Why Comics?

Posted: January 21, 2015 in Comics Studies

Understanding ComicsHaving just reread Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Artthe 1993 watershed book that broke open the field of Comics Studies,  I was struck by this short but sweet statement: “Comics IS a sight based medium.”  My next thought: if comics are sight based, I’ll bet they’re MIMETIC! Understanding Comics Page 202

MIMETIC THEORY is certain to shed all sorts of light on why thousands of Americans, McCloud included, are hooked to comics.  As McCloud says: “I  felt there was something lurking in comics… some kind of hidden power.”  In Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps, Pulitzer Prize comic artist, Art Spiegelman identifies a “‘secret language,’ of comix — the underlying formal elements that create the illusions.”  Comics may be site based, but there’s more to this medium than meets the eye…

Let’s take a closer look beginning with McCloud’s definition of comics:

Comics IS juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer. (Understanding Comics, 9)

Understanding Comics page 9Right off the bat McCloud’s definition is met with criticism.  For instance, Dylan Horroks in “Inventing Comics”  astutely and rightly points out that —

By saying, ‘This is comics,’ Scott is really saying: ‘This is what comics should be; it is what we should value most about them.’ On the other hand, he’s also saying what comics should not be, and, by implication, what we should value less about them.

Will EisnerBut we don’t have to subscribe to McCloud’s definition, as THE only definition, to explore Understanding Comics insights. For starts, McCloud’s definition takes its inspiration from Will Eisner’s famous classification of comics as Sequential Art: “comics employ a series of repetitive images and recognizable symbols.  When these are used again and again to convey similar ideas they become a language — a literary form, if you will.  And it is this disciplined application that creates the ‘grammar’ of Sequential Art.” (Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art)

sequential artMcCloud, a comic book artist in his own right, uses the comic medium to graphically illustrate how the mind processes this grammar.  Understanding Comics is actually written like a graphic novel.  The results are as illuminating as they are fascinating! Beginning with his visual treatment of “images in deliberate sequence,” Eisner’s “sequence of frames,” McCloud reveals one of comics’ most important hidden powers:

See that space between the panels?  That’s what comic aficionados have named the gutter, and despite its unceremonious title, the gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics. Nothing is seen between the two panels, but experience tells us something is there! Comics panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments, but closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality… in a very real sense Comics IS closure.  (Understanding Comics, 66)

Understanding Comics page 68McCloud insists that unlike film, in which CLOSURE is INVOLUNTARY because  the sequence of frames goes undetected, in comics  CLOSURE  is anything but involuntary. “Every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice… All of you participated in the murder. All of you held the axe and chose your spot.” (68) He goes on to claim that ” closure in comics fosters an intimacy surpassed only by the written word.”

McCloud could not be more correct, except on one point: that intimacy is itself aided and abetted by unconscious, pre-reflective responses in the brain. Before and below the level of conscious participation, those unconscious mechanisms have already been activated to fill the gaps in the sequence of frames. However we complete the action with the axe, our individual response is not freely chosen, but is determined by an unconscious power lurking within closure: MIMESIS (the unconscious imitation of others).  McCloud’s insistence that CLOSURE is a conscious act indicates he has fallen subject to what René Girard terms THE ROMANTIC LIE: the illusion that human beings are autonomous, self-directed individuals.  He wouldn’t be the first!

Nevertheless McCloud’s entire thesis need not be overturned.  Indeed, if we examine Understanding Comics through the lens of Mimetic Theory (MT), especially as MT intersects with the latest neuroscientific research, McCloud’s best insights take on a whole new life! Vittorio Gallese, one of the neuroscientists to discover MIRROR NEURONS, and connect that discovery with a theory of SOCIAL COGNITION (how we understand each others’ emotions, intentions, and desires), has used this same research to identify the brain structures responsible for MIMESIS:

Goal-directed motor acts are the nuclear building blocks around which action is produced, perceived, and understood….  several studies using different experimental methodologies and techniques have also demonstrated that in the human brain, the neural circuits underpinning action execution directly map its perception when executed by others.  These parieto-premotor networks are defined as the Mirror Neuron System (MNS).

