“The true ethical test is not only the readiness to save the victims, but also – even more, perhaps – the ruthless dedication to annihilating those who made them victims.”
— Slavoj Žižek
The heroic model is not one that could easily be removed from any institution. The hero has remained a consistent aspect of our individual and collective mythology, and through this is defining in our religions and interpretations of the spiritual experience. Its presence has not only shaped the general way that we build social institutions, but also in the very way that we conceptualize and create stories. “The Hero’s Journey” as developed in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces, traces the model of heroism into our most basic developments of culture and because of this it remains consistent, which is part of the appeal of the comic book. As we entered a period of de-mystification the concept of what a hero could be changed dramatically, and the conception of a realistic hero having extra-normal capabilities was no longer considered something of serious consideration. Therefore a popular mythology developed out of a format that was considered disposable by many.
To challenge the medium, or to even say “over heat” the medium, the comic book author would have to look at the basic premise on which the format of the comic book is based. This serialized format has established it in the collective consciousness as a platform for this new conception of a hero. In this format is a world that mirrors most of the events of the world that it is drawing from, yet it builds this around the need for the superhero. Since the success of this format depends on the permanent station of the superhero this drives the logic of maintaining the superhero in its pages. Society then, in the pages of the comic book, exists as a vessel to respond to this hero in some way. This is not entirely unlike various conceptions of the hero that have remained necessary in civilization as it has developed, yet in the comic book there is a relatively narrowly defined hero that exists by their ability to both live up to certain aspects of common morality in an exceptional way and has the ability to challenge the physical limitations that most of us feel in relation to the natural world. If an author is then to be truly iconoclastic in this medium they must challenge the basic assumptions of the superhero that the medium rests on. Since the superheroic image is a parody of our societies attempt to simulate a mythic heroic figure or concept, the challenging of this microcosm can then act as a challenge of our broader notion of the hero. This has been done on a very limited scale as an excessive use of this attack on conventional superheroics would destroy the medium as a whole.
V for Vendetta draws in a very specific challenge to the heroic model by challenging the sociological framework for heroism. In the comic book a masked avenger really exhibits the most basic fundamental aspects of techno-capitalist “ethics” in that he follows a revenge model of exchange. A character enacts an indiscretion that is in opposition to society and it’s functioning. An acceptable punishment is enacted, whose limits are formally or informally sanctioned by society, and then things are returned to order. This order is identified here as remaining even, which reflects an exchange economy. To follow this model correctly a true “hero” of the comic book must coordinate with the dominant institutions of the time as the ruling class institutions define the values of the time and place. Therefore, the superhero is often in line with the supposed values of the state, church, or commercial institutions. If he challenges those it is strictly because their current state is opposed to our current state of assessment, which is to say they have been corrupted from what our current social position would deem acceptable.
This has taken place in V for Vendetta, but our hero does not come to restore the common order that we have become accustomed to. Instead, V’s sense of value rides on attacking the fundamental institutions of society. From a more historic interpretation of anarcho-communism, V’s sees a need for dismantling not only the institutions of authoritarianism and corporatism, but also the very basic assumptions of capital and the state. Through this he outlines a basic dialectic process by which the inherent inequalities and contradictions that drive capitalism and the repressive state are ones that will lead to fascist movements, or barbarism. This is seen directly with Norsefire. The establishment of this one-party state is one that is given a logical, and in many ways conspiratorial, birth from the flaws that are already present in British governance and free-markets. This comes a focus on a small cabal of financial and governmental leaders that spark up old xenophobia to divide the working class, inspire illness to stage a coup on the financial markets, and inherently drive to a pure consolidation of power.
The presentation of this society is not only directed as a consequence of modern culture, but also a way to display a plain appearance of revolutionary thought. Instead anarchism is taken serious in its position as a marginal viewpoint, especially a look at the plain reality of what revolutionary action really means. Through this we see that there are two senses of radicalism at present, one reactionary and one transgressive.
