Fear and Low Things in Aurora: The Dark Knight Also Rises

Act One: Bat Country

It’s somewhere on the seventh or eighth or 18th lap on this circuit of shameless fear and heavy metal-rage inspired, deeply nihilistic stupor that I finally manage to goad myself into some kind of action. In an airport terminal, an unremittingly, over-capitalized, hyper-commercial one no less, east of the Greenwich Meridian is no place to hear the news about Aurora. The “shameless fear” is not fear for my own safety, but it is a human heart reaching out to the people of Aurora, Colorado. The metal-inspired stupor is all I can do to numb myself against what I already know the fallout is going to be — armies of talking heads will be claiming their collective chatter is some manner of measured, thoughtful response. They will help Us As a People deal with the tragedy. Things will really get bad when the candidates will drag their campaigns into this sordid odyssey. They will possibly issue statements around gun violence. They will maybe shift their campaigns maybe, reminding us all that they’ve always come out strongly against gun violence, and strongly for gun control. They may even suspend any actual campaigning in the state of Colorado, and that’s when you’ll know it’s time to break open the Good Whiskey and wait for the ICBM’s to come flying.

Here I am then, watching Aurora continue to unfold on CNN. Although it’s just about an hour into things on the ground in Colorado, it’s much, much later in the day here. The huddled predawn of the images, the familiar cherry lights of the emergency vehicles and the muted headlights that cut into the dark that’s settled over the Rockies, but cut only so much, creates a garish cognitive dissonance with the bright sunlit Ikea-esque-one-bistro-fits-all-airport-terminals cafe that I’m sitting in. This is no mass event. There’s no stunned silence and large groups of people watch public televisions in stunned silence. This no reckoning with this event in the kinds of terms a ’50s scifi invasion movie (Red Scare movies, most of them really) would have been comfortable with. For the most part everyone here seems to be locked into a kind of Sartrerian Hell-is-other-people mode — each of us locked into their own private lives, but in a shared public place. I’m the only one in this terminal who’s watching the TV screens unflinchingly. Others look up from their food or their magazines or their lovers intermittently. This is no way to get this kind of news.

I’ve been here before. Been here to this actual airport. But also been here to this psychic withering, to this grief-cycle of shameless fear and simultaneous nihilistic stupor. I’ve wanted to self-obliterate before, self-obliterate through the very act of screaming. I remember that time clearly. It was in Germany, right after a conference-mandated trip to one of the Camps. The Hungarian girl had been very clear; there were work camps and death camps, and that this had been a death camp. I remember fighting back the urge to vomit into my soul. Not because of what had happened during the War, but because of what was happening now. It felt more and more like the Allies may have won the War, but Germany got the rights. All I could do to resist the looming terror was turn up the volume on my then newly-purchased iPod (a 1st-gen iPod), and play the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” until my brain physically shrank.

There’ll be no escape from the events of Aurora in that safe predictable way today, or maybe ever. No escape into popculture, not half a world a world, not half a day later. There’ll be no escape because the very methods I’d once used to simply evade the impending-ness of the ugly that the Camps now present, is unavailable to me as it is to us all. Very soon, what the louder-louder culture of professional commentators will circle back on is the very idea that ideas themselves are dangerous. It’s the same fear and loathing that fueled “social crusader” Frederic Wertham to pen Seduction of the Innocent in the ’50s. It’s the same fear and loathing that led to Senate gaveling in the Juvenile Delinquency Hearings. And the very same fear and loathing that would see comics needing to self-censor to simply continue to exist.

Make no mistake here, sooner or later, someone, will push not for tighter gun control but for tighter cosplay control. These ideas are powerful, we’ll be reminded. They’ve held us in their thrall for generations now. And we’ll agree to that easily but that initial agreement will only build our burgeoning habit of agreement. Then that same someone will remind us that it’s a slippery slope, that the best way is to offer a measured response by controlling outer manifestations of this idea. And then they’ll have us. That idea will spark something and then catch alight. And looking down the line and seeing this in the offing, I know reading the full set of Batman R.I.P. that I’d brought along on this trip to “prep” for Rise (the full set including the concluding chapter penned by @NeilHimself, the two-parter “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?”) just wouldn’t be enough. Wouldn’t even be available to me. And that very moment of that realization, I immersed myself in that infinite circuit of shameless fear and nihilistic stupor.

It’s only some seven or eight or 18th laps later that I manage to crawl into some reasonable facsimile of human capacity again, and begin to reach for things outside my immediate grasp. Self-obliterating’s not going to cut it this time. What’s called for is some shelter, some literary rallying point where I can hole-up and begin to mount the counteroffensive. What I really need now is something the scope of HST’s The Great Shark Hunt. Unfortunately, I’ve only brought along Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. I read word by word and page by page and there’s a magnificent drumbeat pulling me onwards. I make it only a couple of pages before I hit the first Steadman drawing, the one of the gawky teenager in that Mickey-Mouse-with-a-Swastika tee. Right then I’m possessed of the strangest thought. Had Art Spiegelman seen this image? Had this been the secret impetus behind his Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus?