Understanding Comics page 153 topIn simpler terms: the MNS is activated by the observation and execution of “mouth-, hand-, and foot-related acts,” or by the “pow” that knocks Batman’s villains flat. This suggests that whenever we read comics, our Mirror Neuron System is activated as the brain’s circuit board responsible for completing the gaps in the sequence of frames.  And that’s just the beginning:

Even more relevant… is  the discovery that the MNS in humans is directly involved in the imitation of simple movements, and the imitation learning of complex skills. (Vittorio Gallese et al, “Motor Cognition and its Role in Phylogeny and Ontogeny of Intentional Understanding,” Developmental Psychology 45 (2009), 103-13)

robin powWhen the MIRROR NEURON SYSTEM is engaged, for instance in the act of CLOSURE, a full array of brain phenomena are activated:

  • the “chameleon effect” or UNCONSCIOUS MIMICRY of observed postures, expressions, and behaviors
  • the perception of ACTIONS as forms of COMMUNICATION
  • the ability to READ OTHERS’ INTENTIONS
  • the processing of ACTION LOADED WORDS  and sentences!

All these brain activities are fired up, unbeknownst to us, in an UNCONSCIOUS collaboration between comic artist and audience! According to Gallese and others the MNS wires us for MIMESIS. From the moment of birth, the human brain, through the observation, interpretation, and imitation of others’ actions, is ever grasping for opportunities to learn the skills necessary for life. Understanding Comics page 67

In much the same way that a small child cannot resist a game of PEEK-A-BOO, we are hooked to comics because the juxtaposed sequence of frames provides our brains with endless opportunities for IMITATION LEARNING.

Gallese says the MIRROR NEURON SYSTEM is just one side of MIMESIS. Its role in mapping actions and intentions can not, on its own, enable social identification or mutual recognition in our relations with others — which will lead us, in the next post to explore another dimension of comics’ hidden MIMETIC powers — the MAPPING of THE FACE. In the meantime, I will leave us with something culled from Dylan Horrocks critique of Understanding Comics:

Understanding Comics is one of my favorite comics. It expresses and explores the same love for comics I’ve always felt but, like Scott, found all but impossible to share with people outside the comics community. It argues persuasively for comics’ limitless potential – that they needn’t be restricted to any particular styles, formats, subject matter or media. And it inspires cartoonists to ever more ambitious creativity – to fearlessly explore uncharted territory.

A potential limited, as is with all great literature, only by Mimesis…        ~ Sue Wright

thor vs. lokiWhy are comics obsessedHulk vs. the Thing
with RIVALRY? Its difficult to imagine Batman without the Joker, Thor without Loki, X without Magneto. Without these iconic clashes, superhero comics would probably disappear — so many of their story arcs are driven by what literary theorist René Girard terms MIMETIC RIVALRY.

Stories thrive on conflict between characters. By reading the great writers against the grain of conventional wisdom, Girard realized that people don’t fight over their differences. They fight because they are the same, and they want the same things. Not because they need the same things (food, sex, scarce material goods), but because they want what will earn others’ envy…. People can desire anything, as long as other people seem to desire it, too: that is the meaning of Girard’s concept of “mimetic desire.” Since people tend toward the same objects of desire, jealousy and rivalry are inevitable sources of social tension — and perfect themes for the great novelists. [A Very Brief Introduction]

wolverine-sabretoothAnd comics too! Not to mention the comic book movies. In The Avengers the MIMETIC RIVALRY between Loki and Thor drives the primary plot. As Thor says, “When I first came to Earth, Loki’s rage followed me here, your people paid the price. Now again.”

Shazam vs. SupermanBut  even more interesting are the rivalries that keep popping up amongst the Avengers themselves… As writer, director Joss Whedon explains: “The sort of glory of the Avengers is the dissonance you get between the Hulk, and Thor, and Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow and Hawkeye.” In scene 11, “Tensions Rise,” Cap and Tony Stark argue over who’s the real hero. Nick Fury and Thor argue about who’s the real threat: humans with their weapons, or the Asgardians with theirs? They are fighting, not over differences, but because they are too alike.

Cap and Tony

Bruce Banner: “What are we a team? No, we’re a chemical mixture that makes chaos, We’re a time bomb.”

Steve Rogers:  “Big name in a suit of armor, take that off what are you?”

Tony Stark: “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”Iron Man Cap Avengers II

Steve Rogers: ” I know guys with none of that worth ten of you…you better stop pretending to be a hero.”

Tony Stark: “A hero? Like you? You’re a lab rat, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle!”

Steve Rogers: “Put on the suit. Let’s go a few rounds.”

Thor: “You people are so petty, and tiny.”

