Graphic novels, The Fall and the nuisance of human existence

I often find it strange that in my case theological constructs are derived out of my exposure to what many dub as juvenile entertainment, which includes graphic novels[1]. Perhaps there is something that I hit upon as profound in the action-packed artworks that are situated in separate panels that represent individual scenes which make up a plot. After all, human experience unfolds in story and its meaning is fashioned from places, plots, and players fused in real-time[2].

In like fashion Biblical narratives function as vehicles of divine revelation that helps us makes sense (or better yet find) our place and meaning in this sizeable and ever changing storyline that we call life. That perhaps explains why we often find ourselves identifying with the characters in Bible stories because in a way they lay bare a part of ourselves that we exhibit we whenever we cope with the harsh realities of life as well as when we feel like we are brought face to face to the actuality of the divine in our midst.

In this reflection for this class on Christian anthropology I would like to turn our attention on the primordial creation narrative of The Fall, looked at from the vantage point of a graphic novel: Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke, where I will attempt to find parallels between the two comic book storylines in relation to the fall of man and the predicament of human existence that follows it.

Mythological language of Genesis

The primordial stories found in Genesis 1-9 is an area of contention among Christians as it has long been debated as to whether or its content are to be looked at as actual historical account of events that explains our questions of origins to the point that churches have split over whether one group accepts Genesis as literally factual or mythologically true.

I believe that all monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam set some store of factual veracity in the tales contained in their holy books. However, it must be noted that it is pointless to dispute the scientific compatibility of the creation account, since the literary genre of almost all of these narratives is myth.

Myths are not non-scientific tales conjured up by primitive minds, but are instead a legitimate and significant literary vehicle for unfolding the meaning of human existence, the universe as well as the deities. Mythology is not a history book as much as a way to explain an often incomprehensible world. Therefore, it cannot be judged verifiably true or false; rather it represents a people’s fundamental understanding of themselves, to which there exists a unique correlation between the claims of myths and history whereas myths provide us with an interpretation of history that would answer the question of ‘why’ in regards to our existence and present state of being.

Thru the language of mythology we can look at Genesis as the story of ourselves as we journey from innocence to experience. The narrative of the Fall can be traced to humanity’s audacious claim and exercise of autonomy over and against the sovereign God of creation.

This can be done without actually adhering to the traditional concept of Adam and Eve as literal persons since the original language of Genesis describes humanity as having material reality: ‘the LORD God formed man [ʼĀḏām] from the dust of the ground [adamah] –‘earthlings’ from the ‘earth,’ so to speak (Gn. 2:7) Our nature is firmly ‘earthed’ or ‘grounded; in the world of nature, yet we owe our organic life (Gn. 2:7b) as ‘living beings’ to God’s active giving of life (Gn. 2:7b)[3].

We can bridge ourselves to the story of the Fall by situating ourselves as people who inhabit this planet to which the characters of Adam and Eve are our representatives in this state of broken equilibrium because they are people like us. While the serpent functions as the principle of probation or the embodiment of what we desire most. The story of Adam and Eve represents the choice which confronts all human beings and the disobedience to God into which all of us fall[4].

Batman: The Killing Joke

In the mid-1980s long-time Batman, writer, Dennis O’Neil[5] took over as editor of the Batman titles and set the template for the portrayal of Batman following DC’s status quo-altering miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths[6]. O’Neil operated under the assumption that he was hired to revamp the character and as a result tried to introduce a different tone in the books than had gone before. Among the stories that were produced that period was Alan Moore[7] and artist Brian Bolland’s[8] 1988’s Batman: The Killing Joke, which is widely considered to be the be-all-end-all of Joker stories, as it stirred a bit of controversy because the story involves the Joker brutally, pointlessly shooting Commissioner Gordon’s daughter in the spine in an attempt to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, to prove that any man can be pushed past his breaking point and go mad.

The Killing Joke: The Fall as ‘one really bad day’

“Any man can have one really bad day and end up just like me.” – The Joker

A former clerical staff a at a chemical processing plant  resigns from his job to become a stand-up comedian, with has a pregnant wife, a backlog of bills, and not to mention the fact that the whole career move that he made is seen perceived as a stupid move by everyone around him.

But his fate seems to change as he is given a break by thieves who asked the clerk-turned-comedian to help them break into the chemical plant that he used to work in. However, a few hours before the heist the man comedian who would in time become The Joker got a call from a doctor telling him that his wife died from a freak accident in an electronics store while testing a water heater, realizing that he has nothing left to live for he tried to walk off from the heist, but the crooks told him that he can’t back-off, so reluctantly he guides them through the chemical plant. During the heist they ran into plant security and eventually Batman who out of fear caused him to jump into a pool of chemicals causing him to disfigure his face and eventually lose his sanity transforming him to the homicidal Joker.

