Hunter S. Thompson once wrote:
“…the only fitting exit will be right off this fucking terrace and into The Fountain, 28 stories below and at least 200 yards out in the air and across Fifth Avenue.
Nobody could follow that act.
Not even me…and in fact the only way I can deal with this eerie situation at all is to make a conscious decision that I have already lived and finished the life I planned to live—(13 years longer, in fact)—and everything from now on will be A New Life, a different thing, a gig that ends tonight and starts tomorrow morning.
So if I decide to leap for The Fountain when I finish this memo, I want to make one thing perfectly clear—I would genuinely love to make that leap, and if I don’t I will always consider it a mistake and a failed opportunity, one of the very few serious mistakes of my First Life that is now ending.
But what the hell? I probably won’t do it (for all the wrong reasons), and I’ll probably finish this table of contents and go home for Christmas then have to live for 100 more years with all this goddamn gibberish I’m lashing together.”
That was in 1977. Twenty-eight years later he put a pistol in his mouth and took the leap.
Likely the most prominent and prototypical creative nonfiction writer of our era, Thompson accidentally built a mythology around himself early in life—the “Gonzo” ideal—traveling the country writing wandering, opinionated, manic political journalism for popular magazines. His artistic ally, Ralph Steadman, later revealed this style to be a result of Thompson’s inability to meet a deadline rather than a conscious decision on the author’s part. Eventually he became sought after by both Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone, both of which sent him on a trip in 1970 that would change his career—and life—forever.
Perhaps if Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had never been published, Hunter S. Thompson would still be alive today. Or maybe its publication was inevitable—the culmination of a life trying to break the mold. Regardless, the novel propelled Thompson into the limelight, continuing to garner attention as time passed. A reflection on the death of the American Dream and lampoon of what the counter-culture devolved into, Fear and Loathing was embraced by two audiences—those who “got” the satire, and those whom the novel sought to satirize. Its great irony isn’t captured at any moment in the protagonist’s journey, but was created from the exterior, as druggies and misinformed readers popularized it as a celebration of decadent drug culture.
Thompson slowly found himself confined by his art—had become a figurehead of two movements,“Gonzo” journalism and 70’s drug culture, purely by mistake. Rather than denouncing the attributes that had propelled him to stardom, however, he chose to play into the mythology, raving maniacally in interviews and dressing with an eccentrism that puts most Los Angelos to shame.
But he never forgot himself. His suicide was not that of a man exhausted with his life, but that of another’s forced upon him.
The formation of Thompson’s alternate identity was the result of an ever-prevalent need in American society to ascribe origins and character tropes to everything and anyone peculiar. This compulsion for explanation is evidenced in popular culture now more than ever, with films like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Batman Begins, and Superman Returns each retroactively filling the “progenitive” gap of character information. But why now? Decades ago, when Batman and Superman were introduced, there was no drive to flesh out extensive origins for characters—a few panels of a boy’s parents getting shot or some wafty-haired alien propelling to Earth in a white tube was all that was required. In modern times these same tales have been revised and retold numerous times across numerous books, creating a post-modern unsurety about their beginnings.
The most recognizable of these is The Joker.
First appearing in Batman #1, published in 1940, The Joker materialized from nowhere—an apparent jewel thief who murdered his victims with no background or motive aside from monetary gain. His murder of millionaires Henry Claridge, Jay Wilde, and Judge Drake, all witnessed in this initial appearance, would be retold in 2005’s Batman: The Man Who Laughs in accordance with Alan Moore’s Joker origin, The Killing Joke.
Moore tied the character’s descent into madness directly with Batman. Desperate to support his pregnant wife, the unemployed failing comedian who would become The Joker agrees to guide two mobsters through the Ace Chemical Factory, his former workplace, as part of a heist. After police inform him of his wife’s untimely demise, this would-be Joker attempts backing out of the heist, only to be forced along at gunpoint. Unsurprisingly, Batman arrives and, amidst the ensuing hullabaloo, accidentally knocks the reluctant guide into a vat of acid which dyes his skin white and hair green.
The Man Who Laughs served as a follow-up, revising the Joker’s original appearance in 1940’s Batman #1 to cohere with Moore’s new take on the character. This revision never mentions jewels or money—no longer is the Clown Prince motivated by personal gain. Reflecting on the deaths of Claridge and Wilde, Captain Gordon states “It’s becoming more and more clear we’re not dealing with someone who has a motive other than causing terror”.
Early in the book, a poem is discovered scrawled in blood at one of The Joker’s crime scenes. It goes like this:
“One By One
They’ll Hear My Call
Then This Wicked Town
Will Follow My Fall”.
Ever the vigilant detective, The Dark Knight pieces the poem and his experience at the Ace Chemical Factory together, deducing the Joker’s grand plan. Unlike the 1940 storyline, which concluded with Batman and Robin physically pounding the Joker into submission following his theft of the “Cleopatra Necklace”, this revisionist’s tale has him scheming the release of a specially-designed poison into Gotham’s water supply which will turn the population’s skin white and contort their facial muscles into a grin while killing them. Despite Gordon’s assertion, the Joker does have a motive—the psychological need for others to “follow his fall”.
Other retellings of the Joker’s origin appear across mediums—film, television, radio. 2008’s The Dark Knight toyed with this variety of character, consciously providing its antagonist multiple stories for “how he got those scars”. But the psychological motive witnessed in The Man Who Laughs is most relevant to modern society—is both product and cause of its existence. Popular psychology tells us that everything can be explained by character background—that a person’s actions are entirely informed by their past. It’s why we trace our celebrities, murderers, and icons through their lives—why we read biography.
But what about the Hunter S. Thompsons of the world? What happens when you’re prescribed a personality based on fabricated past(s)? People change as they age—shed old habits and gain new ones. Sometimes this is allowed. But sometimes people are confined by the mythology they’ve created—find themselves incapable of shedding their past identity while fulfilling their friends’ and fans’ expectations of them. These people have two options—fleeing those who restrain them, or quietly settling into a pre-assembled and assigned personality. Thompson’s only option was suicide; his personality was prescribed by the world—the populace acting in the same capacity as Batman’s writers for The Joker. The rest of us are luckily afforded the option of embracing our personalities–of adopting new environments and friends as we evolve. We simply must be willing to make “the leap”.