By the time you read this article, gentle reader, I will be on my way to Baja, California for a much-needed, if a bit late, summer vacation, where I plan to do a lot of reading and not much else. I am really looking forward to the reading, because, as you know, I’ve been a bit down on comics these days, for a variety of reasons. I’ve thought a lot about this and all week I have been thinking about the elements of comics that I’ve always loved, things that serve as core tenets, that keep me coming back. We all have them, these truths, the eternal elements, that make our relationships with comics so particularly personal.
This all came about, perhaps not unsurprisingly, after reading the latest issue of Batman, where Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo bring The Joker back into out lives. Not sure if you’ve read it or not, but suffice to say, Snyder understands The Joker and what he means to readers and characters alike, and it just struck me what a place The Joker has in my life. Snyder understands the absolute terror that The Joker represents, and not just because he is particularly gruesome in how he ruins the lives of innocents. It is The Joker’s madness, the chaos that he embodies, that make him one of the most terrifying characters in all of literature.
That’s the thing about comics, right? That we get to see writers come back to these characters and try their hands at bringing them to life through that writer’s unique lens. Whenever there is a significant Joker story, I’m there, and I’ve been “there” as long as I can remember. Part of it, I admit, is to see just how twisted (or, perhaps, not) this version of The Joker will be, but I am just as interested as how the writer chooses to make the other characters react to the news of The Joker being in town. This time around, Snyder does a great job of showing the characters really unnerved, and this dread, this growing panic, saturates each page of the book. Snyder has been writing the crap out of Batman thus far, and I suspect that this story will be the best one yet.
There are a lot of reasons I find The Joker compelling, but the one that seems to resonate the most with me as I write this really has more to do with how I consider The Joker’s return, how I react to the terror he engenders. Our worries and fears change as we get older, and, as such, my consideration of the pain and anguish is very much different than when I read The Killing Joke back in my early years. As we live more, as we form relationships and overcome adversity, as we experience unexpected loss and have all-to-brief whiffs of success, the kind of senseless pain and destruction that The Joker causes is more harrowing, more haunting. The older we get, the more scared we are of what The Joker represents, which makes him so necessary, at least for me.
There are two places in comics that I will always hold in high regard. For our heroes and ourselves alike, these places represent a kind of home, one that changes over time, but maintains an emotional consistency that make them truly special. I am, of course, referring to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and Batman’s Batcave. I know other heroes have their secret hideouts and lairs and whatever, but none come close to being as cool as these sanctuaries.
Of course, the Fortress of Solitude and the Batcave are two very different places. The Fortress is, after all, a fortress…of solitude. I mean, the world’s most powerful being is only completely safe and at peace when he’s in a fort — by himself. The thing I loved the most about the Fortress was that Superman had to use this giant key to get inside it in the first place — a key only he could lift and manipulate. I just always loved that notion, that sure, he could have used a much more subtle entry mechanism, but in this case, a building-sized key pretty much fit the bill.
Now, most of the time, we see the Fortress being represented in crystalline ways that echo the one that appeared in Superman: The Movie, but every so often we’ll get different takes. What I enjoy is seeing how creators have Superman live in the Fortress — live and work, I guess. From tilling virtual fields in Kingdom Come to doing hyper-science in All Star Superman, it’s cool to see how Superman interacts with the Universe on his own terms, using tools and technologies that are designed for someone with his abilities.
Same thing with the Batcave, which serves primarily as a lab and, well, a really nice parking garage (I’ll always remember that Batcave gatefold from All Star Batman & Robin), replete with tokens and monument to accomplishments and eras long past. You could do entire books on the significance of these (super)man-caves, so I will spare you, but, again, these two places are just the kinds of comic book concepts that you can really only do in comic books, and remind me why I love these stories so much.
Now, I admit, running to do a Burger King commercial in the middle of a busy work day does not have the same stakes as having to save a bus full of orphans from Doctor Octopus before an important meeting, but I will say that, in the heat of weaving through traffic, it can certainly feel like it. When I was a kid, I never thought I’d find myself truly relating with comics, but, as I get older, the whole notion of trying to balance out responsibilities rings a lot closer to home. Even if one is not trying to go to auditions while working full time, we can relate to constantly feeling like you are getting pulled in different directions — not, perhaps, like the Elongated Man, but more like Peter Parker, Matt Murdock or Barry Allen, who try, with varying degrees of success, to foster successful careers while skipping lunch to fight crime. This may be the primary reasons why I will always consider myself a fan of Spider-Man, Daredevil and The Flash. But instead of being captivated by their heroic exploits, I just enjoy watching them learn how to manage their time. I know, thrilling, right?
But I can’t help it. I’ll always be curious, especially when a new creative team tackles these characters, to see how they handle the dual-lives question. What’s funny is how often a creator will talk about how he or she is really going to tackle Peter’s “normal” life or really examine the character of Bruce Wayne as opposed to Batman. And, often, the books will start off like that, but slowly return a much more lopsided “tights to business casual” ratio. Makes sense, of course. The book is called Daredevil, not Busy Blind Lawyer.
There are lots of great reasons to be a comic book fan, and I find myself celebrating different reasons at different times. Sometimes I’ll be on a creator kick, especially new books start out with different teams, giving me the chance to explore new creators or return to the comfort of an old favorite. Other times it will be my taking a chance on a new character or returning to an old one after hearing that the book is “getting good again”. That’s the benefit (and, perhaps, curse) of being into comics–there are always good reasons to stay with them. For me it was interesting, after a half a year of being frustrated by comics, to really take a gander on some of the elements that resonate with me personally, and even as I write about them, I am slowly deciding to pick up The Amazing Spider-Man this month, if only to see how things are going.
Mike Romo is an actor living in Los Angeles.