|Say hello to the second-string good guys! (They're the ones doing the beating up.)|
Torture! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, of course, unless it happens in a superhero comic book.
In reality, torture's a technique that's scorned by every professional who's on the side of law and order that's not (a) an idiot, (b) psychologically disordered, or (c) both. It's a matter which we've discussed many times before here at TooBusyThinking. Entirely untrustworthy as a method of extracting reliable evidence, the best that torture can be used to do is produce dubious data which to some small degree might confirm what traditional and legitimate methods of investigation have already uncovered. Even those folks who seem worryingly unable to grasp why it's wrong to harm others might be expected to pick up on the simple and empirically-established truth that torture doesn't work. Sadly, that rarely seems to be so.
Perhaps something of this toxic brew of stupidity and hard-heartedness is rooted in the modern entertainment industry's endless celebrations of what torture can do for the citizens of the free world. Not only will it inevitably save the day, or so we're perpetually assured, but it'll ennoble the torturer too. In an absurd and yet all-too-predictable example of fiction turning the world entirely upside down, torture becomes an entirely reliable method of saving the innocent and honouring the torturer. Oh, the virtues of the brave and nation-saving citizens who force themselves to undertake such inconveniently unpleasant tasks in order to serve the greater good!
|Poor Jimmy Gordon is humiliated! Only torture will make him a real man after this!|
In Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's Batman: Year One, we're presented with a particularly distasteful example of a supposedly virtuous and heroically unavoidable torture. Indeed, Johns and Franks have succeeded in presenting a scenario that's in some ways even more despicable than that recently offered up by Slott, Ramos and Wacker in Amazing Spider-Man #685. (See here and here for details.) As is always the case in these situations, the antagonist who's going to be abused has already been established as a fearsomely unpleasant individual who's also carrying secret information that could result in justice being served and lives being saved. As is also mandatory according to the traditions of the torture-legitimising comic, there seems to be no way to avoid seriously harming the bad guy. (It is nearly always a man that's tortured by the protagonists, of course.) Finally, as I'm sure you'll expect by now, the information that's forced out of the apparently oh-so-deserving victim proves to be both accurate and essential to the saving of the day.
And so, we're asked to vicariously engage in the beating of one "Axe", a unconvincingly cartoon-despicable thug, by the crow-bar wielding James Gordon and the baseball bat bearing Harvey Bullock . It's a scene designed to thrill the reader as the poor frustrated cops finally turn and beat justice and courtesy out of one of their tormentors. In order to serve the law, it seems, Gordon and Bullock are being compelled to thoroughly violate it. After all, that is a baseball bat cracking down onto Axe's skull, although Gary Frank doesn't choose to portray the consequences of such an assault beyond the token gesture of a few hardly-disturbing trickles of blood. That might led the reader, after all, to wonder who the good guys are. Instead, as you can see from the scan above, the book's creators are careful to show Axe mocking his attackers and belittling their role as guardians of the public even after he's been beaten to the ground. It's not just that he knows the secret of where Gordon's beloved daughter has been taken. He also a thoroughly bad lot who just can't shut up! Well, under those conditions, he was asking for it, wasn't he?
He deserved all that he got, and who could blame the boys for enjoying giving it to him?
But in its grim excess of schoolboy-machismo and right-wing vigilantism, Batman Earth One extends the boundaries of the schema used by the creators of superhero books to justify their protagonist's inhumanity. For instead of undertaking their torturing tasks with reluctance, as is typical in these situations, Bullock and Gordan engage upon their terrible responsibilities with such relish that they appear positively aroused. Furious and excited, these are men who been freed from their humiliating roles as emasculated, quarreling victims. Street criminals and corrupted politicos alike have ruined their lives, but now they're fighting back. Indeed, this is the moment in BEO which represents the beginning of the saving of Gotham City, because it's the first time that an attempt to fight the forces of disorder hasn't ended in some kind of failure. And so, we're presented with the sight of the teeth-clenching Bullock and Gordon united in both thought and action, the former redeemed from his callow self-interest and the latter from his fearful cowering. Beating Axe into unconsciousness, at the very least, isn't just a necessary act, the story tells us, but a glorious and thrilling one. There's even a gag shoved into Bullock's mouth so that we can laugh along with the policemen's punchline as the players on our side smash their enemy into a pulp. Even for the superhero comic, this is a particular low, and worse is yet to come, for when we're next shown Axe, he's being dumped in a police station by Gordon and used as an example of what good men and women can do if they're just brave and determined enough. It's usually a bad idea to throw men who've been pummeled into unconsciousness onto the ground afterwards, and that's especially so given that Axe has apparently been out for at the very least an hour or two. Most officers would be beginning to think of a hospital and a good excuse for the police report, but not Jimmy G, who's content to declare as a real man might that "He walked in front of my car". Well, sense is as unimportant as conventional morality in Johns' work these days, and it seems that the reader's supposed to stare at that horrid criminal - why, he's even got tattoos! - and be glad that good times are coming for the lawless city.
