I’ll be reading excerpts from my novel Dates Worse Than Fate on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at The Metro Gallery as part of the WORMS reading series. The show starts at 8 pm and features many other interesting and talented writers. I drew this flyer for the event.
If you are in or near Baltimore, MD, please come! After years of labor, this is the first time I’m sharing this work with an audience, so I’m really excited! And if you have never experienced a WORMS before, I assure you, my friend, it is always awesome.
I’ll have a limited number of comics and ALILBTII prints for sale in case you missed the last offering or want to stockpile more to hedge against impending societal collapse when presumably comics will no longer be available online.
Update: Here is the Facebook event page.
Someday I want to make art for a game like this.
Double good news: David got a Tumblr and he also created this original Zelda-inspired painting (above) where you play as a dude with a sick hat.
I drew a 2-page comic written by R. M. O’Brien for the first issue of WORMS Quarterly. The digital format is out this week. You should download it here if you live underground or are otherwise consumed by worms, comics, good literature, etc. The price is free or money or love depending on I don’t know I guess how you feel.
I’m giving a talk and hosting a panel on the subject of Superman next Sunday (March 10, 2013) at 4:30 at PMF IV. This is relevant to people who want to know everything about Superman and also to those who want to know nothing about him. Logically, you must fit into one of those categories unless you want to know only a moderate amount about him in which case you should definitely come.
Superman illustration I “co-opted” (stole) for my flyer is by Curt Swan.
So I’ve been putting together a comic book for Open Space’s 4th Annual Publications and Multiples Fair and filling in a few blank pages with fake ads such as this one.
I will be at Open Space’s 4th Annual Publications and Multiples Fair (Link updated. It is now obvious it will be the party of the century.) on March 9th and 10th in Baltimore, MD at D Center 16 W. North Ave.* There’s going to be a lot of interesting artists there with small press work and prints of all sorts. The work I see in Baltimore these days is pretty consistently amazing. So I can pretty much promise you will find your spirit comic there. For my part, I’ll have some A Lesson Is Learned merchandise for sale and The Nerds of Paradise prints, as well as custom comics and other cool things that you can only get if— very much like in The Wizard of Oz— you come and see me personally.
Wait! There’s more! During the show I will also be hosting a panel on Superman with Ben O’Brien (Showbeast, Wham City Comedy Tour) among other luminaries and Superman experts from various and sundry fields of knowledge! So if you have recently found yourself possessed of skills and abilities beyond all human ken, you must come so that I might reveal to you the secret of your birth!
*For The Wire fans, that’s right next door to the hotel where Omar goes against Brother Mouzone. But don’t worry, it is in fact nothing like that there.
After a brief but poignent five year hiatus, a new A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible goes up today! Also, back by popular demand, prints are for sale here! Now to withdrawl deep underground to sleep for another five years— kidding! It’s also my birthday! I’m eating cake!
A few panels in progress from my comic featuring the Showbeast characters for thier up(and)coming DVD comic book hybrid!
Hi! This is an excellent question! Sorry it’s taken me a little while to answer! A new page of Time Picnickers will go up late this month and several more in January. I hope to finish it, in fact, by then. Updates for The Nerds of Paradise have been delayed because I’ve been working on on other comic projects, namely a comic featuring the Showbeast characters for thier new DVD (a yet to be colored and lettered frame from that above) and a mysterious other comic which will go up this Monday! If anyone wants to see an advance screening/reading of the latter and lives anywhere near Baltimore, MD, you can watch me read this new mystery comic tonight (Saturday Dec. 8, 2012 at 8 pm) at Open Space!
At the heart of a repetition compulsion, Freud says, is the fact no genuine pleasure is derived from the act. Think, for example, of the cartwheeling lovers in Plato’s Symposium, who as hermaphroditic man-woman combos live a harmonious existence until Zeus tears them asunder with a thunderbolt. The myth in Plato is a joke, purporting to explain why we as separate genders try to constantly join back together. The closer we get to one another the closer it seems we draw to ecstasy. The punch-line being that we never attain our goal. Sex is more about the limits of pleasure than the pleasure itself. We fail to join and so, having not really gotten what we are after, must helplessly repeat the attempt.
