January 11th, 2009
It appears that the door to the Dark Dimension was left open, and something crept in.
The signs that marked its passing: wet footprints on the stairs, and a small scrap of moist paper, on which was written, in tiny, vicious handwriting, this, the very first post from a very doubtful guest…
OK, let’s take stock: the star of this Rogue’s Review is kind of lame. Well, not really, but on the strength of his portrayals that’s hardly an extravagant assessment.
These days, the Scarecrow (aka Jonathan Crane, aka the Master of Fear) is a tedious pip-squeak. His schemes lack verve, his cruelties stir little in the way of frissons. Haunted by cliché to an even greater extent than the other rogues, he’s often brought low with a single sock to the jaw delivered by Batman, or by finding himself on the receiving end of his own fear-inducing concoctions. He often acts as a pawn in the hands of bigger, badder third parties. He’s ostensibly a stand-in for the figure of the reductive, smug and hypocritical psychologist, nicely bundled up for the audience to humiliate in effigy.
Admittedly, he must not be an easy villain to write. “Master of Fear” is a pretty damn broad charter, not unlike, say, “King of Love” or “Champion of Justice”. It’s tempting to regard Crane’s mission statement and title as fluff and empty boasting, as something that elicits an oh-so-knowing “tsk” on the part of writer and audience. Admit it, in this day and age, if you were to write the monthly exploits of, dunno, “Captain Righteous” your first base impulse would be to depict him on the loo with a bundle of porn. Archetypes are apparently no longer in fashion as conceptual tools to understand (or justify!) the superhero genre, and the characters to which the term applies more readily invite derision.
Given the difficulties of tackling a character that revolves around so generic a notion as fear, it is common to try to present the Scarecrow as merely fearsome. I say “merely” because a fearsome thing is not fear itself, obviously. It is often futile too, because scarecrows need some effort to be made to look scary. As a quickie wikipedia search confirms, crows are clever critters that grow easily accustomed to mannequins in rags, and we humans like to think of ourselves as even more sagacious beasts.
So where is the fear, that the Scarecrow may become its master?
In its most basic form, the answer is that the fear is in the Scarecrow’s victims, and the comics are for the most part perfectly aware of that, it’s such a pedestrian insight. The operative word here, unfortunately, is “in”. Almost invariably, when the Scarecrow reaches with twig-like fingers into a victim he plucks discrete afflictions, tumours of the soul that one imagines without metastasis and eventually not too difficult to excise. Snappy-sounding phobias. “I’m so afraid of spiders, spiiiiiiders”, some poor dupe squeals. It’s even worse when, invoking the preternatural powers that psychologists and psychiatrists are supposed to possess, Crane hits somebody over the head with a convenient phobia that wasn’t there in the first place. It’s like those sessions of the Call of Cthulhu RPG of our adolescence, where the Game Master says: “OK, your character, Mme Navagina (a Russian aristocrat and medium) has gone a bit bonkers after being to Yuggoth and back. Let’s say we give her…a massive case of vestiphobia?”
It’s lazy and glib, it presents unreason as an exotic, easy-to-catalogue, almost quaint anomaly in the workings of reason, it’s redolent of the thinking of some of the most tedious pip-squeaks around.
Clearly, more substantial fare is needed, so let us take a cue from a perennial favourite like the Moustachioed One and posit that fear is counted among “the life-conditioning emotions”, the “factors which must be present, fundamentally and essentially, in the general economy of life”. Actually, Nietzsche wasn’t talking about fear at all, in the bit I’m taking so wantonly out of context*, but please pay no heed to such trifles. I mean, it kind of fits, anyway: it’s not just that where there’s attachment there’s invariably the fear of loss, and where there’s revulsion the fear of contact; no, the very act of thinking and feeling is potentially fearsome. I don’t want to presume to know how enlightened you are, oh gentle reader, but most of the denizens of our lovely mudball suffer from a woeful lack of control over their minds – the Brownian motion of our weary, dirty and foolish thoughts, the ease with which emotion trumps sense. Where there’s the mind, the mind can leave us in the lurch; there is the fear of mind.
*: Beyond Good and Evil, 23.
Let us now imagine a person who regarded fear as an emotion which “must be further developed if life is to be further developed”. Now you, oh astute reader, may think that I’m surely full of shit, since fear is hardly the kind of thing that one associates with the expansive, energetic vitalism that our mate Fritz was wont to advocate, but please bear with me for a moment. So, yeah, fear. Whoever dared to entertain these thoughts would “suffer from such a view of things as from sea-sickness”; there would be “a hundred good reasons why every one should keep away from him who (could) do so!” And such a person would have to be a ruthless psychologist, since the discipline is “in thrall to moral prejudice”. Fuck me, but that sounds just like the Scarecrow.
