What has Gotham to do with Jerusalem?
October 5, 2015
In the world of comic books, people don't get more evil than the Joker, but thankfully Batman exists to restrain the evil that the Joker unleashes on Gotham City. The struggle between Batman and the Joker entertains us, but these stories exhibit a dark pre-Christian aesthetic which hearkens back to the myths of the classical pagans. Like those old stories, the Batman mythos tries to make sense of the struggle between good and evil that every person faces in this fallen world. In fact, part of Batman's appeal lies in his everyman status as one of the few superheroes who doesn't have superpowers. Batman exemplifies the classical virtues or justice, wisdom, courage, and self-control in his fight against evil, but my Augustinian pessimism doubts that he can actually save Gotham from the Joker's destructive irrationality.
The Joker first appeared in Batman #1 in 1940, which makes this his 75th anniversary. Many golden-age heroes and villains have had their look updated over the years, but the Joker's signature characteristics are present in that first story. He has the distinctive green hair and white skin, and he sports a purple suit and bow tie. His expression combines blood-red lips pulled back in a grin with eyes filled with hatred. And from the very beginning, he kills with his special joker toxin that leaves his victims with a ghastly grin in death.
The Joker became Batman's signature villain because he was the perfect counterpoint to the Dark Knight. Physically he was bright and gaudy while Batman was dark and somber, and mentally the Joker's insane genius was at odds with Batman's scientific rationality. The one thing they had in common in that first story was a love of bad puns.
Many readers are surprised to discover how dark those early Joker stories were because Caesar Romero's campy depiction of the Joker in the 1960s television series fixed itself in the popular imagination. In his first appearance, the Joker murders at least seven people in a variety of ways before Batman finally manages to stop him. In the 1950s, the government began pressuring publishers to abandon gore and horror in their comics, and the Joker ceased to be a homicidal maniac and became a thieving prankster.
In the 1970s, however, government restrictions relaxed, and comics writers began exploring darker themes. DC Comics embraced the original vision for the character, and the Joker returned to his homicidal ways. Gotham sent the criminally insane Joker to Arkham Asylum, which becomes a special hell on earth, instead of prison. Criminal insanity has always been an important aspect of the Batman mythology. All of Batman's most famous adversaries are criminally insane, with the possible exception of the Penguin, and some traumatic event usually induced this insanity.
Comic-book characters need a compelling origin story, and for Batman's enemies, the origin story often explains how they started on the path of evil. One could argue that the manner in which the comics explain evil is difficult to reconcile with Christian theology because in Gotham City, people aren't born evil. Instead, bad things happen to them that drive them insane. Two-Face was a good man who had half of his face burned in acid. Other villains, such as the Penguin, Scarecrow, and Killer Croc, were driven to crime because of childhood bullying. Mr. Freeze gets caught in a cryogenic accident trying to save his terminally ill wife. Evil comes from outside and harms a vulnerable individual, causing him to become evil. From an Augustinian perspective, this explanation of an exterior evil is sub-Christian. The doctrine of original sin asks us to recognize that we have evil in our hearts prior to the world inflicting itself upon us. Original sin is an aspect of our origination.
On the other hand, one could plausibly argue that comic characters are not born at all; rather they originate in their origin stories. Analyzing Batman's enemies from this literary perspective actually brings their stories in line with classic Augustinian theology because they originate in sin, which causes them to sin. Augustine suggested that turning away from ultimate good towards something else, even if it too is good, is the heart of evil. For example, Poison Ivy becomes evil because she loves plants more than humans. Plants are good, but she's given them priority, which is evil. Similarly, Harley Quinn falls in love with the Joker, which causes her descent into evil.
Christianity teaches that the world is fallen because all humans are fallen, but often the comics writers indicate that Gotham itself is the problem and it drags the people down. This theology of Gotham is more palatable to the modern secular world than the doctrine of original sin. Since the Enlightenment, people have often thought that we can change humans for the better if we change the social structure. But isn't the social structure actually built upon the evil which lives in the hearts of individuals?
The Joker received his first origin story in 1951, and his original origin doesn't contain this trope that evil is an outside force that infects vulnerable people. Before he swam through the toxic liquid which would turn his skin white and his hair green, he was already a criminal named the Red Hood who was trying to steal a million dollars. This origin fits within the Augustinian framework of evil as disordered love. The Joker loved a million dollars more than he loved goodness, and his decision to steal started him on a path of evil that culminated in his transformation.
Eventually, however, not even the Batman's ultimate villain could resist our culture's pressure to explain away evil as something that forces itself upon us from the outside. The Killing Joke (1988) gives the Joker a new origin story and transforms him into a sympathetic figure. He's a failed comedian who only agreed to wear a red hood and steal in order to provide for his pregnant wife. At the end of the story, his wife and child die not long before he falls into the toxic liquid. He cannot cope with the loss, and he emerges from the chemicals as violently insane.
