Monthly Archives: August 2014

75 Years of Batman – Part IV

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Dave McKean’s more abstract approach divided readers upon its publication but has produced a rendition of Batman’s world that has rarely been matched for its visual style. Textured and more tactile than what had gone before, the final work was one that sort to be scratched at, much like the unhinged mind of Batman and Arkham’s inmates.

Psychology

‘The Scariest monsters are the ones that lurk within our souls…’ Edgar Allan Poe

The duality of Bruce Wayne’s persona is intrinsically linked to how he utilises a seemingly negative emotion to his advantage. There is contradiction and conflict and it is within these dark confines that Bruce discusses the need for justice and how to save Gotham from criminals at great personal risk to his own mental and physical health. His pragmatic approach and extreme focus is shown directly through his actions and ability to make the most of his surroundings – tempering mind, body and spirit in to the weapon he needs to gain an insight into the criminal mind and deliver his own, swift form of justice. To aid further, his privileged lifestyle has enabled him to have many resources at his disposal – a seemingly endless supply of wealth that has helped him to seek out the most effective teachers in their fields.

Yet, despite this commitment, his own dilemma lies in his own personal ambition and how unsure he is of revenge – a weakness and conflict that his antagonists more than often exploit. It is this moral dilemma that have been explored to great effect in seminal works such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke and Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. Not only did these stories reinvent the character but were also a major turning point in comic book history. Having now given birth to a much darker and morally ambiguous rendition of Batman, both Miller and Moore in particular helped to reshape the public’s perception of the world Batman inhabited and over the past three decades have formed somewhat of a Holy Grail for any version that has proceeded.

The extraordinary nature of Bruce Wayne’s physical abilities often overwhelm his own, mental discipline. In a scene from Batman: Year One (1987) he questions his ability by the graveside of his parents and, after leaving, lowers his moral guard that leads to him initiate a street fight. It is this moment that forms an important turning point in his career as a vigilante and, in assessing the situation, understands how much he must control himself. The scene also highlights how much he is still driven by similar adolescent urges that need to be tempered by discipline and the comprehension of why he must follow a strict morality.

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Frank Miller’s bold, iconic style was one of both clarity and brute strength. Influenced by Film Noir, Manga and European artists, Miller’s style is closer to the work of Saul Bass than conventional comic book illustrators. His depiction of Batman is a hard boiled outlaw – grisseled by his experiences and a fine thread away from becoming the very thing he fights against.

Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) paints a bleak, post-apocalyptic future Gotham that has fallen in to fear and violence – a Reagan era comment on excess and consumerism grown out of the control of a dystopian society. It is here, that the lack of effort in controlling the escalating violence, the retired Bruce Wayne must, once again, pick up the mantle of the bat, raising the concern: should Batman use violence to help change a society? It is here that his own personal conflict is highlighted once more: if those who are adverse to him are using similar methods then what justifies Batman’s own methods?

In Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988) the exploration of fear is shown from the opposite end of the table where the Joker is presented as a yin to Batman’s yang. Saturated in the Clown Prince’s bright colour palette of green, purple, red and yellow, his presence throughout the book is constantly felt. Moore’s Joker is a terrifying Cheshire cat who exacts the most brutal acts on his victims while, with his trademark grin, flippantly laughs off the crime only highlighting his anarchic approach. With the Joker there is no rationality, no empathy – only highlighted further by a man who laughs at his own, sick jokes. Here, Batman doubts his own ability to fight his mirror image and in the book’s opening, while visiting Arkham Asylum, shares these doubts with his archenemy. ‘I’ve been thinking lately, about you and me. About what’s going to happen to us, in the end. We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we?’ (Moore p.1)

It is more than evident that Batman recognises that his vigilantism and the Joker’s terrorism take advantage of fear, presenting him with the unresolvable situation of how he can fight a villain who understands fear more than he does. The story concludes with both of them reaching their final confrontation where they share a laugh together over one of the Joker’s bad jokes as they realise neither of them will win. The end, according to writer Grant Morrison can be seen as the final story of these two adversaries and that the title alone hints at the potential of Batman killing the Joker as his laughter abruptly stops before the final panel. This has never been confirmed by Alan Moore and is often seen as one of a number of jabs the two writers have made towards each other during their career.

Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1987) marked his first foray in to the world of Batman and can be seen as a comment on the society at the time. Much like Alan Moore, Morrison, as a British writer, had come to prominence through the pages of 2000 AD and had developed a similar, cynical approach to his subject matter. The result was a more repressed Batman; a violent figure who was painted as a borderline psychopath that now cast him in a far more complex light.

Morrison’s own interest in the occult and use of symbolism is clear throughout the book. While it often references sacred geometry the main influence is the architecture of a house where Morrison structured the tale of Amadeus Arkham around the lower, basement levels while the long forgotten secret passages connect the wider concepts. The result is a journey through the floors, brought to life by the nightmarish, visceral illustrations of acclaimed artist, Dave McKean. From a visual experience the artwork is multi-layered and hints at the shadows and shapes that play at the back of our own minds; much like the solid execution of a horror film. Influenced by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Morrison’s own dissection of the character leaned more heavily towards European cinema such as the German Expressionistic masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). McKean’s abstract renditions of the Asylum and its inhabitants are enough to hint at the underlining themes, yet to a lot of readers at the time, including Morrison himself, was not a conventional approach to the story. Where Morrison felt his symbolic elements were lost in their representation, the final work has more than stood the test of time and has been a major influence on the mythos, recently spawning a popular line of video games, Arkham Asylum (2009), Arkham City (2011), Arkham Origins (2013) and next year’s Arkham Knight (2015).

Due to his reinvention through these seminal works a far more complex picture of this tragic hero has arisen. It has become ever more apparent how Batman is not a superhero but simply a human being who struggles to remain in control and shows us the full potential of what we can be. Born out of a decade of depression and violence, Bruce Wayne’s omen that he chooses the image of a Bat is intrinsically linked to those early incarnations of his psyche. As a wealthy crusader he cloaks a dark secret that symbolises how he has conquered fear – an ‘exposure’ that helps him remain with what he is afraid of until he is calm. One of the most influential writers who has contributed to the mythos, Dennis O’Neil states, ‘Batman operates in the shadows – outside society yet his values are that of a virtuous man.’ Therefore Bruce Wayne attempts to integrate the ongoing conflict he has between good and evil and presents the person he thinks he is over the person he wants to be.

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As well as the notion of a ‘Shadow side’, Carl Jung proposed and developed the concepts of extroversion and introversion; archetypes, and the collective unconscious.

The Swiss Psychiatrist, Carl Jung believed that a distinct, personal struggle wages between the socially acceptable self and the ‘Shadow side’ – a state that we project our dark sides on to. Bruce Wayne taps in to a childhood fear adopting the iconography of evil that resembles old medieval imagery of demonic figures clad in darkness, horns and batwings that personifies a disturbed fascination. As Batman he explicitly owns this identity and exposes it to criminals in his night time crusade as a masked avenger who works outside the law. There is an aspirational purpose as he masters fear, crushes the chaos and, instead, soars upwards above society.

Although there is what can often be seen as a glorification of violence in comic book culture, both history and fiction remind us that one person’s hero is another’s vigilante. However it is clear that this point would not match up in the real world – an idea that simply does not translate efficiently to the masses. While some would ask, ‘Why doesn’t Bruce Wayne just go to therapy?’ Most of us learn to realise that the truth is that the masks he wears are his other personas – the tragic Socialite behind the walls of his Manor and Bruce Wayne the Billionaire playboy. What defines the character is the central humanity that Bruce Wayne possesses and therefore Batman is not only a finely crafted tool but his true identity – he can’t stop being Batman but he can stop being Bruce Wayne as his behaviour prevents him from having any lasting relationship. As a man he is more than capable of falling in love and has often been an exploited weakness as it is the one thing that has no shield – he can’t love openly due to the fear of loss which could act as a reminder and distraction from his exposure.

As complex as he is contradictory, Batman must constantly battle with his own adversity which forms a core element of his humanity and without this conflict there would be no need for a Batman and therefore every right for Bruce Wayne to retire – with this in mind, it could be argued that he isn’t a superhero and simply a human being who demonstrates the great things we can accomplish. He shows that we can learn to understand this difficult world and pursue justice that provides the hope that all of us need where heroism is often found amongst the darkness and fear that resides in all of us.