Likewise, there is a version of the Don Juan legend in which Don Juan seduces 1001 women. From the standpoint of Don Juan’s diagnosis, the most important number is the “1” not the “1000”. Why not stop, after all, at an even 1000? The extra “1” implies that Don Juan cannot stop— that he is helplessly seducing woman after woman because he is never truly deriving what he wants from his conquests.
I think, at this point, we must consider Batman and Spider-man films in the same framework. Like the women Don Juan bedded, summer superhero films are tedious enough to prevent the prospect of any long term relationship— despite all the money spent trying to class them up. However, we, as audiences, are compelled to meet them each year, not really expecting anything different, but pleased to see a fresh face. Now and again, The New York Times tries to puzzle out this problem. Top critics figure the films are “hegemonic”, “ingenuously populist”, and might have something to do with “the state of the world after Sept. 11, 2001.” But the intellectual effect of reading these articles is sort of like watching a dog gnaw on a big piece of gristle. Eventually they will swallow it and I am still left wondering what it was.
As I stood on the precipice of the dark tunnel which led to yet another Spider-Man movie, I turned to my friend and fellow comic-book nerd (who also happens to be a psychiatrist) and asked him, “What is happening? Why are we seeing this movie again? What is wrong with us?”
My doctor gave an answer which I have heard before: ride-ification. That is to say, the rise of CGI and 3D have made movies more into a theme park ride than a narrative-based art form. Plot is now irrelevant or at least subordinated to the visual effects, so why bother to invent a new story? Moreover, the plot in superhero comics has always been like the plot in pornos—connective tissue to get the characters together, not to fuck but to fight. What could be better suited to action films?
Famously, Pirates of the Caribbean I-IV were all adaptations of a Disneyland ride. But a better example is Avatar. Though it was hailed as an incredibly “successful” and “important” film people meant this in terms of marketing (box office sales, the potential of 3D in theaters). It was not important or successful in the sense that it was a good film. As an art form, it is closest to that Coca-Cola ad in the theatres in which CGI plants and mushrooms wordlessly bloom all about a can of Coke until you are seduced into a psychedelic dream-state long enough (presumably?) to buy a coke. Blue aliens and dragons prancing in the jungle dazzle you just long enough so that you do not resent buying the ticket. But afterwards your mind discards the memory as a senseless dream. This idea unlocks the last three minutes of The Amazing Spider-Man (the latest reboot) in which we watch Spidey swinging in leaps and bounds from building to building for no reason because the film is already over. The sequence reads as the last possible place the director can stuff CGI but also a reminder to his audience not to hate him for the luke warm offering because he is giving us what we came for. In this way, there is a sort of planned obsolesce in these films, a seed of dissatisfaction in their mediocrity, which keeps us coming back compulsively. “Like drinking soup so thin it just makes you hungrier so you drink more.” was the way my friend put it. But why then are we interested in seeing all this CGI?
I’ve had a strangely personal experience with this summer’s super-hero films. Before I was priced out of the neighborhood, I lived at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. Every once in a while my bedroom would fill with bright white light and weird shadows would appear on the wall and I knew they were filming a movie. There is never much to see. Even biking over the bridge, if you happen to catch them filming, all you see is the bridge lit up like daylight and traffic halted. But I couldn’t help but wonder what they were filming, or more specifically, what fantasy were they creating out of the backdrop of where I lived?
When that same light hit my eyes some months later in the darkness of a theater, I felt stupid that I had wondered at all. The answer was obvious. They were destroying it of course. I saw the bridge and the city broken to pieces at least three times over this summer— in The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises. The height of this uncanny experience came in the Dark Knight when I watched a sort of inverted Tiananmen Square/Occupy Wall Street in which police officers marched bravely toward the tanks and assembled might of anti-fascist liberals!
I was there! I realized. I marched on that same street, shoved and literally bullied by the New York City Police who were arrayed below the steps of city hall with sonic devices and tear gas launchers! What am I to think ten months later when I see the exact same street used to invert my actual experience? And then Batman arrives on the scene! In his Bat-Copter! What is going on?
To begin our analysis, let us look at a passage of E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel— a fictionalized re-telling of the Rosenberg trial. At the climax of the novel, Daniel, the son of the executed Isaacsons (Rosenbergs), confronts the neighbor who bore false witness against his parents. However, Daniel discovers the man, a retired dentist and repentant radical named Mindish, is now senile and running out the meter on his life beside the teacups at Disneyland.
In Doctorow’s description of Disneyland, he notes that what separates it from a collection of traditional carney rides is a layer of literary or historical fantasy plastered over the mechanisms so that,
Your boat ride is a Mississippi sternwheeler. Your pony ride is a string of pack mules going over the mountains to where the gold is…
Yet, ironically, many of the stories and characters chosen by Disney for their cultural respectability are […] dark and […] rowdy. The original Alice in Wonderland is a symbolic and surreal work by a benign deviate genius… Huckleberry Finn, is a nightmare of childhood in confrontation with American social reality. In this light it is possible to understand the aesthetics of cartoon adaption as totalitarian in nature.
It is clear that few of the children who ride the Mad Hatter’s Teacup have read or even will read Alice, let alone the works of Mark Twain. Most of them will only know Alice’s story through the Disney film, if at all. And that suggests a separation of two ontological degrees between the Disneyland customer and the cultural artifacts he is presumed upon to treasure in his visit. The Mad Hatter’s Teacup Ride is emblematic of the Disney animated film, which is itself a drastic revision in form and content of a subtle dreamwork created out of the English language. And even to an adult who dimly remembers reading the original Alice […] what is being offered does not suggest the resonance of the original work, but is only a sentimental compression of something that is itself already a lie.
We find this radical process of reduction occurring too with regard to the nature of historical reality. The life and life-style of slave-trading America on the Mississippi River in the 19th century is compressed into a technologically faithful steamboat ride of five or ten minutes on an HO-scale river. The intermediary between us and this actual historical experience, the writer Mark Twain, author of Life on the Mississippi, is now no more than the name of the boat. Piracy on the high seas, a hundred and fifty years of harassment of European mercantile exploration and trade, becomes a moving diorama of all the scenes and situations of the pirate movies made by Hollywood in the thirties and forties. When the customer is invited then to buy, say, a pirate hat in one of the many junk shops on the premises, the Pavlovian process symbolic transference to the final consumer moment may be said to be complete.
The ideal Disneyland patron may be said to be one who responds to a process of symbolic manipulation that offers him his culminating and quintessential sentiment at the moment of a purchase.
The passage is very illuminating because we can recognize the ride “compression” Doctorow describes in the Occupy Batman scene with Batman himself and his Bat-Copter (the CGI and special effects) representing the ride. History is compressed and rewritten under the guise of titillation. Batman works as a sort of guide, a familiar mediator to introduce and declaw the apprehension say, a conservative in the middle of the country, might feel at watching the social unrest of Occupy Wall Street on TV. The addition of a rubber suited man dressed as an animal from a familiar cartoon shrinks the events to a safe and manageable action figure size and inverts it into a brief therapeutic moment of play—or, to use consumerist language, a digestible moment of pleasure.
In The Book of Daniel, we understand Disneyland to be a metaphor for Mindish himself, who now blithely ignorant of history is free to dedicate his days to sensational joy. Daniel’s efforts to understand why his radical leftist parents were the subject of a witch trial fail in “the magic kingdom”, and the revisionist history of their “crimes” prevails, rewritten like the stories plastered on the rides.
We again meet the idea of tumbling, cartwheeling, compulsion and what Lacan calls jouissance— the pure mindless joy (which secretly hides an abysmal emptiness) of buying the pirate hat. The crimes of slavery are reduced to a kind of mediator— a boat—which takes you on a ride— transforming disturbing historical fact into momentary delight, the trip itself. Each visitor to Disneyland becomes a sort of Mindish taking pleasure in momentary joy (the act of purchasing the ride or “trip”) without regard to past or future. Experience is reduced to an exchange— small pleasures for small amounts of money.
