nothing new, especially as it was cemented when Ed Wood hit theaters back in 1994, making the comparison obvious and palpable for even the most unschooled cinematic layman. However, Burton’s work with the character of Batman has created an indelible link between comics and their depiction of modern celebrity, and all the expectations that come with both topics.


Warren Zevon: Talent thrust him into the cultural limelight

Warren Zevon: Talent thrust him into the cultural limelight


Depression, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, nervous breakdowns and various stress disorders are all commonplace in those who have found their place in the spotlight. Some have sought the spotlight to fill some sort of emptiness in their souls or simply because they want to be professionally famous; some, like Warren Zevon (who suffered from OCD) and Bela Lugosi (a drug addict), found themselves famous because of their natural talents. Whether they liked it or not, that level of celebrity came with certain expectations, certain requirements, and not everything can be wiped away with a simple shout of the word “Cut”.


Like many celebrities, comics characters have been prone to this almost from their inception. Over the years, Bruce Wayne’s mental illness and single-mindedness has been portrayed in a variety of ways by many different authors, with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, disassociative identity disorder and megalomania being evident in different tales. The Russian X-Man Colossus dealt with unimaginable grief following the death of his sister Illyana, even going so far as to leave his home with the X-Men to join Magneto’s Acolytes before eventually sacrificing his life to rid the world of the disease that killed his “little snowflake”.


Unprepared for fame, Bela Lugosi went on to define an era, and a genre

Unprepared for fame, Bela Lugosi went on to define an era, and a genre


The various characters found in less mainstream fare have their own real-world issues to deal with, brought on not by personal superpower-related grief or traumatic origins stories, but by simply wanting to change the world(s). Sometimes due to an unhealthy obsession with the failures of the past (the title character in Jeff Smith’s RASL), sometimes keep the carefully constructed fabricated reality they’ve created safe for those around them (almost everyone in David Lapham’s Young Liars, but especially Danny). Sometimes characters even lie to themselves for the entirety of their professional lives in order to help them sleep at night until it became patently obvious the lying has to end (Agent Graves in Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets). These are all characters who have had to suffer through tremendous stress, where much was expected of them, and they were all either so driven by their own talents, desire or hubris that they failed to see (or if they saw, admit) where their lives took the wrong turn until it was far too late.


Daredevil Distraught: The death of his longtime lover throws Matt Murdock's life into disarray

Daredevil Distraught: The death of his longtime lover throws Matt Murdock’s life into disarray


The relationship between comics and celebrity only intensified following the Burton/Batman “coincidence”; in 2003, recovering alcoholic Ben Affleck suited up as the traumatized Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, in Mark Steven Johnson’s film adaptation of the Man Without Fear. Oddly enough, around that time period, writer Brian Michael Bendis posited, through Foggy Nelson, that Daredevil had had a nervous breakdown following the events of Kevin Smith’s now-famous “Guardian Devil” storyline and just didn’t realize it. Not long ago, Robert Downey Jr., himself a recovering addict, signed on to portray Iron Man, well-known for his bouts with alcoholism and brief flirtation with cocaine use. Downey Jr.‘s contract would run multiple pictures for Marvel Studios, including two films in 2008 (Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk), as well as reprising the role in this year’s Iron Man 2 and 2012’s The Avengers. Incidentally, he also tackled the role of the famous junkie detective in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes last year, and was briefly linked to playing alcoholic Elwood P. Dowd in a remake of Harvey.


Demon In A Bottle: After going three sheets to the wind, Tony Stark attempts to trim back the sails.

Demon In A Bottle: After going three sheets to the wind, Tony Stark attempts to trim back the sails.


Before a fairly well-received retcon, it appeared Hal Jordan, like Magneto before him, had become so overrun with guilt and grief that his brain chemistry changed to the point where he became an entirely different person, unrecognizable from he who came before.


Filmmaker Roman Polanski suffered the same formative horror as the fictional Magneto

Filmmaker Roman Polanski suffered the same formative horror as the fictional Magneto


Like Hal, Roman Polanski’s home was violated and his friends and family murdered by lunatics who he himself could not control. Like Magneto, Polanski’s parents perished in a concentration camp. While one would be fantastically hard-pressed to forgive Polanski’s accused actions, fans, creators and characters have forgiven both Magneto and Hal Jordan. Yes, two of them are fictional and one of them stands convicted of a very real crime, but that double-standard is one of the very few defining characteristics between real-life celebrity and the pressures of fictional fame. Magneto once led the X-Men and Hal Jordan has, as Green Lantern, saved the universe countless times. Polanski never assassinated an invading alien queen or rescued the President from a lunatic with a jetpack, and that makes all the difference.


Fiction can only reflect real life so much before the comparisons start to fall away. In some cases, in this particular regard, the line blurs and becomes thinner than the eye can see. In others, it’s as thick as the Book of Destiny.


No matter what, it’s important to keep the humanity of others in mind, and that’s what fiction reminds us…especially when it’s crafted by people who have been crushed by the pressures of not just fame, but reality. Ask Tim Burton. Ask Warren Zevon. Ask Magneto. Ask Colossus.


Ask yourself.

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