10 thoughts on “WHAT THE F&#% IS IT ABOUT BATMAN?

  1. People have been trying to clone Batman for fun and profit since 1939, and Superman since 1938. There’s been money there to be made if you could get it right, and top people have tried.

    Many Superman clones have turned into good characters, though without equaling the original. (Many have failed horribly too.) Batman clones have had a much more modest success. Even the ones that work only work so well. Nighthawk of the Squadron Supreme and Moon Knight are not going to be big franchises any time soon.

    That tells me that the Superman you can intellectualize and clone into a lowest common denominator version with all the good stuff and none of the baggage (and copyrights) is not the real Superman, and that goes double for Batman. When people think they are missing the real thing only by an insignificant fraction, it turns out they are missing it by a lot.


    I don’t know why I like Batman. Maybe if I could pin down exactly what he offers, I wouldn’t like him as much. I know I like him a lot more than anyone that’s merely similar to him. And after that it’s: “Why a bat? Why not a hawk or an owl? Is it that you need the magic cave, and a hawk or an owl doesn’t work as well for that, or what?” The magic eludes me.

    One thing I can say: I love it when people use everything they can lay their hands on to define themselves in an interesting way, when they don’t just accept any default identity that the world puts in front of them, and Batman is a genius monomaniac for that. He has the Batmobile and all the other Bat-vehicles, the Batcave, the Batarangs and on and on and on, and his every action and idea is consistent with that.

    “It’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me.” That is, among other things, Batman defining “what defines me” such that his efforts can control it.

    If you know his “secret identity” you have something that could be very dangerous to him, but he does not concede that then you’ve seen your way past the theatricality and the gadgets to the real him, the millionaire playboy defined by his fortunate birth, his indulgences and his yachts. That’s only what he would have been had he not been a creature of iron will who was determined to be something else.

    Because of this, Batman is a long way towards being real art if you just present him as he is. And by “real art,” I mean something where everything serves a theme (which need not be a simple theme) and preferably a character that embodies that theme. He does the work for you. You don’t have to decide how to make everything look and sound cool, he makes it look and sound like Batman. He makes it serve his crusade, and if you let everything flow from choices that serve his choices (like what kind of art would make that cape look good? since he is going to use that scalloped cape) then it’s easy to write him well compared to other characters.

    At least going by results it is. And these results stretch over most of a century now.

  2. Another thing – you probably won’t like this, but it’s my opinion so here goes – is that writers have to be willing to write a character well, and that willingness changes with the fashions of the creative elite, decade by decade.

    Batman is not only a character with great popular appeal. He’s someone writers have been willing to do a good job for, decade after decade. Moral or pseudo-moral fashions change, but they haven’t changed so much that too many writers decided that Batman was too sexist, too violent, too self-righteous, too much of a control freak or whatever. The tension hasn’t been so great that writers and editors became determined to cure him of parts of him that work and are necessary. The tension hasn’t been so great that writers have to be intensely supervised not to “cure” Batman into being something more acceptable to them, with the result that writers would have worked on him with balky reluctance.

    Writers and editors will do stuff that screws up characters, because they want to, or because they want to push an agenda.

    The Punisher is a polarizing character. At one time he committed some purely insane murders because a writer hated him and wanted to show he was bad. At another time he killed off much of the Marvel universe because writer hated characters with superpowers and used Frank, who doesn’t have any more superpowers than Batman, to take his vengeance on characters like Spider-Man.

    Characters can work in one era but not another because fashion has changed the tastes of the creative establishment, not necessarily of audiences. The Fantastic Four illustrate this. In the 1960s every issue boasted “THE WORLD’S GREATEST COMIC MAGAZINE!” and it was true. But it hasn’t been true for a long time, because the social preferences of writers changed, and for decades writers couldn’t think of anything to do with the all-important family concept of the group but undermine it and make it gimmicky and disposable. The success of the Fantastic Four movies (and of the Incredibles) shows that the concept still has a great potential appeal for audiences, but the main problem is still lousy writing. And after you poison the well for long enough with inferior movies, comics and so on, you’ve got a property that can’t stand on an equal footing with Batman.

  3. Regarding your Joker diatribe, can you be more specific on what you mean by “anarchy”? Are you flippantly writing off Alan Moore’s political philosophy as “terrifying” or are you referring more to something like chaos?