Disneyland’s achievement (and, we understand metaphorically, capitalism’s) is an ideological one, which modulates not only how people think, but how they live and feel. The underside of jouissance is a censorious injunction, a message from our superegos, Lacan says, to enjoy as little as possible. Enjoyment, like Disneyland, is secretly about the regulation of enjoyment— when and how we are able to enjoy and for how long—i.e. its borders and limitations, the fact that it must soon end. Or as it is expressed in an earlier passage in The Book of Daniel “What is most monstrous is sequence. When we are there why do we withdraw only in order to return? Is there nothing good enough to transfix us? If she is truly worth fucking why do I have to fuck her again? If the flower is beautiful why does my baby son not look at it forever?”
Secretly, Disneyland is not a temple dedicated to enjoyment, but one dedicated to its opposite—regulation of enjoyment, crowd control. It slices up enjoyment into a discrete series of commodities and regulates its use. Disney becomes the paternal superego, telling us when and how to enjoy, where to queue up, how long, in a sense, to look at the flower. And in this way, the joy itself becomes a form of crowd control.
In Slavoj Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes, Zizek puts it this way, “This suspension of the Master-Signifier [an objectively “correct” idea, here political reform] leaves as the only agency of ideological interpellation the ‘unnamable’ abyss of jouissance: the ultimate injunction that regulates our lives ‘postmodernity’ is ‘Enjoy!’”
The Dark Knight’s villain, Bane, is to conservatives imagining Occupy Wall Street what Kristen’s Stewart’s vampire baby is to teenage girls in the Twilight Belt imagining losing their virginity— a sort naive, nightmarized conception (so to speak), where terror fills in all the blank spots, and the imagination runs wild.
In The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, the first time doe-eyed, rabbit-toothed Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) has sex, the nightmare scenario begins to bloom in big bloody blushes— her insatiable desire to do Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) leaves her pregnant after her first time and is somehow still wrong and dangerous despite the protections of wedlock. The baby gestates in a matter of days into a super-naturally strong abomination which tears up her insides, destroys her supple young beauty, and ends those salad days of adolescent infatuation. But Christ-like she cannot disregard the thing because of course, however repulsive, it is still life.
Meanwhile all her imaginary friends— a cast of cool monsters— hold vigil beside her bed. They stand stiff with their arms at their sides. The folds of their hand-stitched costumes stick out at odd angles. Their faces, outlined with streaks of black make-up, are as smooth and pale as porcelain. We come to realize they resemble less people or even vampires but a girl’s dolls watching helplessly from the shelf. We cannot imagine this scenario unfolding in any version of what is generally regarded as ‘real life’ nor even any well-constructed fiction, fantasy or otherwise. In fact, the only way this narrative makes sense is if we picture it hatching in the brain of a twelve year old girl in the Midwest as she lies in bed late at night contemplating the terrifying possibilities which spring to mind out of her own body. Looking at the titles and cover design of the novels, we see that they are all menstrual themed.
Likewise, here Gotham debauched is the naive fantasy of the U.S. as it looks forward to an economic milieu far different than the gold plated decades which preceded it. Bane does not depict Occupy Wall Street but the fear which it instills in the mind of conservatives. His Occupy Wall Street has all the blood, dread, and senselessness of a literal nightmare. Though he pretends at political change and speaks with a silver tongue on the topic, his secret goal, as conservatives must imagine, is utter and total annihilation. He imprisons the police force deep under the city, uses hacktivist tricks to steal everyone’s money, establishes a beachhead for secret cabal of foreign (Middle Eastern? South American?) brown people, destroys the current legal system, ushers in a Reign of Terror absent an Enlightenment and all the good things it wrought (museums, the United States, Thomas Jefferson, the end of Feudalism and monarchs, sophisticated democratic political theory), and leaves the American flag fluttering in tatters over the seat of government. But then his plan, so delicately spun and full of so much patterned rhetoric seems to dissolve into incoherence. The aim of all he accomplished was to, well, uh, just blow everything up, or as the old South Park adage goes “step 3: ??? step 4: Profit.”
