Thursday, July 07, 2005

Why I Hate Batman, Part One

Ready to strike fear into the hearts of evildoers everywhere, no doubt.

This may come as a shocking confession from someone who not only reads a lot of comic books, but who, specifically, grew up reading superhero comic books. Isn't an affection for the Dark Knight supposed to be one of those universal traits shared by all comics fans? Don't we all know, deep down, that there is no comics character as cool as Batman, and that every cartoonist secretly desires to draw Batman, and that he is indeed the Bee's Knees? Why, I'll bet even ol' Gary Groth hisself gets a woody whilst surreptitiously contemplating the coolness of the Caped Crusader...

Er, not quite.

Batman has never interested me in the slightest. Don't get me wrong: I've bought my fair share of Batman comics over the years. I can appreciate stories like The Dark Knight Returns and Year One as important touchstones in the history of the mainstream, and as enduring works in their own right. I can even admit that I have a soft spot for Kelly Jones' stylish interpretation of the character over Jim Lee's, and that Jim Aparo's understated utility appeals to me more than Neal Adams' showmanship. But all of these things are essentially beside the point. I may like a few Batman stories, but I don't like the character who stars in them. There have been a fair number of interesting and talented artists who have drawn the character over the years, but that doesn't make the character himself any less unattractive to me.

Most superheroes, at this point in my life, I'm neutral on. I have a few sentimental favorites, but most I can give or take because - we all should know - a superhero is only as good as whomever is writing and drawing him. Ergo, most superheroes aren't very good. But Batman . . . there's just something about the character that turns me cold. If he weren't so damn popular it would be easy to just ignore him, but the fact is that Warner Brothers is obligated to produce so much Batman product that they occasionally - and, I am certain, purely by accident - manage to corral folks of surpassing talent to create his adventures. Would I have paid seven dollars for a Batman comic by anyone but Eddie Campbell? Well, perhaps a few people, but not many.

Why do I hate Batman? Let me count the ways.

At some point (and this point can be fairly accurately pinpointed at or around the late 1980s) the decision was made that Batman's character should be changed to more resemble the driven, near-psychotic brutal loner who was featured in the two aforementioned Frank Miller books (of course, he was more brutal in Dark Knight and more psychotic in Year One, but both interpretations were strong). Of course, it should go without saying that building your franchise around such a rigorously unyielding and unsympathetic character should be a recipe for disaster, but the fans ate it up. Giffen & DeMatteis reportedly had to fight tooth-and-nail to keep Batman in the light-hearted post-Crisis Justice League.

I see posters of the new Batman movie - advertisements featuring the character in full regalia. But the movie Batman, since 1989, has been dressed in full metallic body armor and an increasingly inflexible carapace. Where, on the movie screen, is the dynamic athleticism that made the best Batman stories unique? In the first few Batman movies Batman was a fairly static figure - ironically, the most athletic Batman was the Batman of Batman & Robin. I actually liked the movie, because it was fun. Trying to take Batman so damn seriously is what got us into this problem in the first place.

Really looks designed for ease of movement, doesn't it?

Because, inevitably, if you begin to take parts of Batman, or any superhero "seriously", the whole kit & caboodle falls down around your feet. Superhero stories do not, as a rule, stand up well to insertions of so-called objective reality. You either accept the suspension of disbelief or you don't - this is the trick - and by wanting to have their cake and eat it to the Batman creators have crafted a fairly untenable house of cards. Superheroes work, when they do, because suspension of disbelief should be beside the point.

Of course, there are people who are going to be shaking their heads and tsk-ing the moment I mention "suspension of disbelief". Granted, in a perfect world, suspension of disbelief should have no place in superhero comics, because at their best they present a world that, because of it's sheer outrageousness, manages to be uniquely compelling - look at Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four, Jack Cole's Plastic Man, anything you could mention by Morrison and the best of Moore's later superhero work. But by focusing so scrupulously on the nuts and bolts of superheroics, most modern superheroes have emerged strangely vitiated. Like the best fantasy, you shouldn't need to have it explained: if you have to ask about the exact mechanism by which Sauron's ring functions in The Lord of the Rings, maybe you should stick to Theodore Dreiser (because Dreiser will certainly be very happy to spell out for you every last detail of a very literal world).

So let's return to that poster for Batman Begins. You have Batman in full body armor. There are passages in the movie describing in detail how the armor and costume work and what its rough capabilities are. Well, I guess that makes sense - if Batman operated under conditions even remotely resembling those of real life, he would probably wear pretty sturdy body armor. But then, if Batman was real he would also be a candidate for the rubber room down at Bellevue. If you're going to do a Batman story, you shouldn't make creative choices that inadvertently undermine the character. Because I'm perfectly content to watch the old 60s Batman TV show without asking myself "hey, why doesn't Batman ever get shot or badly bruised because he's only wearing a thin cotton leotard?" When you introduce one real world concern, others follow with a gruesome inevitability, until you end up with every bit of fun and whimsy sucked out of what were, in the beginning, extremely whimsical characters. Even Bob Kane's early, pre-Robin dark Batman was still essentially a fantastic invention in an over-the-top world of carnivalesque villains and monsters.

