Friday, July 20, 2012

The New Moral Panic: Seduction of the Innocents Part 2? Did the Batman Films and Comics Inspire the Colorado Movie Massacre?

My heart goes out to those victims of the Colorado shooting massacre at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises.

In the aftermath of this tragic event the public is going to be immersed in a national conservation about the relationship between popular culture and violence (as opposed to a necessary (re)evaluation of our country's gun laws). Alternatively, the media and our political elites could engage in a frank discussion about how America is a violent society and what this tells us about our culture, history, and relationships to one another.

Or if they were truly brave and responsible, our leaders could point out an obvious fact: in violent societies where there is ready access to firearms (and apparently military grade tear gas and incendiary devices) there will be moments when mentally unhinged people kill lots of people. We choose to either accept that bargain--and its moments where the banality of evil makes itself apparent and clear--or to reject it and subsequently to modify our laws and social compact. 

Instead, James Holmes' apparent killing of a dozen people, and wounding 59 others as he was channeling the Batman character The Joker, who is not coincidentally "The Clown Prince of Chaos," will prompt a moral panic about popular culture, comic books, movies, and violence. This is an old and tired script. 

Rock and Roll leads to teen promiscuity! Jazz makes the children of the respectable classes act badly! Heavy metal is Satanic and tempts our teens to commit suicide! Hip hop encourages youth violence! Elvis Presley's shaking and gyrating hips must not be shown on TV lest young women faint in orgasmic hysterics! Superman is dangerous because kids watch him on TV and are made to think that they too can jump off of roofs and fly!

Comic books have also been the targets of moral panics as well. During the 1950s do gooder moral majority types (most notably Fredrik Wertham who wrote the infamous book Seduction of the Innocents) argued that graphic novels were a corrupting influence on America's young people, and as such, should be heavily regulated and censored by the State. 

As the media tries to make sense of the Colorado shooting, we will likely hear echoes of "the ten cent plague" once again. 

The twenty-four hour news cycle demands that every angle of a "breaking news event" is explored and exaggerated--regardless of how specious and weak the resulting narrative and "analysis" actually is.

For example, geek and nerd culture was/is taking over the world. Now, it will be subject to scrutiny by folks who will want to draw tenuous connections between a comic book, and an act of wanton violence committed by an unhinged lone wolf. It comes full circle: with the geek renaissance comes inevitable scrutiny and blowback. 

Was Holmes a deranged nerd and typecast loner? Do comic books and their movie adaptations encourage violence? Did the Batman comic books inspire Holmes murder spree? Are there other ticking time bombs like him, waiting to go off at any moment when given the right cue by popular culture? What can we do to protect ourselves from these madmen in waiting?

Comic books and graphic novels are firmly planted in the American zeitgeist ("the spirit of the age" as it is more commonly referred to). America is a society that is sick with violence. The talking heads and professional bloviators will carelessly draw connections between those two facts. 

As we watch the spectacle unfold, we can never forget that moral panics have never been about the pursuit of truth, or real, actual threats, to society. Rather, they are grand stages upon which deeper cultural and social anxieties are played out. The Colorado shooting is a canvas upon which our country's political, social, generational, and economic anxieties will be projected upon. 

Ultimately, the media's coverage of this tragic happening will have little to do with the substance of The Dark Knight Rises specifically, or popular culture, more generally.

I am off to see The Dark Knight Rises. What examples of the moral panic meme have you seen in the coverage so far? How many misunderstandings of Batman, comic books, and the relationship between popular culture and violence have you witnessed so far as this story develops? Will this tragic event keep your from seeing The Dark Knight Rises?


A. Ominous said...

Q: Why did he kill all those people?

A: Because he could.

But, yeah... uh, how does it go again? "Guns don't kill people..."? (which is puzzling because killing is what guns are designed to do)

Re: Batman: never bought it. Rich guy with no special powers dresses up like a bat? DC nonsense.

chaunceydevega said...

@Steve. Guns don't kill people. People do ;)

I am more of a Marvel fan and love me some Punisher, who by the way would destroy the Batman inmao.

Shady_Grady said...

If it is silly to attempt to limit first amendment protections because of what some nut might do then isn't it just as silly to try to limit 2nd amendment protections?

