1985, when I was five years old, I tried to jump out of a window on the second floor of my childhood home: a two-storied yellow cube in Swedish Suburbia. From window ledge to ground it must have been at least nineteen feet.
I was standing on the window ledge. My feet were bare, and my toes were arched. I looked down, and I felt the inside of my stomach turn and tickle – that spastic, hairy butterfly of childhood anticipation. I stretched out my arms and clenched my fists. Around my neck, tied in a knot resembling a washed out bow tie, hung a towel. Apart from underwear, the towel was the only thing dressing me. I imagined it alive with movement, but it hung limp and dead, its cotton smooth against the bony ridge of my back. Plastered on the towel was a motif of Superman. His left arm was stretched out, much like both my arms were stretched out. His hands were mighty fists; mine were quivering. He was, as was his natural want, flying, the red cape a swirl of daredevil-do. And I, as was my newly found desire, was about to copy him.
I was going to fly – over the hills and far away into some forbidding landscape in desperate need of saving. And with such a towel tied around my neck, of course I’d fly. Of course I wouldn’t plunge to the certain breaking of bones.
Mom didn’t think so. Neither did Dad. Before I took flight, he yanked me from the ledge and into the room. Mom was standing behind him. Her face was flushed with loving fire: her cheeks a spray of crimson red; her eyes containers of glowing brimstone.
”Don’t ever do that again,” she said. It was a shriek. Dad matter-of-factly seconded the command. It is never a good idea to risk your safety like that, seemed to be his quiet sentiment, conveyed with a brief and considered shake of the thin-hair-head.
And I didn’t ever do it again, meaning: I didn’t try to impersonate superheroes.
During the rest of my childhood, superheroes were prominent only in their inability to move me, like so much peripheral white noise. Although I was surrounded by them—on TV, in comic books, and in my classmates’ retellings of their heroic feats—I wasn’t moved, inspired, or compelled to fandom. Instead, I preferred playing with Lego. I built miniature houses, planes, and cars, and I tended to them in an orderly fashion, not entirely unlike a custodian. There was, of course, as is the case with all kinds of play, a sense of relieving and freeing unreality to it; a sense of flight from the sometimes imposing framework of reality. But it was not the all-out and action-packed unreality that you normally associate with superheroes. I was not the heroic savior of the universe or of kidnapped scientists forced to construct weapons of mass destruction. I swept the floor of my pretend house, occasionally taking the car, or the plane, for a spin, careful to keep to the maximum speed limit.
It was only later, at the age of twenty-three—while enrolled as an undergraduate student of philosophy at Lund University, Sweden—that I got interested in superheroes, and then mainly in the shape of vigilantes. I was especially interested in vigilantes without god-given super-powers – those that had to work their way toward the ability to laugh death and mortality in the face.
It all started when a former university-friend, Atli, urged me to read Watchmen, a graphical novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. He said it was great, absolutely great, miles (and miles) better than anything Neil Gaiman had ever been close to. I’d never read Gaiman before, nor had I ever heard of Watchmen.
Atli must have sensed my confusion; he was tellingly quick to the rescue, as if saving face was his mission. Admittedly, it was a gesture of goodwill, but at the time it only felt patronizing.
“No, no, listen,” he said and continued by outlining the gist of Watchmen.
He explained it was about a gang of dressed up crime fighters, sanctioned in their actions by the government, later on banned by the same government from running, gunning, and punching evildoers in the face.
“This Watchmen,” I asked, “it’s about superheroes?”
Atli told me to try and bypass the idea of superheroes. “It’s a human story,” he said. “Furthermore, it’s really about vigilantes, not superheroes,” he was careful to add.
The Superhero, I was to understand, was dead. So was jingoistic Superheroism: Superman and Captain America.
Fair enough, I thought; neither Superheroes nor Superheroism had been fully alive to me anyway, so I shrugged at their and its alleged demise.
I bicycled to the public library. I found and checked out Watchmen; its edges, I remember, were shoddy and torn: a sign, I assumed, of its popularity. At home in my dorm room, I opened the cover. I was met by intricately ordered frames, pictures, and speech bubbles: a confusing semiotic system in contrasting colors; a pictorial maze, at least to the untrained eye.
However am I supposed to read this? I thought.
At first glance I found the whole thing ridiculous. Here, amongst other more or less fleshed out characters, was this man wearing a mask patterned like a Rorschach test. He even called himself Rorschach, all the while clothed in a beige coat and a fedora. And to make matters worse, he was talking in this symbolically overloaded prose, like everything was of great importance, even specks of dust.
Luckily, though, I didn’t let my prejudiced approach hinder me from eventually getting sucked in. And I got sucked in. Soon I found the prose to be expertly crafted. Rorschach, I felt—in a moment of appreciative elation that turned me toward the hyperbole—belonged in the company of great fictional characters: Prince Myshkin, Holden Caulfield, and Heathcliff, to name but a few. It was an alchemical process, of sorts. Everything previously considered trite and pretentious was, with the flip of the proverbial coin, turned into gold. Rorschach, I realized, was—and is—vigilantism personified, and insightfully so. He was—and is—vigilantism treated right.
