Jun 25, 2017

A Pretty Convincing Batman

The last issue of The Dark Knight III: The Master Race (Brian Azzarello, Frank Miller, et al) has been released. I finally put the money down for the Absolute edition of Batman Incorporated (Grant Morrison, Chris Burnham, et al). Adam West died. But, really, any week, any day, it’s a day about Batman. It’s the Twenty-First Century and you’re reading this in English; you’ve thought about Batman recently.

A Pretty Convincing Batman
Three Looks At Batmans You Can Believe In
Travis Hedge Coke

 DK3, as with its Frank Miller-authored predecessors, is almost a machine for making an honest Batman. While DK3 has two Batmen (one of whom also goes by Batgirl, then Batwoman), Batman Inc explores the fragmenting and reiteration of bat-identity over multiple Batmen and women, by name, by totem, and by deed. Adam West was an honest Batman. One that just got more true the longer you sat with it.


“How Small Our Role Really Is.”

I did not say that Adam West played “a better Batman,” though he did. Nor, that he portrayed a more honest, though that is true. He was an honest Batman.

This is a difficult truth, which both comics took on with bravado and care: People are more people than people are legends or gods (or superheroes). Heroes are more human than they are hero. Even cartoons. It’s counterintuitive. It’s even contrary to superhero logic. To received wisdom inside and outside of superhero fiction.



People are naive and growing, their limitations and reach are in constant flux and only honestly definable in retrospect.

In DK3, Superman tells his daughter that they must remain tethered, and when she asks why, he says, because otherwise, you’re alone. And, that is the human condition, no matter how big the theater and pageantry we blow up around it, the storm and drive that shakes the scenery and puts an electric shock in our bones.


A System

The traditional tactic for (re)processing a character is to put them against someone else. Foils and villains.

Batman Inc plays Batman off a nesting dolls of supervillains, from El Papagayo and Dr Dedalus to Catwoman, the Fatherless, and Talia Head and her international cult, Leviathan. Batman is faced with human opponents (from supervillains to friendlier frictions), politics (legality, burgeoning world war, international terrorism and slavery), weather (including that which is probably mechanically-engineered). Even his allies are, ultimately, in opposition to him, including conflicts rooted in ethics, in competitiveness, and even in class dismissal.

DK3, similarly, shapes its Batman via other characters, including a demagogue with an army of terrorists and slavers. This is, in many ways, the face of punchable evil for 21st Century America. But, Miller’s Batman also rubs many good people wrong, too, or judges them and finds them wanting. This the most agreeable, sociable version of Batman that Miller has written, but he’s still at odds, at times, with Superman, with the Gotham Police Commissioner. Even, at times, with his closest ally, former Robin and constant superhero, Carrie Kelley.

Inc opens, and DK3 closes with Batman fighting corruption, and specifically, crooked police. Adam West’s Batman would certainly be against criminal police, but his Gotham almost certainly would not have them. The police of the 60s TV show were rarely crooked, they were only incompetent, but even there, Commissioner Gordon felt it necessary to clarify that he was, “violently opposed to police brutality.” A large part of DK3’s strength, for me, comes from its opening gambit of Batman taking down cops who are trying to murder an unarmed black kid and then being, upon capture, beat to hell. Meanwhile, Inc opens its anti-corruption gambit more subtly, with Catwoman barely mentioning that the opposing force in the hunt for a dangerous metamaterial kept by a criminal scientist is, in fact, the US government. It takes until the end of the story, over a dozen issues down the road, for the police to be pressed by their corrupt mayor and the invading Leviathan into outlawing and hunting down the Batman.

Two thirds of the way through Inc, we and Batman discover that the entirety of what he’s fighting against is orchestrated to keep his attention and appeal to his preferences. Talia Head, his sometime lover and lifetime world criminal who dabbles in slavery, chemical weapons, terrorist and assassination, is playing a big, petty game with the man who spurned her, while simultaneously more or less successfully taking over the world.


Naivete

What starts to set Inc and DK3 apart from run of the mill Batman stories, is that they highlight Batman's internal biases, the oppositions that are not punchable or to be placed in prisons or asylum, but inside his own head and heart. It is easier, for many of us, to see the internal prejudices and assumptions at work in Adam West’s version of Batman, than in other takes.

There is motive and genius in the frequently-asserted “truth” that Frank Miller’s DKR Batman is Adam West’s Batman plus twenty years and the Reagan administration. It speaks to the honesty of both versions, the believability and that, even when they each may feel absurd or unlikely, that they ultimately to jibe with our essential, communal view of the Batman.

DKR and its sequels including DK3, the Batman television program, and Batman Inc all feature prominent women running aggressive intellectual figure-eights around our hero and his tight circle of men. This is Carrie Kelley’s role. It is the climactic and biggest conflict in Inc, which we don’t always realize until Batman is entirely defeated and Kathy Kane comes out of the larger world to dispatch Talia and then, again, depart. It’s easy to forget now, especially with memes a’plenty, but Batgirl’s initial role, on TV, and in comics, was to be as good or better than Batman without any of his money, training, or sidekick support.



