Bat-fan and comic-book historian Arlen Schumer is worried. He fears the mass shooting at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., will forever be associated with the legend of Batman.
“After mourning and feeling sympathy for the families, taking a step back as a Batman fan and historian, I’m concerned that this will taint what I consider to be an American treasure of not only popular culture but of mythology,” he said. “I don’t want it to be the second line of the Wikipedia entry, like Watergate is to Nixon.”
The role that Batman fiction might have played in motivating alleged attacker James Holmes in the theater shooting remains unclear more than a week after the massacre that killed 12 and injured 58. Although investigators reportedly found a Batman mask inside Mr. Holmes‘ booby-trapped apartment, any connection to the storied comic character could be simple coincidence.
Or it could be a chilling aspect of the murderous plot.
Mr. Schumer and other Batman devotees caution against drawing premature parallels between the massacre and the ever-evolving history of Batman, a flawed human superhero who has been rooted in reality since his pulpy inception in 1939.
“There are so many things that we don’t know about [Mr. Holmes],” said Travis Langley, author of “Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight” and a professor of psychology at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. “The degree that he might be lost in fantasy, we don’t know. I think it’s safe to assume he had some kind of need for others to notice him.”
Reports surfaced after the shooting that Mr. Holmes, his hair dyed a reddish-orange, had told arresting officers he was Batman’s rival, the Joker. Authorities declined to confirm that, but fans were quick to note that the Joker’s hair is actually green and that the dazed 24-year-old sitting in court Monday hardly recalled Batman’s arch-nemesis.
“Clearly, we are influenced by popular culture,” Mr. Langley said. “The tricky part is quantifying it. There are millions upon millions of influences on us all the time. Our culture is one of those influences, but we don’t know to what degree. Even if it turns out that Holmes is preoccupied with Batman and the Joker, there are so many other variables involved.”
Still, questions persist about possible parallels. Why did the mass murderer target a midnight screening of director Christopher Nolan’s final installment in his Batman trilogy? Why would anyone claim to be the Clown Prince of Crime? What’s appealing about such an appalling villain?
“The Joker imposes his face on the world, so he can feel like it makes more sense to him,” Mr. Langely said. “He tries to show the world it’s as ugly as he is — and he’s always been doing that to make himself feel bigger in the world. That could appeal to individuals who want the world to fit around them. For the majority of fans, they don’t have that motivation.”
The Joker has been captivating audiences since he was established as the murderous yin to the Batman’s yang in 1940 by DC Comics writers Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and artist Jerry Robinson. Mr. Langley said he believes the lack of motivation and a definitive backstory for the Joker, whose schemes range from mutating smiley Joker fish to murdering Robin, makes him more interesting.
A less severe Joker was pranking Batman in the comics of the ‘60s, while an over-the-top Cesar Romero was playing him on the “Batman” TV series starring Adam West. The comic book character returned to his homicidal roots in the ‘70s and has since been portrayed on film as an out-of-control terror by both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, who won a posthumous Oscar for the role in 2008.
Bat-mania is about more than just fantasy, though. It’s a big business spanning comics, film, TV, video games, merchandise and live events. Gene Del Vecchio, an entertainment research consultant and author of “Creating Blockbusters: How to Generate and Market Hit Entertainment for TV, Movies, Video Games and Books,” said he doubts the massacre will have an impact on the brand, noting that it’s a “trivial issue in the face of such tragedy.”
“There is apt to be little or no monetary effect on the Batman franchise,” Mr. Del Vecchio said. “People go to movies, play with toys, buy soundtracks and read comics in order to escape. Escapism is such a powerful human desire that it won’t be affected by the recent event.”
However, the shooting might affect the tone of the franchise moving forward, especially considering Dark Knight tales often have mirrored what’s happening in our world, vwhether Batman is taking down Nazi saboteurs in the comics or dealing with terrorism post-9/11 on film.
“I suspect the stories were heading in an even darker direction,” Mr. Langley said. “They are going to recognize that the public are looking at it differently now and might be ready for something brighter and more heroic.”
Since Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 comic series “The Dark Knight Returns,” which bleakly painted an aging Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement to rescue a doomed Gotham, and Alan Moore’s 1988 Joker-focused “The Killing Joke,” the franchise mostly has veered away from the “KA-POW!” campiness of yesteryear toward the grittiness associated with the modern Batman.
Tim Burton’s big-screen “Batman” introduced a brooding Caped Crusader to the masses in 1989, paving the way for the ‘90s deco-style Batman animated TV series featuring gangsters and femme fatales, as well as Rocksteady Studios’ moody 2009 video game Batman: Arkham Asylum and its 2011 sequel, Batman: Arkham City, starring a diseased Joker on the brink of death.
“I think that change reflects popular taste,” said Vasilis Pozios, a Bat fan and Detroit psychiatrist specializing in risk assessment. “Batman has been around for almost 75 years now. There are many adult fans, and they have much more mature tastes now. We’ve seen that with the Nolan trilogy, which deals with very sophisticated and psychological ideas.”
H. Eric Bender, a San Francisco psychiatrist who presented the panel “Detecting Deviants in the Dark Night: Profiling Gotham City’s Serial Killers” with Mr. Pozios at San Diego’s Comic-Con last year, said because mass shootings are so rare, it’s nearly impossible to know what motivates killers and what impact — if any — the fiction they consume has on their psyche.
Mr. Schumer, the comic book historian and author of “The Silver Age of Comic Book Art,” isn’t interested in that. Like some relatives of massacre victims, Mr. Schumer refuses to even utter Mr. Holmes‘ name so as to not feed the suspect’s perceived need for attention.
What’s more, the author of “The Silver Age of Comic Book Art” is determined not to refer to the real-world tragedy in his future writings and lectures about the World’s Greatest Detective because “to give any credence to what he did by analyzing it is enabling it and making us co-conspirators.”
“Hopefully, the greatness and timelessness of the Batman mythology will conquer this particular tragedy,” said Mr. Schumer, who lives in Westport, Conn. “I’ll do my best in my corner of the universe to ensure that the focus of Batman is always on Batman and not what happened in Colorado.”
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