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Sunday, April 16, 2006

DARK FOR DARK'S SAKE: OR, WHY I DON'T MUCH LIKE BATMAN THESE DAYS

Thanks to Doppelganger for not biting at my recent post on Detective Comics #311 wh/ stated my preference for older, less ‘dark’ incarnations of Batman…In general, I’m not particularly fussed about Bats (or certainly not how he’s handled by creators these days), though, obviously, I can understand the character’s global appeal. I know DG is a big, big fan (as are some of my Yeovil friends) and a lesser man would’ve assumed I was just flaming fer the sake of it, whereas DG knows I usually have at least some semi-legit reason, however arcane and misguided, for spouting the crap I normally spout…

So, anyway, for those of you who actually care about this nonsense, here are a few thoughts on the Batman of Detective Comics #311…(I love the fact that Doppelganger calls this era Spring-Sprang after Dick Sprang...this particular ish was almost certainly drawn by Jim Mooney (who later went on to draw Spider-Man alongside Romita Snr in the late 60s and also did "Omega the Unknown" and "Man-Thing" w/ Steve Gerber, aaaand, one of my 60s favourites: "Dial-H-For-Hero"...)...Mooney draws everything and everyone in his own style except for Batman & Robin who he draws in the DC 'house' Bob Kane style, as Kane was still taking credit back then for writing/drawing the strip)...

But, hey, first, let’s get one thing straight: the word ‘camp’ is used too readily these days where Pre-Miller versions of Batman are concerned. ‘Camp’, like the word ‘surreal’, gets misused/abused by folks on a regular basis…the late 50s/early 60s Batman ain’t camp (or surreal); it just uses different cultural reference points to the ones that we’re used to. The standard artistic/writing conventions that were in play during that era were less ‘naturalistic’ than the speech-patterns and visual representations of Bats that are currently on the racks. Russian and Greek Orthodox religious icons don’t use naturalistic figurative representations either (their proportions/perspective follow a stylised ‘ideal’ whose origins are mainly lost to us now), but, like old comics, they also contain all sorts of embedded historical/cultural codification that might seem arcane to the MTV Me-Generation; they’re also fucking beautiful to look at. To those of you raised on ‘Charmed’ and ‘Buffy, the Vampire Hunter’, I say: just think how bloody weird, quaint & ’camp’ yr fave TV programs are gonna look in 30 years time. Like, I dunno, Impressionist paintings, or the Italian Metaphysical School, or De Kooning and the NY Abstract Expressionists (or any other now-unfashionable visual style), these comics could/should be considered as Idea-Libraries full of half-forgotten, almost alien visual languages. Just consider how passé trad. painting is considered in a modern market where Conceptual Art is considered king, and how Hirst’s recent paintings were sniffed-at by the media as retro and ironic (Painting? Why’s he painting? What’s that all about…?)…

And let’s not forget that, despite the fact that the content often seems barking mad to us, these comics were considered both mainstream and commercial in their day, selling hundreds of thousands of copies per ish at newsstands to children, whereas a contemporary Dark Age Batman story-arc struggles to sell 50,000 copies to middle-aged fan-boys loaded w/ disposable income if it doesn’t have a superstar artist like Jim Lee on board. Us 30/40-something readers are part of the problem, I’m afraid, and I would argue that it is the dark, ‘naturalistic’ representation of Batman that now looks old-fashioned and out-dated, yet still continues to find favour w/ a rapidly-aging adult fan-base who ain’t (generally) in any sort of a hurry to change the reading tastes of a life-time…

Anyway…

Let’s start w/ the oversized objects…’younger’ readers might or might not be aware that for a while in the Fifties and early Sixties, Batman comics had a strange, almost, er, surreal fascination w/ larger-than-life representations of banal objects (the giant coin in the Batcave ‘museum’ is a residue of this era); these objects are usually passed off as advertising displays…here, in DC #311 the dynamic duo use an enormous cash-till to foil some robbers…



Holy Marx n Engels! Thieves finished off by a representation of the very thing that that they’re trying to steal: surely some reference here to Kapital, I would've thought…Batman as an Avatar of Kapital (like The Spectre)? Of course… in fact, I’d bet my bottom, er, dollar on it…(the clue is in the giant coin!) A possible parallel interpretation of Batman’s motivations might be that he is not energised, as widely assumed, by the death of his parents, but by millionaire Bruce Wayne’s need to prevent others from becoming as rich and privileged as he is…I mean, God forbid that other individuals actually acquire enuff cash that they could afford to dress up, customise cars and helicopters w/ bat’s heads and whatnots, and indulge themselves in some strange (and expensive) nocturnal fantasy-life!