Like Kristen’s vampire baby, Bane’s actions only make dream-sense. And as Zizek points out there is a sort of empty center where disavowal and fervent denial is viewed as secret lust in the heart (or, as Zizek puts it, the “Freudian unconscious… knows no negation”). Bane is the most eloquent character in the film, the most interesting, and the most charming especially compared to Batman who is, as usual, sullen, reticent, brooding, and unsympathetic(ly wealthy). Bane’s extraneous skull-crunching, his eventual defeat, and his demotion to cat’s paw/body guard of a duplicitous millionaire feel papered-on, the equivalent of the ball-bearings which weigh down Harrison Bergeron to politely dull his splendor. Likewise his political rhetoric makes sense until suddenly it doesn’t— as if the filmmakers want to assure us that though they flirt with the notion of political change, they would never go home with it.
In the same way, Twilight plays with the heady possibility of transgressing the Mormon values of its author, but ultimately must palliate any lurid interest it may have in pre-marital sex with a fervent affirmation of conservative sexual mores.
Dark Knight Rises walks this love/hate line so artlessly at times that after the release of the film conservative reactionaries attacked it as a tool of the left until the neo-con writer/creator of Bane emerged and had to explain that he was in fact on the side of the totalitarian neo-fascist police state.
Like a dream, The Dark Knight Rises makes symbolic rather than literal sense. Take, for example, the “reactor” invented by Batman which Bane steals and turns into a nuclear bomb. With all his resources and genius, why doesn’t Bane simply build a nuclear bomb? Or buy one? Here the seemingly arbitrary and overly-detailed decisions of Bane’s plan work like a Rorsach test to reveal the inner thoughts and feelings of the film-makers. Literally the reactor is totally unnecessary, but symbolically it represents the moral shame the writers have unconsciously incorporated into their own narrative. Just as Bane transforms an instrument for hope change and new alternatives into a weapon with which he can bait people and control them with fear, so Occupy Wall Street was transformed by the films creators into an instrument of fear teaching us that alternatives lead only to terrifying annihilation.1
Let me pause here to tell a story. A friend of mine works as an attorney in New York City, and this summer, as she was passing through the metal detector at a court house in the outer boroughs she struck up a conversation with the court officer monitoring the booth.
As they were swapping complaints about their lives and jobs, the court officer confided in my friend that he often had a recurring fantasy at work. In the daydream, he was kidnapped by UFOS. Exploring the belly of the spaceship, he soon finds his captors. The aliens greet him kindly and explain to him that he is to be placed in an inter-galactic zoo along with a beautiful earth female where he will be admired as the last of his species because they have decided to blow up the planet. They show him earth on the monitor. For a moment, it hangs, doomed and twinkling, in the blackness of space. Then the aliens flip open a switch-cover and invite the court officer to push the button. Gleefully, he mashes down as hard as he can and the earth explodes.
“Oh wow!” my friend replied, “Just like Slaughter House Five!”
To which the officer replied, ”Like what?“
Like the court officer who hates his job and existence so much he daydreams about blowing up the entire earth as he scans (likeminded?) people for bombs, we identify with the villains in these films as much as the heroes. We want, like Spider/Batman to glide effortlessly above the patterned grid which confines us to the ordinary world— we want escapism— but better still we want— like the villains in these films— to see that grid obliterated (by whomever— lizard men, inter-galactic lizard men riding armored flying space worms, Bane’s ethnically ambiguous leftist rebels, etc.)
The dual fantasies of the court officer represent the dual fantasies of super-hero films. The first fantasy (being kidnapped by aliens and placed in an inter-galactic zoo where he will breed with super-models) is the fantasy of becoming Spider/Batman—being plucked out of the banal work-a-day circuit to drift above it as somehow personally extra-ordinary. The machine and machine-as-society, aims for uniformity and standardized pieces. The fantasy lets the machines do the very opposite—not trap us but free us. The Amazing Spider-Man spun Spidey’s “bit by a radioactive spider” origin story from a nuclear themed one to whirling computerized Moloch in which he was helplessly confined. Bat/Ironman’s dalliance with machines is too obvious really to mention. The second fantasy (blowing up the earth) is the fantasy of the super-villain— the utter destruction of the grid (why I saw New York blown up three times this summer) in which our contempt is so great for our station in life that we simply do not want to transcend but eradicate the system that confined us.
The super-hero in these films exists as a gate keeper to let us indulge in this second fantasy. They are like the man in the trench coat who bookends Forensic Files with moral opprobrium as the show itself details murders in grisly, fascinated, detail. They offer a means by which we can delude ourselves about own motivations, or in Freudian-Lacanian terms, find a place between how I perceive myself (the ego ideal) and what I know I shouldn’t do (the super-ego/joussiance).2 We are allowed to indulge in our violent fantasies by disguising them as something else, for example, an interest in how the police solve the crimes— the forensics— rather than the crimes themselves, as long as the violence is encapsulated by moral rectitude (here, the superhero).
Baudrillard and Zizek both wrote about how 9/11 was fantasized about in actions films for years before it actually took place.3 Remember how the release date for the first Spider-Man was delayed by 9/11 because Spidey bounced on a web between the two towers? The fantasy here was the end of the modern hegemonic political structure (modern global capitalism). Only destruction could take its place since it was so dominant no alternative seemed to be on the horizon, an idea I think best expressed at the transcendent end of Kafka’s The Trial when Joseph K., thoroughly damned inside the bureaucratic confines of modernity, scans the horizon for help but only sees a vague anonymous figure in the distance hurrying to their own destination. The court officer in New York City, though he longs for some other, better existence, has confined his hope to fantasy. But, like everyone else, he labors unhappily day in and day out to maintain the present system (scanning others for implements of destruction).
Here is the madness of repetition-compulsion, the lack of fulfillment, why the Times called superhero films “hegemonic”, and “ingenuously populist”. The fantasy worlds created in advertisements are always themselves devoid of advertisements. That is to say, the world of advertisements helps us to escape from the world of advertisements. Part of the appeal of the carefully cultivated and edited mise-en-scenes in Steampunk, Victorian, faux Middle Ages (The Lord of the Rings), and faux magical modern (Harry Potter) films is that they either eliminate or pre-date the banal blight of ads (along with other modern blights like plastic and the contemporary styling of cars and architecture). In The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker walks through a high school full of dim greys and plaids though other elements, like his camera, are modern. T-shirts are blank. The end of the film is an embarrassing expression of wish fulfillment on the part of the filmmakers, where, in this pristine logoless landscape, Spider-Man’s logo appears and spreads like wildfire among groups aged 14-18, his franchise firmly re-established. Inevitable, hegemonic, multi-billion dollar superhero films sell us the fantasy of escaping from them, of destroying the system which they represent. And so the relief they offer is like scratching a mosquito bite. Often advertisements lure us to movies with a coded promise that the franchise will finally, mercifully, end and we will be released from our obligation to see another one if we just see this one. In the Batman comic book series, the villain Bane was invented for this very purpose, to boost sales with the idea that Batman would “end” following the “success” of the 90s “death” of Superman, and we see this reflected in the ads.
Zizek reads the death and re-incarnation of Batman at the end of The Dark Knight Rises as a decaf Christ who enjoys all the benefits of a selfless sacrifice without actually sacrificing anything (and who, in fact, receives a very selfish reward). But I think the ending is better read as an allegory. Batman the character represents Batman the franchise. We, the audience, understand that are we are being told in oblique language that Batman the franchise cannot truly be killed. The best that can happen is that he can retire for a time being to live high on the hog on the enormous wealth he has created. A little apologetically, the final scenes show us how the film has made a good faith effort to deliver on its promise that they would kill Batman. But inevitably, it confesses, a new up and coming actor (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) will eventually be hired to fill the ecological niche the franchise has left vacant.
News outlets were split on what to label the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. Some labeled it the “Batman Shooting”, others the “Aurora Shooting”, partly because the former, though it was the more obvious seemed to trivialize the massacre, but also because there was some reluctance to connect the shooting to the movie. For the most part, the filmmakers were looked upon as fellow victims, whose parade had been rained upon. And reminiscent of W.’s post 9/11 “go out and shop” advice, many articles fretted at the “pall” cast over the “celebratory events” of the film’s release and the amount of revenue which would be lost. And who can blame the press for wanting to avoid the tired “violent media begets violence” arguments of the 80s and early 90s? Though, of course, that analysis should really be reversed. Though the media certainly revels in violence, primarily it provides wish-fulfillment for a pre-existing socio-political sentiment— that of feeling trapped and wanting, beyond all hope, to escape. This is the scene to which The Dark Knight Rises’s title refers, in which Batman leaps out of a prison pit from which no one has escaped except sort of maybe, the villain, Bane.
