January 12, 2018

The Fantasy of Fascism Hides Behind a Mask: Chase Magnett on TWILIGHT OF THE BAT by Josh Simmons and Patrick Keck

(Editor's Note: Batman is awful for a number of reasons, so when Chase Magnett pitched me the idea of reviewing Josh Simmons and Patrick Keck's Twilight of the Bat as being an examination of the fascist reality of superheroes like Batman, how could I say no? Read what Chase has to say below, and feel free to @ me about how much you hate Batman too.)

2017 was the year where superhero comics proved they were not up to the task of handling fascism. Their status quo of heroism, their need to please all possible readers, and their simple one-two solutions were exposed as farcical in the face of a genuinely daunting historical moment. None of this is news though. The superhero genre has always been a power fantasy, one that too often flirts with fascism. Fantasies like those dressed in capes are personal things and best expose our hopes, desires, and dreams, for better or worse. 

That is the understanding Twilight of the Bat brings to the genre. This 20-page story, written by Josh Simmons and drawn by Patrick Keck, tells the story of a familiar hero named “The Bat” who is alone in the wasteland of G- City until he finds its only other surviving inhabitant, “Joke Man”. The pair resembles two of the most popular comic book characters of the past century exactly as their names suggest, and their personalities clash along similar lines when left to endure a barren hellscape together. 

In spite of the obvious hook—something that might be spun as an Elseworlds tale by DC Comics—Simmons and Keck are largely uninterested in the idea of asking “what if” about Batman and The Joker. Rather, they are much more engaged by what this pair represents, even when read outside of the context of a 75-year-old ongoing series. The Bat is as much an archetypal superhero as a Batman analog, the same for Joke Man in his role as supervillain. If anything, the Batman comparisons more easily connect with the darker, more violent aspects of superhero stories than say those of Superman or Wonder Woman. Batman is defined as a vigilante, a seeker of justice, and a figure of fear. He is the popular superhero most easily associated with the fascist tendencies within the genre. Batman seeks to impose his worldview upon society, and he values order above all else. His methods are based in violence and fear in order to make Gotham City align with what he believes it ought to be — a fundamentally fascist fantasy. 

In Twilight of the Bat, the post-apocalyptic wasteland detailed by Keck effectively ends The Bat’s raison d'être. It’s apparent in the first couple of pages that nothing else lives in the streets of G- City now, with every aspect of the city taking on the texture of burnt wood and its citizens nothing but soot-covered bones. How The Bat and Joke Man survived is beside the point; there is nothing else left in this world. So how does The Bat choose to live when there’s no more justice to inflict or criminals to frighten? The sad answer in Twilight of the Bat is that he doesn’t change a thing. 

In a scenario where law and order have ceased to hold meaning, The Bat views Joke Man as an opportunity to recreate his mission. Everything Joke Man does is an opening for The Bat to summon his disgust and anger once more. In the context of a Batman comic, this might make sense as the villian would poison the reservoir or take children hostages, but in Twilight of the Bat, Simmons and Keck make it clear that the superhero urge is driven by an instinct to control not to protect. 

Joke Man is the sympathetic foil required by this narrative. His face is that of a burn victim and his actions are regularly repulsive, but there’s nothing inherently evil about this human being. When examined carefully, Joke Man becomes the caretaker and empathetic soul of the story. Everything he does is as an action of love. Joke Man repeatedly tells The Bat that he loves him. He makes a fool of himself, painting lipstick with his own blood and smearing himself with feces, in order to make The Bat laugh. He even goes through a dramatic routine at night, baking cupcakes and putting footprints in the snow, to provide The Bat with hope. Like some deranged mother, Joke Man perceives and reacts to the needs of The Bat at every turn. 

These actions are taken as affronts by The Bat, though. He handcuffs Joke Man at night, brutalizes and curses him, and even goes so far as to bite off a finger when angered by Joke Man’s dancing. Joke Man’s dance is not a moral misstep by any reasonable standard. The dance is simply an offense to The Bat’s understanding of order. Faced with the horrors of this world, The Bat’s only response is to remain stoic and dour with even the very hint of laughter causing him to grimace. The Bat does not want to dance or enjoy this moment, and he violently seeks to force Joke Man from doing so either. 

In the end, Joke Man’s ultimate offense is his otherness. This can be seen as a homophobic “othering” at times, as The Bat is clearly disturbed by direct pronouncements of affection from another man. When Joke Man kisses The Bat on the nose or says “I love you”, Keck always leaves an open panel in which The Bat’s expression does not change. He appears incapable of processing or accepting any form of affection. This lack of response becomes disgust given enough time. When Joke Man carries on a monologue or dances for an extended period of time, Keck slowly warps The Bat’s face towards anger until he lashes out. This feeling of disgust ultimately boils over and The Bat murders Joke Man. He rejects his last opportunity to engage with any person or idea outside of himself. 

And in this, Simmons and Keck suggest that the very concepts of life and personality run contrary to The Bat’s mission, offering, as they do, alternatives to the world he desires. His only true happiness come from an adult and child that exist only in his imagination. People are only pure so long as he does not see or speak with them. He can cry out with joy at the thought of them, but breaks the only living thing he encounters. 

Twilight of the Bat is a final chapter. The shell of G- City is a place without people, without otherness; it is the world The Bat created through neverending battles with anything abnormal, specifically anything that does not fit The Bat’s definition of normal. Keck’s ruinous terrain and the final panels of a seemingly endless white expanse swallowing The Bat are visual metaphors for the fantasy of control taken to its furthest logical extent. An endless need for control, the shaping of society to reflect an individual’s single desires, ultimately negates the very concept of society. The Bat abhors anything unlike himself and, when given the choice between life with others or an eternity alone, he chooses the latter. That does not stop him from mourning the decision, but the decision was his and, once made, it cannot be taken back. 

The personal fantasy of enforcing law and order, shaping society to be the thing we deem it ought to be is linked to The Bat’s vision of the world. He desires control without concern for diversity. His fascism is personal and destructive on an intimate scale. While the husk of G- City may not be his responsibility, his ultimate loneliness is. The twilight of this world is his construct, a dream of singular vision and absolute control. It simply cannot abide any other forms of thought or life. 

Power, revenge, and control fantasies are ugly things even when wrapped in a cape. The superhero that seeks to control us cannot save us. A character like The Bat does not offer hope for all, merely a fascist fantasy for the reader who imagines putting the world in their own personal order. Terms like “criminal” and “justice” are tossed around to make the plot sound proper, but they are propaganda encouraging readers to embrace law and order above all else. So Twilight of the Bat transcends an indictment of this form of the superhero genre and strikes at the broader set of fantasies defined by these terms. The proselytization of law and order, rampant homophobia, and urge to suppress anything outside of an internalized “normal” are hallmarks of the modern conservative movement. Just as Batman’s fantasy has been normalized in popular culture, so have the fascist leanings of an entire political party. Their ugliness is exposed in absurdity here, but the truth of the ugliness remains. At the end of Twilight of the Bat, The Bat learns the fatal flaw of this fantasy when left entirely alone, a lesson first offered by Terry Pratchett in the pages of Mort: “There is no justice. Just us.”

Chase Magnett is an educator and freelance writer. You can also find his comics writing at ComicBook.Com and Comics Bulletin, as well YCE. He is currently working his way through grad school to work in public education. If you'd like to hire him, please send an e-mail to chase.magnett@gmail.com.

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