What Batman is now is only the worst example of a trend that has seeped through almost the entirety of modern comics. The fact that Batman has been almost unbearably stupid for the last twenty years has made it blessedly easy to pay little attention to a character that really never held any appeal to me to begin with. He's never really had any personality to speak of - the whole idea of Batman is that he, whichever era he hails from, has turned his back on the pleasures and pain of "normal" life in order to embrace his "dark destiny". What personality transplants have been attempted over the years - since the very beginning - have invariably failed, for the simple reason that Batman cannot really evolve without changing. The logic of his origin demands that he be essentially stuck at eight-years-old forever. Superman can grow and change, to a degree, in the context of a story without losing his motivation to help people and make the world a better place. Spider-Man can - and has - changed significantly without losing the essential spark of determined, guilty altruism that motivated him in the beginning (even if said motivation has been quite muddied by a succession of second-rate creators', the whole "great power / great responsibility" paradigm remains intact, as any five year old can tell you). But if Batman so much as acknowledges the need to change and grow - nope, sorry. Can't do it.

I recently watched the first Batman, the Michael Keaton one, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well Keaton's performance as Bruce Wayne - a cipher’s role if ever there was one - actually held up, but I was also simultaneously distressed by the fact that virtually no one picked up on any of the more meaty bits of Keaton's performance. If you have to take Batman seriously, then you have to imagine that Bruce Wayne is actually a pretty happy guy - he's rich, he's famous, and he has the world's best hobby. If your Batman isn't enjoying himself, he's got to be a crushing, puerile bore. Keaton - at least in the first Batman - played Bruce Wayne as someone who seemed to be having the time of his life both in and out of the spandex. There was also, as implied by his aborted relationship with Vicky Vale, the possibility of eventually growing and changing to allow for possible happiness down the road. All this stuff in the current comics about Bruce Wayne being the mask is just, to put it bluntly, horse-shit for over-literal adolescents. If Bruce Wayne believes that, he's got a more serious case of disassociative disorder than I though, verging on multiple personalities, and he needs to be institutionalized. Which is why I can't take the modern Batman, and a great deal of his four-color kin who suffer from the same illnesses, seriously: in seeking to explain away all the leaps of logic that necessarily compose the fabric of a super hero's reality, they have succeeded in sapping the characters of their entire reason for being. This is the end result of scenes fetishizing the military specifications of Batman's armor - the further you pull these characters from the realm of full fantasy, the more you rob them of what little dignity they may have left and turn them into petty little punks in leather masks. What's the point? Better just to accept that he puts on gray tights and a leather mask and go with it.

I didn't like the Batman who hung with the Super Friends. I didn't like the Batman who hung with the Justice League or the Outsiders. I didn't like the Batman who palled around with Superman in World's Finest. All throughout my youth I associated that wretched bat insignia with dead-boring, because there was never really anything enjoyable about Batman's adventures. Most comic books can plausibly feature just about anything you could imagine, from giant space gods to zombie pirates to mind-blowing excursions into psychedelic philosophy, but Batman stories most likely feature dudes in suits shooting pistols in dark alleys, or weird nut-jobs in circus costumes and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Where's the giant leaps of imagination that made Superman or the Fantastic Four - or even the more grounded adventures of Spider-Man and Daredevil - so thrilling?

Later on when I grew up a bit and read more comics I became attracted to stories which featured Batman getting the shit kicked out of him. I particularly liked Knightfall in the early 90s because it illustrated quite nicely the pitfalls of Batman-as-a-psychotic-loner: he put himself in a position where he could be ganged up on by a bunch of circus freaks and assassins who wanted nothing more than to break him like a rag doll and put him in a wheelchair. Yay! said I, maybe now that insufferable punk will learn some humility. But, of course, that's not how it works in comics - when Batman returned he returned not as a wiser and more circumspect Batman but as even more of a "bad ass". Because everyone knows the way to bounce back from adversity is to grit your teeth, refuse to admit any error and simply do exactly what you did before, only TO THE EXTREME!

Everyone always talks about how cool Batman's rogues gallery is, but it's not. You've got a few interesting foes that were created in more recent times and a holy shitpile of goons in funny suits with sub-par Dick Tracy gimmicks. I mean, the Joker's a clown who kills people. That's it. Gee, sounds like lots of fun for the kiddies. Does New Jersey not have the death penalty? Usually mass murderers - even insane mass murderers - get killed in one way or another. You're telling me that not one cop ever shot the Joker while he was resisting arrest, not one fellow inmate every shived him while he was taking a piss, not one concerned citizen ever just put a bullet in his head instead of waiting for him to squeeze that stupid flower and spray him with deadly laughing gas? Come on. Once you introduce psychotic mass-murderers into your superhero stories, you stretch credibility by introducing moral questions which are structurally anathematic to the very notion of conventional superheroes. And if you do address those questions, well, you're taking most characters pretty far afield. In superhero comics, the closest we'll probably ever come to The Executioner's Song is probably the X-Men crossover of the same name.

Batman wasn't that interesting to begin with, and a succession of habitually unimaginative and overly-literal and narrow-minded creators have turned the character into something truly repugnant. But come back for the next part of this series when I discuss my favorite Batman story, and why it might just also be the best Batman story ever told - same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

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