The Year Of The Mask: How The Joker And Friends Changed The World

The last seven years, in a nutshell.

“If it’s true that every seven years each cell in your body dies and is replaced, then I have truly inherited my life from a dead man; and the misdeeds of those times have been forgiven, and are buried with his bones.”
–Neil Gaiman

Today, apparently, is National Comic Book Day. And it’s an exciting time for fans of comics and related pop-culture: one of the biggest of such conventions in the world, New York Comic Con, begins next week. And one of the most anticipated comic book movies of the year, Joker, will be conveniently released in the U.S. around the same time.

Recently, the United States military released an “incel terrorism warning” in connection to the premiere of the Joker movie. It reads, in part:

Posts on social media have made reference to involuntary celibate (“incel”) extremists replicating the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, at screenings of the Joker movie at nationwide theaters. This presents a potential risk to DOD personnel and family members, though there are no known specific credible threats to the opening of the Joker on 4 October.

Incels are individuals who express frustration from perceived disadvantages to starting intimate relationships. Incel extremists idolize violent individuals like the Aurora movie theater shooter. They also idolize the Joker character, the violent clown from the Batman series, admiring his depiction as a man who must pretend to be happy, but eventually fights back against his bullies.

When entering theaters, identify two escape routes, remain aware of your surroundings, and remember the phrase “run, hide, fight.” Run if you can. If you’re stuck, hide (also referred to as “sheltering in place”), and stay quiet. If a shooter finds you, fight with whatever you can.

Now: for a period of several years, I made a study of a series of real-life crimes inspired by The Joker. This study included writing a “comic book biography” of the cultural impact of the character titled Beyond: Joker The Man Who Laughs, and a series of blog posts called “The Year Of The Mask.”

I made several attempts to serialize “The Year Of The Mask,” but its time of relevance never seemed to arrive. I had developed a “thesis” within the series that comic book imagery was inspiring everything from crimes to politics to ideology…and that it would have an indelible impact on the world as a whole, changing it forever.

This was all, of course, well before Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. But the series absolutely seemed to anticipate it.

And with the release of this new Joker movie, plus so many the recent events…I absolutely know now is the time to bring “The Year Of The Mask” again.

And it all starts with the following post—initially published by me anonymously—from 2012.

At the time, I was the editor/writer for a pop-culture blog for MTV—mostly about comic books and science-fiction. Twice a year, I had to go to the New York and San Diego huge comic conventions with a blogging/video crew to comprehensively cover the events.


Before that job, I had worked as an editor for multiple comic publishers—including DC, home of Batman (among the titles I handled were Arkham Asylum: Living Hell). I was also a comic book writer myself, having written such characters as the Punisher, Emma Frost, and Pinhead. So essentially, that “geek” comics/fan environment had been my “home” since 1996.

But with SDCC of 2012, that all changed; though certainly, it was a bit of a slow “death” stretching years before. I just became disillusioned with it all. All the magic was gone, seemingly replaced by the most cynical of consumerism.

That Summer, the last dregs of Fandom left me and I began to have a new relationship with these pop-cultural icons I had so worshipped without question in my youth…


Journal Entry, 7.21.12

Last week, I was knee-deep in San Diego Comic-Con. I had been in sunny San D since Tuesday, July 10th. Throughout all the festivities, I felt a sense of…what is the word…objectivity about everything I saw. I just couldn’t let myself fall into the “wonder” of the pageantry before me —instead, looking at the whole shebang with the clinical eyes of a sociologist, not a fan.

I was like a heretic at Disneyland.

San Diego Comic-Con attendees wait in line

Maybe I was just too tired from my journey. Maybe I ate too much seafood. I didn’t even really drink a lot. I felt bad about my lack of zest, totally Charlie Browning the entire event. As I waited for the taxi to pick me up to go to the airport, a traveling companion even whistled the “Christmas Time Is Here” song from the Peanuts special.

