I’m not really a Batman fan. I mean, he’s cool and stuff, and he’s got the moves, but he’s just too perfect. Oh, sure, he’s tortured by the death of his parents, and his own quest for justice. He’s an emotional cripple, without close relationships even with his pupils and father-figure. But there’s the sense, and I guess this is endemic to superhero comics, that failure isn’t an option for him. Don’t get me wrong: he’s amongst the most impressive super heroes, and he is very well showcased in most mediums, but he nevertheless, remains in my mind a “could have been” rather than an “is”. Perhaps this reflects a limitation in the genre, but since Batman’s been around almost as long as the genre, I’m forced to wonder whether the chicken predated the egg or vice versa.
Well, recently I’ve re-read The Dark Knight Returns, and read Knightfall for the first time. I have also re-perused some single-issue stories that BattleAxe press put out a good long while ago now. And, in lieu of stressing about my test tomorrow, I’m going to share some thoughts about them.
But, because this is me, there will be a brief discussion of post-modernism as I understand it to set some contexts. Modernism was that movement where poets and authors looked at the conventions and formulae of the previous few generations and set about systematically breaking them in order to free their writing and make their content fresh and original. There is a consequent freshness about modernist literature, but there is also a concomitant complexity of ideology. In order to understand a modernist work you must also understand the context against which it is reacting. For example, in order to understand theatre between Shakespeare and the onset of modernism, you needed only to speak the same language as the play and the play would be largely comprehensible. Obviously when reading Ibsen or Hauptman or someone like that, it’s handy to understand the cultural background of the industrial age, but the action in the play is straightforward enough that it is the references you don’t get rather than the plot. But, with Lorca and Beckett, for example, their play may be largely incomprehensible unless you are aware of their tragic pre-cursors: unless you can see that the action of the play is a silhouette where the plot should be.
Post-modernism takes this consciousness of form into itself as an inoculation against formulae. It re-tells the classic tales, but often in a self-referential way. When Shakespeare’s Hamlet gives his famous soliloquy about suicide, Shakespeare was trying to fully realise that moment of doubt. When a modern playwright does the same thing, he is self-consciously aware that he is imitating Hamlet, often bringing an intellectual depth and emotional distance to the work.
Comics are an immature form: they haven’t got a 2 1/2 thousand year tradition of evolution in the way that drama does. Awaiting the writer of a comic are several real intellectual difficulties, and chief amongst them is that they must provide episodic action in which they tell complete stories, while never allowing the kind of resolution that would fundamentally change the parameters under which their characters operate… while providing the illusion of development and change. Consider Tintin and Asterix, for example. Tintin is perpetually having the most astonishing adventures, but at the end of each booklet, he has returned to an equilibrium state. You can observe small points of continuity in Asterix and Tintin without feeling in any way compelled to read them in any particular order.
I think it is probably not well understood just how significant an innovation this kind of serialized story is. From radio serials, to pulps, to TV and Comics we have now a demand for infinity-of-story. There can be no definitive end to Coronation Street, there can be no encapsulating comment to make about Star Trek. This reversal of value from Renaissance-era rules of Unity (Unity of Time, Action and Place) meant that B5’s 5-year-arc to tell a complete story was an innovation in structure! If unity had been an object, a 5-year arc would have been merely a commonplace concept on a grand scale. Amongst other things, this makes me deeply cynical about concept and objective shows like the new Battlestar Galactica. Who’ll authorise the decommissioning of a profitable product for artistic reasons?
Comics then, still in their intellectual infancy, are straight-forward. They do not have a common context about which to feel self-referentially aware. Or at least, they didn’t. In the 1980s that began to change. Sufficient background chatter and formula had been sufficiently well established that we got a first generation of writers who were at once modernist and post-modernist. Self-aware and self-referential, but still ultimately cogent and reliant only upon the meaning they themselves convey. Stories like Watchmen appeared and asked difficult questions about the way the superhero genres worked. Luke could probably tell me the name of whichever “age” that represents. I confess that the history of comics is something I’ve learned about by casual observation over the last 20 years rather than by any determined or concerted effort or inquest.
