Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Don't Let the Blues Make You Bad

Times when I know
you'll be lonesome
Times when I know you'll be sad
Don't let
temptation surround
Don't let the blues make you bad

-From the Song "We'll be Together Again"
by Carl Fischer and Frankie Laine

I've been thinking about how sadness, grief, and depression can sometimes be expressed as anger, rage, and vengence. It seems almost justifiable to commit any sort of violent act and blame it on some tragedy in our lives. How many people have been injured or killed by some university student not happy with his grades or some employee who had just been fired? We see it expressed in our fiction and fantasy and it even seems sort of acceptable.

Bruce Wayne's parents were gunned down during a robbery. Their young son Bruce was allowed to live, but had to watch his parents be executed, right before his eyes. Over the long years between a mournful childhood and becoming an adult, vengence and justice waged a battle for Wayne's soul and the result twisted sideways to become Batman.

Peter Parker was a tortured high school student, brilliant, but shy and unathletic, the target for bullies. Having few friends, and with his parents having died years before, he was only loved by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. When Peter was accidently gifted with extraordinary abilities from the bite of a radioactive spider, he used his newfound powers to become an entertainer for profit and to thumb his nose at the rest of the world. When he discovered that his own arrogance resulted in his Uncle's death, he changed his mission to one very similar to Wayne's, though not quite as dark. Still, he's perpetually driven by guilt and remorse, and can never put down the mantle of the spider for as long as he lives.

Frank Castle's family was also murdered, in this case, by "the mob" to eliminate their testimony as witnesses to a gangland killing in New York's Central Park. In some ways, he's the most brutal example of how personal disaster can turn someone into a terrifying vigilante. Coercion, extortion, kidnapping, and even murder are not beyond the man who became the Punisher. Need I go on?

Everybody experiences some shadow of these feelings, at least briefly. The kid who is punched by the school bully on the playground feels momentary rage at the pain before fear takes over. Secretly, he nurses fantasies of pummelling and humiliating his tormentor, but as the months and years pass, the fantasies fade away and the kid eventually finds his own competancy and validation, and no longer needs to dream of punishing those who hurt him.

It seems to hinge on the level of pain and the ability to let it go. Grief never completely vanishes, but it manages to allow itself to drift into one of the back closets of our consciousness, only making a reappearence on an anniversary or the experience of a similar event. Most people can live with that process. Some people can't...or won't, as we see in the film Batman Begins.

No, *this* is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear. The man I loved - the man who vanished - he never came back at all. But maybe he's still out there, somewhere. Maybe some day, when Gotham no longer needs Batman, I'll see him again. -Rachel Dawes

At first, Batman was an instrument of Bruce's need to retaliate against the force of evil that killed his parents. Even though (in the film version) Joe Chill had died years before, the process that created Chill and victimized the innocent still thrived. Batman was the expression of Bruce's response to that process. At least at first.

In the sequel The Dark Knight, Bruce pins all his hopes for putting down the mantle of the bat and leading a "normal" life on District Attorney Harvey Dent. Dent was the White Knight to Batman's Dark Crusader. If Dent could be as effective at quelling the tide of crime in Gotham in the courts as Batman was in the shadows, Bruce could finally give up his mask (or his "face"), and journey from darkness into light.

But when the moment came, Bruce found that he couldn't do it. He couldn't give up the Bat. It had worked its way into his soul years ago without Bruce really noticing. Of course Dent gave Bruce the "out" when he "confessed" to being Batman, but that's because both men told themselves they could never surrender to a murder's extortion plot. But was that really the truth?

It seems that once grief and pain drive our anti-heroes into the vengeful identity of a costumed warrior, there is no turning back. Many times even death doesn't stop them. In the comic book version, while Bruce Wayne wasn't actually killed, Darkseid sent him so far back into the past, that no one could reasonably believe he'd ever return. Now, we are about to see the 6 issue saga of The Return of Bruce Wayne across the long millennium, from the era of prehistoric man to Pilgrim-era to western to pulp detective, as Bruce struggles to regain the present.

The mask asks so much of all these people. There will always be one more villain to defeat. There will always be one more injustice to fight. There will always be one more victim to avenge. When is it enough? How long will rage and guilt continue to erode the soul and spirit until you can put down the costume forever, one day die at the hands of some criminal, great or small, or turn into this:

You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. -Bruce Wayne

Wayne never considered that, after the night Dent died (assuming he did die and isn't being held secretly in some locked and hidden cell in Arkham), he could just give up being Batman. Let Batman be the villain Gotham needs and let Batman "die" so Bruce Wayne could finally live.

All the times Peter has tried to give up being Spider-Man, circumstances or fate dictated otherwise. Would the Punisher ever consider that his job was ultimately complete, and let others take over the role? I suppose they'd give up if all crime were ended but unlike any individual war, where your goal is to get the enemy to lose hope and surrender, there seems no end to crime, terror, and evil.

What makes one person give up hate and blind pain and another person surrender his or her soul to the abyss? The title of this article and the lyrics I quoted are from a song called We'll be Together Again. While Billie Holiday may be more associated with this song, many famous vocalists have sang it over the years. This morning, I heard a version sung by Lena Horne as rendered during a 1994 performance at New York's The Supper Club.

The final lines of the song probably make the difference:

Some day
Some way
We both have a
lifetime before us
For parting is not goodbye
We'll be together again.

If you have hope that there's something beyond the pain and loss, you can go on. If hope eludes you, or you refuse it, then you remain in the shadow of your pain, continuing to serve its dark desires. Lena Horne had a similar period but she finally came out of the shadow:

Her father, her son and Hayton all died in 1970 and 1971, and the grief-stricken singer secluded herself, refusing to perform or even see anyone but her closest friends. One of them, comedian Alan King, took months persuading her to return to the stage, with results that surprised her.

"I looked out and saw a family of brothers and sisters," she said. "It was a long time, but when it came I truly began to live."

-From Ms Horne's obituary

Ms. Horne overcame not only the shadow of death, but of racism and injustice as well. In many ways, she's a greater hero than Batman or Spider-Man, because she put away the mask and went on to walk in the sunlight.

How long you or I continue to walk in the shadows may be a matter of choice, too. Not that it's easy to overcome.

Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I've always feared that you would become that which you fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven't fallen in and I thank heaven for that.
-Alfred Pennyworth
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

While Bruce, Peter, and even Frank walk the edge of the abyss and even occasionally fall in, we sometimes walk the same line. Our lives are likely not as dramatic and certainly not as adventurous or dangerous as theirs, but the damage to our souls can be just as severe if we allow it. Without hope, we are slaves to the shadow, battling for justice and for ourselves every day and night. With the hope "that we'll be together again", we can find the courage to put away the mask, and the faith to live and to trust that whatever we need to do, we can do it without hiding.


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