Anyway, I took about 200 photographs at SDCC, mostly not of cosplayers, celebrities, and various wonders—but instead, of long lines, advertising signage, people wearing giant billboard-like bags, protesters of various stripes, “Twilight Tent Cities,” and the like. I took these photos casually, not really with any end-goal in mind.

large banner ad for the movie “Looper”

People looked at me like I was crazy. Why was I taking in-depth photos of a group of tired, twenty- and thirty-something women with Robert Pattinson T-shirts slumped under a tent like refugees; sleeping bags, blankets, water-jugs and shopping carts filled with what looked like their life’s possessions strewn about?

Why was I carefully photo-documenting the ads for new television shows and movies about the post-apocalypse that plastered the restaurants and sides of buildings…and even covered entire buildings, like the hotel I stayed in, and the one that loomed ominously across the convention center?

mural on bar window

Why was I taking photos of people cheerfully standing in line to be literally chained as zombies, or painted to look like zombies, or undergo a simulated alien violation of their body, or be packaged under plastic as an action figure? Didn’t I want a photo opp for myself, to share on Facebook?

Throughout it all, I had the following vague idea: our pop-culture both shapes, and reflects back to us, our own selves and the world in which we live in.

mural on bar window

Now, in fan circles, the concept that comic books, movies, video games and the like might have any impact at all on a person’s emotions/actions/beliefs is highly taboo. We shan’t go into that concept here.

What I would like to talk about instead is my trip to San Diego, and what happened afterward. Indulge me, won’t you?

Diner menu

Anyway, I got home—and before I even really had a chance to recover from my trip, we had to make the painful decision to put our eldest cat down. Suffering from hyperthyroidism and rapidly losing weight, Simon was boarded with a vet who could monitor his condition and give him steady nourishment and meds. Unfortunately, he not only didn’t gain any additional weight—he had a stroke.

Near-blind, unable to walk steady, and mostly skin-and-bones, it was clear what had to be done. But it was heartbreaking nonetheless. I felt like I had tried to save Simon, and failed.

At the very same time, I received a promotional package in the mail for the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises movie. Throughout the last month, I had been reading/reviewing a large amount of Batman-related material. I worshipped Batman in my youth, but never really felt close to the character after that—with the possible exception of the “Batmania” of 1989 when the Tim Burton movie came out.

Recently, however, I had been feeling that very same “Batmania,” the hype and ballyhoo surrounding TDKR whipping up the same sort of excitement. Looking over the promotional materials for the movie—thoughtfully packed for me in the type of black, nylon duffel bag a special-ops operative or terrorist might use—I made a decision right there to watch a screening, and catch up with the first two via On-Demand.


Admittedly, the recent stories about obsessive Batman fans ganging up in droves upon reviewers who didn’t like the movie—and going so far as to write death threats—sort of soured the festivities somewhat. But it was the Internet after all…

On the night of July 19th, I went to bed with my subconscious swirling in a stew of those pictures from SDCC, memories of my cat Simon, and Batman. And when I woke up, I found out that there was a shooting in Colorado at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises.


The hair of gunman James Eagan Holmes, 24, hair was dyed a bright red, and that—plus the fact he committed his crimes during a screening of a “Batman” film—has branded him a “Joker.”


Of course, the Joker had bright green hair—and a far more apt comic book movie villain to compare Holmes’ “look” to would be Jim Carrey’s Riddler from Batman Forever:


But that particular angle would probably not “sell” as well as a media narrative to the masses. So the “Joker” it is.

Immediately I flashed back to hearing the news “Joker” actor Heath Ledger had died; it was on a bus ride back home from somewhere, 2008.


Since that time, I had been collecting very bizarre news items regarding a sort of “Joker obsession” on the part of some of the public…including what I called “The Joker Crimes.” Again: it’s that intersection between popular culture—especially “comic book culture”—and “real life.” Or rather, where some people take that comic book culture into real life.

But I never expected something like this, that was so…”on the nose.”

Further: could this have been what I was picking up “in the ether” all through my San Diego trip?

Was this “the dread?”


Stay tuned to Fantasy Merchant for the series that explores how the Joker and Comic Book Culture changed the world: “The Year of The Mask!”