We could run a bit further w/ this and maybe argue that the 50s/60s Batman fights crime principally in order to preserve his own uniqueness (as well as his position in Kapital’s pecking-order). Check his Rogues Gallery: aren’t most of the villains basically more interesting analogues of Batman himself (accentuations, extrapolations & more extreme extensions of his own personality tics…)? His hatred of them…his desire to negate them, to remove them from the meta-narrative of the comics… derives mainly from the fact that they are copies of him, twisted clones that serve to dilute him in some way. I would argue that (at least some of) his Rogue’s Gallery are, in effect, siblings whose removal/elimination is driven by an obsessive child-like need to gain his parents’ full attention. His parents are, of course, now the comic’s readers, who have long-since replaced/superseded his ‘dead’ fictional parents.

Anyway, back to the oversized objects…I used to think that they were perhaps Platonic, idealised representations of everyday objects, which, of course, is nonsense…they’re just bigger, is all. The idea of having a running visual concept-‘joke’ in a comic that involves Big Objects is pretty amazing/interesting in itself (even w/out any pseudo-intellectualising/subjectification by myself)…I don’t think there’s anything analogous to this in modern mainstream comics (or films); it’s a pretty fucking far-out idea…

If we take the basic idea of the original 30s/40s Batman as being an Old-World Archetype representing Pre-‘Enlightenment’/Pre-Capitalist Euro-Gothik control-strategies that use ‘darkness’, ‘superstition’ and pseudo-religious imagery to invoke the threat of Hell, Divine Retribution, etc…and who is, himself, eventually superseded by New World (ie American-driven) ideals of Science, Political/Cultural Enlightenment, ‘Optimism’, etc (whose own Archetype is Superman)…then it’s easy to see that from the late 40s and into the 50s, Batman became increasingly adrift in this brave new (Post-War) world where scaring people w/ religious imagery no longer worked after mankind unleashed its own little corner of Hell in Hiroshima. In this context, the over-sized objects seem more likely to represent the Post-Modernist mediascape that this incarnation of Bats now finds himself living in: Post-War US Kapital running riot in a booming economy.

But the Dynamic Duo settle into life in the Atomic Age very quickly and soon make it their own...



They get to hang out w/ aliens and assorted ultra-terrestrials, and are frequently transformed into bizarre variants of themselves (a distant nod to post-Atomic mutation, perhaps?). And this is one of the guilty pleasures of Pre ‘New Look’ Batman stories, watching this former dark totem of Old World values carve himself a place in a universe of Pop Art, Post-Einsteinian Physics and global commerce. The ‘darker’ Batman of the 40s has no place in this world of science and early space travel; he has been transformed by the mood of post-war optimism and growth…Batman will slowly become darker again in the 70s (after Vietnam, and the failure of science to transform the world into a futuristic utopia)…growing ever darker into the 80s w/ inner-city decay, the rise of gang culture, Reaganism, etc until “The Dark Knight Returns” becomes almost inevitable: it’s not mapping out a possible alternative future, it’s virtually straightforward mid-80s reportage…

Returning to DC#311…another pretty radical idea presented here (certainly more radical than anything seen in the last couple decades of Batman comix) is the concept that Bruce Wayne doesn’t actually exist…



The inference in this scene is that Batman is somehow realer than Wayne; that Wayne is actually just a character played by Batman: Bruce Wayne is Batman’s secret identity, and not the other way round…interesting and cool idea here, that Wayne’s original identity has actually been subsumed by an ‘invented’ persona, to the point where his original identity takes on the vague, dream-like quality of a fantasy life or fugue-state. Eventually, we suppose, Wayne would become vaguer, more vapid and distant until he completely ceases to exist…after all, what purpose does Wayne actually serve apart from providing the capital that fuels Batman’s nocturnal meta-life (and if he’s a trust-fund kid, then he only exists to cash the cheques). Why would Batman actually want to be him any more?



And this transformational process is mimicked (in fast-forward mode) by the origin of Cat-Man, another supposedly jaded/disillusioned ‘successful’ person who decides to reinvent himself as a villainous analogue of Batman (but w/out the ‘excuse’ of having dead parents…interestingly, the original Robin was also an orphan who gets adopted, not just by Batman, but by us, the readers…). Crikey, if they were working-class single parents instead of angst-ridden 50s/60s proto-yuppies, then these people would be too overworked/overwhelmed by the grind of daily life to “Will-To-Power” themselves out of their existential anguish and recast themselves as some sort of Super-Ego-fuelled Meta-Nietzschian auto-critique of their own wretched lives.

Cat-Man’s accelerated transformation from bored socialite lion-tamer into 'super-villain' gives us some insight to Batman’s own condition: like Bats, Cat-Man adopts a series of themed gimmicks and gadgets…such as a cat-mobile (that has a tail! and can actually jump thru the air!)…



...and all his crimes are similarly themed (as, indeed, are The Joker’s, The Penguin’s, The Riddler’s, etc)…his vocabulary changes when he becomes Cat-Man; he adopts the habit of punning off his own name (cataract, cats-paw, catacombs...) and even going as far as organising his life around these plays-on-words…it’s as if his brain's been rewired, as if he’s been infected by some sort of self-replicating viral meme based on his new identity, some ontological disease that co-opts and then amends the ‘reality’ around its victim, distorting local-space to manifest bizarre objects whose essential nature is based on the infectee’s new personal 'ego-theme' (or perhaps the space around the victim just suffers from the same existential malaise as he does (a fugue in space-time?), and is similarly ‘cured’ by him re-energising himself as a result of the adoption of a new ego/persona…).

