Monday, November 26, 2012

Issei Sagawa: Real Life Cannibal

(Long time readers: This is part of a class assignment on real life psychos. I've never really liked covering True Crime stuff because I have a very different emotional reaction to real world violence as opposed to fictitious violence. Still, I think it's an interesting story and I get to talk a little about how psychos work in fiction vs. in real life. Enjoy!)

            Issei Sagawa killed and consumed a woman and never went to jail for it. He lives in a small Japanese town writing books and making art and generally not bothering anyone. I don't know if he is actually insane and doubt he's much of a threat anymore but there's something both pitiable and monstrous about him.
Sagawa was born in 1949 to a wealthy family in Kobe, Japan. Despite the fact that he looked pretty much like a normal guy, he described himself as being frail, underformed, and sickly, which made me wonder if he had some sort of body dysmorphia issues at the root of all his psychosis. He grew fixated on western women as they represented an inversion of his self-image. As he said in his Vice interview, “I am weak and short. Western women are tall and beautiful.”
He also became sexually fixated on the idea of cannibalism. It's not apparently an unheard of fetish and there are videos out there of people eating human-shaped candies and describing devouring life and gaining strength from it. I suspect that Sagawa shares this fetish and he took it as far as a person can possibly go.
After a couple brushes with the law, including an attempted rape charge, Sagawa left Japan at 28 to study comparative literature at the Sorbonne. As I was putting my research material together, I found myself impressed by the man as I flipped through his photos from his time in Paris. He looked like the kind of smart, well-dressed, confident young man who would wind up in Paris studying Truth and Beauty. I was impressed and a little bit jealous of the romanticism of his life at that point.
On June 11th 1981, Sagawa invited a Dutch student named Renée Hartevelt to his apartment under the pretext of translating some German poems. As she was seated in a chair, Sagawa shot her in the back of the head with a small-caliber rifle. After she died, Sagawa raped her and began eating her body.
The thing that trips me out about the scenario is that it sounds like he had a shot with her. Come on, son. No one goes to some dude's house just to translate poetry. The point where cognitive dissonance kicks in for me is here. Sagawa was clearly into her and it seems like he had a shot. At that point my instinct would be to pour a couple drinks and ask about her major but his thought process was all "kill, fuck, eat."
That, my friends, is messed up.
Anyway, he carves and eats parts of her body. It's pretty gross and I'll spare y'all the details, but suffice to say he gets worried that the smell of rotting meat will be noticed so he carves the body up, packs it in a couple suitcases, and take them to a nearby lake for disposal. He's caught, the police arrest him, and he's quickly ruled insane. The French populace are outraged at the case and there's some debate about what to do with Sagawa. Before treatment even starts for Sagawa, the Japanese government step in and extradite him back to Japan. For reasons I'm not entirely clear on, the Japanese psychologists assigned to his case declare him "sane but evil" and let him go. Aside from a couple kerfluffles, he's been a free man ever since.
Sagawa has created a sort of cottage industry out of being a celebrity cannibal. During the interview I watched with him, the camera cut between whimsical drawings he drew to recreate the crime with photos of Hartevelt's dismembered body. He's written books, acted in bizarre films, created a repellent manga, and appears to have exploited his behavior into a tidy living.
The structure of the interview both demonizes and humanizes him. On one hand, he's a creepy little troll who ate a woman, makes money off the crime, holds no real regret, and works out of an office where he keeps photos of Hartevelt's body in cute little frames on his desk. On the other hand, he's a lonely little outcast who longs for death, has no self-esteem, and has been pretty ruthlessly exploited by the people who've come into his life since he returned to Japan. The few TV shows he's done make him look less like a monster and more as a man uncomfortable in his own skin and desperately seeking approval. A couple of cute German backpackers traveled around the world on Sagawa's dime, likely by exploiting his obvious attraction to them. The weirdest moment in Sagawa's post-cannibal life is his turn as a pornographic star. Some dirtbag pornographer hired a porn starlet to sleep with Sagawa on film The girl had no idea who Sagawa was before performing on-camera. After the act was over, the pornographer had Sagawa show her the photos from his crime and explain what he'd done. You can see the girl crumbling in horror at the revelation. The pornographer interviews the tearful girl in the car afterward and she says “I understand that he’s full of insecurities. I think it’s selfish to let his fantasies grow so wild. Or it’s like he’s lacking something.”
I chose Issei Sagawa for a couple reasons. Leaving aside the obvious fact that I'm a total weeaboo geek, I was fascinated by a guy who committed probably the biggest taboo in modern culture and suffered no real punishment.
I also chose Sagawa because of how candid he is with his internal life. Because he has his liberty and because so much of his life involves fixating on himself, he hasn't developed all those weird power fantasies other killers develop when they're left to rot in prison. He's intelligent and articulate and more than a little bit sad, but when I found myself being lulled into sympathy for him he would say or show something horrible and remind you that the would would probably best be rid of him. In other words, he's not a cardboard cut out fictional psycho but a nuanced and deeply broken human being.
I also chose him because of the overtly sexual nature of his crimes. Maybe it's my own prejudices but I tend to see almost all serial murder as behavior of a corrupted sexuality. There's a reason killers target people they're attracted to and a reason that most of the crime involve either dominance or rape. People destroy what they want to fuck because they hate anything that makes them feel lust because they hate themselves for being unable to approach the person in a meaningful way. It's really just the logical extreme extension of the typical misogyny you see every time some dude talks shit about some girl.
Serial killers who kill just because are slasher movie villains. That's fine, I like a good slasher flick as much as the next malformed child of the 80s, but they aren't proper psychos. I believe that in a healthy, socially supportive society, people who kill other people for reasons other than profit or temporary rage are fundamentally aberrant. They're broken, usually by a combination of chemistry and circumstance. It's easy and perhaps morally correct to simply want to toss them down a deep dark hole and forget about them, but I tend to see psychos as extreme extensions of toxic social attitudes we all buy into. A sad little fetishist who fixates his sexuality on cannibalism the way that Sagawa does is an interesting, if depressing, mirror held up to the darker sides of human sexuality.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

