Friday, November 5, 2010

Part II: The Demon Star at Its Zenith

Last time, via quick and dirty methods that would never fly in a proper paper, I explained how Batman is the manifestation of a concept, specifically the idea of Anti-Crime. Now we’re going to work on how, in Batman #666, that Morrison is arguing that Batman (as a concept), while a product of the existing social order, exists independently of it as an opposing force and will, in fact, come to subsume or even supersede that order.

I swear, it’s only going to be half as boring as it sounds.

Okay, first a brief explanation of a hallmark of the DC Universe: legacy. The cynical reasoning behind heroic legacy in DC Comics (a tautology that will always bother me: DC stands for “Detective Comics,” meaning the name of the company is Detective Comics Comics), is property maintenance. If a book needs a status quo shake up, you kill the titular hero or have them retire and someone else takes over. That way, you get your story and the title stays active and keeps making money.

It took about ten minutes after the start of the Silver Age of comics kicked off for this idea to merge with the notion of the boy sidekick. While at first it manifested in “what if?” stories set in the distant future in which those sidekicks had taken over their mentor's mantle, as the genre continued and the serialized stories concluded narratively but never as publications, it started to actually happen in the main books, which is why there are now four guys running around arguing over who actually owns the lifetime Chipotle gift card awarded to “The Flash.”

Fuck your face, those chips are mine.

Batman #666 is one of those stories. It’s a bleak future in which the nighttime temperature for a major city on America’s East Coast is one hundred and twenty-three degrees Fahrenheit, overpopulation has given way to plague and famine quarantining continents, and crime is more rampant, combustible, and grandiose than ever.

Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson (Batman and the original Robin respectively) are dead, and the current wearer of the cowl is Damien Wayne, illegitimate son of Bruce and Talia al Ghul, daughter of Ra’s al Ghul.

A brief aside to both summarize for the non-comic fans and save some time:

Ra’s al Ghul, essentially an immortal Moriarty, is a criminal genius on a global and historical scale, Batman’s greatest intellectual rival and his biggest fan (earnestly) who, himself, has risen to the nature of conceptual existence (his name literally means Head of the Demon). He is the bodily manifestation of macro-criminality.

Normally, I’d take the time to define Ra’s al Ghul as living concept the same way I did for Batman, but for the sake of brevity (ha!) I’m going to ask you to trust that it’s pretty much the same process, and that I can do it. If anyone objects, I’ll do it as an appendix after I’m done.

Okay, carrying on:

In Morrison’s Batman #666, Batman persists, although Bruce Wayne is long gone. The man in the cowl keeping Gotham city safe, is the biological son of Anti-Crime, the biological grandson and tutee of Macro-Crime.

Here’s where this starts to have something to do with what we’re talking about.

Within the story itself, Gotham needs Batman. This isn’t just a reader’s perspective or a rhetorical argument, although both are true in those regards as well, i.e. for readers, Gotham wouldn’t be worth a cup of warm piss if Batman wasn’t there, he’s why we pay attention to the city. However, even in the narrative itself, his importance is made clear. If Batman is stuck in traffic, you can set your watch by the amount of time it takes for Commissioner Gordon to activate contingency plan alpha:

Contingency Plan Alpha: Drinking Until He Shits His Soul

Crime is so prevalent in that city, Batman is the only thing that balances it out. Instead of watching TV, its citizens stab old people. His intentionally mythical presence, exemplified by the reason for his costume: “criminals are a cowardly and suspicious lot” is how one gloved, scalloped hand can maintain order in one of the largest cities in the country. When Batman is gone, the city rips its own face off. Now, according to a real lady-killer by the name of Althusser (seriously, dude strangled his wife),

“. . .in Marxist theory, the State Apparatus (SA) contains: the Government, the Administration, the Army, the Police, the Courts, the Prisons, etc., which constitute what I shall in future call the Repressive State Apparatus. Repressive suggests that the State Apparatus in question ‘functions by violence’. . .”

Shatner put his wife in a pool.  Don't you fucking judge me, bourgeois scum.

As such, to acknowledge that Batman is a, if not the, primary enforcer of law and order, he’s definitely a major enforcer of law and order, one who certainly disobeys certain laws, but he does so with the unofficial consent of every one of Althusser’s State Apparatuses, makes him a tacit part of the state.

If you’re a little shaky on that, if Batman’s outlaw status is making you ask questions, I’ll direct you back to Žižek, who remarks:

“We’re talking here of the violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence.”

While Batman’s behavior lacks subtlety, beyond it mostly happening in the dark, he is maintaining if not the status quo, definitely a status quo, particularly one that rejects what Žižek calls the subjective violence of the state, violence that exists as a result of the objective violence that maintains that status quo. So, even if he’s not a police officer, he’s playing the part in a unique but fundamental way.

One further, according to- wait, wait, I’ve been emotionally overwhelmed listening to Jay-Z. Damn the incandescent grandiloquence of that big, beautiful bard, it really is a hard knock life.

Okay, we’re good.

One further, according to Althusser, there’s more to controlling people than kicking them in the face, in fact:

“I shall call Ideological State Apparatuses a certain number of realities which present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions. . .”

I’ll paraphrase because Althusser uses even more unnecessary words than I do (it’s surprising his wife didn’t strangle him, am I right, ladies?), but he goes on to list religions, education, family, legal--separate from enforcement, essentially the social contract-- trade unions, political affiliation, mass media, and “culture” itself. Concepts, ideas. Concepts like, say, The Dark Knight? The Caped Crusader? The Blackguard of Gotham? The Batman. The mythical bodily manifestation of Anti-Crime.

Basically, Batman the idea is both Repressive State Apparatus and Ideological State Apparatus. The idea of Batman dominates Gotham City far more than the man punches his way around it. Morrison’s Batman #666, a twenty-two page glimpse at a volatile, broiling future in which legacy has literally and literarily exhibited how Batman will continue regardless of who is in the suit, creates a systemic lineage.

This goes off into “holy-fucking-Moses” territory when you realize that the person that is in the suit is essentially a Plantagenet with a batarang, the product of a union of Anti-Crime and the house of Macro-Crime, carrying on the work and the power not as an obsessive man fighting down the emotional devastation wrought by an anonymous gunman one night twenty years prior, but as an heir to two impossibly complex and thunderously powerful ideological dynasties, the brutal king of a burning kingdom.

Man, that’s so dramatic! If only the artwork supported my lunacy!

Hail to the king, baby.

Damn skippy.

Tune in next time for our startling conclusion. Faustian bargains, Keats, religious imagery as red herrings (maybe), and a finally, a monkey dressed as a clown.

Man, I hope you’re having fun. I’m having a blast.