Cap vs. Iron ManIn a smart cinematic moment, which is signature Joss Whedon, the cameras tilt and the room feels ready to spin out of control.  The mimetic rivalry, having gone contagious, as Girard explains it often does, escalates into an ALL AGAINST ALL. All the Avengers are drawn into the heat of the moment. Even Banner is about to lose control and turn into the Hulk. But worse, consumed with each other, the Avengers have lost sight of the real threat: Loki. Lucky for them, Loki chooses to launch an attack. The team is immediately transfigured as they reunite by redirecting the inner conflict outward againstCivil War a common enemy. But you can be sure the tensions will build again. Banner is right: MIMETIC RIVALRY is a time bomb!

After being criticized for his unconventional script, I wonder, will Joss Whedon let the internecine rivalries loose in the next Avengers: Age of Ulton? I hope so! It may determine whether the sequel will be as interesting as the first  Avengers movie. Either way, you can bet the rivalries will heat up again for the Civil Wars in Captain America 3.   ~ Sue Wright

Tony Stark’s Messiah Complex

Posted: November 20, 2014 in Iron Man

starkrollingstone1Why would Tony Stark, a self-serving, egotistical, playboy billionaire trade in the massive wealth amassed from weapons manufacturing to produce clean, renewable energy and give it away at no cost?  Looking back at Iron Man’s first appearance in Marvel’s Tales of Suspense #39 (March 1963), I doubt anyone, not even Iron Man’s creators, could have foreseen Tony’s radical change of heart.

Stan Lee devised Iron Man as a response to the 60’s Peace Movement:

I think I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military….So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist….I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him….And he became very popular.” ( Iron Man, Disc 2)

tony stark howard hughesTony Stark head shotLee modeled Tony Stark after Howard Hughes – the quintessential American capitalist, the epitome of American individualism.  Lee’s superhero not only fascinated reader from the start, but now, with Robert Downey’s latest incarnation for the Marvel movies franchise, Iron Man’s power to fascinate has increased exponentially… because without realizing it, Lee fashioned a superhero, whose greatest attribute is not as we might readily assume, Tony Stark’s technological genius or his invincible suit of armor, but his super mimetic powers.  As the ultimate ideal of American individualism, Tony Stark presents an irresistible object of MIMETIC DESIRE.

MIMETIC DESIRE is a kind of nonconscious imitation of others, but it is important to stress that the word, “imitation” has to be joined with the adjective “appropriative” or “acquisitive.” Mimesis seeks to obtain the object that the model desires. The function of culture is to control and channel this potential conflict over the object.” (James G. Williams, The Girard Reader, 290)

Tony Stark American PatriotIron Man’s mimetic powers become all the more significant when we realize that it’s through Tony’s character that comics’ self-reflection on its role in America’s militarization becomes most heightened. But that’s a topic for another post.

In the first Iron Man film, a reporter from Vanity Fair confronts him: “You’ve been called the DaVinci of our times… what about your other nickname the Merchant of Death?”  Tony’s not phased by that.  The voices of dissent have little to no impact on his celebrity status or his ethical conscience.  The media labels him a savior, THE arbiter of world peace.  His weapons are so powerful, that a mere show of their force paralyzes the enemy. And Tony actually believes this to be true; he obviously savors his role as savior. So what would lead him to question this?  It’s the inescapable fact, that Tony, despite all appearances of autonomy and self-sufficiency, has an Achilles heel: he, like every other superhero, has a rival he can’t get free of.

Tony Stark's sacred heartEvery superhero has its arch enemy,  a rival which often proves to be the superhero’s undoing.  The hero and their nemesis seem to share a special relationship, a kind of mutual obsession or codependency, which exceeds the limits of healthy competition.  They are engaged in what Girard identifies as MIMTETIC RIVALRY.

