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Wednesday 23 July 2014

Batman at 75

I have loved Batman from almost as early as I can recall. As I push the ever aging and failing mechanism I call a brain to recreate the images of my past, I am filled with a sense of happiest during those earliest of years. One of my happiest memories was being four and a half years old on holiday in Florida. It was the only true holiday I recall as a child. Even then the model for what I like best about a “holiday” was set during that dreamlike time. We were a circus family, in the middle of running our own circus, and so we saw circus people and circus-related places. I got my head stuck in the railings at SeaWorld and I saw Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. I remember our Mexican driver and my amusement that the steering wheel was on the other side the cars. These were all great recollections, but some of my most comforting memories came from staying at the hotel.  I wasn’t used to staying in any other accommodation than a wagon (caravan). I remember falling in love with two icons that have stood the test of maturity: Charlie Brown and Batman.

I first saw the Caped Crusader, the Gotham Guardian, the Dark Knight Detective in one of his less than admirable incarnations: as a member of the Super Friends. Knowing how I loved the show so much, my parents kindly bought me a slide show for my View-Master. However, besides this and the single episode I saw that was my last interaction with this not-very-great DC commissioned venture. However, for me the single scene that struck me the most was appearance of Batman and Robin. I recalled Batman descending his Batcoptor and noted the sailor-like way the animators had him grip the rope. For the following Easter I received a miniature Batmobile car instead of a chocolate egg. I became intrigued by the heavily edited anime cartoon “Battle of the Planets” because the series main antagonist, Zoltar, had a pointy eared mask that resembled Batman’s.

The circus knew I was Batman mad. The only superhero who would match my enthusiasm for him was Marvel’s Spider-Man. I speculate that it is because both of these hugely popular and enduring icons – which I think resemble the gods of Greek, Roman and Norse mythology – were inherently very fallible compared the majority of American comics superheroes, but in my heart it was simply the look and their respective worlds. The artist who first got me into writing, even created a book for me with stories where I featured as a Batman character.

I recall when we stopped touring being read a Batman pocketbook that contained three excellent stories I relished. The first pitted Batman against Captain Boomerang. Little did I know then this character was traditionally an enemy of DC’s lightning fast superhero, The Flash. Despite a scene where Batman threw his batarang against one of the villain’s namesake weapon of choice, this story least excited my imagination. I loved the story that introduced Catman and Batman stuck in a gigantic web that forced him to tear his costume in order to escape. The final story featured Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl and was a dark entry even at that time. I loved the elaborate (and rather ridiculous) way Batgirl faked her death with a dummy when a gunman shot her and she was seen fall from a building. Superheroes always seemed to be falling from buildings at the end of episodes when I was child. I recall being on the edge of my seat when I saw the live action TV version of Spider-Man being gorilla pressed off one at the end of one episode. 

The early ’80s saw Batman’s continued development into the more mature character that had first appeared in Bob Kane’s original comic strip of “Detective Comics”, issue 27 in 1939. I wouldn’t read these original strips until I was into my early 20s and started buying collected editions. As a child I was vaguely aware of the apparent contradictions between the Batman in the comics and the one that was generally featured in British media.  Just about everyone who wasn’t a child or a comic fan associated him with the 1960s camp TV show. I admit to loving it as a child and still have a contextual affection for the programme. I saw the movie when I was very young, coming in at the famous scene where Adam West is trying to dispose of a bomb. I later watched the whole series with mother when it was shown on morning television before school.

The TV show was the eventual result of the path Batman had taken since the anti-comic hysteria and the subsequent self-imposed censorship laws were brought into force. Bob Kane’s original Batman had shown little concern in using the same type of weapon that downed his parents, but the 1950s saw a complete revamping of all the DC superheroes to fall in line with the Comics Code. Batman and Superman just about survived. Batman had to embrace fighting aliens and the regular villains - like The Joker and The Penguin - became far more comical and light-hearted versions of themselves. By the time the TV show was commissioned, you can see why producers would go with a camp take on Batman. Before the strong establishment of mature comic books, superhero comics have floated in a peculiar limbo, where they are scared of losing their child audience, but want to write stories for adults. I guess the 12a or PG-13 certificate is the most perfect symbol for this paradoxical world. On that subject, I recall Tim Burton’s “Batman” being the first film to be given a 12 certificate in the UK.  “Spider-Man” would be the first to have the altered 12a, over a decade later.