And that’s when the first ray of hope for an actual counteroffensive against the louder-louders actually shone through. The idea that ideas themselves are a kind of currency. That even if Steadman had been the impetus for Spiegelman, this does nothing to disavow the power of Maus or indeed of Spiegelman’s creativity. Just like Raoul Duke swatting at the mescaline-induced bats that only he can see, Aurora really is breaking through the weighty fog that scans at first as the Dissolution of the American Dream; breaking through to another, higher level. Aurora, now, really is bat country.

Act Two: The Price of Admission

No one’s admitting anything. DC’s site’s been frozen, possibly rightly so, since last Thursday. The Batman creators, the current crop of popculture visionaries (and make no mistake, they are, each of them, visionaries) will not be offering any comment, partly because what is there to say at this point? That the what played out in the Centennial State over he course of this last week is abhorrent. That movies don’t kill people, and superheroes definitely don’t kill people. That Batman himself, having lost his parents to an unspeakable act of gun violence, has made a solemn, lifetime vow against firearms.

That last comment might get us a little closer to the deep, unspoken core of the issue at the heart of Aurora–that as inspirational as Batman is, it’s also aspirational. And that Batman itself, the idea of Batman, does nothing to assuage the darker aspirations of the more psychotic among us. The ugly, unpalatable idea that deep down, Batman might actually be somehow to blame. And who would want to admit to that? The very high, unthinkable price of that admission would mean the wholesale undoing of decades of popular culture.

But of course that’s exactly the kind of Lincoln Logs logic we’re up against. Tis the kind of argument that when apprehended objectively makes perfect sense. It seems palatable, acceptable, and we’re reasonable for accepting it. But simply accepting this kind of thinking, allowing it to enter and take root, is like the setting of an infinite sun. This argument is the very darkness even now settled around Aurora and settled over this nation as a whole. This is the horror story that’s twinned with freedom speech, one the Founding Fathers, particularly Jefferson, struggled with all their lives.

And it’s that very idea that Alan Moore was struggling against when formulated so beautifully that ending to Saga of the Swamp Thing’s most poignant issue “By Demons Driven”; “What are men, but chariots of rage, by demons driven…” writes so very movingly. And with those words he offers the idea that by strengthening our own resourcefulness, rather than expanding our resources, we can build our own culpability. That we can become, in every real sense of the word, responsible. That we can have a kind of ownership of our own destinies, rather than simply cast ourselves as objects for unfathomable forces.

If nobody from DC Entertainment or nobody directly associated with Batman as an idea is making any comment at exactly the same moment when the louder-louders are more vocal than ever, it’s not out of any sense of having stalled, or being frozen, rather it’s out of a sense of responsibility. Of having built in the world, built through the resources of popular culture the capacities to make choices, to take decisions, to take action. And live in a world of handmade consequences.

Obviously nobody at DC Entertainment or nobody directly or even indirectly associated with Batman as an idea is in anyway to blame for the actions of one lone gunman in a multiplex in Colorado. DC’s silence and the silence of the current generation of visionary creators writing out this current ideation of Batman isn’t a silence in the face of the actions of Jim Holmes or a silence in the face of the tragedy experienced by the citizens of Aurora. DC’s silence and the silence of the Batman creators is a silence turned against ongoing media hype, against the louder-louder culture that will comment tirelessly and that has already begun to identify the Aurora tragedy as a failing of ideas.

And this is of course, patently not the case. It’s not that the idea of Batman has failed, or even the idea of popculture that’s failed. To say in all seriousness, as some louder-louders already have (they’re not worth being mentioned here), that what’s needed is greater control of the outward symbols of ideas is to misapprehend the problem at its very DNA. Because if what’s needed is greater cosplay control, then the story is about Jim Holmes. And the story of Aurora, Dear Reader, simply isn’t about one lone gunman. The story here is about how nine-year olds and 12-year-olds and their friends and their families came to be victims in the first place.

It’s not a story about you or why you were lining up to The Dark Knight Rises at a midnight “prerelease” screening. You would have seen it anyway. I know you would have because, and correct me if I’m wrong here, didn’t we speak for the longest time standing in line at ComicCon? Waiting to get our stash signed by Scott Snyder or Gregg Hurwitz? You and I, we were going to see the final Batman movie anyway, come what may. Aurora isn’t our story.

Aurora is the story of Marybeth and Joelle, who work in your office. Who stand on the cusp of an amazing adventure–shepherding the next generation towards the point where they can begin to form their own opinions. Sadly, they’re swayed by the arguments of pressure groups like One Million Moms who argue that casting Green Lantern Alan Scott as gay would negatively impact the “moral character” of their sons. So Marybeth and Joelle, first time mothers that they are, trepidatious as they are, steer clear from controversy. But Marybeth and Joelle are the same moms who will brave the cold and the dark of nighttime in the Rockies, standing in line to see the Dark Knight rise because in the last movie Batman sacrificed more than his life to save the people of Gotham, the last time, he sacrificed his good name.

