Take Back the Knight
Today is the anniversary of the Dark Knight Massacre in Aurora, Colorado. This day had a profound effect on me for a number of reasons. For starters, the knee-jerk reaction to blame Batman and comics and the attempts to ban costumes from theatres is part of what made me finally get around to starting that banned books blog I’d been thinking about for a year. This outraged me, not only because it does nothing to address the problem, because it is yet another example of scapegoating youth/fringe media, or even because of my lifelong resistance to censorship and arbitrary rule enforcement.
It was because I grew up on Batman. And I saw firsthand how this amazing community of fans, whether casual or diehard, rose up with a strength of spirit that moved me to tears. This community, which people looking for an explanation were so quick to blame, showed us the true meaning of Batman, of fans, and of heroes.
Immediately after the shooting, images and art of Batman mourning for Aurora began flooding social media, as pins, as profile pictures, as cover photos. And of course this image was spread far and wide by people smart enough to know that Batman has a more strident anti-gun message than just about anything else in the media. Then there were the survivors returning the next night to see the movie through, Christian Bale visiting the injured at the hospital, survivors wearing their Batman t-shirts to court, and one couple even got married today as a defiant way of taking back the date and the memory of that night.
Even here in NH, I saw a display of solidarity with our fellow fans and our wounded nation. The day after the shooting I attended a yearly outdoor marketplace-style festival here in my hometown. I lamented that my only Batman apparel was a rather skimpy set of pajamas so I could not display my defiance, solidarity, and pride as I wished to. I settled on my Green Lantern t-shirt, which I had previously decided never to wear outside the house again due to some harassment issues I have had while wearing it. However, at the festival I was met with Batman t-shirt after Batman t-shirt in a place I had long viewed as bereft of my nerdy brethren. I have never seen so many people in Batman t-shirts in one place in my life (an impressive feat given the circles I run in).
This simple show of strength made me feel hopeful, not because there were other nerds out there, but because there were so many people who had grown up on Batman’s message of trying to make right a world that has gone so wrong, to be the one brave enough to demand justice amidst darkness, to do all we can to keep gun violence (or violence of any kind) from destroying anymore lives.
Yet Batman’s potent message about tragedy and heroism is not alone. In thinking over this day, it occurred to me that the animated children’s programs I grew up on have more thoughtful insights on these issues than any politician or news coverage I have seen. So, I thought I would take this blog post as an opportunity to look at and recognize two of these programs.
BATMAN BEYOND (1999-2001)
Considered the 40th best animated show of all time by IGN, Batman Beyond takes a bleak look at Gotham’s future, examining social ills, corrupt business and politics, and even Bruce Wayne’s own faults and issues in an unusual self- deconstruction of its own myth. Set in 2039, the show follows troubled teen Terry McGinnis as he is begrudgingly taken under the batwing of a seriously bitter and damaged Bruce Wayne.
This show would probably have been great on this front to start with, as it featured a young and angry Batman with a criminal record trying to find his way in a polluted and crime-ridden Gotham beset by corrupt adults and futureless youth. However, Columbine happened shortly after the show hit the air. Columbine not only shook the country, but it changed what was allowed on television, especially in children’s programs.
Due to this, many of the episodes are reactionary to Columbine and seek to address the issues it raised. A few confront the issue of school shooters directly, the first one with Willie Watt being the most noteworthy. There are also several episodes that address the mental health system and attempts to fix behavioral problems among teens.
While the teens of Gotham are desperately in need of some kind of guidance and intervention, these storylines are not cut and dry, showing the dark side of school guidance councilors, misguided parents, or nefarious treatment centers that do more harm than good. Batman has long showed the mental health system as a broken, Bedlam-esque sham, but Batman Beyond takes that legacy in a new, more timely direction that uses Terry and Bruce’s complicated relationship and differing morality/perception to illustrate the generational tensions felt on a larger scale by Gotham (and our own society).
Numerous other episodes address troubled teens; bullying; gang violence; school violence; dating violence; kids getting in over their head due to the influence of less morally inclined friends; drug use; performance enhancing drugs; dysfunctional family dynamics, be it abusive or inattentive parents, or angry kids acting out in ways their parents don’t know how to handle; and various issues with subcultures/countercultures (so. many. subcultures.).