It is within this context that we are given a hero that does not meet the standards of the commonly accepted morality of the book, but instead takes sides. In this way our very narrow sense of acceptability is challenged as we are given this absent character to identify with on some level. Instead of sharing V’s opinion all the way through we take the role of Evey, and in many ways share her journey as she is coerced by V. We are allowed to stay somewhat remote from this as to essentially make a somewhat independent opinion, which is the way that V intends to approach Evey. Instead of making this an overt statement about the needs for individual rule and the abolition of capitalism V, and the text as a whole, tries to work its way around it. In this way our hero is one that intends to drive home an attack on society without maintaining all the authoritarian institutions that he despises. He is not completely able to maintain this ethical standpoint all the way through, and instead what we come to realize is that in this situation he cannot actually exist as a superhero. His abilities are not morally or physically superior to any person, which is an understanding of the superiority of the “common man” and the working class. Instead of this revolution being held under the guise of a supreme leader that will deliver us, V’s image is sullied and he is revealed to be human with the same vulnerabilities as everyone else. Instead his heroic imagery is meant to inspire common people to act, not follow. This is in direct contrast to Adam Susan’s image in Norsefire, which is supposed to maintain superhuman qualities that will be followed. The final desecration of his image parallels the destruction of parliament, and though he is taking a strong political act by destroying the physical infrastructure of the state, he is also making a clean gesture to attack the social institution of subservience that the British populis have developed under these institutions and individuals.
Note: Though I have continued to say “he” in reference to V, there is no clear gender and that is a key point.
In a certain sense Batman runs parallel to this concept of inspiration in all of his incarnations, but very directly and less heroically in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. In The Dark Knight Returns we are again given a society out of control, but in this situation it is seen from the ground up instead of being imposed from the top. Gotham is under siege from criminals who pose a threat to the institutions of the city. This is done with an assumed sense of “realism” in that the official institutions are not presented as pure by any means, but inherently necessary and holding a sense of integrity when held against the groups on the streets. The flaws that are seen in the institutions deeply, such as the police force, are often simply from infiltration of those institutions by criminal forces.
Batman has always worked closely with the institutions in his books, which is where the image of the Bat light and the friendship with Police Commissioner Gordon has come from. Batman essentially fills the gaps where the police cannot, but on the exact same line of moral and legal imperatives that they do. This is to say that he maintains property rights, state statutes, as well as the repression not to kill without a sense of “due process.” The difference is that Batman enacts this without public accountability as he is not part of an elected body, or one that is determined in some sense by the public. This is the action of a military force that acts with the determination of “right,” as they interpret it and as is sanctioned by the ruling members of these institutions(such as the traditionally passive support of the Gotham D.A., the police leaders, and even elected officials). In a concise sense, he does follow the common values held but does not represent the people in any direct way.
This lack of direct connection to the people is an inherent quality of the authoritarian character and expresses a sense of “right” that denies the value of choice in the public. Whether or not this is a quality to admire is up to the position illustrated in the book itself, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns allows this to gestate in a growingly diverse and complicated set of situation.
What it starts out with quickly is a constant presence of media commentary, which sets the framework for how we understand Batman’s actions. Just as in the modern culture industry, there is no way to distinguish between a sense of collective moral values and those that are displayed by a large-scale media machine. This is to say that the parameters of our understanding of acceptable behavior is determined by the kind of communication we have available, and this is further determined by capitalist economic standards, common conceptions about race and class, religious traditions, etc. In this context the media is understood as the arbiter of how we should interpret what is happening, and it is unsure right from the start. There are opposing viewpoints that attack each other openly, which leaves the comic book audience confused. If we are, as the comic book format perpetuates, to assume then that our hero is acting on a collectively decided upon “right,” then it shakes our foundations right from the start when opposing views are expressed.