The story of Aurora, the real story of Aurora isn’t the story of psychotic action. Jim Holmes will not inscribe himself into this. I will simply not allow it, and neither will you. Because the real story of Aurora is the story of how those children and their parents came to be in that theater at that time.

Act Three: Getting Batman Beyond

How do we get beyond this? How do we reclaim the idea of popculture?

Right now we don’t. Right now our hearts and our hopes are with the community of Aurora. But in a little while, some time from now, we’ll be able to return Hemingway, and we’ll be able to carry with us those who might wish rather to fall. To what Hemingway wrote in The Old Man and the Sea; that the world breaks everyone, and that after, many are strong in the broken places.

One week on now, and I’ve watched Jane McGonigal’s beautiful TEDtalk almost ceaselessly since 4am this morning. My QuickTime player you see, comes with loop. Jane is a bright, energetic mind, that you can tell reaches out into the world around her and shapes it in exactly the way popular culture allows for us to be able to do. And she is a tireless advocate of videogames.

She begins her talk referencing the top five regrets of the dying, then guides us through the scientific literature to show how videogames counteract the basis for those regrets. “You might be wondering,” she bridges in the early middle of her talk, “who is this game designer to be talking to us about deathbed regrets”. Then there’s the longest pause in the history of our species and the weight of all the world comes crashing in as she answers her own question. “And it’s true I’ve never worked in a hospice, I’ve never been on my deathbed. But recently I did spend three months in my bed, wanting to die. Really wanting to die.”

Jane’d suffered concussion some two years prior, she tells us. One that she never quite healed properly from. Part of the cure was rest. And withdrawing from stimulation of any kind. No caffeine, no alcohol, no writing, no reading, no games. She goes on to described the torment that ensued. “Suicidal ideation is quite common with brain injury,” Jane continues, “It happens to one in three. And it happened to me. My brain started telling me, ‘Jane, you want to die.’ It said, ‘You’re never going to get better.’ It said, ‘The pain will never end.’ And these voices became so persistent and so persuasive that I started to legitimately fear for my life.”

But that’s not the end of Jane’s story. When staring down suicidal thoughts she decides to save herself by constructing a game. The simplest of roleplaying games to harness the reward-gratification cycle inherent in all games. She tells us “But even with a game so simple, within even just a couple of days starting to play, the fog of depression and anxiety went away. It just vanished, it felt like a miracle. Now it wasn’t a miracle cure for the headaches and the cognitive symptoms. That lasted for more than a year, and it was the hardest year of my life by far. But even when I still had the symptoms, even while I was still in pain, I stopped suffering”.

The key that Jane had unlocked was the same one Hemingway guessed at in his novel. That “the world breaks everyone and after, some are strong in the broken places.” That trauma, just sometimes, is an invitation to live in a higher place. That far too rare a thing is not post-traumatic stress disorder, but post-traumatic growth. That after, some of us are “strong in the broken places”.

And what is post-traumatic growth other than what Batman-writer Grant Morrison calls “the miracle on Crime Alley”? What is post-traumatic growth if not a young boy who rises from the sad graveyard of unimaginable tragedy and through discipline and focus masters himself and builds an idea that will simply eclipse that personal trauma, and prevent that horror from ever being reenacted.

A week ago now and I’m in one of the great interminable places our civilization has on offer for us. The logic of airport terminals is a cold and postmodern one. It is the idea that interstitial spaces are also interminable. That there is an unendingness to being in-between. It is a lesson that can only be fully comprehended after the Occupiers took Wall Street, only after a decade or so in Iraq.

In the terminal, just waiting, I reach for Neil Gaiman’s magnificent Death of the Batman story, “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” I don’t know it at the time, but this will be the end of possibly the most important Iconographies I’ll write this year. “Whatever Happened to…” is a hard story to get into at first. Hard because it’s so usual. This is Gaiman playing to genre, it’s a spirit-Batman attending his own funeral. Something we’ve see play out before in Batman. Something we’ve seen Gaiman already do to much greater gravity in Sandman: The Wake.

But word by word and page by page I take in the stories of the Batman. Each contradicts the next. Sometimes there’s no Batman, no Joker at all, just poor delusional Bruce, grief-stricken at the loss of his parents, playacting with Alfred. Sometimes Batman dies saving millions. Sometimes it’s a small and anonymous death. I read all these contradictory eulogies presented at the funeral of Batman and I wonder why. And then comes the thought I’d completely forgotten.

“Because they’re talking about me,” writes @NeilHimself, “even when they’re not.” Because through all the mystifyingly contradictory accounts of the life and the death of Batman, one inescapable truth remains. That the Batman saves lives. That the Batman will never give up. That the Batman will simply live on forever. This is the first and the only lesson of popculture. That sometimes we build something so enduringly large, that they’ll be talking about us, even when they’re not.