Just as Gotham City symbolizes this fallen world, criminal insanity is Gotham's version of evil. At first this too may seem to be at odds with a Christian understanding of evil, because insanity limits someone's moral culpability. However, if one puts aside the issue of culpability, this interpretation of evil also fits nicely within an Augustinian framework.
Augustine believed that evil has no substance; rather it is the deprivation of goodness. This idea of deprivation leads him to think of evilness as a move towards non-existence. The human soul in the grips of evil actually exists less fully than a human soul that clings to the good and the true. But what is a soul? Augustine usually equated the soul with the rational mind--this he believed was the image of God. The beasts live and breathe and have consciousness, but rationality belongs to human beings who, by means of this rationality, have the ability to recognize God.
Just as evil is the deprivation of goodness, the human mind deprived of rationality moves away from the image of God. Gotham City's villains, therefore, possess a criminal insanity which becomes an excellent metaphor for evil from an Augustinian perspective. Augustine warned that an evil heart sets itself up as God and has selfish motives in its dealings with other people. In Gotham, the villains' lack of rationality manifests itself in delusions of grandeur--e.g., Maxie Zeus actually thinks he's a god--and a lack of charity for their neighbors.
The Joker becomes the embodiment of evil because his insanity runs the deepest. In his latest incarnation the Joker sows chaos and destruction with the ultimate goal of driving others to insanity. He is less concerned with profit and more concerned with depriving the world of rationality. Just as Satan turned humanity away from God and goodness, the Joker targets the citizens of Gotham in order to drive them mad. Satan enslaves people by promising them a certain type of freedom, and comics writers often work into the Joker's mythos the idea that through inspiring insanity, he's attempting to set people free.
The Joker wants to remake the world into his own insane image. Why else would his joker toxin leave his victims with a death grin that mirrors his own ghastly visage? Augustine would argue that the Joker isn't remaking the world; rather he's attempting to unmake the world. Chaos and irrationality tend towards non-existence, and the Joker consigns those around him to a special hell of violence and nonsense.
The only person stopping Gotham's descent into madness is Batman. Batman is the soul of Gotham City, because as "the world's greatest detective," Batman embodies Gotham's rational mind. Batman's rationality keeps the Joker's wicked irrationality in check, which perhaps explains why the Joker continually tries to convince Batman that they aren't really too different. Increasingly the Joker designs his diabolical plots to test the strength of Batman's rationality.
Let's be honest. The Joker is right to question Batman's mental health--the man dresses in a bat costume. How sane could he possibly be? Augustine reminds us that the redeemed person will possess a rational mind that is being conformed to the image of Christ. Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, has conformed himself to the image of the bat. He has moved himself away from rationality and towards the level of the beasts in his fight against crime. The Joker attempts to corrupt Batman's rationality because he senses that Batman is halfway to crazy.
Earlier this year, Batman and the Joker actually managed to kill each other in the comic books. Rationality absorbed all the hate and violence that irrationality could muster, and in the end they cancelled each other out. Batman might be the most rational person in Gotham City, but that doesn't mean that he's playing Jesus to the Joker's Satan. Dying a noble death wasn't enough for Batman to achieve a final victory over evil; Scott Snyder, the writer responsible for killing them, claims that he's got an ingenious idea for bringing them both back. Batman theology posits an eternal struggle between light and darkness. Christianity claims that only the light is eternal.
Therefore, our Augustinian reading of the comics must reject Batman as a kind of Christ-figure, but Augustine's City of God opens another possibility for understanding the Batman mythology. In his magnum opus, Augustine claims that the "city of man" brings a semblance of peace and justice to the fallen world. The human governments of the world make up this city of man, and Augustine offers the Roman Empire as the preeminent example. Augustine claimed that Rome fought its wars of conquest with the ultimate goal of bringing about peace. Though the Roman desire for peace might have had selfish motives behind it, peace itself is a noble goal because peace is in fact also the goal of God's kingdom.
The Romans fought to institute a shadow of divine peace and justice, but they didn't have divine virtue at their disposal. Instead they used the shadow virtues of the fallen world to enforce their Pax Romana. Augustine thought that the most we could say for Roman virtue was that they were splendid vices that kept even worse vices in check. This Augustinian assessment of Rome suits Batman well.
Batman uses darkness, fear, and violence to keep even greater darkness, fear, and violence in check. His goals might be noble, but the tools that he uses are still the tools of his enemies. Gotham has no savior; it has a dark avenger. Perhaps this difficult reality is behind those cryptic words at the end of Christopher Nolan's film, The Dark Knight (2008): "He's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now." Gotham symbolizes the fallen world. Does the fallen world really deserve anything better than a grim dispenser of justice? The Roman caesars were the heroes that the world deserved in the first century, but God in his graciousness sent Jesus, the hero that the world actually needed.
Collin Garbarino is an assistant professor of history at Houston Baptist University. He enjoys discussing church history, mystery novels, and Louisiana culture. His favorite conversation partners are his wife and four children