    I think it helps that the icon performs work. Showing the Batman sign supports what the character stands for, as long as you are not trying to be the Batman yourself. Commissioner Gordon’s shining the Bat-sign on the night sky is a positive thing.

    The work performed is turning fear against those who prey on the fearful. It’s about intimidating the intimidators.

    It ain’t the knife in the heart that tears you apart.
    It’s just the thought of someone,
    It’s just the thought of someone,
    It’s just the thought of someone sticking it in, sticking it in…

    – Graham Parker: Protection

    Superman has that big red S shield. That’s not about intimidating the intimidators, because that’s not going to happen, and it’s not even necessarily relevant. Random bullets from a wild drive-by shooting or a big guy going crazy at a random moment because he’s on drugs or just psycho isn’t about “fear” or intimidation, it’s about the physical fact of violence. Superman’s S shield is about physical protection; being safe and keeping others safe. And it’s about being super, physically unbeatable and indestructible, while not turning into one of the psychos yourself.

    (Of course Superman has had red kryptonite to worry about. That makes him weird. Batman has no equivalent threat to deal with.)

    Let’s look at a less iconic logo, the (4). If you show it, you’re not helping the Fantastic Four by upholding what they believe in, as with the Bat-sign. You’re not covering yourself with symbolic safety, or implicitly promising to at least try to provide that safety to your loved ones and other “good guys” around you, as with the S shield. The (4) doesn’t have any magical / elemental meaning; the Fantastic Four have always preferred comic-book pseudo-science, leaving the “Science & Sorcery” to Doctor Doom. The (4) might hold meaning for you if your family or family-like group happens to have 4 members – but decades of writing against that concept have made that a weak, weak implied promise. And in the Fantastic Four films, the 4 itself is made weak, sliding down and to the right, away from the center of the searchlight white disc.

    If you wanted on impulse to buy a cheap bit of merchandising (say you don’t have much money, and you’re 12) to express visually and in a tactile way that this family, this group of friends, will stay together (or if need be get back together) forever no matter what, the Cullen family crest or even the werewolf tattoo made up for the Twilight movies would serve you better.

  5. Another example of iconography falling short of Batman’s standard: Watchmen. I don’t know about where you are, but where I am there was loads and loads and loads of Watchmen merchandise. Good quality stuff too. It sold like used toilet paper.

    The orange, green and purple color scheme was promising but it didn’t really go anywhere, and the grungy urban look wasn’t a source of liberating energy as it is with the Joker. They’re just part of the external world that some of the Watchmen happened to live in and that none of them managed to affect, except Ozymandias…

    A smiley face with “human bean juice” is a real attention-getter with the yellow and black and the blood red splash, but what is it supposed to do, or what does it promise? “I’m a rapist and I’ll come to a bad end”?

    Rorschach? “Hi, I’ve been working on my Rorschach-ness. I don’t have the creepy voice yet, but I’ve been working on bad hygene and body odor. Wanna smell?”

    A Doctor Manhattan fridge magnet? “Hi, just remember whenever you’re getting something to eat: CANCER! And that I identify with the blue guy who betrayed his wife and did nothing for her when she was old and and sick. Omnipotently useless, that’s my highest aspiration.” And the Doctor Manhattan merchandise was ****less!

    Nite Owl? “Hi. For a sexually impotent loser, I’m not as bad as most of the others.” I was looking to see how many young men wanted to project that image. It might have been a nice, positive way to tell everybody about a south-of-the-belt-buckle handicap – but I can’t remember a single young male buyer. Puzzling.

    Silk Specter: “Hi, I’m Silk Specter, check out my ***s.” It was the nearest thing that the Watchmen had to a positive message, and it seemed to sell the best, which is not to say that it sold at all well.

    Ozymandias: YABABEG: “Yet Another Blond-haired Aryan Blue-eyed Evil Guy.” Or in this case, “Yet Another Blond-haired Aryan Blue-eyed Evil GAY.” ‘Cause mad about the boyz = mass murderer, every time. This was the most confusing one, since he was based on the character in the comics, not the rubber-nippled version in the movie.