It wasn’t until I read Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” not long before the release of Burton’s film that I realized just how much this character had to offer. From this point on I wanted him dark and I expected ever increasingly complexities. I got it with Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke”, which saw the first Batgirl get turned into a quadriplegic and the wondrous juxtaposition of Batman with The Joker so brilliantly lain out. When Burton’s film came out I took full advantage of acquiring all the republished and re-released material I could find. Two thick collections of short stories – “The Further Adventures of Batman” and “The Further Adventures of the Joker” – were commissioned, producing a fascinating array of different interpretations of the Caped Crusader. Having got to like the streetwise Jason Todd as the new Robin – although I have never really liked the concept of a Robin – I was struck by his death, decided by the reader voting, at the hands of The Joker in the superb globe-spanning saga, “A Death in the Family”. Frustratingly Todd would be brought back, seemingly defying one of the very few times a character didn’t follow the clichéd “comic book death” gimmick. Even more annoyingly he came back in a very good story that was turned into an entertaining animated movie, “Under the Hood”.

Burton succeeded in redefining Batman in the eyes of popular culture, bringing him closer to the darker form he had been re-taking in the comics since the demise of the TV show. He tried to push the idea further with his own brand of Gothic in the sequel, “Batman Returns”. This was even better than the original, despite some rather ridiculous elements relating to Danny DeVito’s otherwise great depiction of The Penguin. I just wish we could have been spared the reared by penguins and having penguins armed with rockets aspects of the film. Michelle Pfeiffer, of course, stole the show, even from the great Christopher Walken in a rather redundant role, as the incredibly sexy Catwoman.  Sadly Burton’s film, despite being a box office success, did not do as well as his first attempt. He might have been ahead of his time and it wouldn’t be before Marvel started making headway at the turn of 21st century in mainstream with scope outside of campy heroics. Warner Brothers’ response to the disappointing box office return was to employ Joel Schumacher for this particular franchise’s third instalment.

Despite a scene in the circus and the only U2 song I have ever liked, Schumacher pretty much undid everything Burton was setting up in “Batman Forever”. Long before the like Sam Raimi and others were carefully plotting their fantasy franchises so that sequels would be carefully thought out and plausible continuations of plots set up in previous films rather than the transparent cash-in efforts that have long dominated genre pictures, Tim Burton had several elements put in place in his films. One of the most notable examples was Billy Dee Williams playing the newly elected district attorney, Harvey Dent, a character set to become the scarred coin-flipping villain know as Two Face. Schumacher would bulldoze over this completely as he cast Tommy Lee Jones to play the role. The whole film brought Robin into the frame and it was intentionally made to be a ‘90s update on the 1960s camp TV show. Having spent several decades trying to bury this image, there was again full in the fans’ faces. With this picture being a bigger hit than Burton’s previous instalment, Schumacher camped things up even further with the final part of this particular franchise, “Batman and Robin”. The film has gone down in history as one of the worst blockbusters ever made.