I found my copy of The Killing Joke among my dead brother's things.

I don't know if I loaned it to him and never asked for it back or if it was a copy he bought during one of the comic cons I dragged him to. It was one of the few things I gave him to try that he liked. He was never going to be the pop culture junkie I was....pop geekdom requires a certain level of uninhibited enthusiasm and Dominic Borrelli was an eye-roller if ever there was one....but V For Vendetta resonated with his mid-college angry Green party mentality. Burn down this corrupt world and the poisoned systems that supported it! I loaned him my copy of V For Vendetta and when he was done with it I said hey, you liked that one. Well, Alan Moore wrote another story about a maniac. Maybe you'd enjoy it. 

He didn't have many other graphic novels. He didn't have much of anything. They say that suicides give away things they own before they kill themselves but my brother never exactly hoarded the way I did. I have a comic collection that's thousands deep, folios full of obscure yakuza/kung-fu/horror movies, artwork, posters, toys, collectibles, and all the other petty crap of a guy with the attention span of a hummingbird. My brother liked big things. He pissed away a lot of money on a souped up car during his Import Tuner phase and his laptop could probably give navigation assistance to space ships. Beyond that, he owned very little. He had an almost Buddhalike detachment from the material world. Had his story not shaken out the way it did, I would have found that trait admirable.

It's corny to say this but I was into the Joker long before he got popular.

I'm writing this while looking at a tiny Joker statue that sits on my desk. He's got his hands up in a ta-daa pose, the consummate showman. We've spent an entire semester talking about maniacs and their grubby little neuroses and the petty ugliness of the horrors they inflict. The Joker is all of those things, but he's also a showman. That dichotomy always drew me to him. Yes, it's probably forced and way too manic-slash-needy, but the guy seems like he's really having a good time.

I've been collecting Joker memorabilia for years. I had a shelf in my old apartment dedicated to all the statues and figures I could collect of him. My ex-girlfriend and my mother used to add little pieces to my collection. It was one of those tiny signs that showed they were paying attention and that they loved me. Give me those small gestures over the operatic melodrama of fictitious love any day.

The Joker is the avatar for my id. I'm drawn to trickster figures, whether they are Coyote or Anansi or kitsune or Bacchus or Dionysus or Bugs Bunny. I like funny, chaotic, life-of-the-party types. Given a choice, I prefer not to live in silence. For me, heaven is an endless party with really good music and hot chicks and drinks on someone else's tab. Give me laughter over silence any day.

Just make sure they have a really good reading couch to nurse hangovers on and read.


I fell in love with the Joker specifically because of The Killing Joke. A junior high school teacher gave me a copy of the book and it sunk in with me.

I grew up during the iron age of comics. All the guys had muscles and knives, all the girls had porn-star breasts, no one wore any clothes, and everything was covered in blood. It was taboo and dramatic and fun and completely mind-blowingly stupid. Because we're a nation of repressed yokels, we equate "mature content" in our story telling with the sensational. People keep telling me that horror is all about the visceral, that everything in my genre is blood and tits. Mature storytelling can take all sorts of subject matter and apply depth and humanity to them

But I digress. Anyway.

