A perspective on Batman

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!)

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14 Responses to A perspective on Batman

  1. threemonkeys says:

    I will give a chocolate fish to the first person who ferrets it out

    Is this a test to determine if anybody gets all the way through to the end? 😉

    Gosh I wonder who was doing drama 2 1/2 thousand years ago.

    • I was just about to say that.

      It re-tells the classic tales is kind of a giveaway. Specifically in a University sense where by Classical they mean Greek or Roman, rather than ‘old’ or ‘good’ or ‘traditional’.

      • mashugenah says:

        Hmm.. I suppose that technically counts. But it wasn’t what I was thinking of. There is a much more specific reference. Honest. 🙂

      • mashugenah says:

        Mike comes away with the prize for discussing the three unities, mistakenly interpreting Aristotle’s “unity of action” into a much more constraining environment. (though a chocolate fish will also be provided to because his answer was within the parameters of the challenge.

  2. mundens says:

    Radical Response

    A slight quibble.

    “Comics”, or “pictorial story-telling”, to use a more generic description, actually have a far older tradition than the printed word, and are definitely not an immature form.

    Remember, caveman drawings came before the printed word or abstract symbolic notations like letters, and pictorial narrative history can be traced back through picture-based Victorian penny dreadfuls, Elizabethan broadsheets, Incan storyboards, Etrsuscan pottery, and Egyptian frescoes.

    Text is merely a compresed derivative of pictorial storytelling, which is even more obvious in those languages that still use pictograms as their alphabet such as Chinese and Japanese.

    Admittedly, in the last hundred odd years in English-speaking cultures, the literary snobs have taken over and have told everyone tthat pictorial narrative is “childish and immature”, but you don’t see that in all cultures. France, for instance has continued it’s pictoriual narrative histpry almost without noticing the ghettoization of such things in the English speaking world, and of course in Japan manga and it’s derivatives drives other art forms.

    Even in Western theatre, witness the huge number of movies derived from comics over the past few years as the technology arrives to translate them from art to graphics.

    Pictorial story-telling has evolved into new forms with the advent of technology. Today’s movies are the direct descendants of cave-man drawings, with “mere text” being but a deadend side-street that will fade into obscurity now that technology allows us to record images directly and cheaply.

    There are, BTW, some serious scientific arguments, both technical and biological to support that last claim, though it may seem to be a bit odd to those who are into literature, if I can find the scientists and artists who are claiming this I’ll post some links.

    But the summary is that text is a limited serial-based means of passing on information. Our brains are built to process images, not text, the bandwidth is much higher when transfering information pictorially than textually, and the data transfer is much faster, as text processing requires the same step of parellel wetware-based processing of the image, with an additional software layer to decode the information in the image, which we all have to learn as we grow up.

    “Viewing an image” is to “reading text”, as “reading plain text” is to “reading encrypted text”.

    Text was a very clever means of getting around our inability to store images quickly and easily, but just as computer data storage progressed from the equivalent of text (barcodes on paper, serial audio data on cassete tapes) to multi-terabyte holographic image cubes, so will the written word become a mere historical idiosyncracy like data stored on cassete tapes.

    Of course, like all invented art forms there will still be those that prize it, but as the primary means of information communication and storage, text will fall by the wayside.

    • mashugenah says:

      Re: Radical Response

      Old != Well Deveoped. We may have started with painting, but then there was that couple-thousand year hiatus in western literature where we just wrote stuff down.

      • cha0sslave says:

        Re: Radical Response

        If you ever used the energy you spent on posting, on doing eveil deeds, then you’d be a hugely more interesting person, and we’d maybe even need a superhero of our own to stop you.

      • mashugenah says:

        Re: Radical Response

        Hmm, thanks, I think… :/

  3. menchi says:

    Yeah, comics or pictorial story telling as a serialised form have an ancient and illustrious history. Both in the East and West.