If the appropriative gesture of an individual named A is rooted in the imitation of an individual named B, it means that A and B must reach together for one and the same object. They become rivals for that object. If the tendency to imitate appropriation is present on both sides, imitative rivalry must tend to become reciprocal; it must be subject to the back and forth reinforcement that communication theorists call a positive feedback. In other words, the individual who first acts as a model will experience an increase in his own appropriative urge when he finds himself thwarted by his imitator… (Rene Girard, “Mimesis and violence: Perspectives in Cultural Criticism,” The Girard Reader, 9)

Cap vs. Red SkullThe imitation back and forth can become so intense, as each is model to the other, that the hero and his rival may begin to resemble or mirror each other.  Batman’s rivals are criminals, so he like them, enshrouds himself in the shadows of the night.  Captain America’s rivals are Nazis. Instead of donning a swastika, Cap dons the stars and stripes of the American flag.  thor_loki_blood_brothersThor is constantly at odds with his brother Loki.  Batman, Cap, Thor, or any of the superheroes lack the freedom to fashion their identity or their appearance out any spontaneous desire or preference of their own choosing… their identities as superheroes are always already mediated by the rival’s desire, in what Rene Girard terms the MODEL-OBSTACLE RELATIONSHIP.

So who is Tony Stark’s rival?  Tony is constantly besieged by competitors consumed with jealousy… but those rivalries are completely one sided. With finesse Tony nonchalantly brushes off these rival “wanna bees”.  He’s not interested in them because for him, they hold no mimetic power.  To identify Tony’s model-obstacle, we need to identity who it is he imitates,….and lo and behold, we discover it is none other than Jesus Christ. His hubris will allow nothing less. The Iron Man has got a big time messiah complex!

Tony stark crucifixBut don’t tell Tony Stark!  For sure, he’s convinced he is the ultimate self-made individual, the epitome of American ingenuity and autonomy.  But  the fact is, his very being is constituted by MIMETIC DESIRE, which always has its source in someone else.  This means that his individuality, and ours, is inescapably founded in INTERDIVIDUALITY.

INTERDIVIDUALITY highlights our relational and accordingly incomplete being. As the only neologism in mimetic theory, it is intended to correct the widespread notion that we have of humans as single, autonomous self-sufficient and self-directing individuals, an illusion that our greatest literary works regularly dispel. [Keywords in Mimetic Theory]

Our need to fill that hole within ourselves, sends us searching for models who possess what we lack. But again, their autonomy,  likes ours is an illusion — we never lay hold of the being we believe others to possess. In Tony’s case the very hubris which drives him to a rivalry with Jesus Christ, will, instead drive him to humility…. you can’t sell weapons of mass destruction and expect to beat the messiah at his own game!  ~ Sue Wright

Dark Knight PosterWhat makes Christopher Nolans’ film The Black Knight so compelling? Critics agree: Nolan strikes a deep chord with his portrayal of the rivalrous bond between the Batman and his arch nemesis, the Joker.  To watch the film, is to be drawn into the inner vortex of their mutually obsessive relationship.

The Batman and the JokerThe Joker, played by Heath Ledger,  refuses, when he has the chance, to kill his rival.  The conflict between the Batman and the Joker, which drive’s the movie’s plot, is by no means a cliche battle between good guy and bad guy, in which both sides seek to annihilate the other. The Joker needs the Batman, he’s fascinated by him, orchestrating ways to get close to the Batman, and insert himself into his life. Remember the Joker’s pivotal line, which on its own, won Heath Ledger the Oscar:

You complete me. [View on YouTube]

The-Dark-Knight-Rises-Trailer-fan-madeThis makes total sense in light of Mimetic Theory, what René Girard terms the Model-Obstacle Relationship: we are fascinated by our rivals, whose power to command our attention seems to derive from some autonomous inner source, when in fact it’s our desire which gives them that irresistible quality. This means that the Batman, though he won’t openly disclose it, may be just as dependent on the Joker for his self-concept and sense of being.

The model-obstacle is someone or something over whom the subject cannot win, or in some cases it would be accurate to say that the subject will not allow himself to defeat the model-obstacle, for to achieve that would be to lose the model. All sorts of self-defeating behavior, including addictions (so well described in Dostoyevsky’s writings), stem from this predicament. From the standpoint of the mimetic theory, it can only be understood in terms of the mimetic, interdividual character of human existence. The person in this predicament could be described as stumbling over or being blocked by the skandalon (Greek). (James G. Williams, The Girard Reader, 291)

Joker Movie PosterThe Batman, mirroring the fascination of his rival, also refuses, when given the chance, to kill his rival. Why is that? [View on YouTube] Does the Batman need the Joker too, in a kind reciprocity? Or was he acting out of compassion? We may never know.

Either way, the result is the same — rather than bring the conflict to it’s usual conclusion, in The Dark Knight the model-obstacle relationship intensifies. At movie’s climax, when the Batman finally has the Joker in his grip, rather than turn the Joker over to the authorities (his usual MO) the Batman lets the Joker go!

the batman and the joker mirror imageDoes this lead the Joker to repent or have a change of heart? The usual cliche movie plot? Not a chance! The Batman’s incredible self-control only makes him more attractive to his rival. But again, the Batman’s autonomous inner source is an illusion, fueled from the start by the Joker’s fascination. As their model-obstacle relationship intensifies on both sides, and each is transfigured by the desire of the other, it’s impossible to say who created who. – Sue Wright

Iron Man gone too extreme?

Posted: October 27, 2014 in Iron Man

In the pantheon of superheroes Iron Man is probably the figure most closely associated with cutting edge science and technology.  If you’ve read the comic or seen the movies, you know that Tony Stark’s superhero get-up is no ordinary disguise – Tony and his armor are bonded, they’re symbiotic. His life depends on his high tech suit. Unlike conjoined twins, they can’t be surgically separated.

Is Iron Man the prototype of humanity’s evolutionary vector — a vision of what’s to come?  Is it true what prophets of science say, that like Iron Man’s Extremis armor, our personal devices will, in the not so distant future, be directly wired to our central nervous systems? To the extent that we’ll be unable to discern the lines between where our humanity and our technology begins or ends?

But it’s not just the suit, it’s Tony’s worldview, approaching every problem thru science.  Like so many prognostications we might assume that this will inevitably distort his humanity.  The irony is, as Iron Man’s tech goes more extreme, the more human he becomes.  In Iron Man and Philosophy, Rocco Gangle makes just this point. Relying on philosopher Martin Heidegger’s treatment of technology, he argues that Tony Stark, by donning the Iron Man suit, injects technology with human subjectivity.

We see this conveyed clearly in the first film at the moment Tony Stark… discussing with a group of soldiers whether manned aircraft or unmanned drones make better strategic weapons…Tony offers a possibility none of those present had considered: “Why not a pilot without a plane?”… Tony Stark himself becomes a technological man who is not merely using technology but manifests technological power in person… Iron Man manages to unite technology with authentic responsibility.  (Iron Man and Philosophy).

Iron Man's First StepsThis sort of symbiosis doesn’t happen over night.  Over the decades, as real world technology accelerated, unimpeded, at ever faster rates, Tony Stark, the brilliant weapons manufacturer kept pace by making continuous upgrades to his armor. In the movies the timeline for this technological evolution is compressed. As is awakening of Tony’s heart, which in Iron Man 1 is placed at the beginning as part of the origin story.   In the comic book these developments span decades, emerging over the course of the comic’s history – both in terms of his armor and his evolving humanity. They are through and through products of nothing more and nothing less than Tony’s relentless pursuit of technology.

Iron man destroys tankAnd ours.  As Gangle says:

Heidegger insisted that the modern, scientific form of technology is also related to a new historical possibility for human freedom…

Tony Stark’s use of technology in building and wearing the Iron Man armor actually shows us a way that the power of technology can be harnessed to human individuality and ethically accountable action such that the worst tendencies of technology itself are resisted.

Here’s the point I want to stress. While Gangle, following Heidegger, may be correct, that whatever humanistic hopes and dreams lie ahead for our species, they will, like Iron Man, be products of technological advancement, hypo-statically united, with no possibility of separating out the man from the machine — one nagging question remains.  

the death of iron manWhat actually gives rise to Tony’s ethical conscience?  His new found sense of responsibility?  Heidegger would say it’s a choice made by the courageous individual. For sure, Tony’s immersion in his protective armor, rather than desensitizing him to the world around him, has made him more aware of his vulnerability as a flesh and blood human being, and with this more responsive to the evils technology so often proliferates, Stark’s own technology included. Surely it’s symbolic that the first Avengers movie ends with Iron Man’s incredible act of heroism.  It’s the weapons manufacturer turned subatomic superhero, the only Avenger who manifests that technology in his own person, who saves NYC from the detonation of an nuclear weapon of mass destruction.  That much rings true, but still, Heidegger cannot account for the true source of Iron Man’s ultimate change of heart… when, at the height of his powers, Tony Stark experiences a complete collapse of his freedom and autonomy.

For this we will turn, in my upcoming posts, to the theories of René Girard…                      – Sue Wright

Who is that masked man?

Posted: October 17, 2014 in Batman
Tags: , , , ,

Why is The Batman such an ambiguous figure? Unlike Superman or Captain America, the Batman, dark and brooding, casts a frightening silhouette against the night sky.

