Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Let's start with the Bat

In honor of the upcoming The Dark Knight, and in the hopes that Heath Ledger's performance changes the way I look at the Joker forever, here are five key traits of Batman's world, according to Gavin. (Most of my ideas are tweaks and expansions, rather than purely original, so sources will be cited.)

1. Bruce Wayne is the mask. Batman is the real identity.

There are a number of sources for this idea, but the first place I heard it articulated was by Kevin Conroy, who did Batman/Bruce Wayne's voice for the Batman Animated Series. I would go a bit further and play with the idea of Bruce Wayne being just one of Batman's masks. There is some precedent for this in the comics: Matches Malone, Lefty Knox. Batman can be anyone, anywhere. Paranoia is at least as powerful as physical intimidation. The man you've worked with for years, your best friend, could be the Bat. The Bruce Wayne: Fugitive storyline also plays with the idea of a Batman without Bruce Wayne, and the Over the Edge episode of the Batman Animated Series provides another key to that door. Batman would still be Batman even if the Bruce Wayne mask were taken away.

2. Never during the day.

This is a throw-off line from Frank Miller's Batman: Year One, which writers ignore at their peril. The Bat doesn't make public appearances. He doesn't testify in court. The only time you will ever see him is when he takes you down or saves your life, and even then, only for a moment. The Bat only works as a secret, a rumor, a myth. The Bat can never be captured, tied up, or examined under light. The mask is flimsy, and the only way to keep someone from pulling it off is to wear it sparingly. Other masks (see #1) are more durable, and just as useful.

3. The utility belt has a finite number of pouches.

Batman: Year 100 has the best take on this. Making Bruce Wayne a man with unlimited resources is ultimately a mistake. Batman is interesting only in his limitations. No superpowers. The only available tools are what he can carry silently. In this spirit, there is no Batmobile. (Also see #2.) Batman does not travel in a marked car that stops at traffic lights and signals left turns. If he drives, it is in an unmarked car, without the mask. Motorcycles make more sense, since a helmet is a mask, but still only something plain and unmarked. Something that can be abandoned.

4. There is something deeply wrong with Batman.

Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum is a good source for this. Batman can't be written as totally crazy, because the sense of right and wrong is so essential, but Batman is so hell-bent on rightness, on structure because of something missing inside of himself. He has to spend every moment of his life building order out of chaos because he doesn't have that order inside of him. Detective fiction is also instructional: Batman is obsessive/compulsive (look at his trophy room in the Batcave), and either a bit autistic or sociopathic. He can't forget and constantly has to organize the information in his head before he loses his place. He can't relate to people, but is a tremendous actor. He's jarringly detached, but he can never let go of anything.

5. Jason Todd

He was Robin. He died. He's dead. Bringing Jason Todd back was the worst decision a Batman writer has ever made, and that's saying a lot. The false Jason Todd in the Hush storyline is interesting. Jason Todd really being alive is not. Losing a Robin, and the guilt Batman feels (or doesn't feel?) about it is key to his character. His inability to stop using a sidekick is key, too. Hell, at the time she replaced Tim Drake, Batman didn't even like Stephanie Brown. Why do children keep seeking the Batman out, and why is he, the strongest will in the DC universe, unable to say no?

In the future, I'd like to revisit individual elements of the Batman—the costume, the villains, Gotham, the origin story—and examine what changes and what says consistent. (Hopefully I can dig up some nice images for some of these topics.)

As evidenced by the various Elseworlds titles, the Batman mythos is hugely productive. There are a million ways to take the basic elements of the mythos and translate them to a variety of situations. I'd like to posit the (hopefully) controversial thesis that Superman doesn't work in the same way. With the exception of Mark Millar's outstanding Red Son, I'm not aware of a wealth of really interesting variant superman stories. Anybody want to call me on that?


Gavin said...

Upon reposting here, it strikes me that this post is as much about common Bat-mistakes as it is an "original" take in itself.

1. Millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne as a character. (A pipe and a champagne glass full of ginger ale!)
2. Batman as a public figure. (Ribbon cuttings!)
3. Bat-shark-repellent.
4. Batman as a quirky cop/law enforcement/father figure. (Traffic stops in the Batmobile! Wise, fatherly indulgence and advice for Master Dick!)
5. Bringing characters back to life, period. Don't kill them if you aren't ready to leave them dead. (There is a Jean Grey exception to this rule, but that's become a strangely productive side to her character. At the moment, she's actually been dead too long. It's time to bring her back.)

Tim said...

Yeah, I think this is half a re-imagining, and half a set of "best practices" for good Batman writing.

There's something about Batman that makes a reimagining almost always take the form of a return to origins. A conscious effort to resucitate the "original" Batman and peel off the layers of varnish that each year seems to add. Batman: Year One (and really all of Frank Miller's Batman titles) seem to do this.

Superman is completely different. Virtually nobody calls for a return to Year One Superman ("Make him in Cleveland! He can't fly, but he can jump really high! He's playing Lois for a chump!"). There's arguably a political quality to the early Superman comics that the later ones miss, but nobody seems to want to see Superman-as-Tom-Joad.

Tim said...

I forgot to add my last point.
As a result, when you re-imagine Superman, it's always a kind of fish-out-of-water story: Superman in Russia, Superman in the future, Superman with long hair, Superman in Bizarro World, etc. Virtually nobody goes deeper into Superman.

Probably the best rethinkings of Superman are the Infinite Earths Supermen: Kal-L and Superboy Prime. (It's S-P you have to thank for Jason Todd coming back to life.)

Laura said...

In regard to Point #1 made by Gavin, may I offer an intriguing (to me anyway) and almost poignant and quite true anecdote: I spent a summer watching over my younger cousin when he was about 6 years old (he's now 15 and diagsnosed with Asperger's Syndrome). As a kid, Stephen would BECOME Batman in order to engage with people in a mature and focussed way. It wasn't that he would inmitate Batman, or dress as Batman, it was much more all encompassing than that. When circumstances demanded that Stephen behave, listen, and make specific decisions in social situations he would kind of squint his eyes, lower his voice slightly, slow down his speech, and become a distanced but empathetic observer. And that kind of structured engagement relieved him of the stress and unperidictability of being a kid, and basically was the road to his learning to behave in a classroom setting, and to make friends with kids. There was something so sad about how earnestly he adopted the personality, and thus the rigid moral compass, of Batman. I haven't thought about it much beyond that, although I feel I have some more thinking to do on it, but maybe you'll think it's as interesting and arresting as I do.

Also, I loved the movie. I felt there were some plot mechanics that were underbaked--and I criticize Nolan for letting those kind of short cuts slip into the film. But all in all I quite enjoyed it.