Like any good character (any character at all), Batman must have flaws, including the biases and blinders that make up an individual’s perspective. But, these two comics, in particular, hinge their significance on the depths to which Batman’s biases run, without condemning him or turning him into a satiric mockery.

Batman has to have a bat-costume. He has to be supremely intelligent and capable as a crimefighter in the short term, but in the long term, he reasonable has to fail. Batman should fail upwards, like any good heir to a name and fortune. The genius criminals who run circles around Gotham City’s legal system must be controlled and stabilized by Batman, but his actions cannot permanently remove any of them, and the broad system of permissible transgression they represent must be sustained. The Batman TV show demonstrated this through virtually cardboard jails and potent absurdity. Truth in kitsch. DK3 and Inc, through essentially childish Batmans and worlds/world-scenarios that reward and caretake his necessities.

The Batman of DK3 selects a costume for Batgirl that is awkwardly colorful, with a bat across her bum, like the most odd and thereby significantly true dad ever, infantilizing her with “Batgirl,” even as he lauds and cherishes her as being more than his equal. Likewise, the Batman of Inc uncovers another superhero’s secret identity, a superhero who is his elder and senior to him in superheroing, and his plan then, is to sneak into his secret headquarters, announce he knows who he is, and ask him to alter his fundamental identity and lifestyle to be part of the Batman brand. And, he is so supremely confident that this is good and right, he tells Catwoman that he had hoped the superhero (who was murdered because of this plan) would have been pleased by Batman’s actions.

Batman cannot be dumb, but maybe he has to be naive.

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Fresh Perspectives

The Batman’s genius and his naivete are not expected of us, whether we are children or jaded teens or adults playing naive or world-weary as we reengage the Dark Knight. And, certainly, these three versions are present old faces with new gloss and new highlights. Not only do they recontextualize what has come before, but they, each and all, contain seeds and apparent contradictions and connections that grow in our minds, when we reread or rewatch, becoming more things, newer and refreshed.

In DK3, we see not only new angles on Batman, but new facets of far side characters, like the Green Lantern, Hal Jordan. These are not character growth, they’re not merely “where the character has ended up,” but characterization that has always been there, only hidden by the biases or limitations of perspectives we previously had to trust. In early DK-universe (inasmuch as there is one), Miller has given us Hal Jordan through fans (“Hal Jordan is the shit! And, I mean that in a good way.”), through the eyes of a young, jealous Batman, a young, cocky Robin, and a tired, grieving Wonder Woman (who spent the same scene calling some guy on the street, “sperm bank”; yeah, she pissed).

Here, in DK3, Jordan is described as introspectively quiet, too inside himself, too slow to react to the outside world. What had previously been seen as idiocy and slack-jawed sloppiness via a jealous perspective or an angry one, or as cartoonishly cosmic amazing by a fan, is now repositioned as having always been, perhaps some of those, but also, and prominently a quiet intellectual. Who knew? But, it fits. And, not only does it show us a new Hal Jordan, it gives us a new Batman, because we can see what Batman would not.

Similarly, all three examples of bat-worlds give us an Alfred Pennyworth who is playing an entirely elevated game that Batman seems to only basely suspect. Batman, in Inc or as portrayed by West, is bewildered by Alfred’s canniness and how he orchestrates Batman’s daily and nightly life.



The Sixties TV show reinvented the Riddler as probably more “classic Joker” than their Joker. He’s a brilliant, mood-swingy, dangerous freak. Batman Inc sees Stephanie Brown shorn entirely of her insecure, attacked-by-the-bat-fam troublemaker personification, and presented as one of the most straightforwardly super-heroic superheroes in the comic. She is the student become a teacher. Batman was a beautiful world of characters before and without any of these sub-worlds, but it is enriched by those and in turn enlivens and expands the bat-world that exists outside all stories, all versions, in our acceptance and in our heads.

“Holy Semantics, Batman. You Never Cease to Amaze Me!”

The most believable Batman is not a man, or a bat, or a bat-man, neither superhero nor tragic figure, he is not the trauma of a small boy or the grown man called Bruce Wayne. The real Batman is the idea. The idea isn’t a declaration, either, not a tangible thing. It’s a want. It’s a drive. A thing asked for. Anticipated.

When Adam West, as Batman, says, “Perhaps, if there had been anti-crime centers of the type you now propose, when my parents were murdered by dastardly criminals,” the idea of an “anti-crime center,” and the urgency with which Bruce Wayne must feel that sentiment, perhaps comes as close to defining what genuine Batman is as anything. Batman is a kind of hurt hope. A bruised optimism.

In Inc, from global players to local police, friends to adoptive parents support and care for Batman. They allow Batman to be, simultaneously indulging and utilizing Bruce Wayne. In DK3, Carrie dresses as and becomes Batman, when Bruce cannot, and Superman, when he needs Batman, drops a dying Bruce in a pit of resurrecting chemicals, because that’s how you get Batman: You really need him, and then you ask. You shine a bat-signal.

It isn’t the bat-emblem that is Batman, any more than it’s a person in a costume. It’s the signal. It’s the reassurance.

And, who was a more reassuring Batman than Adam West?

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