Gordon: "Who else says he can't be arrested! Who else is going to let this city be owned by the criminal scum that prey off it? Who else is a damn coward?"
There are those who'll try to claim that this is a different James Gordon on a different Earth. They'll argue that he shouldn't be considered bound by the ethics traditionally associated with the character as seen in the mainstream DCU books. And they'll probably miss the fact that these objections to Gordon's behaviour have nothing to do his past in any other fictional continuity. For it's not the character's identity which makes these incidents detestable, but rather, the way in which the narrative rewards the vigilantism that's on show. Gordon's behaviour is showered with rewards in the text. He turns from weakling to man-beater, from coward to hero, from lick-spittle to tub-thumping reformer. His daughter is saved, his honour is redeemed, his reputation is secured. Torture is the making of the man, as torture always is these days in such stories. Torture brought the truth and ennobled the torturer, because that's what torture does in so many of the super-books of 2012.
|Poor Officer Gordon. He's been harshly treated, but don't worry, it's just an excuse to show him fighting back. Look, he's got a scratch on his nose. The poor man. Who wouldn't beat on a defenceless man under such conditions?|
It is true that Harvey Bullock is later shown descending into alcoholism due to the horrors that he's experienced during his brief duty in Gotham City. Yet it's important to note that Bullock shows no sign at all of regretting his law-breaking. In fact, such sins are, of course, virtues, and treated as such. What breaks him is seeing a mass of murdered girls and young women who've been murdered by a seven foot tall, hyper-muscled serial killer. It's the horror inspired by Gotham's criminal classes, who could've been stopped by a great degree of machismo, and not any kind of self-reflection and shame which does for Harvey. What's more, the great gimp-masked killer who's captured his daughter serves to so justify the police officer's crimes that it's hard to remember just what it is that Gordon's been up to. For Barbara Gordon's kidnapper is a signifier of everything that modern-era society is supposed to be most terrified of. Psychopathic, pedophilic, impossibly powerful, simple-minded, and in the pay of faithless politicians! What could be more evil? What can't be justified in the war against beasts?
No doubt the comics blogosphere is already alive with condemnations of this dead-heartedly callous and profoundly ignorant comic book. Still, I hope you'll forgive me if I add my own cracked harmony to the choir. Johns' script for Batman Earth One is a despicably cliched and thick-headed one even before its die-hard reactionary values become obvious, as you can tell from Gordon's embarrassingly macho-trite dialogue in the above. Sadly, Frank's artful storytelling does nothing to diminish the reprehensible ethics of the piece. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. This is a pornographic celebration of righteous torture and nothing but.
Just when you think that the worst of the mainstream superhero book can't get any more despicable, here's Johns and Frank's attempt to create a Batman book that's immediately accessible to the general reader. How the industry can be proud, how DC must be gratified by all the money that's being generated in the company's supposedly good name.
|Go get them criminals, Jim boy!|
To those who want to argue that torture's a good and/or necessary6thing, my opinions are already stated in considerable detail in the 100+ comments after the torturing-Spider-Man piece. I've nothing to add to that, so please, if you want to know where I stand, that's where to go. There's no point in my repeating myself here, and quite frankly, my mind's pretty made up anyway. The usual polite too and fro is, however, very much encouraged.