Bat-Man’s own transformation took place over several years, from the late 40s onwards, so the accretion of Bat-related objects and Batman analogues around him was a gradual process that was less obvious than Cat-Man’s, but Bats is obviously suffering from the same meme-sickness as him, though his own condition is more complex and serious: by the early 60’s, he had spawned a whole family of analogue-figures incl. Bat-Mite, the ultra-dimensional sprite and Ace the Bat-Hound, his animal totem (did anyone notice that the voice-artist who does Ace in the recent "Krypto the Super-Dog" cartoon, voices the dog as Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry”?)

One of my personal favourites is Batwoman, who turns up in DC #311, but fails to capture Cat-Man because (like the other analogues) she is an inferior copy of Batman who has failed to make herself as ‘real’ as him (or, if you prefer, she has not gained enough attention from the parent-readers to become the favoured child in the Batman family):



Doppelganger asks (in a sort of roundabout way): Is Batman gay? Probably not; I think it’s more likely that he’s asexual or desexualised in some way…the simultaneous loss of both parents probably rendered him permanently impotent; it removed both the male and the female in him, thus also allowing the existence, in Bat-Myth-Space, of feminine analogues such as Batwoman and Bat-Girl… At the very least, his incessant reference to self-naming objects (Bat-Belt, Batmobile, Bat-Cave, Batarang) implies some sort of obsessive neurological syndrome, possibly a frustrated desire to replicate/relocate/project some part of himself out into the world around him, a need which definitely hints at impotence on Batman’s part…

Like a lot of modern music, recent Batman comics suffer from a desire for authenticity; they strive a degree of embedded ‘realness’ that bulks up the readers’ (mostly media-derived) vision of how-the-world-really-is …this desire for darkness & gritty realism logically has nowhere left to go ultimately, except, perhaps, to make Bruce Wayne a crack addict or a paedophile, wh/ might be fun, but Warner Brothers are hardly gonna allow that, are they? So, we’re left w/ Batman trapped in some 40s-something writer’s (or, more likely, editor’s) view of consensual reality, as dished out by Hollywood and games-console manufacturers, which ends up coming-off as HBO-lite w/ a Parents Advisory warning-sticker attached; reading like an old Eminem LP with all the swear-words and drugs-references removed. This dark-but-not-really-dark incarnation of Batman helps shore up the mass-hallucination known as The Spectacle; it's designed to convince us that we're getting the Real (dangerous) Deal; that this is a slice of Real Life, not just a watered-down 2-D Bruce Willis movie...I would argue that the 50's version of Batman is far more subversive because it challenges the Post-Millennial Warners-AOL Mediaverse digital-screenshot view of Pop-Consumer Life.

Indeed, moments like these still have the power to throw me off-balance, because they suddenly, unexpectedly, step outside of the boundaries that we drew up for ourselves when we decided, twenty years ago, that comics are now for adults:



If I was writing Batman, I would’ve made him blind (he’s a bat, geddit?), but Stan Lee beat me to it…interesting, then, that the foundation of the Dark Age of Comics is basically a pissing-contest betw Batman and Daredevil (both characters given a Miller make-over) over which of 'em is the real-est. Subsequent generations of creators have been stuck in a boring Dualist Loop of either making the character ‘Dark’ or ‘Camp’, oscillating betw the two sides, unable to un-‘dark’ Batman w/out being ironic or winking at the camera or laughing it off as deliberately Retro. I’m unlikely to ever get the chance to write Batman (and I’m not sure I’d be particularly excited about it either; there’s dozens of characters I’m far more interested in scripting), yet the way out of this impasse seems almost laughably obvious to me…but, w/out going into detail and spewing out ideas that could potentially earn some other bozo who's not me tens of thousands of pounds, there are a number of ways that you could take the underlying essences that inhabit a comic like DC #311, find their modern counterparts and use them to create something strange and magical that would tantalise a wide demographic of readers aged both eight and forty-eight years old…and still remain true to the core vison of Batman, the caped crusader.

Buuuut, at the end of the day, DC/Warners need to have the will to do this, and right now they have successfully branded Batman so that he is all things to all people (ie dish-water dull on five different continents)…plus, factor-in that the comics are basically chicken-feed/small-change compared to the movie franchaise and you end up w/ a situation where the cart is driving the horse and I am, uh, mixing my metaphors.

Goodnight.