Bernie Goetz And Frank Miller On The Subway

I was just reading about Bernhard Goetz, the ‘Subway Vigilante,’ in a chapter in The Tipping Point, a book on epidemics of memes. I was reminded of Frank Miller’s Batman: the Dark Knight Returns.

Miller’s famous Batman story almost single-handedly ushered in a new era of comics for adults, and I have read it many times. Since I first read it in the early 1990’s when I was in high school and didn’t read the news much, I didn’t catch a number of the cultural references. I had no idea about the crime wave that was hitting most of the country, which would crest in the late 1980s / early 1990s (for those who are feeling nostalgic, don’t worry, I have a feeling the insanely high crime rate will be back soon).

Anyway, one such reference: In a subway scene, young hoodlums drop a hand grenade into a doomed woman’s purse. The news reports the story in a single sentence. As Batman mania hits the streets, an unemployed wrestler is inspired by Batman’s vigilante methods and attacks a “client” in a restaurant, dressed as Batman. Another, Taxi Driver-inspired maniac hears the backwards lyrics to Stairway to Heaven and goes on a shooting spree in a porn theater. This time, both incidents are blamed on the Batman by the media (no that porno theater shoot-out had nothing to do with Batman).

In another reference, the psychologist of The Joker analyses the Batman and how his personality predisposes him to violent situations, and how The Joker is a victim of his Batman-infested environment. Much as people at the time made excuses for Bernhard Goetz and saw patterns in his life that led up to this particular incident on the subway.

The epidemic of crime in New York in the 1980s cannot really adequately be described. I remember my parents telling me about how rotten the subway was. But when I finally rode the subway, it didn’t seem so bad. The difference? About ten years- they had ridden it in the mid 1980s, and I rode it in the late 1990s, after several waves of highly successful “clean up” initiatives.

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