The spooky season may have just ended, but let’s face it, when you’re living in a city like Gotham, how can you tell the difference? The city is constantly reeling from one traumatic event after another. What does that do to a city’s psyche? “Fear State,” the latest Bat-Family crossover event, explores that question.
I don’t mean to dredge up bad memories, but let’s take a moment to recall what 2020 felt like. Remember how it felt like there was a world-shattering crisis every other week? There was always something new to get anxious about, and we never had time to regain our balance. Now take a moment to consider this—Gotham has been living like this for many years. The city has been taken over by multiple madmen, been infected with a deadly plague, destroyed by an earthquake, and abandoned by the United States government. And that’s really just the start.
A city can only take so much before it snaps, and that’s exactly what Jonathan Crane is counting on.
“It’s difficult to imagine creating a society trained to expect trauma—whose fear has become so ingrained and irrational that your theory could tip them over,” Simon Saint tells Crane. “But perhaps it’s different in a city that was just overrun by murderous clowns less than a year after a foreign strongman in a mask conquered the city government.”
Scarecrow and Saint are testing their theories about a post-fear society, and using Gotham as their guinea pig. In some ways it reminds me of the Joker’s theory from The Killing Joke—it only takes one bad day to drive someone insane. Crane and Saint’s experiment operates under the same principle, except it expands to an entire city. Remember, it isn’t Crane’s goal to destroy the city, he wants it to evolve, and in a twisted way, that was the Joker’s goal with Commissioner Gordon as well.
During challenging times, we want to feel safe, and Gothamites are no different. It’s why the city has begun embracing Simon Saint’s Magistrate. If you read DC Future State, then you already know that using the Magistrate as a security force will only lead to bad things. Scarecrow raising the temperature on the city’s paranoia is causing the population to take comfort in the order they think the Magistrate will bring. It’s clever, but we’ve seen the consequences it could have. After all, the Magistrate doesn’t have Gotham’s best interest at heart.
Imagine how much harder Batman’s job would be if an evil Commissioner had been leading the Gotham City Police Department for all these years. Simon Saint is no Jim Gordon, so the deeper the Magistrate engrains itself into the city, the worse things will become. This isn’t the Gotham it once was. Batman has lost his fortune, Jim Gordon is no longer Commissioner, Alfred is dead, Oracle is offline, mass communication is down, and the only sense of reality the city has is coming from an Oracle imposter known as Seer.
Crane cutting off all communication systems is interesting, and it reminds us of how much we truly rely on it. Can you recall the last time you were without Wi-Fi or your cellphone for an extended period and how lost you became? Imagine what that would do to an entire city, to say nothing of Batman’s operation.
In Batman #115, the Dark Knight states as much. “It’s been a while since we’ve been through one of these without the benefit of communication,” he tells Miracle Molly. “Not to know what’s happening from one end of the city to the other. And the panic from not knowing, I could let it control me. I could let it get in my head and stop me from doing what needs to be done.”
Forgive the pun, but without his intelligence infrastructure, Batman is as blind as a bat. He may have his allies, but his network has crashed. And then there’s Seer, who’s sending disinformation throughout the city to stir up panic. In Batman #114, the faux Oracle tells Gothamites that reports of cannibalism are up 800 percent, which is alarming, but obviously inaccurate. With the full array of communications at our fingertips, you or I could quickly check multiple news sources to see that the claim was obviously bogus. Gothamites don’t have that. They just have Seer. What happens when all of your news comes from one source, and that source is a super-villain who is trying to break your brain?
When I break it all down like this, it’s easy to wonder how Gotham has survived for so long and question how much longer the city can survive. The answer, interestingly, comes from an unlikely character—Beth Kane, the former villain Red Alice. During Batman: Urban Legends #8, the Kane sisters discuss how Beth is coping with her mental health struggles and reveal that she’s been making great progress with her therapist. Beth acknowledges that she’ll be dealing with Red Alice every day for the rest of her life, but she can handle it if she takes it one step at a time.
At first glance, Beth might seem like an unconventional choice for a therapeutic role model, but I think her mantra is spot on. Taking things one day at a time is the only way Gotham can put itself back together after everything the city has gone through. The stage has been set for a Scarecrow victory, but Gotham can get past this. Batman doesn’t have the advantages he’s had before, like Oracle, Alfred or Gordon, but he doesn’t need them. All he needs is his city, and Gotham has proven itself to be the greatest survivor of all.
Should Gotham fear Jonathan Crane and his Fear State operation? After over eighty years of survival, I suspect the real question is, should Jonathan Crane be afraid of Gotham?
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Joshua Lapin-Bertone and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.