This isn't the column I had intended to write. It's not even the one I thought I had to. It's the one that forced itself from my unsuspecting fingers as they danced unbidden across the keyboard. It's been a difficult one, and has changed many times since I started writing it, over five weeks ago. As you will see, it has been changed still further by recent events. Many things that I wanted to say have been superseded by things that have happened during the writing of this, and the entire character of what I meant to say has changed. I've tried hard to hammer it into some sort of coherent shape – I hope it still makes sense…
Comics have always had what I'm going to describe as an interesting relationship with guns. Many embrace firearms with the same enthusiasm as other areas of popular entertainment. There are certainly as many – if not more – gun toting characters in comics as there are in movies or on TV. From the Punisher to King Mob and all points in-between, the pages of comics just drip with firearms.
Then again, the characters that are – for me at least – the major heroes have little truck with them. Batman, famously has not time for them at all. Nor do any of the extended Bat-Family*. Superman too eschews firearms, although to be fair when you can shoot laser beams out of your eyes carrying a pistol would seem a little superfluous. Spider-Man is a gun free zone, and I can't think of any of the X-Folk who carry a weapon as a matter of routine.
It really is the Bat who epitomises the anti-gun stance of the "big heroes" though. I've been reading his stories for a quarter of a century, and my collection extends a long way before that. In every single one of the several hundred issues of Batman titles I possess he is a fierce opponent of any kind of gunplay and despises those who cower behind them.
Of course, it wasn't always this way. In the very beginning the Batman was pretty cavalier with human life. Not only did he use guns, but villains were also thrown from high buildings and dropped into vats of acid – the whole "no killing, no guns" thing came much, much later. Over the years though it's something that has become utterly absorbed into the whole Bat mythos, and for a long time the idea of Batman with a gun in his hand has been unthinkable.
If the whole "no guns" thing is a later addition to the Batman legend, there has been one thread that has run through his story almost since the very beginning. It's an uncomfortable thread for me – the idea that mental illness is likely to make you a dangerous criminal. In the real world nothing could be further from the truth – the fact is that if mental illness makes a person a danger to anybody, it makes them a danger to themselves.
Things are apparently different in Gotham though. Gotham is a city full of murderous crazy people – why else would they be sent to the "Arkham asylum for the Criminally Insane" when they get caught? This doesn't happen in other comics. Marvel heroes send their super-powered miscreants to Riker's, for example. Oh, and before you say it, I know that sane Bat-Villains go to Blackgate, but they hardly ever do, do they? It is Arkham that looms over the wrongdoers of Gotham City.
I've mused on this fact before. I'm uncomfortable with it because, as a depressive, I have a mental illness. Not a serious one, perhaps, although when the black dog comes calling it certainly feels pretty serious, let me tell you**. Many of you reading this know exactly what I'm talking about, of course, because many of you have been through it. Mental illness, whether it's depression, bi-polar disorder, or even psychosis is remarkably common, for something that nobody talks about.
Which is why the recent events in Colorado have rocked me to my core.
I mean, I'd have been shocked anyway. Such a senseless act of violence would have been terrible in any context. But it wasn't just any context. It was a Batman movie. It was a perpetrator who was originally reported as having green hair shouting "I am the Joker!" It was an atrocity right in the heart of my mental backyard. You see, since I was about sixteen years old comics in general, but Batman in particular have been my crutch. Whenever life gets too much, I've gone and hidden in a Batman comic. What happened in Colorado has invaded that bit of safe space with something hideous.
So I find myself trying to make sense of it. There must be a reason why this terrible thing happened. As a Brit, my first instinct is to blame (what the British see as) the insane ease with which Americans can get hold of a firearm. Over here the idea that a twenty four year old student could be in possession of a shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle and a Glock handgun is nothing short of incomprehensible. Indeed, over here, the only weapon that would be legal for private ownership would be the shotgun. As for tear gas? Forget it.
But it can't just be that. As at least one American commentator has pointed out in the aftermath of the atrocity, banning guns would have made no difference – if somebody is determined to do something like this they will find a way to get the weapons. The fact that we've had mass shooting incidents in the UK over the years kinda proves that.***
So what else could it be? I've heard the alleged***** perpetrator , James Holmes described as both "a nut" and "A loon". Certainly his actions would, to put it mildly, suggest a pretty high level of mental instability. Somehow the face that he did what he did in a theatre showing The Dark Knight Rises seems to bring a few uncomfortable threads together . A "Crazed Gunman" disrupting a screening of a movie about a character famous for hating guns. A "Crazed Gunman" in a movie about a character whose arch nemesis is famously crazy.
Of course, at what is perhaps the most important level, it doesn't matter. Whatever his motives, whatever his mental state, there can be no excuse for what James Holmes did. But I find myself wondering. Would he have done what he did in any case, regardless of the movie that was playing at the time, or was The Dark Knight Rises a deliberate choice? Was Batman somehow important in this man's thinking?
There are questions here that may never be answered – questions that perhaps don't even have answers. But we should explore them nonetheless.