I would argue that, besides a terminally broken national mental health care system, the themes of the ever more popular unhinged young American massacre are the same themes of The Dark Knight Rises—and as I have argued above, of all superhero films— the “hero’s” transcendence (his rise above and away from a world in which he is trapped and disdains) and the annihilation of that world through spectacular acts of villainous violence (see also V., Anonymous, and the Guy Fawkes Mask). Indeed, a great deal of investigative reporting was dedicated to the question of whether James Holmes was impersonating Batman or the Joker, the anarchic villain of the second film whose aim (unlike in the comics) is to destroy all ordered society in any manner he can.
Most telling was an early article on the shooting in The New York Times entitled, “Before and After Massacre, Puzzles Line Suspect’s Path”. Look past the illiterate mixed metaphor (Is Holmes, like some psychotic Hanzel, dropping puzzle pieces as his life path loses itself in the fantasy infested forest?) and focus on how the article portrays Holmes as someone who, despite initially winning fellowships, “struggled through his first academic year at the University of Colorado” and then “with his academic career in tatters, law enforcement officials say, Mr. Holmes began to assemble another plan”. Though the muddled prose makes it hard to determine whether the police or the Times itself is asserting this narrative, the journalist pieces together the initial disparate facts in a very peculiar way, ignoring the equally (if not more likely) possibility that Holmes did not go crazy because he was failing school but failed school because he began to go crazy— i.e. that James Holmes found contemporary academic and professional success so empty, antagonistic, and depressing that the experience exacerbated a pre-existing mental condition. Likewise in “James Holmes Bought Rifle After Failing Oral Exam at University of Colorado” we learn in the first line of the article that there was probably no connection between those two events since at that point he had “an already growing arsenal”.
In other words, the Times and ABC News went out of their way to portray a student bitter at losing the society’s rewards to hide the obscene obverse of that idea— that James Holmes was marginalized by success, not failure.
And indeed for all his success, Holmes did not appear to have achieved a particularly blessed state of existence. But rather, after toiling to reach the top one percent of his undergraduate class, he found himself living in run-down student housing in a “gang-ridden neighborhood” on an income of 26,600 dollars a year mid-way down the decades long pipeline (or depending on his standardized test scores, chute) of academic and professional requirements. One would wonder what happened the rest of his class, the 99 percent of graduates beneath him, except that we know; they—or those like them—appeared on Wall Street, debt-laden, futureless, and protesting a system which offers profoundly unfulfilling “rewards” for middle-class “success”.
If anyone, Holmes read as a sort of Bartleby like figure, who excelled at the grind of rote labor at the expense of his social and inter-personal skills, until finally, intensely isolated, he himself was rubbed away. We still don’t know much about him. But we do know that he was obsessed with super-heroes, and therefore the themes of escapism (remember in both the comics and the films Batman is trained by the most famous escape artists). I would guess that he hated his apartment (because he tried to blow it up), that he hated his fellowship (because he spent the money he was supposed to use to study on weapons), and that he gave his profession as “laborer” to the police to indicate both his contempt for his station in life (i.e. It is no better than being a laborer) and his escape from it (i.e. though he once was a Ph.D. candidate his actions have now demoted him to laborer).
The shooting itself reads as a sort of throwing-your-body-into-the-gears-of-the-machine moment. We see, in his horrible act, the dual poles of the Batman films, an attempt to very literally enter the fantasy of the Batman film (many new outlets commented on how Holmes’ massacre mirrored what was on screen), and the recognition of the franchise/fantasy as a totally unfulfilling means of addressing the problem of your escape and thus a wish to end the compulsive cycle—- to destroy it since it is part of the problem, to be equally Batman and Batman villain.
1The reader probably now has realized that we could perform the same analysis for The Avengers which has the exact same plot “device”.
3Die Hard: With a Vengeance (Die Hard III) is often cited. Though I think the most uncanny example is the “pilot” episode of The X-Files “spin-off” The Lone Gunmen which even incorporates the conspiracy theory.