The Joker became my avatar when I realized that the only sane response to the world was to laugh. We're stuck on a rock, nobody gives a shit about us, we go to wars over lies, people try to guard the fortress of a king they've never seen or met but all are trained to murder at the first sign of a threat.   

The Joker became my avatar when I started growing up, realized that life was unfair and uncaring, and I was going to die and there was nothing waiting for me afterward.

After you figure that stuff out, you've got three options. One, you find a system of lies and you believe in so hard that you ignore that nagging little voice in the back of your mind. Two, you shut down and become a French film student.

Or three, you throw a really good party and keep laughing until the lights go out.

I talk about my brother a lot.

I go to a siblings of suicide support group. I participate in suicide prevention walks. I slip it into casual conversation. I've had a hard time filtering out the information when I talk to people. It makes people uncomfortable and it tends to dominate the conversation and casts me in the role of Grieving Person but it's hard for me to stop myself. I want to talk about it. If I keep it up, it will become my identity.

I received the class syllabus while I was back in San Francisco, watching him go. I bought all my books at my favorite sci-fi/fantasy/horror bookstore (Dark Carnival in Berkeley, CA. If you're reading this, you should go there. It is to readers what Santa's workshop is to greedy children) and I started hacking through them as quickly as I could. When I saw The Killing Joke among my brother's things, I knew I had some shit to say on it. It was such an important part of my upbringing and I'd had the opportunity to see the work with fresh eyes.

Here's my take on the story: it's not a tale of madness but a tale of mourning.

Both Batman and the Joker are creatures created by grief. Something terrible happened to both of them and they dealt with it different ways. Batman turned his grief inward and turned broody. The Joker projected outward. I don't even think the Joker is particularly crazy. He's flamboyant and evil and comic-book crazy, but the things he done is a natural continuation of the things that happened to him. 


My brother was a brooder.

He was introverted and kept to himself, which always mystified me because he was a very handsome young man. I once took him to a friend's party and all these cute hipster girls kept asking me about him. "He's so cute!" they'd tell me and I'd seethe with jealousy and he wouldn't move an inch from the couch and not talk with anyone.

Our relationship was somewhat adversarial. I tortured him throughout his childhood and I spent my adulthood trying to make it up to him. We had a pretty good adult relationship but there was always tension between us. It didn't help that my brother got the bulk of attention. He needed it, obviously, but it felt like I was trusted to just be fine.

I contextualized my relationship using pop culture characters. If he were the selfish, destructive Loki, I was the noble idiot Thor. If he was the too-serious, brooding Batman then I was the loud party boy Joker. 

When my brother was in his hospital bed, they encouraged us to play his favorite songs and talk to him. "You never know what they can hear and music helps." So, after a bunch of pandora stations and Hawaiian music and stuff like that, I found one of the cut scenes from the video game Metal Gear Solid. It's about two brothers at war with each other. The dark one is the hero and the loud vibrant one is trying to resurrect the apocalyptic dream of his dead father.

One lived and one died. What does the Joker do without Batman?

The Killing Joke was the first real attempt (as far as I'm aware of) to humanize the Joker.

A lot of smart, serious comic fans complain about the Joker. He's one note. He's an atrocity factory. There's no rhyme or reason to what he does and the trails of bodies that he leaves in his wake is proof-positive that Batman is completely impotent. The best example of this point of view is below:

The Killing Joke is the first and pretty much only attempt to make him anything approaching a real character. Other writers have built on little aspects of this story, but most of their efforts slip into campy angst. During the one moment of lucidity that the Joker has, after he plays the popgun prank on Batman, he's not bemoaning his fate or weeping for the man he once was. He just stands before Batman, resigned and exhausted, asking why Batman doesn't kick the hell out of him for all the things he's done.

The entire scene of Batman reaching out to the Joker takes all of a page and a half. It's short and there's a tremendous amount left unsaid, but it feels authentic and natural in a way that longer speeches would have felt artificial. There's a lot of weariness and dull pain between the two of them and it fills the scene.

Brevity is often the best choice. 


There's a lot of people who think that the final pages of the story, where the Joker and Batman are laughing at the same joke about two lunatics striving for salvation, means that Batman is just as crazy as his nemesis. I hate that interpretation. Batman isn't crazy, or at least not in the same way. But he has felt tremendous loss in his own life. That moment of shared humanity allows them to laugh at the absurdity of their situation.

Plus, okay, maybe they're a little nuts. 

That, to me, is a better ending to The Killing Joke. We deal with our grief in our own ways. Some brood and go inward, some project and go outward, but either way it changes you.