One is "software" and the other is "hardware".

But we have to freedom to arm ourselves and the freedom to take in twisted ideas. I don't think either one of those things will change anytime soon.

Shady_Grady said...

And no this will not stop me from seeing The Dark Knight Rises. In fact I hope to leave shortly to catch the 6:20 show....

A. Ominous said...


"I am more of a Marvel fan and love me some Punisher, who by the way would destroy the Batman inmao."

Berni Wrightson-era Swamp Thing was pretty hip (and does anyone remember Kirby's "The Demon" for DC?) but, otherwise, yeah... Marvel. (Jim Starlin's Captain Marvel/ Thanos cycle was a masterpiece)

Nebris said...

12 dead and 70 odd wounded is just another day in a dozen or more countries around the world. What makes us so fucking special?

A. Ominous said...

Thing is, in Murkka, now, it's just a sport.

Anonymous said...

I thought you caught the midnight showing. It is a MUST SEE and I am going again tonight. The colorado incident is unfortunate but folk are just crazy. Question, why isn't this killer considered a terrorist?


vintagepeugeot said...

I grew up in Aurora and used to go to that theater all the time with my mom. I was planning on seeing the movie, but now it's up for more discussion. The events have affected me more than I initially thought.

If only an honest discussion on gun control were possible.

chaunceydevega said...

@All. Just saw it twice back to back. So much to say. I am wondering how many of the more popular reviewers could be hating on this classic. In Nolan's film universe I am struggling say that the Joker is > than Bane. Both are so close.

What did folks think of the ending?

A. Ominous said...

Sidebar: I certainly hope that Jarell Brooks will not be downplayed on Big Media. The word "hero" is doled out to everybody who comes within 100 meters of a dumpster fire these days, but brother Mr Brooks actually put himself in harm's way (and got shot for it) helping a lady with her kids... while the lady's square-jawed fiance was actually fleeing the scene in the family chariot! Now that's a story with everything in it.

A. Ominous said...

As two commenters just put it on HuffPo (a NormLib site I usually avoid):

"If this is true (I'm not denying it, but listen to me further), somebody in the mainstream media needs to report it on the television too. This couple has been all over the news and not one word has been mentioned about this young man. Reporters have mentioned over and over again that he proposed, but nothing has been mentioned about the background of what happened and the woman has said NOTHING about this young man helping her. Nothing."


"EXACTLY!!!! Just saw them on Pierce Morgan...and she said NOTHING about this man risking her life for her and her children...whilde her "man" sat there and tried to rationalize putting his 4 month old child DOWN to save his OWN but...and DRIVING AWAY form the theater to boot. Not a WORD about Jarrell helping her out. She sure found time to speak of him asking to marry her. I bet you will NEVER hear Jarell's story on national would no fit the narrative of the SAVAGE young black men image the media loves to EXPLOIT."

A. Ominous said...

PPS Oh, and: I'm not a bit surprised that the shooter was (or had been) in the running for a PhD; which is to say, it's not the baffling paradox it's being presented as. "The Joker" (with whom the shooter identified) represented a certain kind of destructive-but- *intelligent* (radical/ cynical) male power. This certain kind of male power is often fetishized, *intellectually*, by a certain kind of young(ish) white male who sometimes acquires this male power, in a prosthetic form, via "hip hop" and Shooter Games/Comix ... and sometimes, IRL, via guns.

Way back when, I had rhetorical scuffles (on the Valve and elsewhere) with all kinds of young male academics and Doctoral Candidates who considered Heath Ledger's Joker some kind of Existentialist Hero (while I argued that their admiration was juvenile and that Nolan's movie was Bushite propaganda).

Well, that psychological chicken has surely come home to roost, no? But I doubt the original partisans will bother to deconstruct those old threads... (and, to nip your possible quibbles in the bud: no, I don't think censorship is the *answer*; but I think a close-reading of the psychologies involved is a reasonable *response*)

brotherbrown said...

Someday we may realize that the founding father were wrong about a great many things as it concerned the mentality of the nascent country it was attempting to start, including the right to bear arms. Their intend was to be able to call up a citizen army for common defense, but the people wanted, and still want, the individual right to kill.

These sort of incidents will be with us forever.

rkr said...

