Friday, October 9, 2009
Friday, August 28, 2009
I am now the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Comic Book Examiner for Examiner.com
Hopefully, I can contribute to the continuing conversation of our favorite story telling format.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Since his introduction in 1939, there have been literally dozens of love interest in Bruce Wayne’s life. Most of these characters are gone and forgotten, only to be remembered in Grant Morrison’s embrace of the entire Batman cannon. The list is long and not particularly distinguished. The cast of female characters can basically be broke down into two groups; Catwoman and Not Catwoman. Catwoman was introduced in Batman #1 in 1940. The way her character was written represented the regrettable state of women in society at the time. The original Catwoman had fallen in love with batman and the pursuit of her love took precedence over all her criminal enterprises. Catwoman has been updated in every decade since her introduction. The current Catwoman is a capable, ninja trained adventurer who can hold her own in Batman’s world. She is now allowed to be an equal in her relationship with Batman. Catwoman and Batman can never quite get their schedules to accommodate a romance. Not to mention that the publisher doesn’t want to permanently alter either of their long profitable characters. Catwoman will always be in the shadows, only to consummate her relationship with batman in future, speculative stories that can be explained away.
What about the other women in Batman’s life? I’ll focus on just a few and why they just didn’t work out. Introduced in 1948, Vicky Vale was a blatant Lois Lane rip-off. Vale was a photojournalist who was attempting to prove her theory that Bruce Wayne was Batman. With a start like that, you knew she was doomed. Vale didn’t die, but she did eventually fade as a character. Vale only served to re-enforce the idea that women got in the way of a man’s work. She was not an equal to Batman and did nothing to shape or advance the character. In 1956, Kathy Kane, the first Batwoman came on the scene. As with Vale, Kane was written as inferior to Batman. Kane suffered the same fate as Bat-mite and Rex the Bathound when the New Look came to Batman in 1964. Much of the Bat-continuity of the time, including Batwoman and Bathound, was done away with in an attempt to re-invent the character to boost sagging sales. In 1977, Silver ST. Cloud made a play for the heart of Bruce Wayne. Feeling the effects of the women’s movement, the writers allowed Silver to have a little intelligence. Soon after she is introduced, she discovers Bruce Wayne and Batman are one in the same. She cannot deal with the stress of loving a man in constant danger and ends the relationship.
What does this cavalcade of thrown away female characters tell us? Why can some superheroes find the time for a love life when Batman can’t? Superman has Lois, Green Arrow has Dinah, so why can’t Batman find a stable love? Because Batman doesn’t need one. Superman is a strange visitor from another planet. Ollie is a hot headed, womanizing jerk. These characters needed a love interest to humanize and complete them. If superman didn’t have Lois, he would be a dangerous alien who would snap when Ma and Pa Kent finally kick off (again). Batman doesn’t need a love interest to anchor him to his mission or to Gotham. Batman is the patron saint of Gotham, he exists for the city. His story is one of a relentless drive to impose order on a disordered world. A love in his life does nothing to enhance or define the character. He is complete as a violent, nighttime avenger. The artificial insertion of a woman for him to love would by definition deprive his of his ability to make crime fighting his primary passion. Batman is only a man, if he lost any of his edge he would lose his status as the world’s most dangerous baseline human. A Batman with a wife could never be the Batman that can shoot an evil god to save the world form Yet Another Crisis. A Batman with a family at home would have his family as his first priority, not the constant pursuit of human perfection necessary to combat the evil of the universe. For the sake of the citizens of Gotham; pray Batman never finds lasting love.
Batman’s lack of love is not a character flaw or a void in the story that must be filled for the completion of an arc. Batman is complete as he is. As with any literature, the critic brings their own perspective and viewpoint to the text. The fact that this is only one of the many aspects of Batman that lends itself to discussion points to the greatness of the character. A silly character from a cheap children’s magazine from 1939 is still inciting debate and study. Batman has remained vital and relevant for 70 years without a permanent female partner. Batman’s track record speaks for itself, to think that what Batman needs now is a wife is to ignore the essence of the character.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
The perceived sacrifice of those in service is a matter of perspective and values.
Batman is a man with a vocation. He has an unavoidable calling to fight crime. Like anyone who follows a demanding vocation; Priest, Soldier, or English Teacher, he knows that sacrifices will be made in the name of service. Batman has sacrificed his identity, his fortune, and his love life.
Batman has mercilessly held himself to serve the people of Gotham. He has given up what most would consider "a life". He, and anyone near him, is in constant danger. There are no vacations, no sick days, and no weekends in his war. Constant vigilance is his burden. Others would see this as a sacrifice that no man should bear. They would say that a man who lives like this has no life at all. Batman pities such timid souls.
