January 31, 2015


Neoconservatism, Vigilantism, and Batman (Benjamin Welton, 1/31/15, Imaginative Conservative)

While most see the Hard Hat Riots and indeed the whole of Richard Nixon's presidency as part of a greater seismic shift towards political divisiveness in the United States, the truth is that the Hard Hat Riots and the rioting construction workers themselves are emblematic of a new breed of conservative--the often reviled neoconservative. Like the construction workers and their leadership, the founders of the neoconservative movement were all themselves former liberals and Democrats (some were even former Trotskyists). Their shift towards the Republican Party was caused in large measure by the takeover of the Democratic Party by college-trained Marxists, the anti-war young, and special interests groups such as the Black Panther Party, welfare-rights organizations, and the feminist movement.

Of course, there is more to neoconservative philosophy than just anti-Leftism. Indeed, one can argue that neoconservatives are in reality liberals of an older school, and despite all the focus on founders such as Leo Strauss and Irving Kristol, the real backbone of the neoconservative movement is its initial followers--blue-collar New Yorkers and other members of the urban working class who were less driven by ideology and more driven by anger. By the 1970s, there was a lot to be angry about, especially crime, which was reaching unprecedented levels in places such as Detroit, Chicago, and, most importantly, New York. The crime wave of the 1970s and 1980s, besides giving birth to the "tough on crime" type of urban Republican and turning Irving Kristol's well-known phrase "A conservative is a liberal who is mugged by reality" into a literal experience, also helped to give birth to three cultural products that helped to define this twenty-year period: the vigilante film, graphic novels, and New York-style hardcore punk. Batman, as DC Comic's premiere avenger and an indisputable New Yorker, absorbed all three genres, and thus the Batman comics of the 1980s remain some of the best expressions of the neoconservative rage that was the byproduct of urban decay. [...]

While the Hard Hat Riot explicitly showed the disconnect between those American students who had known only postwar prosperity and a large portion of the working class, the 1974 film Death Wish showed in gripping detail just how easily the average middle-class, New York liberal could turn into an angry vigilante. Death Wish is then the story of neoconservative conversion told in exploitative broad strokes. In short, Death Wish is the story of architect Paul Kersey (played by Charles Bronson), who takes up a nickel-plated .32 Colt after the police prove too slow in apprehending the men responsible for the rape of his daughter, Carol (played by Kathleen Tolan), and the death of his wife, Joanna (played by Hope Lange). From here, Mr. Kersey becomes the embodiment of the frustration felt by law-abiding citizens in Mayor John Lindsey and Mayor Abraham Beame's New York. His vigilantism throughout the film is not too far off from the vigilantism of comic-book superheroes, and Paul Kersey's heroic stature exists not only because of how his actions are portrayed, but also because of the differences between him and the effete hesitancy of his son-in-law Jack (played by Steven Keats).

Although the almost gleeful violence of Death Wish is the most-often remembered aspect of the film, Mr. Kersey's transformation from a former conscientious objector in Korea with all the trappings of bourgeoise life to a hardened vigilante is more important than the film's bloodletting. [...]

Three years before Death Wish, another vigilante appeared in movie theaters, and he too would star in five total films that would stretch over multiple decades. Inspector Harry Callahan, better known as "Dirty Harry," is the byword for both the stereotypical American vigilante and police brutality. Like Paul Kersey, Mr. Callahan is a solitary man of "the System" stuck inside one of America's most liberal cities (in this case San Francisco), and he too finds the gun to be the perfect expression of his brand of justice.

Both films, which point out the limitations of the American legal system, were loathed by critics. Roger Ebert declared that Dirty Harry promoted a "fascist moral position," while Pauline Kael claimed that the film was a "single-minded attack against liberal values." Vincent Canby hated Death Wish so much that he wrote two long articles denouncing the film, and in one instance decried that the film was "a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers." Although Mrs. Kael had loved the violent epic Bonnie and Clyde, and although Mr. Ebert and Mr. Canby were often quick to laud supposedly "realistic" portrayals of sympathetic criminals and their motivations, they and many like them all condemned the vigilante film craze of the 1970s with almost religious passion. Even to this day, vigilante films are widely criticized, even though as Anthony Paletta pointed out in a 2012 article for The National Review, they are widely loved by audiences. Conversely, the vigilante films of the 1970s directly inspired the groundbreaking Batman graphic novels of the 1980s, which in turn forever altered the character and comic books generally. [...]

Batman almost did not live to see the 1980s. The damage from the ABC television show proved long-lasting, and during the early 1970s, Gotham's favorite caped citizen was nearly cancelled due to poor sales and general uninterest. Comic book fans in the 1970s, hardened by years of news reports from Vietnam and the urban slums of their own country, no longer seemed interested in a vigilante crime fighter who had been neutered through Pop Art. By 1970, Batman titles were collectively selling south of 300,000 a month, which was a far cry from the 1966 peak of 898,000 copies per month.