While this show is darker than most children’s programming, it deserves great praise, both for being a well-written, compelling show and for its superbly done social commentary. Batman Beyond never falls into the old television trap of reducing serious issues into plot points that can be easily and permanently fixed in one half-hour long episode. All of the issues addressed are given the respect and realism they deserve, showing their complexity as well as numerous viewpoints on the matter from different sets of perspectives and experiences. Very few of them have easy answers. Many are left with ambiguous or unsettling endings and often come up again in later episodes.
This show may expose children to concepts that make some parents uncomfortable, but it always shows the often serious consequences of our actions. It also gives kids someone to relate to in Terry. Batman and Superman, enduring and iconic as they are, are superhuman figures (Yes, even though Batman has no powers. His superpower is being the god damn Batman, thank you.) who always save the day. Terry is not an ideal. Terry makes mistakes. Terry screws up. And the consequences are far more permanent than in most children’s shows.
Terry, like us, has to find a way to be a good person in a complex world where the right thing is not always clear, safe, or even possible. This show and the lessons or questions it offers are impressive to this day and will no doubt stay with the viewer long after the Batman action figures have been packed away (or arranged meticulously on their desk at work).
Gargoyles is a uniquely cultured children’s program featuring a group of Scottish gargoyles who awaken from a cursed stone sleep after many centuries and find themselves in the New York of the 1990s. This culture shock allows the show the licence and opportunity to explore the strengths and ills of modern American culture.
However, one episode in particular addressed gun violence head-on. An episode in the first season entitled “Deadly Force” has the gargoyle Broadway playing with the gun of police officer and friend to the gargoyles, Elisa. This results in the accidental and almost lethal shooting of Elisa.
Guns, ray guns, phasers, tazers, lasers, and all manner of other hand-held weapons are so common in entertainment made for or viewed by children (especially before Columbine) that they sometimes lose their severity and can come to be viewed as a cool toy (especially as many toy stores sell cool toy guns). This episode shows the seriousness of gun safety by nearly killing its main human character. It shows guns as the deadly weapons they are and how they should only be used by those who know how to operate and handle them safely, such as an officer of the law like Elisa. Again, the consequences of Broadway’s actions last longer than one episode. Subsequent episodes show Elisa recovering and on crutches. Broadway forever after dislikes guns and, like Batman, refuses to use them.
Unfortunately, this episode was taken off the air because it contained gun violence. I cannot express just how stupid this act of censorship was. The whole point of this episode is that gun violence is bad. It’s basically a PSA on gun safety. What were these people thinking?
The show was aired again in 2002, but edited to cover up the blood. Again, this is beyond stupid. That’s the whole point. Gun violence is real. It has real consequences. And those consequences invariably involve the red human blood of someone like Elisa Maza.
Both Batman Beyond and Gargoyles address serious issues such as gun violence or random acts of mass violence in intelligent and thought-provoking ways that remain both topical and profound today. To top it off, both shows also feature high-profile interracial couples, women in high-ranking positions or traditionally male fields, and heaping helpings of moral ambiguity. I tip my hat to them. Perhaps if our news media and politicians were half as brave or understanding as these writers and creators, our world might just become a better place.
Some may dismiss comics, movies, and children’s cartoons, saying Batman and his kind are just entertainment, with nothing to offer on any serious issues. However, as both a fan and an anthropology student, I know the power of an enduring character and a compelling story.
Batman, Superman, Robin Hood, King Arthur, they are more than stories. They are the story of us: our fears, our anxieties, our strengths, and our triumphs. They are an icon, a symbol, capable of providing strength; solace; and, most importantly, community.
In a world where one fateful night at the movies can irrevocably alter someone’s life, Batman did not give into despair, cynicism, or hopelessness. He responded to violence at the movies by the becoming the hero young Bruce wished had been there. And we can too. Not by being costume vigilantes or hunting criminals but by taking Batman’s message of heroism amidst madness and apathy to heart.
We can all be heroes: in how we treat each other, how we protect each other, how we stand up for each other, and how we view the strangers beside us. The people at the theatre who threw themselves over loved ones to shield them or tried to save others are heroes. The people haunted by that night who find the strength to keep going or take back control are heroes. The people who strive to break the cycle of violence and prevent another Aurora are heroes.
We are all capable of strength, of bravery, and of compassion. In a sense, we are all Batman. So, on this day we remember. And on this evening we take back the Knight.
In Darkest Night – A reaction to the Sandy Hook shooting
The Most Dangerous Game – Video games as gun violence scapegoats
Superhero Registration Act? – Banning costumes in NYC
No Capes – Banning superhero play at pre-school
Dungeoned Master – D&D, censorship, and scapegoating fringe/youth media