Batman has what he sees as the best life. He gains purpose and a true feeling of accomplishment from his duty. The sacrifices are rewarded with a sense of purpose and purity of mission that most never feel. Does a banker wake up every day and know he will save a life? Batman knows this, and he also knows that his mission does not allow him the soft, easy life of the family man.
Batman has had women, the extraordinary women that are drawn to such a unique man. Women like Selina Kyle, Talia, and Zatanna would hold the average American man in benign pity, yet they all fell to the Batman. Batman let them see the man inside, and then put the cowl back on to follow his one try love; the war.
Saturday, February 28, 2009
A little background on the Comics Code Authority as we discussed in class last Friday:
From Wikipidia on Seduction of the Innocent:
In order to avoid government regulation, the publishers decided to form the Comics Code Authority to police themselves. The Code approved books had a small symbol that appeared on the cover (as seen at the top of the post).
Several books over the years were published without Code approval. Most notably a 1971 Spider-Man that dealt with drug abuse.
As times changed, the Code became an anachronism. Today only DC and Archie Comics are submitted for Code approval, and DC only submits the titles in its juvenile line.
As a long time comics reader, I grew up with Code approved books. The switch by the major publishers away from Code approval that began in the 1990s was a move that was welcomed by the majority of comics fandom. Today, as the average age of the comics reader increases, and the publishers are desperately seeking ways to bring in new, young readers; new juvenile stories that could have passed in the Code days are being published as part of entire series that are aimed at the childrem of current fans. The publishers know that the current readership will not sustain them into the future and need the young audience. An audience that they can not get with the "mature" stories in the mainstrean titles today.
Friday, February 27, 2009
In BATMAN R.I.P., Grant Morrison makes good on the promise that has been repeated since the 1980’s; that comics aren’t kids stuff anymore. Morrison’s style and quality writing has done something that all the killing, sex, and “grittiness” of the past 20 years has not; to create a really adult reading experience. Morrison realizes that the depth of a character, not his actions, marks the work as mature. By embracing the entire, not all together sane, seventy year history of Batman, Morrison enriched a tried and true character. By embracing stories that lesser writers treated as inconvenient, and wrote out of Batman continuity, Morrison opens up his playing field to work on the character.
BATMAN R.I.P. consists of issues 676 to 681 of Batman comics printed by DC Comics. During this story arc, this was the title that I most anticipated each month. The challenging, well executed story kept me trying to keep up with the sheer amount of stuff Morrison was packing into the story. Morrison is not afraid of a dense, intricate story. Each panel and line demonstrates an economy of storytelling that moves the epic along. I felt that even the panel dividers held esoteric clues. Morrison uses concepts and storylines from across the history of Batman to create his story. The opening chapter reveals to us that a mysterious group of super criminals have set their sights on Batman. Morrison only gives us a visual of the villains and leaves the reader to discern the identities of these new enemies as the story unfolds. We soon learn that some time in his past, before Robin came onto the scene, Batman volunteered for an isolation chamber experiment which resulted in a mental breakdown. Later in the arc we learn that the experiment was an attempt by Batman to understand the workings of the Joker’s mind. The doctor conducting the experiment is revealed to be Doctor Hurt, the ring leader of The Black Glove. Hurt used Batman’s weakened condition to implant subconscious suggestions that are to be triggered years later when The Black Glove attacks. But that is the thing about being Batman; you have to be prepared for everything. Batman created a failsafe; a backup personality in the case of just such an attack on his consciousness. Here Morrison reaches back into the long ignored past to find the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh. In a silver age story, Batman traveled to a distant planet to encounter a doppelganger, the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh. Morrison crafts the admittedly silly story into the development of Batman’s subconscious back up personality. Surviving the mental assault due to his backup personality, Batman is able to endure until Nightwing, Robin, and the Club of Heroes are able to come to his aid. The club of Heroes is another silver age creation that Morrison makes relevant again. The club is a group of Batman and Robin knock offs from various countries around the world. The club has heroes such as Knight and Squire from England, Ranger and Scout from Australia, and etcetera. The idea only works under a writer like Morrison who is able to make the absurd work for the reader. The Black Glove is likewise made up of villains from around the world, including Jezebel Jet, Batman’s new love interest. Jet has infiltrated Batman’s life as part of the villains’ plot.
Part of the beauty of Morrison’s story is that he doesn’t lay all the back story of the Club of Heroes and Zur-En-Arrh out for the reader. The only reference to the origin of the Zur-En-Arrh persona is on page one of issue 678. We see Robin reading the account of an old batman case titled, Robin Dies at Dawn, which is the actual title of a silver age story. Admittedly there is a degree of fanboy glee in seeing references that are only accessible to true comics historians, but this is not just a cute inside joke for the comics nerd. Morrison is letting his Batman stand on the tradition of the literature that came before. Batman is great enough to include in his cannon the stories that are considered embarrassments by most modern writers. Morrison is letting Batman be serious literature by building on all his historical elements, just as all art builds on what came before.
