This article is an excerpt from the essay “Moonhead Press Revisited”, collected in Into the Comics-Verse: Comics and Contemporary Culture, due to be released by Black Ship Books on March 31.
A few years ago, a small independent studio called Moonhead Press made something of a splash with a Batman fan comic they titled The Deal. The Deal was… well, it was pretty good. And not “good for fan fiction” good, but genuinely compelling and visually rich. The writing, reimagining the conflict between Batman and the Joker as a millennia-long battle between reincarnating soulmates, was clever enough to carry the story across the comic’s fourteen pages. The art, at times evocative of Paul Pope’s later stuff, is energetic and animated. The Deal was far from your traditional Batman comic, but it was just as far from the relatively short blocks of descriptive prose that comprise most fan fic.
Beyond its quality, The Deal was also unique for its moral punchline. At the story’s climax, as Batman and the Joker plummet together toward their death, a quotation from comedian Bill Hicks on poverty, war, disease, and all the things the human race hasn’t done to solve those problems, breaks in by way of captions. The struggle between hero and villain, we are implicitly told, is a distraction from the (similarly dialectical) process of improving the world for human beings. “This is how we learn,” the Joker says. “You love me and I love you, and no matter what you do in this life, that is never going to change.” Batman and the Joker’s antagonism represents an iteration of the karmic cycle that, divorced from the violence of war and rapacious capitalism, ought to tend to perfect the world.
Superhero stories, if they question the telos of the superhero at all, tend to ask what kind of interventions a superpowered human can ethically make in the lives of those less powerful than them. The Deal, in what is, perhaps counterintuitively, a more radical move, takes for granted that extraordinary people like Bruce Wayne, and even the Joker, have an obligation to improve the lives of others. In juxtaposing the two, The Deal asks us to consider how the narrative shape of superhero stories lends a kind of mythic inevitability to real-world violence. Where the classic 1972 story “Must There Be a Superman?” had the Guardians of the Universe (seemingly with no concept of irony) critique Superman’s interventions in human events on the grounds that they divested earthlings of the opportunity to progress on their own terms, The Deal laments the intervention into individual lives of malignant social antagonisms of which Batman and the Joker are only avatars.
I’ve argued in the past that Moonhead’s Batman story exemplifies a unique benefit of fan fiction—freedom from continuity. A story like The Deal, and particularly its ending, violates the “illusion of change,” a principle (that maybe originated with Stan Lee and maybe didn’t) that has enabled many superheroes (and supervillains) to continue much the same lives for decades, allowing fans to return time and again to characters who are essentially unchanged. Comicsgate, with its instinctual loathing of change, represents an extreme form of nostalgia, but one that is fundamental to the underpinnings of comics as a serial medium.
If Peter Parker, the 15-year-old genius and original instant expert, can barely manage to graduate college in the eternity of American history that elapsed between 1968 and 1978, then what The Deal show us is really true: ten years of passionate inventiveness are lost in wheel-spinning, cooking up newly durable costumes and new types of web-shooters only so they can be broken and ripped to shreds by Rhino and Vulture and Kraven every few issues. Spider-Man (and we can easily imagine scaling this problem to Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne, billionaire “philanthropists”) models the American military-industrial complex in miniature, expending time, effort, and money (despite his family’s precarious financial situation) in the latest invention merely so it can be blown up in combat and improved upon later.
But the illusion of change is not change. That’s the point. And so anything that looks like change is necessarily conditional, likely to be upended and undone in four or eight weeks. If the world is ever truly made safe, if the villains are ever really vanquished, superheroes would immediately become obsolete. Extraordinary threats, we are told, require extraordinary heroes (“the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun…”). Without one, the need for the other collapses.
Joe Krawec, in her article “Batman: The Real Deal,” riffs on the fact that The Deal explores a time-honored interpretation of Batman, played with by critics and by comics writers alike: namely, that Batman’s villains are nothing more than dark mirrors of the Caped Crusader himself, that Batman and Joker model the interdependency of hero and villain, and the intractable nature of the fight between “order” and “chaos.” (Cue the perennial debates about whether Batman “should” or “should not” kill the Joker.)
It’s easy to see how the The Deal‘s creators may have meant for it to be read as a nerdy counterpart to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” reminding us all that our self-centered pursuits take time and attention that could otherwise be spent improving the lives of humanity as a whole. The Batman of DC canon, it’s well known, is a privileged businessman who gets his jollies (largely) by terrorizing a criminalized underclass. Rather than a “hero” who is every bit as twisted as the villain he fights, The Deal suggests, Gotham needs an omnipotent Hicks, or a Lennon, or someone like them, to snap their fingers and effect a paradigm shift not in the balance of power or the population of prisons, but in the collective values of society. Eliminate poverty, illness, and the destitution of Bruce Wayne’s hometown (as if he and Holly Robinson truly came from the same city), and their attendant violence of crime, war, and poverty will fall away.
Simply put, superheroes (or, at least, the big ones) are powerful archetypes for the simple reason that they are not realistic; they are escapist, rather than utopian, because they allow us to imagine ourselves in another place, rather than asking us to imagine how we might fix our own place. We may want billionaires to spend more time and money renovating poor neighborhoods, improving the educational system, and feeding the hungry—but comics’ history (and arguably its appeal as a visual, action-oriented, popular medium) mean that truly utopian visions that don’t hinge around formative instances of violence are rare.
The Deal, in subordinating its heroes to real-world oppression, asks us to imagine a world in which both are obsolete. With their fan comic, Moonhead Press offer a way out of the narrative shape that the superhero genre and its obsession with continuity compel. The ending depicts a moment of redemption for Batman and for the Joker as they plummet together to their deaths, literally dying into the words of Bill Hicks as the cycle of violence they embody dies with them. For the creators of The Deal, no villains means no heroes.