Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Secret Life of Batman Stories

The first four Batman stories in The Greatest Stories Ever Told are ridiculous, simplistic, and overall very poor examples of story telling. They are also the foundations for some of the best stories written for the comics medium, and vital to understanding the character and his growth during the past seventy years. The stories written by Bill Finger, are not of the quality and level of story telling that is expected by the modern audience, but these stories have been mined by the contemporary writers of Batman to build the modern character and stories that we celebrate today. Grant Morrison and Frank Miller, two of the modern writers that have come to be associated with Batman as we know today treat these early stories not as embarrassing moments to be forgotten, but as valued historical documents that need to be explored to understand our hero.

During Grant Morrison's recent stint as the writer of the Batman comic, he refers back to the story line from an old forgotten Batman tale as a major plot point of his story. In the silver age Batman story Morrison uses, Batman went through a isolation experiment similar the the one in "Robin Dies at Dawn". In both stories, Batman's mind takes him to an alien world full of danger. Morrison uses the story of Batman's hallucination as a spring board to have Batman experience a similar mental phenomenon in the present. The conceit of Morrison's story is that all Batman's adventures in his entire seventy year history have actually happened. Each individual story. Past authors have chosen to ignore the weird stories from the silver age that seem silly or naive to the modern reader. Morrison embraces these stories and uses them to build an even richer character. Morrison's Batman is great enough to even survive the silly stories.

In Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and "All-Star Batman and Robin" he deals extensively with the Robin problem. Robin is another issue from Batman's past that has caused modern writers to struggle. Would Batman, a traumatised orphan, really have taken another orphan into his personal hell? In the modern comics, writers do not even show Batman and Robin working together. The current Robin is the star of his own book and only seems to loosely associate with Batman. Miller in contrast has embraced the idea of Robin. Miller's Batman is still the Batman from "Robin Dies at Dawn" and "The Case of the Honest Crook" who is consumed by worry for his young associate. Miller's Batman is also an anti-criminal terrorist embarked on a personal jihad against crime. Batman is willing to enlist the young in what he sees as a holy war. Robin may be in danger when out fighting crime, but as Batman remarks to Alfred when the butler remarks that there are better thing for a teenager to be doing; "There is nothing better". Miller's Batman is a holy warrior who proselytizing to a young believer. Robin is not an antiquated idea to be written out of batman continuity, he or she is part of the heart of the batman character.

While the stories of Batman history may not make the cut of what is considered acceptable to a modern, sophisticated audience, they are essential to the character we know and love today.
modern masters like Morrison and Miller show us why these stories are important and worthy of remembering.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Study of Pop Culture

What do we, as students, gain from the study of popular culture? Is there something to be learned from the current crop of trash television and super hero comic books? Does Rachael Ray or Batman teach us any lessons that speak to our society as a whole? Or is popular culture simply composed of simple ideas and meant to only be consumed as mindless entertainment?

This is not a new question and has been addressed by serious literary critics such as T.S. Eliot.
In T.S. Eliot: The Critical Heritage by Michael Grant the author argues that Eliot saw the working class at the popular theater in sociological context. Eliot's article "Marie Lloyd", concerning a popular singer of the day, advanced the idea that popular culture could be the subject of serious criticism. The performance of a singer of popular songs, attended by the lower classes of society can become art. The art that comes from such a performance becomes a reflection of the society. The audience, through their boisterous participation, became part of the performance. The give and take between audience and artist is necessary in all art. The popular theater was art and worthy of study. The art reflected and was made of the common people.By studying this creation, we are able to gain insight into the mind and zeitgeist of the people.The study of popular culture is the study of the products and practices of everyday life. The world we live in can not be separated from the media (of various types) that tell the story of that world. Our world is made by how it is represented. The media creates the story as much as it reports the story. No further proof of this is needed other than the phenomenons of "copy cat killers" or "reality TV". The killer commits his crime based on images he sees from the popular media. The star of reality television is not an actor, but a supposed "common person" who is rocketed to media stardom through the media. The public voraciously devours coverage of these media creations; the killer and the star. The public is participating by enabling the creation of the culture.

But, is there a danger to the study of the popular culture? What do we lose when we turn to this particular area of study?
popular culture is a reflection of its audience and the influences upon the contemporary society. The student of popular culture must take all the influences of the audience into consideration when examining the signifiers and what they signify. A focused approach is necessary. The student gains nothing from reading the current issue of "People", but the student can gain considerable insight be attempting to identify what the cultural figures, or signifiers, in the pages represent and why.

In my own life, there have been several instances when a product of the popular culture has stimulated me emotionally and intellectually. the words and music of popular artists such as Aimee Mann and Michael Stipe have moved me. Their work made me feel as if their songs had a special message that spoke to me on a personal level. The words and music had emotional resonance for me and where I found myself. The writing of authors like Stephen Hunter, Grant Morrison, and Warren Ellis has exposed me to new ideas, and helped me to find a means to express internal emotions. The artists that have touched me have enabled me to grow by both challenging me with the new, and allowing me to understand and express the emotions of my experience.