Looking to prove that any man can be pushed past his breaking point and go mad, The Joker attempts to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, after shooting and permanently paralyzing his daughter Barbara (aka Batgirl), The Joker, kidnaps the commissioner and attacks his mind in hopes of breaking the man. But refusing to give up, Gordon maintains his sanity with the help of Batman in an effort to best the madman.

A bad day can make or break a man is a unique insight that The Killing Joke, can contribute in enriching our understanding The Fall, that doesn’t recognize narrative as an actual historical event but rather to comprehend it in existential terms since we are beings of history and experience –our lives testify to that single point in time (or better yet single day) when we cross the line from innocence to experience or that point in time when we likewise make an audacious claim of autonomy over and against structures of boundaries and morality that govern us to which we come out of the ordeal forever changed.

For Batman, this ‘one really bad day’ came in the death of his parents at the hands of a mugger which he witnessed during his youth, a traumatic event that forever transformed the young Bruce Wayne into the vigilante Batman who administers justice to the superstitious, cowardly lot of the Gotham underworld.

In relation to our story of the Fall, we can see that like Adam and Eve; Batman and The Joker were both beset with that choice of how they can move on after that one bad day, a choice that constantly confronts us even now. Because it is given that tragedy strikes, however responding to it hands over to us a responsibility to make a good choice whether or not we would persevere in pursuing that which is good; or concede to the hopelessness that comes with catastrophe; or tread the third path of escapism that was exhibited by the Joker when he embraced his insanity. Both Batman and the Joker are creations of a random and tragic ‘one bad day.’ Batman spends his life forging meaning from the random tragedy, whereas the Joker reflects the absurdity of ‘life, and all its random injustice[9].'”

Interestingly The Killing Joke ends with Batman and Joker sharing a laugh right before a desperate and cornered Joker wilfully surrenders himself to Batman’s custody. The laughter can be looked at as a realistic response to their perpetual predicament of living in the tension of their lives after their ‘one really bad day’ as well affirmation of the shared humanity between Batman and Joker; a humanity that we likewise share with one another in community with our fellow men.

Conclusion: Orienting ‘one really bad day’ to our understanding of ‘conversion’

Evangelicals have the tendency to think of theology along soteriological[10] lines. Single life transforming events like those explored by The Killing Joke can have parallels to our understanding of the concept of conversion, which we Evangelicals hold at such a high esteem because we tend to use those events as a litmus test to any Christian’s profession of their faith in Christ.

Perhaps the story of The Killing Joke can function as a resource in enriching our understanding of these ‘single really bad days’ as external catalysts that orchestrates an individual’s conversion for or against something. I believe that it is quite possible that such stories would inform us of how we can draw on such days so as to enrich one’s understanding of their own conversion to Christ, which would help in deepening their empathy with others who are yet to respond to the Gospel message or to their own self-awareness of how they were come into contact with the divine.

Lastly, it helps in a sense as a reminder for us to see ourselves simply as human beings, no longer as gods, that they are in a position to perceive the wholly other nature of God. It is only when we cease to be unhappy supermen and pathetic mini-gods and permit ourselves to become human beings through and through again that we let God be God.[11]

[1] Graphic novels are narrative pieces of literature in which a story is conveyed to the reader using sequential art in either an experimental design or in a traditional comic book format. Scott McCloud ‘s, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by (New York, NY: Harper Paperbacks, 1990) is a good reference for a more detailed study of comic books.
[2] Watkins, T. Wyatt. Gospel, Grits and Grace: Encountering the Holy in the Ridiculous, Sublime and Unexpected (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1999) p.xiii
[3] Sherlock, Charles. The Doctrine of Humanity , Contours of Christian Theology series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1997) p.38
[4] Doctrine Comission of Church of England, Mystery of Salvation (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1995)  pp.52-53
[5] Dennis “Denny” O’Neil is an American comic book writer and editor, who is best-known for writing Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Batman with Neal Adams, The Shadow with Mike Kaluta and The Question with Denys Cowan, all of which were hailed for their sophisticated stories that expanded the artistic potential of the mainstream portion of the medium. As an editor, he is principally known for editing the various Batman titles.
[6] Crisis on Infinite Earths is a 12-issue comic book limited series and crossover event, that was written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by George Perez for DC Comics in 1985 to simplify its then 50-year-old continuity.
[7] Alan Moore is a British writer who gained prominence through the cinematic depictions of his graphic novels namely which includes: V For Vendetta, The Watchmen, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
[8] Brian Bolland is a comic book illustrator that is best known in the UK as one of the definitive Judge Dredd artists for British comics anthology 2000 AD.
[9] Klock, Geoff. How to Read Superhero Comics and Why (New York, NY: Continuum, 2002) pp. 52-53.
[10] Within Christian theology, soteriology examines the role of Jesus Christ as saviour (redeemer), and the nature of the salvation as a free gift. Redemption involves the act or process of justification or “making righteous before God”
[11] Moltmann, Jürgen .God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999) p.144

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