    I kind of like Archie the Owl-ship. It plays an important part in the story. By icing up and becoming useless, it nearly gets the heroes killed, and by remaining useless it sends the heroes trekking across the snow, with Nite Owl deprived of the firepower he needed to confront Adrian with any chance of success. Thus, the three heroes were delivered into the hands of the enemy and Rorschach died. Quite an iconic item, yet inexplicably less popular than the Batmobile / Tumbler.

  6. Yeeeeaaaah. You read my mind man. I was actually about to write about how Batman indulged my fantasy of not being impotent when faced with difficult situations and that being the reason I gravitated towards the character. Great post. I’m gonna start getting my affairs in order for when you fuck up all of time and space by meeting yourself. You’re so selfish!! Messing up all of time so you can have you lil blog post….oh!! I like the hulk speak cause I have bad eyesight and it’s easy to read and my wants and needs invalidates the experience that any of the rest of you have with this article. So there!!

  7. Thierry (@The_Emaginaut): “I was actually about to write about how Batman indulged my fantasy of not being impotent when faced with difficult situations and that being the reason I gravitated towards the character.”

    The fantasy of not being impotent when faced with difficult situations is a good one.

    The Batman character also invites us to indulge in fantasies of being courageous, industrious, self-disciplined, ethical and charitable. (Batman takes care of problems that Bruce Wayne can’t, but through his charities Bruce Wayne tries to address problems Batman can’t, so the character is trying to benefit society all the time using all the means available to him.)

    Arguably, there’s something to be said for allowing boys or even men to indulge in these fantasies.

  8. Coolness doesn’t hold up well against the sustained mockery of the people with the megaphones.

    Batman has repeatedly been been subjected to sustained humiliation, by the television show and by the Joel Schumacher Batman movies. He’s been made uncool. There’s not much un-cooler than rubber nipples, mega-codpieces and gay Bat-butt-shots.

    Batman had jumped the shark. That’s the end for a character like the Fonz, who was all about the cool.

    But that wasn’t the end of Batman. There were legions of kids who hated the television show, who hated how their parents mocked their symbol of idealism, and how the television show was on their parents’ side, sending a message that “you’d have to be a moron to really like this stuff.” But they didn’t quit, did they? And they didn’t quit after the Joel Schumacher movies killed the movie franchise.

    In HULK’s review in Twilight he said it was humanly forgivable for its target audience to wallow in it (for a while) but not really all right to stand by it. That’s an important distinction between two ways of consuming a cultural product. There are enough Batman fans who not only enjoy him but stand by him and what he stands for to put him head and shoulders above rivals who don’t make an authentic moral appeal.

    To seriously address Batman and get a partial understanding of him (not a complete understanding that would let you let you supplant him with something better of your own creation, or at least create a full equal), you have to take his values seriously and address the meanings of his symbols and actions, which he explains to Alfred in Batman Begins.

    Bruce Wayne: I’m gonna show the people of Gotham their city doesn’t belong to the criminals and the corrupt.

    Bruce Wayne: People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.

    If Batman was just about a self-indulgently violent power fantasy and “coolness” puffed up with an easy charade of “they had it coming” there would be many, many characters in superhero comics more iconic than he is. There aren’t. That’s my bottom line.

  9. The thing I always loved about Batman was his detective skills. Face-punching and justice-dispensing power trips are what I love about superheroes in general, but for me, the escapist fantasy was being so brilliant that nobody else in the world could do your job, even with your state-of-the-art lab equipment and unrivaled library/database. Why, you could give Sherlock Holmes himself a run for his money! *wanders off into fantasy-land*

  10. The dirty secret of the Batman TV show isn’t that it was an inaccurate mockery of the comic character. The reason comic fans hate the show so much is because it’s such an ACCURATE depiction of the comic book. That’s why comic fans hate it so much. It airs out dirty laundry. Comic fans don’t like non comic fans knowing just how juvenile and silly the source material is. They fear friends and family saying “THIS is what you devote so much time toward reading?” That’s why comic fans try to convince others and to some extent even themselves that Nolan’s work is a more accurate depiction of the essence of Batman when it actually isn’t: because Nolan’s work is what comic fans want noncomics fans to think their hobby is like, even though it’s not actually what they genuinely like in a comic book.

    The Batman TV series is so accurate that the first season had many episodes that were directly based on issues of the comic book. It’s far, far easier to find comic stories in Batman’s history that resemble the Adam West show than resemble the Nolan movies.

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