The very first lines of the very first issue released in 1939 describe the Batman as “a mysterious adventurous figure fighting for righteousness and apprehending the wrongdoer, in his lone battle against the evil forces of society… his identity remains unknown.

Like most superheroes, the Batman keeps his identity hidden behind a mask.  But why doesn’t he  adopt a more wholesome appearance? Make it clear that he’s one of the good guys?  Instead the Batman chooses to imitate the very criminals he’s out to capture. It’s no surprise then, that throughout the comic’s history, the people of Gotham turn on their protector, time and again. Must the Batman be so dark and mysterious? 

In the sixth issue, DC #33, we get his back story:  The boy Bruce Wayne, in the course of an armed robbery, witnessed his parents’ murders close hand. Kneeling at the side of his bed, he swore to avenge their deaths by dedicating the rest of his life to warring on all such criminals.

At first glance, Wayne appears to be a run of the mill vigilante. Motivated by revenge, he takes the law into his own hands, imposing justice in a society plagued by crime and corruption. Hmm… is that legal?

The fact is, the advent of the Batman Comic coincides with a specific moment in American history. In the first decades of the 20th century, an unmitigated rise in organized crime, political corruption, bank robberies and lawlessness, left honest officials and the American public feeling helpless and demoralized. I suggest you Google “Al Capone,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Baby Face Nelso, and “John Dillinger” — you’ll see what I mean — why comics from the 1930’s glorified vigilantes, self-appointed crime fighters, like the Batman, who took matters in to their own hands.

But unlike the typical vigilante, Batman doesn’t inflict his own punishment or exact personal revenge upon the criminals he apprehends. He almost always turns the criminals over to the police. But again, given his cooperation with the justice system, I can’t help but question his choice of disguise; it’s a bit over the top. Vigilantes tend to hide their identities to avoid being caught. Why does Bruce Wayne choose to imitate a bat: with a cape that extends like bat wings, with gloves are clenched like bat claws, wearing mask resembling a bat’s head with pointy ears and slit eyes. Wouldn’t a simple Lone Ranger mask suffice? Why the bat costume?  I suspect Batman’s disguise serves another purpose altogether, that his role is far more dark and mysterious than that of any vigilante.   

René Girard‘s description of the shaman’s use of animal masks for ceremonial rituals casts a provocative light on Batman’s ambiguous role and appearance:

[Animal] Masks stand at that equivocal frontier between the human and the ‘divine,’ between a differentiated order in the process of disintegration and its final undifferentiated state – the point where all differences, all monstrosities are concentrated, and from which a new order will emerge…( Violence and the Sacred, 168)

That is, Batman stands, a lonely silhouette, on the brink between a break down of law and order and it’s descent into complete lawlessness. The shaman imitates the animals and the monstrosities breaking down the community from within. On some imaginative level he’s able to harness and redirect these “evil forces” into rituals which restore order.  Like the shaman, Bruce Wayne enshrouds himself in the same stealth and cunning the crooks and robbers use to prey on their victims at night. Masked as a bat, an ambiguous creature which is neither human nor divine, Batman is the only figure able to master these lawless animals and round them up for prosecution, he is the only one to command order out of chaos.

But there’s more:  The first issue of Batman (DC #27) appeared in May 1939, on the eve of World War II, coinciding with the birth of the superhero genre as a whole.  Preoccupied with internal tensions, the US did not enter the war until two years later. It took time to shift her internal energies, and especially the public’s attention, outward. In more ways than one, comics played a significant part in this, beyond just recruiting America’s youth for the war effort – once America mobilized all her resources for war it didn’t take long for a new order to emerge: within a decade the US became a world super power. The monsters at home which had plagued the population for decades were finally subdued as our internal lawlessness was redirected towards foreign enemies: Germany and Japan and later the Soviet Union. On some imaginative level Batman stands at the nexus of this process,  rounding up the internal forces threatening the community from within and redirecting them toward a common enemy.   But again, Batman is not the one to carry justice to its socially sanctioned ends, that’s left to the unambiguous heroes of the new order: Superman and Captain America.

Once the “evil forces” are redirected and order’s restored, Girard warns, the “masks disappear,” “the monsters once again assume human form.” The question then becomes: what happens to the Batman’s role when the shaman’s mask is no longer needed?  – Sue Wright