“Knightfall” and “Knightsend” proved to be among the strongest stories of the 1990s, allowing the new villain, Bane, to join Batman’s most popular rogue’s gallery. The decade also saw the great work of Alan Grant who gave us Scarface and the Ventriloquist. The early 2000s ushered in a wonderful array of interesting stories, including the issue spanning “Cataclysm” and “No Man’s Land”. Greg Rucka did an excellent job in condensing the huge story arc of the latter into a very entertaining novel. He also the type of framework I feel works best for superheroes when converting them to a medium outside of comics. He kept Batman within his own reality. There was no guest appearance of Superman or mention of any science fiction. This was exactly the direction Christopher Nolan took with his own Dark Knight trilogy of movies. Nolan completed what Burton had touched, but took it a stage further. Staying true to his own vision and using the material of Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s solo Batman masterpiece, Nolan knew how to handle the Gotham Guardian on his terms. Heath Ledger even topped the great Jack Nicholson with his interpretation of The Joker as a nihilistic lover of chaos, defined beautifully in the line spoken by Batman’s butler, Alfred: “…some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn”. Besides the casting of Liam Neeson and the rather spasmodic fight cinematography of the first instalment and the mistake of having the fully costumed Batman duke it out in daylight in the third instalment, Nolan pretty much gave me the Batman I wanted.  
This isn't to say that there haven't been other wonderful incarnations of Batman. His earliest renditions - give or take the post-WW2 racism against the Japanese - are worth remembering for a foreshadowing of the 1960s series. However, some of Batman's most loyal renditions come via the various animated incarnations that have been produced since the 1990s until the present day. The animated series that followed in the wake of Burton's films created a wonderful noir punk reality combining modern technology with a type of 1930s backdrop. They executed the Harvey Dent/Two Face slow burn in the way it should have been done. "The Mask of the Phantasm" remains a triumph of that particular era of Batman. Since then there has been two very faithful adaptations of Frank Miller's most famous and influential Batman story arcs, "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Batman: Year One". Other animated feature length films on Batman have taken varied approaches, Warner Brothers and DC allowing a type of liberal freedom with the filmmakers that we haven't seen since the 1970s, as a 12a and even older age certificated audience are appreciated as legitimate consumers of these movies.

I haven’t dipped into the stories of the Dark Knight for a while, but the iconography continues to fascinate me. Alan Moore did an ingenious job of explaining that Batman was really just as demented as The Joker. He was just demented towards crusading against crime. Batman is a normal human being albeit one with a high intellect and the genetics to be able to hone Olympic standard athleticism. He present us with a look at fanaticism for good, and many of his writers have explored what happens when these firm ideals come against others. His utter distaste for Marvel comics own rather more extreme vigilante, The Punisher, provides an interesting exploration. However, it is not unfamiliar territory. DC has had the Dark Knight face several other vigilantes that overstep his own moral line, including Alan Grant’s political figure, Anarky.

Suspending the ridiculous idea that a man would dress as a giant bat, the main premise makes Batman a very interesting portal to explore the realities of crime in psychological, political and moral terms. Some of Batman’s most fascinating qualities are the lines he will not cross and his own unyielding code. In perhaps one of DC’s most brilliant sagas, “Identity Crisis”, we see an exploration of the moral dilemmas faced by those who choose administer justice. Despite being the least super-powered member of the Justice League of America team, he is the one who most resolutely stands by his principles. The graphic novel, “Night Cries” and the novel, “The Ultimate Evil” even pitted Batman against paedophiles, once again testing Batman’s own ideas about justice.

Maybe it is the slight Gothic level of absurdity of Batman that makes him that much more of a mirror and a symbol for many of our own views on vigilantism than his more grittier counterparts in films like “Death Wish”. He is a noble man, but hugely judgemental. His alter ego as an ultra-rich playboy provides some Freudian temptations to explore in terms of repression. In many ways he is a compartmentalised James Bond. He is, of course, not a pure creation in the first instance. Batman and his rogue’s gallery were clearly inspired by the Dick Tracy comic strip, as well The Shadow, Zorro and the French film, “The Bat”. Like Superman, who was created a year before, he represented the spirit of hope for justice in an America that was coming out of the Great Depression, seeing the rise of organized crime and the threat of a second world war.

Today we live in what seems to be an ever more complex world. Taking a wider view and looking back to the characters cast alternately as heroes and villains of the past, we can understand how fanaticism can take hold of individuals and their followers. People just need a cause and then it needs to be decided whether the means justify the ends or that the ends are good in the first place.  Fiction has absorbed this with its ever more ambiguous characters. Batman, more or less, stands for the consensus of what the majority of his readers believe to be fair justice. However, the stories reveal that even this has consequences and these consequences often involve the deaths of innocents. Batman has evolved over time. We are currently at a time where writers are allowing themselves to blur the lines ever more with fictional villains and heroes. It is a delicious temptation to see how far you can test your readers’ loyalties to the person wearing the white hat and how much sympathy you can illicit for someone who began being cast as the villain. I wonder how far we will see Batman’s writers delving into this ambiguity. Will Batman go deeper into the darkness or are we going to see another variation of him pulling out the shark repellent spray?   

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