Besides the lingering dislike of the childish ABC television show, Batman creators also faced a far more competitive field, with a resurgent horror comics industry riding a wave that had started in the early 1960s, fueled by what Crime Factory contributor John Harrison has termed the "Monster Kids" of the postwar era, who had grown up with reruns of the Universal monster films on late-night television and magazines such as Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland. Under the team of writer Dennis O'Neil and artists Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, and Gene Colan, Batman took a turn towards the gothic in the 1970s, which, though it made for great reading and certainly gave Batman some of his earlier grittiness back, also helped to weaken further the character's traditional stance as an independent dispenser of justice. Killing supernatural vampires is one thing; killing real-life social leeches is quite another.

Besides the monster books, Marvel, DC's main competitor, was taking some of their titles into formerly unchartered territory. In 1979, a nine-story arc in The Invincible Iron Man entitled Demon in a Bottle dealt with the very adult topic of alcoholism. In the David Micheline-scripted series, Tony Stark, the millionaire behind the Iron Man suit, struggles to overcome his dependence on drink in ways that are made all the more visceral through the brilliant artwork of John Romita, Jr., Bob Layton, and Carmine Infantino. Although DC had attempted something equally as adult-oriented with a short-lived run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow in 1970 (which was yet another collaboration between Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams), DC did not sustain the style in the way that Marvel did throughout the 1970s.

No Marvel characters would prove more influential on the later development of Batman than Daredevil and the Punisher. Although he debuted as a villain in 1974's The Amazing Spider-Man #129, Frank Castle, alias the Punisher, quickly became an anti-hero whose popularity revealed a collective neoconservative turn in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After his family was murdered in New York's Central Park, the Punisher, a gun-toting Vietnam veteran and a synthesis of all the then-popular vigilante film tropes, is a ruthless killer who wages a one-man war on crime that frequently rankles more traditional superheroes like Spiderman and Batman, who do not kill their adversaries. Initially written as a minor character, the Punisher became a recurring figure in many Marvel titles throughout the decade because the fans demanded it. Eventually, the character received his own series and continues in print today.

Just as the Punisher was blossoming into Marvel's greatest anti-hero, Matt Murdock, alias Daredevil, was undergoing a makeover. Previously a second-tier title with little popular interest, the so-called Man Without Fear got a much-needed boost when in 1981 a young artist and writer from Vermont named Frank Miller was tapped to be the series's full-time writer. Joined by artists Klaus Janson (who would later work with Mr. Miller on the groundbreaking Batman: The Dark Knight Returns arc) and David Mazzucchelli (who would also work with Miller on a Batman series, this one being Batman:Year One), Mr. Miller turned the fledging, blind lawyer Daredevil into a noir superhero full of emotional complexities. In such standout arcs as Daredevil: Born Again, which touches upon the issues of drug addiction, organized crime, militarism, and Matt Murdock's relationship with his Irish-Catholic faith and his Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, and  in issues #183-184, which see Daredevil squaring off against the Punisher in a battle of left-wing vs right-wing ideologies years before the much more well-known struggle between Batman and Superman in The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller introduced not only his trademark hardboiled style of writing, but also his Ayn Rand-influence worldview. In The Romantic Manifesto, a text that played a crucial role in Mr. Miller's development as a storyteller, Ayn Rand poses a crucial question: "Why is the soul of a murderer worth studying, but not the soul of a hero?" Rand asked the question in order to show the philosophical problems associated with Naturalism, but she incidentally gave Frank Miller a driving rationale--an inspiration to study at length his heroes while at the same time completely removing any potential sympathy with their antagonists. If nothing else, Mr. Miller's world is black and white, despite flashes of noir-inspired grays.

Without question, Frank Miller forever altered Batman and how we view him in our popular culture. Mr. Miller made Batman punk rock by, in his own words, "giving Batman his [manhood] back." The high inflation rates of President Ronald Reagan's second term, coupled with New York's deeper and deeper regression into criminal anarchy helped to make Frank Miller's tales all the more relevant, and so too did Hollywood's continued interest in vigilante tales. In the same year as the release of Mr. Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, another vigilante film, Sylvester Stallone's Cobra, packed the theaters with a rough justice tale that was less about plot and more about flying lead and muscle cars.[1] The 1980s, in film and comic books, proved to be even more bloodthirsty than the 1970s.

A time traveller from 1985 to 2015 would be shocked by nothing moreso than the disappearance of crime from American life in general and as a political topic in particular.

Posted by at January 31, 2015 7:54 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus