18 July 2008

Murderous Clowns


In honor of MY NOT BEING ABLE TO SEE THE DARK KNIGHT FOR DAYS AND DAYS, I thought I'd finally get around to writing the sequel (heh heh) to this little gem of an entry. I wasn't sure if I'd ever write about this. It's a difficult entry to justify in the ethos of the Aviary (because I've been so dedicated to my mission statement to date) except perhaps to say that: 1 - my doing clown work makes for a very real interest in the sociological implications of any clown identity; B - my early cultural influences have untold ramifications on what I choose to create today; and * - it's BATMAN weekend, people! And I've got to be a part of it!

Really though, it's Joker week. That's the big excitement over the movie and, I'd wager, would be even if it were not for Heath's untimely exit from the stage. The Joker is almost as iconic a character as Batman himself, and certainly as graphic and emblematic a villain as has ever risen from popular media. He may even indicate that a pervasive fear of clowns has been around a lot longer than some of the current media we have to propagate it. Before The Dark Knight, or Batman, or Killer Klowns from Outer Space, or It, or John Wayne Gacy, Jr., or the original appearance of the Joker in Batman #1. Maybe it's always been around, pre-Punch. Maybe the fear was first, and the laughter second. That's certainly in keeping with my general theory of humor. [Laughter = self awareness * inevitability, squared.] And for those of you who consider the Joker a relatively trivial source of terror, consider this, too: In his first dozen appearances in the comics, he averaged about three murders per issue.

In my deep, unending and intricate research into coulrophobia (sp?) I have discovered some amazing things. Unfortunately, I can not share these things with you, because they are far too intricate, deep and, uh, unending, to . . .. Okay. I haven't exactly been to the library yet. But I've spoken with people about it, and I'm amazed by how few people know who John Wayne Gacy, Jr., was. (He was executed in 1994; one less clown to deal with, coulrophobes.) I thought he was sort of a household name, right up there with Dahmer and Manson, but I only spoke to one or two people who even had an inkling of who he was. Well, he was a seemingly pedophilic mass-murderer with a penchant for imprisonment and grisly dismemberment, who apparently can't even properly be classified as a psychopath. He also enjoyed moonlighting as a birthday clown. Pogo the clown.

So it's difficult to discount coulrophobia as absurd or irrelevant. It could even be a pretty basic survival instinct, as some have suggested. Some of the most ancient human rites involve masks and grinning figures that don't necessarily mean us well. The Joker's white face may as well be the clay pasted to an aboriginal witch-doctor, or the bleached skull an African shaman paints on his face. And death is absurd, too. Well, it seems absurd to the living, anyway. Living is to some extent based on ignoring the fact that we're going to die. This is such a prevalent philosophy that those who embrace death, or even simply associate themselves with it, are seen as somehow mystic or insane. The skull of a deceased comedian grins back at Hamlet's philosophizing, and when anyone grins, they expose the teeth -- the only "bones" directly visible on a living human body.

The Joker makes a great villain for Batman, and the two sum up a very basic human struggle pretty succinctly, so I have to forgive this perpetuation of the coulrophobic phenomenon. Batman is serious, and the events of his life have meaning -- he's a believer. Hell: His whole "superpower" is a character trait, that of determination. And Joker, well, he stands in absolute contrast to that. My favorite characterizations of him never allow him a moment to regret even his own failure. For him, it is all absurd, all pointless. He's not appetite-driven or suppressed, like Gacy, nor a traumatized child who is endlessly acting out his worst fantasies and fears. The story has no significance to the conclusion because, at the end, all our stories end the exact, same, way. If only he could convince Batman of that, maybe then he'd be able to rest. If only the Yorick had survived into Hamlet's story, maybe he could have made everyone see the folly of their ways.

So how do you tell the difference between the jester, who just wants to make fools of us all, and the joker, who wants to make us all corpses? Well, sadly, you can't. That's part of the dread of comedy, and the thrill of death. You just have to take your chances.

2 comments:

Davey said...

Hey, sorry you can't see it, but glad you're working! Where did you get the picture, it's really creepy. I saw the movie, the scenes with The Joker were not frightening for me because it was a clown, but only because I was completely entranced; you'll see. The minions on the other hand did put me on edge. Stupid masks.

Jeff Wills said...

Ah, Davey! You address something that's been nagging at my conscience for some time now. I should cite all of the photographs I use. I'm just lazy as all get-out, and it takes me long enough to complete a 'blog entry.

This is a publicity shot from a movie called "The Man Who Laughs," starring Conrad Veidt and based on a novel by none other than Victor Hugo. Popular legend has it that Bill Finger brought it to the table in creating the Joker, but there's a lot of dispute over who was responsible for Joker, and whether this photo inspired him or merely informed his appearence.