Saturday, 28 January 2012

What Would Batman Do?

I've always liked Jonathan Ross. Even before he became the UK's answer to David Letterman, before he became famous for dressing outrageously, asking David Cameron inappropriate questions about Margaret Thatcher, and pulling off juvenile phone-pranks with Russell Brand. Even before his wife Jane Goldman became famous for writing the scripts for Stardust and Kick-Ass, I liked him.

I've liked him, in fact, since I was twelve, and I read the introduction Ross wrote to Batman: Vow from the Grave, a Titan Books reprint anthology published way back in 1989. What I liked was the fact that Ross had written the introduction. There was a lot of talk in those days about how 'comics were growing up', but here was a famous, successful guy, a bloke who was on the telly and that, unashamedly confessing his love for the antics of a man who fought crime dressed like a flying rodent, and in particular his love for the intelligent take on the concept written by Dennis O'Neil and thrillingly illustrated by the great Neal Adams. Look, I could shout at people who mocked me for sitting in the lunch queue reading Death in the Family or Challenge of the Man-Bat, you lot may think I'm a moron for still reading comics instead of porn I've found in the woods (what we had before the internet, kids: ask your parents), but Jonathan Ross reads them and he's on telly, so kindly drokk off!

And then they would sneer that Ross was a poof with a speech impediment and beat me up. But, still, the fact that a successful grown-up liked Batman was a comfort to me, during those hard teenage years before I was able to invent an army of terror-meks and wreak a bloody vengeance on all those who had mocked me in my youth. The fools!

If you've been following this blog, you pretty much know what's coming at this point. 'AJ's began a post by praising someone,' you're thinking. 'She only ever does that when she's going to put the boot in.' And you're right. Because this morning, courtesy of Paris Lees of Diva and Meta magazine fame, I learned that Ross, who I've admired and followed since I was a gawky, squeaky-voiced teen, turns out to be just another scumbag who thinks transphobic 'humour' is the funniest thing EVAR.

I hate discovering that my heroes are transphobic. Finding out Tony Judt had helped hound a young trans woman out of university made me burn with rage that a supposed 'liberal' thought this kind of shabby treatment of vulnerable women was acceptable. But with Ross, I'm just disappointed. Disappointed that, despite providing the introduction to Vow from the Grave, he seems to have forgotten one of the most important stories in that collection: 'Night of the Reaper'.

'Night of the Reaper', like many of the best Batman stories, is about the morality of vigilantism, and what happens when one goes too far. In it, Batman encounters the Reaper, a Holocaust survivor who has taken to dressing up as death to enact a grisly revenge on the Nazi camp commander who tortured him, and some disgruntled fellow Nazis who seek to punish the same guard for embezzling party funds. In the course of his rampage, the survivor, Dr Gruener, cuts a swathe not just through the fascists, but everyone in his path, including some of Dick 'Robin' Grayson's college friends - including his Jewish friend, Alan. And, then, in one of the most haunting shots in comic-book history, Gruener comes face-to-face with what he's become.

Gruener believes his actions are justifiable, admirable, even: like Batman, he dons a costume to battle evildoers. But when he kills people, when he takes the lives of his prey, when he acts as if endangering the lives of innocents is just a means to an end, he goes too far. And, realising that, he leaps from the dam he stands on and takes his own life.

The message is: you need to have limits. You need to have boundaries. You need to have a line you must not cross. And that applies whether you're a comic-book vigilante or just a comic. Ross may feel his jokes are justifiable: admirable, even - he's giving people a laugh at the end of their working week. But in making trans people an acceptable subject of cheap, mocking, humour, he legitimises the kind of  prejudice which sees trans people verbally abused on the streets, attacked in public or even in their own homes, and murdered at a rate much greater than that of the cis population. In doing that, he crosses a line. His comedy ceases to be inclusive and welcoming, as befits the host of a show on one of the main television channels in a diverse, modern country, and instead becomes exclusionary and unwelcoming for some of the most vulnerable people in that country.

Just as Gruener didn't want to become the kind of killer he hunted, I don't think Ross wants to be the kind of comedian who makes that type of joke. But I don't expect him to jump off a dam to redeem himself. All I want, like the thousands of other people Ross has alienated with his thoughtless attempt at humour, is an apology, and an undertaking to try harder as a comic in future, to make jokes that don't exclude members of his audience who've been fans for twenty-three years just to get a cheap laugh. Because, as a comic book fan, Ross really should know that power - even, perhaps especially, the power of an entertainer - comes with responsibility.

That's the main moral of Spider-Man, of course, but the message of pretty much all the great superheroes, the thing that makes them awesome, is the same. Batman may beat up criminals, 'a superstitious and cowardly lot' to be sure, but he always protects those who are truly vulnerable; Spider-Man will crack wise at anyone going, but he never mocks the weak. Real heroes never do. And those of us, trans or cis, who've thrilled to the exploits of the mythic metahumans know that while we can't be the last children of a dying planet, get bitten by a radioactive spider, be born carrying the X-gene or train our bodies and minds to the peak of ninja-detective perfection, we can imitate them morally. The superheroes represent our best qualities: tolerance, openness, physical bravery and moral courage, too. When I get angry at cis people like Ross and burn, for a moment, with the thought that we should go terrorist and exterminate all the brutes, I remember that the X-Men protect the world that fears and hates them; when I wonder if I should go back to the closet and hide for the rest of my life I think of Mystique, in X-Men 2, telling Nightcrawler that she doesn't disguise herself as human all the time to please the humans 'because we shouldn't have to.' Mutant and proud.

All of which is really a long-winded way of saying: Jonathan, we read the same comics. We have that much in common, if nothing else. And what we both know is: Batman wouldn't do this. Spider-Man wouldn't do this. Superman would die before even considering doing something that would alienate a single human being. We're not superheroes, and we'll always fail to live up to their ideals, but we both know that kind of thing is wrong. And when you do something wrong, you apologise. Don't you?

1 comment:

  1. Love it, thank you - and I don't even read comics!