Steven Augustine: "I'm not a bit surprised that the shooter was (or had been) in the running for a PhD"

I'm highly offended by your attempt to correlate education with a predisposition for atrocities. Your argument hinges on the explicit characters of "white", "male", "intelligent" and "radical/cynical." There are countless examples of exactly that sort of individual who regularly commit crimes of oppression and dehumanization who are not high functioning enough to navigate academia.

A. Ominous said...

"I'm highly offended by your attempt to correlate education with a predisposition for atrocities."

A) no such attempt was made B) never skim before flaming.

You drove a high-speed slalom around every qualifier in my comment in order to slam into the concrete post of My Actual Point with your Literal-Minded-Ice-Cream truck. Congratulations!

Allow me to finish the sentence you semi-cited: "...which is to say, it's not the baffling paradox it's being presented as."

My actual (gleanable from context) point was that some people with attributes/stats matching some of those of the perp have expressed a *passionate* interest in a comic book character the perp essentially dedicated his bloody rampage to.

"Low-functioning" perps are not interesting (in the context of my comment); the "higher-functioners" cited are of interest... for obvious reasons (see originally-cited pseudo-paradox). Would you like that in a Venn diagram?

Heath Ledger's The Joker was very popular (a quasi-intellectual obsession, even) with a certain kind of White Boy in 2008 (as well as with others... uh: before your problem with subsets kicks in again). In 2012 that obsession would seem to have born fruit. Implicate yourself if you chose to.

A. Ominous said...

(erratum: "choose")

A. Ominous said...

Speaking of Carl Jung...

As it happens, one of the leaders of the Pro-Joker Doctoral Candidate Club, with whom I tangled, on the subject, in 2008, posted this (on his blog) on July 9th, 2012:

"I’ve ruined my life two ways: firstly by trying to make dysfunctional romances work, and secondly by earning an extremely futile Ph.D. in English. I take full responsibility for both choices, although I believe that in a better society, the Ph.D. at least would have meant a little more."

Tell me there's ZERO correlation. The Joker, very much like the Holy Spirit of an earlier mind-control meme, manifests Himself in many places at once, apparently. It's just that some Believers are Truer (or closer to the edge) than others...

CNu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A. Ominous said...

You are not witty, Sir, nor especially intelligent, though your Negrophobia inspires, occasionally, my bemused pity!

Have a happy, second-stringer!

CNu said...

Sorry bout that saturday night tequila that seeped through the keys CDV..., no disrespect toward host or house intended.

makheru bradley said...

“President Barack Obama travels to Colorado on Sunday to meet families bereaved after a shooting rampage at a movie theater in a Denver suburb that killed at least 12 people and wounded 58.”

Sadly the atrocity in Aurora is comparable to one week of violence in Chicago—272 murders through 6/30/12, about 10.5 per week; 1,207shootings through 6/30/12, about 49per week.

Has the POTUS met with any families in his own hometown Chicago?

Certain lives obviously have more value than others

Anonymous said...

On this point I have a comment. I've always been a fan of Batman, from the old 70s batman show (man catwoman was hot on that show!). I've never read the comics though. Later, I watched all the movies, and even the old 90s Batman the Animated Series which was a really cool cartoon.

In the 70s show the bad guys never actually killed anyone on screen. It was not the sort of sadistic violence you saw in the last Batman movie where the Joker blows up half of Gotham and kills Batman's girlfriend and Batman still saves him from falling off the building in the end (that really pissed me off). That kind of sadistic violence being glorified by the movie is not good, and having Batman save him sent the wrong message. Joker should have fell off the building and died. After all, in the first modern movie, he let Resh al-Ghoul go down with the crashing train and die. The badguy should get their comeupins!!!!

Now the cartoon, of course Joker always got away and sometimes he used laughing gas to make someone permanently insane but I don't remember anyone being killed. Plus, it was a freaking cartoon!

But when you make a movie with live actors glorifying sadistic murder -- that is not good for society. After watching the previous Batman movie I decided I would not watch the 3rd one and nobody could pay me enough to make me watch it! (This decision was long before the shooting.) I can't spend my money on a franchise that glorifies sadistict murderers and has the hero save them from tripping and falling off a building and getting their just comeuppins right after they killed his girlfriend! Its insane!

--a white guy