Let me clarify: If vigilantism is used to refer to someone taking matters into his or her own hands for the sake of good, as is commonplace, then vigilantism treated right is to allow the seed of madness inherent in all vigilantism to bloom freely. And Rorschach was allowed to bloom freely. His caged madness was, all thanks to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, let out, and trust me – it was a sight to behold.
Since that fateful meeting with Watchmen, and Rorschach, vigilantes have been a preoccupation of mine. Granted, it hasn’t been an exclusive preoccupation. It has puttered parallel to other preoccupations, springing to life every now and then, often when I’m stressed, or when I’m stuck in a queue.
Queues always make me want to deal in vigilante justice. If you’ve ever been stuck in a queue composed of teenagers chewing gum and screaming LOL into phones (as if actual laughter was outdated), old and blue haired ladies unable or unwilling to move about in a speedy fashion, and kids hopped up on sugar all of a sudden having major spas-attacks; if you’ve ever been stuck in a queue like that and kept your inner cool – then you’re more together than I could ever be.
It’s not that I act out my inner vigilante. No, I pretend to act it out. That’s the civilized way to do it. I pretend that I’m donned in a Rorschach-esque outfit. I pretend (yes, you get it) that my voice drops to a disgruntled murmur. I lift the really old, blue-haired lady. I put her on her equally blue stroller and push her down a flight of stairs. She bobs about before falling flat on her stomach, the sound of her hip bone snapping traveling back to me. And I laugh. And I take the kid by the ear. I look him or her in the eye, and I say, slowly and with great intonation, elongating certain vowel-sounds: “I will eat your face if you don’t shut it, buddy.” Subsequently I grab the teenager’s phone. I put it in my mouth. I chew on it, like a rabid dog, and I spit it out.
“Let justice reign,” I declare, realizing I’m a masterful wordsmith because reign sounds like rain, and fragments of phone are actually raining down, spat out from my mouth like water from a fountain. Then I run away, my coat hypnotically swinging about, not at all limp and dead like my childhood’s Superman-towel.
No, not really. Not even close. But it does feel good, close to cathartic, to pretend to take matters into your own hands. It does feel good, even if, or maybe just because, those hands are guided by a warped sense of justice. And that, most of all, is what intrigues and still lures me back to Rorschach and other vigilantes like Batman. It’s all about their single-minded vigilantism; how it at any point in time can trip over into bloody murder; how it, if the wind rubs the cape or the coat the wrong way, can trip over into crazed violence and madness, all traces of human decency and restraint wiped clean.
These vigilantes, I’ve come to understand, are accidents waiting to happen. At one point or another they will flip. To be made interesting, they should flip. That, to me, is a large portion of the Vigilante’s allure. They are not there to continually uphold justice and peace. They are there to outline the evolution from meaning well to doing unwell; to outline the evolution from order to chaos, to crash and burn. That’s the proper way to treat the Character of the Vigilante. Let them start lean and end mean. The meaner the better.
I say, offer the vigilantes to the Altar of Madness. Let the seed of madness bloom.
Returning to when I was twenty-three.
I was lying in bed reading Watchmen. I spent the entire night and the following morning reading under the warm light streaming from a dimmed light bulb in the wall just above the bed. What, I needed to know, was going to happen to dear, crazy Rorschach?
He was, as I found out, left as actual dust on snow: entirely obliterated. (I won’t spoil more if you haven’t already read the novel or seen the movie adaptation.)
Rorschach’s fate, his transgression, felt wholly natural. He was insightfully offered by Alan Moore to the Altar of Madness.
I wish someone would do this to Batman. He needs that last push. The day he finally snaps like a twig and batarangs Alfred in the head—and later on gets shot by Commissioner Gordon— that’ll be the day he is properly realized. That’ll be the day his status gets changed from an interesting character to an iconically tragic character: a fun-house mirror of madness. And that, to me, is preferable. It is either that or teaming him up with the Joker that’ll work, at least as far as I’m concerned. As for Superman, my childhood buddy – not much can be done about him. He is too flat and goody two-shoes to either work as great tragedy or great comedy, or anything else for that matter. He might at one point have inspired me to try and fly, but that is all. He doesn’t carry enough vigilante gravitas—the proper pull toward madness—to be offered at the Altar of Madness.
Aje Björkman is of Swedish birth, his feet planted in Swedish soil, too: he’s a freelance-journalist and writer based in Karlskrona. His previous creative work in English has appeared in Remaking Moby-Dick, a special issue of Pea River Journal, and Squawk Back. He has forthcoming work in One Throne Magazine. You can reach him at ajebjorkman.se or @aje_bjorkman.