Thanks, Fritz. You can stop rolling in your grave now.
Yes, our man’s understanding of his calling should be nothing if not grand. He’s out to “develop life” by sowing fear. Why not? Isn’t fear a thrill? Is it so far fetched, to imagine somebody who wanted to deafen us with the wild beating of our hearts to remind us that we have hearts in the first place, to instill bowel-dissolving terror to remind us that we have bowels? To throw us into the dark pits of our minds so that we may plumb their depths? Whether we want it or not?
Doctor knows best.
If fear is intrinsic to the fabric of the mind, every fear is personal, and Crane must see it as his duty to lavish lots of personal attention on his charges. That’s an ingredient of countless horror stories, of course, the development of a degree of intimacy between the horrifying and the horrified. But since superhero comics are fast and furious, most of the time we’ll need quick, punchy ways for the characters’ inner lives to become manifest and be suitably abused by the Scarecrow. Fortunately, superhero comics are all about the reification.
Which in our case means that it will be absolutely essential that the Scarecrow’s blood-curdling rampages be riotous pageantries of hallucinogenic extravagance. Gosh, that sounds great. Repeat after me: Blood! Curdling! Hallucinogenic! Extravagance!
We’re not talking about “Oooh, I am the Scarecrow, I make wiggly fingers and give you triskaidekaphobia” while little serrated thirteens hover above some guy’s head, as if that were any different from simply telling and not showing. Neither are we talking about: “Aaah, you’re tripping now, how do you like these new spikes I’ve grown?” No, we’re talking about artful, weird shit, the triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony for the undies-on-the-outside set.
Let’s take a closer look at that image, it really sums up what I’m trying to get at. Here we have Anthony the Hermit in the desert, with the menagerie of horrors and failings native to his mind as only company. Now remove the melancholy calm, the touch of grace, and instead of a triumphant saint one gets the gibbering husk of a victim of the Scarecrow, a person lost, scared witless in the fucked-up wilderness of his own mind. The air of revelry so prevalent in the work of old Hieronymus is a definite keeper, because Crane is providing a perverse form of self-help, wants us to get in touch with the pandemonium raging inside us, and the act of making the things that dwell in the gutter of the brain assail the ordered, rational self is the ultimate inversion of hierarchies, the carnivalesque occasion par excellence.
Oh, and I want to see as many things that walk and crawl and hop and fly on the page as in the painting. These are comics, for chrissakes, we’re supposed to do “densely packed” better than other media.
The Scarecrow is thus every bit a performance artist as the other rogues, every fear spree masterfully choreographed for maximum effect. But where folks like the Joker are basically elitists who perform for select audiences (most of the time, only Batman), Crane is a man of the people, and entire wings of Arkham Asylum should be filled with his grateful fans and pati…errr I mean terribly traumatized victims. Where others express their madness with monumental lairs filled with impossible angles and swanky means of transportation, he uncovers the hang-ups of his charges and wrenches them to the surface…
…To do what, exactly? He may think he’s providing a public service but he certainly gets off on the experience. I wouldn’t call him a sadist though, it does not feel quite right and it lends itself to all manner of grim & gritty bollocks. It may be possible to compare him to a pyromaniac, mesmerised by the sight of fear burning through a mind, a “phobomaniac”, as it were. But probably the wisest thing to do is to drop the pretensions of psychological “realism” and simply allow him the leeway accorded to such fantasies as the nightmares or night hags of folklore. Crane has turned himself into something inhuman, a predator, and what he is exactly matters less than what he does, which is to gorge himself lewdly on the pus seeping from the soul.
Are those critters “mere” figments of the poor lady’s drug-addled imagination, or could they be members of Crane’s troupe? Like every self-respecting horror story, a tale involving the Scarecrow shouldn’t be forthcoming with answers to that kind of question. Which, it goes without saying, should frustrate the World’s Greatest Detective to no end.
The Scarecrow’s troupe: he should have a steady supply of henchmen at his beck and call, broken unfortunates addicted to the ultimate high which only he can provide. He can put them to good use: they can act as furtive stalkers, as agents in influential positions sowing paranoia in their communities, as choristers and supernumeraries in his performances. They can seduce the odd victim or two. I can imagine Crane scoffing at the Jezebel Jet gambit as a botched job. Always good for parties, there’s no disguise they will not don for your enjoyment, and they’ll bring your favourite item from Room 101 to your doorstep like the most dutiful of pizza delivery boys.
Let’s dwell a bit on the guy’s looks now. The Scarecrow, the ultimate pencil-necked bastard, looks very wrong, if not necessarily terrifying. So much so, in fact, that I’d like to see the crutch of plausibility thrown out of the window altogether, so that our villain may become what he was always meant to be: a stick figure.
Really, why fuck around? Crane takes Scott McCloud’s dictum, that the cartooniness of a fictional character facilitates the reader’s identification with it, and turns it on its head. Only a few details –a floppy hat here, a tuft of straw there– separate the Scarecrow persona from the kind of doodle everybody can draw and be drawn as, which means that Crane’s costume is an extremely potent tool of alienation: the universal person literalised as an un-person.
It’s all very well put together, really. His thinness indicates his need for sustenance, his eyes and oversized mouth his voracity. He is faceless because he depends on the identities of others, a coat hanger that will wear the dirty linen of all and sundry, hastily stitched together and ill-fitting.
Now, imagine him walking (not recommended if you suffer from ambulophobia): he’s no longer the gangly Crane, his gait is something else now, mechanical, too fluid, and when he has to he moves like a burglar who can slip through any crack, any defence. Imagine the shadows he casts (unless you’re a schiophobic), bent and unnatural. Picture him in free fall (be careful if you…OK I’ll drop it already, I told you it’s boring), contorted like a body flying after an explosion.
It must be terribly liberating for Crane, to transcend mere ugliness and become inhuman. Of all the rogues, he’s easily the one who takes Batman’s “I need a disguise; I shall become a beast of the night” schtick and runs with it the farthest.
The costume is important in another sense: by dressing up as a scarecrow, i.e. a thing which we dress up as a person, Crane riffs on our innate anthropomorphic, anthropocentric tendencies, our urge to see faces in the clouds and homunculi in the dirt, and shows us their last twisted consequence. We insufflate our restless minds into our surroundings, and under the effect of the Scarecrow’s numinous juices we should get our wish and see the external world submit to the mandates of the mind, explode with life and humanity…and, to our horror, bristle with malevolence.
You may have noticed that I refer to the Scarecrow’s “drugs”. That’s because the way he uses his trademark fear gas is, for lack of a better word, “sub-jokerish” at best. I don’t want him to spray the thing into people’s faces, I want the gas to engulf him and his victims. Who says that only Mysterio can be good with the special effects? The gas should create a space where all outlines are blurred, where one bumps into things that should not be, no footprints are left, no witness account is reliable, and reason ceases to apply. You may have also wondered how the Scarecrow can insert himself into the Riotous! Pageantries! blah blah experienced by his charges. Well, who knows what that weird shit can do, really. Maybe the gas (warning: fan-fiction alert) gives him a low-level form of telepathy, something that enables him to hold his victims’ head, look into their eyes (the windows of the soul et cetera) and see what they are seeing. The Scarecrow as shamanistic voyeur. Or voyeuristic shaman. Or something.
Fun fact: did you know that the verb “to conspire” comes from “con + spirare” i.e. to breathe together, to breathe the same air [I did not know that, Deconstructionist Ed]? The dream-like space created by the fear gas, shared between the Scarecrow and his quarry, is a nice representation of the unsettling relationship between aggressor and victim. Why dissemble, we know that Crane will end up breathing in those fumes anyway. Which brings us to the next bit…
Crane is probably so far gone by now that his only “lair” is in la-la-land, among the nightmares and the hallucinations. He can be imagined as a psychologist for whom only the psyche is truly real now, and physical objects are at best flimsy vessels for the mental effluvia of mankind. This would go beyond something like mere philosophical idealism, since the only logic that would apply in his world would be emotional logic. Lots of crazy shit could be based on such a premise.
His relationship to Batman needn’t be as personal as that of other rogues. He views him mostly as competition, an unqualified amateur fear-monger. More aggravating still is that Wayne is an exceptionally resilient, clear-minded specimen.To Crane, fear is real, and the idea of overcoming or coping with it is nothing short of obscene. The Morrisonian Batman in particular, practitioner of Dzogchen and prone to go off on the odd quest of self-discovery, would strike him behind all the brainpower and the clap-trap as a brutish jock. A nihilist, even, in the strict sense.
He shouldn’t give a shit about money, when all is said and done. Yes, I’ve read his mercenary first appearance, but in my opinion he should view wealth at most as a minor perk of the job, and only because money reeks so heavily of sweaty humanity. And yeah, without fear there is no coercion, and it affords great power and it keeps the sheeple on their toes et cetera, but if you ask me most superhero stories end up wielding implements of a political nature as cudgels, and Crane is too insane to view fear as a mere political tool anyway. He engages in other kinds of transactions.
“Shhhhh, dear, the nice straw-man is not going to give you nightmares. He’s only asking you to give him yours.”
[Thanks, Satrap. Take a bow!]