So first thing's first. Does violence and gunplay in comics (or movies, or whatever) lead to violence and gunplay in real life? Can Batman comics and films really be held to blame – even partially – for what happened in that theatre? There are those who would say "yes". There has always been a vocal lobby****** of people who think that any representation of violence that a child is exposed to will necessarily lead that child to imitate that violence, but I've never really bought that.
As a child I used to go out of my way to watch violent TV and movies – mostly because I wasn't allowed to, and I've never taken instructions well. In my life I have been in exactly three fights*******. Three and a half if you count the one me and my mates broke up once. I didn't start any of them. I didn't enjoy any of them********. I don't like violence in real life. I recognise it as the ugly, destructive and painful thing that it is.
I understand the difference between real violence and fictional violence. Fictional violence can be cool. Fictional violence can be funny – whether it's Tom and Jerry or John Travolta's character in Pulp Fiction accidentally shooting that guy in the face. If it were real it would be horrific. But it isn't.
But see here's the thing.
I'm never going to go and shoot people in a movie theatre. As a depressive I have a
mental illness, but I'm not crazy. Whilst I might have a tendency to dwell on the negative, I remain rational. Other people, perhaps, don't see the world like the rest of us. I can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. I suspect that you can to. But can everybody? During a psychotic episode the line between reality and fiction can get a little blurred, or so I'm told. In those circumstances might a psychotic individual develop a fixation they then act out? More to the point, if they do, is that the fault of the comic? And if it is, then what do we do about it? What, in fact can we do about it?
People who are determined to do bad things will try to do them. Banning the things they do them with might well make it more difficult for them, but as I've already said, banning most firearms in the UK hasn't prevented our own mass-shooting outrages. If anything the British experience shows that you simply can't legislate evil deeds out of existence. If we truly believed that twisted people imitated the actions they saw in the media, well. we'd have to ban everything from Aquaman to Zatanna. I don't believe that. It's possible that people who would commit great crimes are influenced in terms of the way they do things , but the atrocities they commit are entirely their own.
Ultimately it is down to us, as members of society to do two things. Firstly we must treat the perpetrators of terrible acts, like James Holmes, with humanity and justice, because it really is important that we do not become them. But more than that, we need to look at ourselves.
We really do need to judge each other less and support each other more. We need to accept each other for what we are, whatever our belief, outlook or mental state. Batman may well live in a world where it is important to challenge those who think differently, and I for one love to read his stories. But they are stories. In the real world it would be better if we embraced those differences and moved on.
Would such an attitude have prevented the atrocities on Colorado?
I doubt it.
But would such an attitude make life easier for people whose mindsets tend to set them apart for the "mainstream"? Yes. Yes it would. And in my experience such people are disproportionately well represented in the ranks of comic book readers, which means that they are also disproportionately represented amongst readers of this column.
And yet, again from my experience, comics readers can be terrifyingly intolerant of each other. Say something even slightly controversial on the internet and suddenly we're in the middle of a flame war between people who have far more in common with each other than most of the rest of the people on the planet. Seriously. We need to come together and give each other a bit of support.
There will always be aberrations like James Holmes. Given the way comic book readers continue to be sidelines by "mainstream" culture it seems likely that they will continue to be drawn disproportionately from the ranks of "genre" fans. That's not because we're all strange and dangerous, but because strange and dangerous personalities will continue to be drawn to minority cultures like our own.
If the monster who committed the murders in Colorado had never heard of the Batman or the Joker he would still have done what he did. It was not the fault of comics, or culture, only of the perpetrator and his failure to recognise, or care about the difference between right and wrong. All we can do is stand against such nonsense, and offer whatever support we can to the victims of this appalling crime.
Comics do need to look again at the way they portray mental health, but the existence of the Joker did not drive this man to murder. More than seventy years of characterisation isn't going to change overnight, and I wouldn't want it to. As a person with a mental illness, I would just ask that you , as a reader, make sure you understand the difference between story and reality the next time you step into Arkham.
*Well, there's The Red Hood/Jason Todd of course, but he's an aberration on so many levels…
**Although, once I got a diagnosis and some treatment it became a lot easier to deal with. I know what it is now, and so when the black dog turns up I can usually think myself out of it.
***Then again, I am reminded of Batman telling Robin "The man who killed my father couldn't have done it without a gun"****. Perhaps if there were fewer guns around such shootings would be less likely to happen.
****I'm quoting from memory, and may not have the wording quite right. I can't cite it accurately either, although I think it's from Batman: Year Two.
*****I say "alleged". From the reports I've seen there doesn't seem to be much of a doubt about the fact that he did it.
******I've always thought of them as the "won't somebody think of the children" crowd.
*******For the record, I won all of them. This is not because i am good at fighting, it is because I am really, really lucky.
********Actually that's not strictly true. I gave a bully a nosebleed once. It was a lucky punch, and got me in a world of trouble. But I can't say I was sorry and it did make a very, very satisfying crunch…