On first read, you know you are only getting part of the story. Morrison is using the comics medium as part of the story; the clues are given in the art and the script. There is no use of long exposition or needless explanation that fills too many contemporary stories. Morrison trusts his reader to pick up on the story. Morrison is playing with identity. The identities of Batman, Dr. Hurt, Alfred, and Jezebel Jet are all in question in the story. All the characters assume multiple, conflicting identities. The reader questions the very foundation of the Batman universe. Could Hurt really be Thomas Wayne? The idea does not seem too big for Morrison.
The main criticism of this, and most Morrison works, is that it really does not stand on its own. You need the build up to understand the story. The more I let the story ping around in my subconscious, I’m not really sure the criticism hold up. I think Morrison should be applauded for treating the comics world as an organic system that grown and builds on itself.
The comics medium is ready for a writer that can embrace the entire continuum of comics. Silly silver age stories and modern hardboiled urban drama can be equally embraced as part of our comics heritage. There should be no shame in exploring the stories that had garish colors and ridiculous plots, they are our heritage. The decision to embrace back story or retcon it out of existent is just that; a decision. Decisions made by editors and writers are only as good as the skill used to accomplish the story. The difference between Morrison and most of the writers that have handled Batman since his rejuvenation in the eighties is that Morrison is actually skillful enough to handle the task.
Monday, February 9, 2009
In Frank Miller's seminal BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, readers and critics have found grounds to accuse Miller's version of Batman and by implication, Miller, of being a fascist and/or terrorist. Charges that the author has done nothing to dismiss and at times has embraced. Miller is an author and artist, a creature of the modern media culture. He knows the powerful cache these terms carry. He can be forgiven for indulging in a little name calling himself, if only because it only enforces one of the powerful themes of his work; the creation of public opinion through media manipulation. The reality of Miller's work, and really all Batman stories since Bob Kane first brought the character to life, is that implications of fascism and terrorism have always been with Batman. A cursory read of historical Batman stories will reveal the undercurrent that breakthrough to center stage in Miller's work. To say that Miller made Batman a fascist or a terrorist is to not only demonstrate ignorance of the history of Batman, but also an intellectual laziness and lack of ability to see the depth of the character.
Lets have a little reality check on our vision of Batman. Batman is a rich man who has never been able to move past a formative emotional wound. He uses physical violence as his primary means of conflict resolution. He is a primarily martial character who does not let a day go by without a violent confrontation with the worst our society can produce. He is Batman more than Bruce Wayne. He is trying to impose order on a world that has shown him only disorder and chaos.
Now, looking at Batman in the light of the preceding paragraph; how can any rational mind expect Batman to be a pleasant man, concerned for any one's sense of propriety and civility? Batman willingly engages in physical combat with the mentally damaged and society's underprivileged. To state this another way; he beats the mentally ill and the poor with his fists until they are unconscious. This is not a new development, he has been doing this since 1938. To accuse Miller of writing a fascist is to let Kane off the hook.
So, if you want to label Batman a fascist, you are by implication, placing all of the vigilantes of our literary history in the same group. Scarlet Pimpernel? Even worse, he protected the rich elites from a democratic revolution. Hamlet? A severe Freudian oedipal complex who is trying to summons the nerve to confront his father's killer. Spiderman? Sexually repressed teen that beats his repression out on the criminal class.
What do we expect our Batman to be? He is a hard man, in the tradition of the individualistic American hero that takes on the psychic guilt of his society in order to fight the monsters that lesser men can not face. He is Gary Cooper in HIGH NOON or John Wayne in the SEARCHERS, except he does not get his happy ending. Batman's war will never end. He will challenge you to be better that you are, or at least a more violent you.
So, is it accurate or fair to label Batman a fascist or a terrorist? The reality is that a man or a good character is a complicated subject. Batman is a fascist and a terrorist, and he is not. By using these labels, we deny ourselves the satisfaction of coming to a deeper understanding of the character and ourselves. Sometimes the world does function under its underlying Darwinian principal. When someone higher on the food chain is at your door, are you going to criticize your savior's philosophical bent? Do we expect the man who has the audacity to go out into the dark night and confront the monsters that we have created in our society and minds to either neatly fit our bourgeois ideas of genteel society? He will be a man that is objectionable to polite company because he shows us how weak we are. He will dare to be a fully actualized person in a world of the lazy and weak. We will hate him.
Batman has survived for seventy years, attracting new readers and writers due to his complexity and his iconography. He was a complicated character even when written in the simplest of terms for a juvenile audience. We can take up the challenge of understanding the character or we can label him and put him in a little box.