No disrespectful comments please.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Joyride by Jack Ketchum

This was the one review I didn’t want to write.
It’s not that I’m going to shit all over Joyride. I can’t say that the book was a pleasant reading experience but it was undeniably well done. It’s got prose like a British sitcom, where the camera just stays at one place and unflinchingly describes the ugliness placed in front of it.
I think I’ve been twitchy about writing this one because Jack Ketchum is part of the horror orthodoxy. He’s one of those dudes people just get behind and if I say anything negative I’m afraid I’ll lose my horror bonafides. It’s not that I have anything particularly negative to say about the guy other than his work is nearly the textbook definition of a crapsack world.
Crapsack worlds, as defined by, is a fictional universe where everything is absolutely miserable. Usually it refers to a post-apocalyptic setting and often there are either zombies or robots or something running around, but Joyride takes place in a crapsack version of the human condition. Everyone sucks, everyone is poisoned by hate or madness, and you can murder your abusive husband in cold blood with your lover and still remain the “hero” of the story.
A lot of horror fiction, especially horror fiction without any overt supernatural elements, takes place in crapsack worlds. I can’t stand the tone of these stories. They feel like thinly veiled misanthropy. I don’t know Jack Ketchum in the way that a lot of people in the program do. For all I know, he’s a lovely human being who is kind to puppies and dotes over little old ladies in their hour of need. But it feels like writing from someone who sees very little light in the human condition.
Which, of course, means that he writes the best overtly vicious psychopath we’ve encountered in the course of the semester. Up until this point Francis Dolarhyde has been my favorite looney. He’s kind of a cop out. He’s easy to like. We feel sad for him, we hope he’s successful in fighting off the urges of the Red Dragon, and his murders aren’t jammed in our faces.
Wayne Lock’s mania is jammed right into our faces. We’re not meant to like him. But he’s brilliantly constructed.
Joyride feels like one of those old EC Comics morality tales where the scheming couple bumps off the husband, only to have him riiiiiiise up from the grave to seek vengeance. The story has been updated and the husband really does have it coming (though, frankly, I saw a million different ways she could have gotten away without killing the guy) but instead of the shambling drippy skeleton we get some misogynistic loon with a grudge against everyone. The basic message remains the same: if you step out of line, there will be horrible consequences.
Wayne Lock feels less grandiose than Dolarhyde. He’s less intelligent and a whole lot more petty and a whole lot more believable. As I recognized my insecurities in Dolarhyde, I recognize my idiot rages in Lock. It’s not hard at times to feel like people are against you and there’s reason to keep track of those grievances. But most of us shrug our shoulders and get over it. Lock seems like rage writ large, the kind of person with a permanent ‘fuck you’ mentality. It makes sense that he’d become entranced with the violence he sees. A guy like him builds kill lists as a way to vent, then discovers how easy it actually is to hurt people if you have no conscious and a whole lot of entitlement issues.
So he’s a well-designed psycho, but he’s really the only compelling character in the book. I read it months ago and I don’t remember anything about the couple, other than the fact that I wasn’t sympathetic toward them. It’s hard to sell me on cold blooded murderers, no matter how righteous their cause.
I also thought that the book was really centered around the climactic massacre. The back cover of the book sold it as a story of two ‘righteous’ murderers who find themselves trapped in a rolling massacre with a nutjob. That stuff is scary. Some of my favorite tense scenes in movies are the bits where a crazy person is in the back seat of a car, being half-playful and half-threatening to the scared people driving. It’s the ultimate hitchhiker story. That whole hook feels discarded midway through and the story ends in a gigantic setpiece where the wackadoo goes blasting through the neighborhood only to get gunned down by Johnny Law. It’s incredibly well-executed (har de har harrrr….) but it feels like it could be a short story in its own. It fits what came before but doesn’t necessarily follow, if that makes sense.
Before I finish this post, I want to stress that I don’t think this was a bad book. Jack Ketchum is a really, really good writer and I’ve enjoyed other things he’s written tremendously. I even “enjoyed” reading Joyride. If just feels like a world view I can’t particularly subscribe to.
I’ve been grinding through Silent Hill 2 over the past week as I’ve written this. It’s a supernatural story and it’s one of the scariest things I’ve every encountered, but it’s also a lovely story of grief and guilt and it takes place in a world where the horror of the supernatural contrasts the mundane joys and awfulness of regular life.
The crapsack world of a lot of horror fiction is a place where everything is terrible. Every family is dysfunctional behind closed doors, the mildest mouse can turn into the biggest monster, and everything is two hours and a hot meal away from falling apart. It’s the kind of attitude that feels immature to me. It’s myopic and limited, the world of heavy metal album covers and sullen teenagers. It’s probably not the effect Ketchum wanted the reader to take away from the story, but it’s what I pulled from it. Maybe I’m more interested in what I had to say rather than what the book did.