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By Brian Truitt, USA TODAY

The comic-book community, a normally peaceful group with like-minded folks from creators to readers, is reeling today with the news of the movie-theater tragedy in Aurora, Colorado.

At a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises Thursday night near Denver, a gunman clad in a gas mask and body armor opened fire into a crowd of theatergoers, killing 12 and injuring at least 59. The suspect has been identified as James Holmes, 24.

The highly anticipated film, the final installment in a trilogy involving the Batman superhero character, premiered at midnight screenings in 3,825 theaters and opens wider today.

According to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, who has increased police presence at New York City screenings and has been in touch with Colorado authorities, Holmes told Aurora police that he "was the Joker" - referring to the Batman villain from comic books and the late Heath Ledger's character from the previous movie in the trilogy, The Dark Knight. (Kelly also said Holmes had dyed his hair red, although Joker has green hair in the comics and movie.)

But Batman isn't to blame for the incident, says comic-book writer and novelist Brad Meltzer (Justice League of America), "and anyone who says that to me is a little bit insane.

"We can't possibly say this could be more tragic, but I do think that there's some twisted irony in the fact that it's a movie of someone who so many people look up to and a movie that celebrates someone who can stop this kind of violence."

Jim Lee, a co-publisher at DC Comics and former Batman artist, tweeted to fans this afternoon: "Just shocked & saddened today-my thoughts & prayers go out to the victims' families & friends & everyone affected by this terrible tragedy."

Although comics and superhero movies have for decades told stories with villains perpetrating criminal acts, real-life violence has stayed mostly out of the culture of comics and geeks. At San Diego Comic-Con in July 2010, a man was arrested for assaulting another fan with a ballpoint pen in an exhibition hall.

Gerry Gladston, co-owner and chairman of marketing at New York City's Midtown Comics, calls the Aurora killings "quite a shock and tragedy," but he agrees that comics didn't cause this tragedy. "I would worry a lot more about gun control than influence by comics and other pop culture and media.

"I think it's a senseless tragedy conducted by a psycho who took advantage of the mass popularity of this public event," he adds. "He clearly wanted to make a big splash and he picked the biggest public spectacle he could find, and this week it happens to be The Dark Knight Rises."

There are some chilling parallels in the comics to what happened in Colorado, beginning with Batman's own origin: The senseless murder of his parents after leaving a movie theater is the first impetus for Bruce Wayne to put on the cape and cowl later in life.

And in a 1986 issue of Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns series, there is a Batman-inspired massacre at a porn theater by a lone gunman.

"Life imitates art an awful lot in our world, and sometimes we can draw comparisons to things that are very tragic," says Jonah Weiland of the website ComicBookResources.com. "Anybody drawing assumptions between the actions of this man and things they've read in a comic book or a movie is just plain wrong.

"If you really look at who Batman is and what he stands for, he doesn't stand for what this guy did."

Meltzer says that is part of what disturbs so many people about this incident - that it indirectly involved a beloved superhero.

The writer attended a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises Thursday night in Florida, and when asked to speak, he told the crowd that he'll never be able to lift a car like Superman but everybody can be Batman, someone who helps others in the world.

"That is the mass appeal always of the character. It's not just Batman but what's inside him and the idea that we can all see and understand what it's like to have loss and see harm and want to do good," Meltzer says.

"So when you have it happen in the shadow of that, the knife just twists a little bit deeper for us all as a community."

After hearing the news on Friday, the very next thing Meltzer read was comics creators e-mailing back and forth trying to figure out what they could do to help.

"I love that," Meltzer says. "That is the best part of the story, and the only good I can find is how this will absolutely remind us of the work of so many ordinary heroes who rush in to help these victims."

And anything that can bring the community together, Weiland says, "is one tiny bright spot on a very, very dark day."

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