The Dark Knight Returns is a work like Watchmen though less grand in scope and polished in execution. It takes the story of Batman, so well known, and breaks its rules in order to find out what made it work in the first place. Which parts of the Batman myth are essential, and which are just the bonds of comfort? Well, the main rule that was to change? Batman was stripped of his invincible aura. In his mid-50s and psychologically broken by trauma, we meet a very different Bruce Wayne than we are used to. We are shown his “recovery” and his re-entrance into the scene followed by his epiphany that the way of the lone vigilante is doomed. Invigorated, the newly-reborn Batman sets out to rebuild society on his terms. Bravo.
Batman has always had a duel identity to his fans. On the one hand, he is a “caped crusader” righting wrongs. On the other he is the “dark knight”, the vengeance of the sleeping subconscious of humanity on those who break the rules. In 1986 in the main comic line, Batman said to one thug: ”I swear that if you harm that woman at all, I’ll make you pay! I will break and twist things within you. You can’t conceive of the pain I can cause. It’s pain that will go on forever! You won’t escape it… BECAUSE I WON’T LET YOU DIE.” Twenty odd years later, the Justice League are trying to put pressure on some goon and conclude that they’re unable to put the fright into him: that’s why they need Batman, for the fear beyond jail. I’ve always maintained that in Tim Burton’s Batman he drops Jack Napier into the Joker: it’s no accident.
At the same time, a thoughtful Batman lurks atop a roof thinking of the Joker who is “out there somewhere, in my city, spreading his madness – his vile insanity. Murdering my people”. Well, we knew he had alternate identities, I mean, he wears a mask!
The Dark Knight Returns plays on this dichotomy as much as it can. Should Batman cross that line, become a murderer to stop the Joker? This is the question which plagues the Batman of the comics. With each person killed by one of his foes, the weight of responsibility settles more firmly on his shoulders. Ultimately the Batman shown by Miller comes to the same conclusion as his main detractors: the man in the mask creates the villains. It’s not enough for one man to stand tall, society must reign in the unjust, and as Batman gathers the army of miscreants he bound to himself through Act III, he sets out to rectify that greater wrong.
Picking up Knightfall, you might be forgiven for feeling a strong sense of de ja vu. Bane turns up, kicks Batty’s ass, Batman gets some new blood in, the new guy isn’t working out and so he must face his personal issues and get back to mucking in. Wow, who would have thought that being a superhero could be so complex?
Picking specifically on Book 4 of Knightfall, you begin to see where the cracks run through the superhero genre. Batman is determined to remove Azrael from the Batcave because Azrael killed a man, and let another die unnecessarily. In order to get back into shape, he hires an assassin to retrain him and the assassin’s price? The death of a series of martial artists. In order to remove a murderer, Batman instigates the murder of 3 people! In The Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns the burden sits on the hero, here Batman shrugs his shoulders and basically says “shit happens.” He is living in a world without personal moral consequences! What matters in this universe is just that you try your best. Azrael’s failure isn’t that he’s mad, or violent, or excessive… it’s that he buys into both faces of the Bat without reflection or restraint. Batman forces him to admit this simple fact, and then he is excused to go free and wander as he pleases.
Knightfall as a story buys into the formula, but it doesn’t understand the psychology behind them. Where The Dark Knight Returns is a post-modern comic, Knightfall is simply a comic. And a failure at that!
If super hero comics are “about” anything, they are an embodiment of the moral tale to live a good life. All that evil needs to triumph, the credo goes, is for masked vigilantes to do nothing. This is the explicit motivation for Spiderman: “With Great Power, comes Great Responsibility.” The ordinary man must live a good life, and the extraordinary man moreso. Frank Miller’s Batman understood that and came to understand that his motivation was the right one, his methods less so. I think that the Batman in Year One sees glimmerings of the same truth.
Sean Connery’s character in the rock says “losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen” and I think that’s the attitude the “real” superheroes have. Take away that moral consequence, that awareness of true justice and not simple revenge, and the notion that everyone must do what they can for the greater good and you are left with several hundred pages of posturing, hackneyed dialogue and unbelievably contrived “plots” “that are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
(Wow, one of my epic posts that doesn’t mention the greeks? What gives? Have I lost my mind, or changed personalities? Am I the mirror-universe Mash? No, dear readers, it’s in there, but buried. I will give a chocolate fish to the first person who ferrets it out!)