From here we see two dominant character’s arise that oppose the values that Batman exists to “defend”: the Joker and Two-Face. Both of these are presented as being released into society by the institutions that defend them. This is done only because of a perceived sense of political and social “liberalism” that has focused on their rehabilitation instead of imprisonment. This is seen as diasterous in The Dark Knight Returns at all points because these are incredibly destructive an anarchic forces that will attack the roots of Gotham’s social structure. Though these character’s are not of the system directly, it is a failure in the system that has allowed them to be released an, inherently, to leave itself open to attack. This exists as a clear indication of what social tendencies will leave a society open to destruction, and therefore the shift in our hero begins to feel justifiable. This offers commentary on the position of mental illness and “criminality” as being innate to certain individuals, rather than culturally induced are exaggerated, and therefore the measures must be punitive rather than transformative.
Both Harvey Dent and The Joker display very specific forms of social deviance, all of which exist as some kind of perversion of the established social order. The Joker is displayed as a transsexual character who lacks a clear sexual identity. He dons make-up and unusual dress and this behavior is never distinctly separated from his criminal behavior or perceived insanity. Harvey Dent is created from a basic failure in the system to defend its own people from attack, and therefore is a walking argument for further security.
For Batman to challenge both of these figures, as well as the Mutants street gang who declare terrorist war on the city, he must further alienate himself from the established liberal “democracy.” He eventually radicalizes and militarizes a group of dispossessed and poor youth out of gang’s who, not for any identifiable political or moral reason, begin to follow him. They do this not because of his inspirational figure, as is the assumption with V, but because of an emotional need to follow someone stronger than themselves. Batman nurtures this dependence in an effort to create a military force. The street gang is then mixed with a vigilante group who mimicks Batman’s behavior except by enacting extreme violence on the citizens of the city. Batman remains fairly neutral about this throughout the course of the Dark Knight, before finally validating their behavior by having them join his crusade.
Though we are challenged to see his behavior as truly heroic, there is no fundamental attack on his position from an authorial stand point. Gotham does finally reject him but we have already seen that Gotham has given itself over to a “liberal” form of humanism and, therefore, cannot truly protect its citizens from those existing outside the system(In this case it would be people from lower socio-economic positions who engage in crime.). To rise above this and be the hero that “society needs, but does not deserve(as is said at the end of the very loose film adaptation), he rounds together the former criminal aspect to engage in reactionary revolution on the city. This is done without any form of democratic process, with the use of coercion on those who are seen as less than him(few of them have identifiable personalities or moral convictions), and he will continue on a waive of violence that is only justified by a sense of “right” that is no longer in popular favor. This appears to be a somewhat clear statement about the nature of the social machine and what is necessary to establish order, which is xenophic violence that victimizes a certain strata of society. The core elements of the broad fascist politic is not necessarily its specific state or economic instruments, but the very values it holds as a center. Hierarchical, anti-egalitarian, anti-democratic, paleogenic, nationalistic, gender and sexually essentialist, and a deeply laid racial narrative are all necessary, and to construct the kind of stark measure of societies failings, Frank Miller’s conception of Batman hits them all. This is why Gotham’s position as a sort of Weimerian failure of cultural decadence needs a coup de ta.
All of this should be placed within the context of Frank Miller’s own personality and stated politics, as well as the entire history of his work. Both 300 and Holy Terror show an explicit fear of “Islamic invasion” and middle-eastern racism, as well as stating explicitly Islamophobic ideas. 300 itself holds a more racial view as an army of whites challenges “invaders” of color, and the fascistic cult of masculinity and hierarchy is celebrated. Throughout Sin City their is a search for the Ubermench and a very angry view of the average person, and women in particular. He has openly through epithets towards things like the Occupy Movement, and in general has maintained a public demeanor of a person with a far-right politic.
In this way I maintain that Batman: The Dark Knight maintains a fascist current, positioning it as a direct inverse to challenge of V for Vendetta. Both books present a position on the absence of rule and the state of totalitarianism, but with a radically different final presentation. Both retain the image of the hero to challenge a social framework that existed previous in the medium,, but this does not mean that the run parallel in terms of political, social, or economic outlooks.