    In the West, because most of the populace couldn’t read, often the story of christ was told using wood engravings – which were essentially comics of the bible. Even art historians recognise them as such.

    In the East there were a number of such methods used dating back almost a thousand years. I can’t remember the name of them now, but there was a form in Japan that used pictures to depict how things changed. Basically you’d have a series of “cards” that showed things like a child growing up into an adult, trees blooming, how a body decayed… they were used both as an educational tool (the body one for mortician types) and as a form of art.

    Japan also had a method similar to the passion plays of the west where a travelling storyteller would go from village to village with a large set of boards. On these boards would be drawn a story, shown sequentially, and the storyteller would slowly unveil the next panel as he told his story. Many of the symbols and stylisings of those old storyboards have carried over today into manga. Particularly how perspective and such were used.

    The error in your analysis, Mash, is that you are looking at comics as literature. They aren’t. They are art in the same manner as a painting. They tell their stories primarily through images and use text to expound upon the image. Comics aren’t in their infancy, they simply aren’t looked at in the same way as normal works of art.

    However that has been changing in recent years, and comics have been evolving in style as well.


    • mashugenah says:

      you are looking at comics as literature. They aren’t.

      Bollocks. If you want your pictures to tell as story, it is perfectly reasonable for me to make comments about the story you’re telling.

      • menchi says:

        Yes that is true. But not in a literary sense – because literature has to do with the use of words as much as the story being told.

        Further, referring to only one genre of comic book isn’t enough to then turn and say that all comics are still in an immature stage. It’s like looking at pulp fiction and saying that writing is still in its infancy.

        There is a much larger comic industry out there that has moved beyond being indie – Vertigo comics is one line that comes to mind. Read Sandman, The Enigma, Lucifer, The Books of Magic and then try and say that comics are still in their infancy.

        Drawing on simply superheroes shows a lack of knowledge regarding a much larger movement and industry.


      • mashugenah says:

        Further, referring to only one genre of comic book isn’t enough to then turn and say that all comics are still in an immature stage. It’s like looking at pulp fiction and saying that writing is still in its infancy.

        Or like saying that movies have a less lengthy and developed history than poetry. Which they do.

        You seem to be equating “immature” with “valueless” and I don’t think that’s inherent in what I’m saying. I am sticking to my argument line that comics have a way to go before they are developed enough and established enought that they can withstand the same level of critical interest I’d apply to novels or plays.

        Read Sandman, The Enigma, Lucifer, The Books of Magic and then try and say that comics are still in their infancy.

        I have read a sample of all of these, and if they’re the pinnacle of the graphic-novel artform, then I’m less impressed with the whole concept than I’d like to be. These comics pushed the envelops, sure, but to say that “The Sandman” is perfect, for example, is patently false. It wants to be one hell of a lot smarter than it is, and there are a lot of bits which even Gaiman himself admits are flawed (the brief cameo of superheroes in Sandman 2 for example, is clearly a mistake and he admits it in the commentaries he put out). While it’s dabbling in cool ideas, breaking super-hero-comic-stereotypes, it is very much an experimental work. Clearly at least some industry afficionados agree with me, thus the very abortive attempts to carry it on in the various spin-offs and sequels.

        Drawing on simply superheroes shows a lack of knowledge regarding a much larger movement and industry.

        Could you try to sound more condescending and high-handed please?

      • mashugenah says:

        But not in a literary sense – because literature has to do with the use of words as much as the story being told

        BTW, before you continue to try and shunt me down this line, this imputation of ‘literature’ is something you interpreted into my words. I only ever spoke about story. I didn’t comment on the detailed mechanisms of artwork or dialogue.

        I’d also point that a large portion of my post is “well, shit has been happening since the 1980s which is about development”, so I’ll thank you not to try and make me have said that comics have no sophistication at all.

  4. mashugenah says:

    I’ve never heard of this series, but it sounds intriguing. 🙂

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