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75 Years of Batman – Part III

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With the wings of a bat, Lucifer contemplates another familiar form in Gustave Deore’s illustration inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Although created during the height of the Renaissance, the corrupted archetype was, rather controversially, seen as a romantic figure during the 18th and 19th century.

Mythology

‘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.’ Batman Begins, 2005

Living amongst the creatures of night, man has always sort to conquer darkness in the shelter of their caves. Before the first light of the fire, stories would have been vastly different and perhaps questionable whether man’s emotions were as psychological. Without fear, man hunted and survived off the land with no preconceived ideas of grand concepts or even their own place in the world. Survival was more instinctual but through the evolution of the hunt, tools developed and with it, self-expression. The imagination, perhaps humanity’s greatest tool of all, has helped to communicate through paintings, words and most potently, symbols.

As with John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, at the height of the Renaissance period and the later Romanticism of William Blake’s own poetry and significant artistry; both their representations of the fallen Angel, Lucifer and his legion of demons have inspired countless stories and visual media ever since. These works have often depicted demonic figures with bat-like wings and horned features, striking fear in to the general public who, at the time, sort inspiration through more religious endeavors. However, mythological stories of man’s transformation in to bats have many other symbolic and cultural links that separate them from the more obvious confines of Christianity.

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An anthropomorphised figure from Mayan culture that shows one of the earliest depictions of ‘man as a bat’.

Model behaviour found in mythology can be intrinsically linked when animal attributes are projected on human nature. Ties between the two help us all to see similarities but more importantly, focus on particular aspects and traits that can define specific archetypes. Bats, in most instances, are seen as creatures of the night due to their nocturnal instincts; where drain the life source of others in order to survive. Therefore, often these attributes do not translate to how man should behave and forms much of the basis of why a fear of bats is explored within a number of cultures. Bats are often a symbol of death and deception – where the Mayans in particular depicted them as agents of the underworld; some discoveries from this early civilisation showcase human sized carvings of a bat. Smaller examples that have been located only confirm how much the bat was worshiped and is thought to be how the Mayans honoured the dead and that in doing so, were less likely to join these creatures in the afterlife.

Other connotations of the bat that have originated from South America are that the creature represents greed and jealousy born from the belief that the bat was envious of the bird’s feathers and that his nocturnal lifestyle was a direct punishment for this sin. The bat is also depicted as a conceited bird who lost his feathers through a punishment and out of the shame and embarrassment began to travel only by night while confined to the shadows, undetected. In a more positive light, Chinese mythology viewed the creature as a symbol of good luck, longevity and happiness; while certain native American tribes believed the bat to be a trickster, others believed his presence meant that something good was about to happen.

As a unique and mysterious creature, unlike most animals, its appearance is one that defies convention yet, what is often apparent is that the symbol of a bat manages to convey a very clear and explicit message. With fear in mind, it has been easy to make references to classic, Gothic literature and that there is a truth that supernatural elements form the basis of this emotional reaction. The mere notion of a boy pledging an oath to avenge his parent’s murder is a dark and powerful concept and in realising that the idea of Batman is the result of a child’s reaction to this traumatic event only helps to further justify why a man would dress as a bat. As puerile and juvenile as it seems, the theatrical element of the character lends itself as much to spectacle as it does to subtlety – where it as much about the dramatic leap from a rooftop than to recede back in to the shadows.

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The archetypal American outlaw has been depicted on celluloid for over a century, from the Golden Age of Hollywood and John Wayne’s clean-cut hero to Clint Eastwood’s gritty depiction. Heavily stylised, Sergio Leone’s ‘The Man with No Name’ is depicted with a cape-like poncho, iconic hat, trademark cigar and revolver. A costume that is only a few steps away from the urban Superhero.

Batman absorbs some of the classic tropes of the Western archetype – an antihero who rides in to town and saves the day – but there have also been a number of important iterations of the character that have shaped our understanding of a more modern, mythic hero. In an analysis of Batman during the early seventies, writer and critic, Roger B. Rollin had compared Batman to other important heroes from history, such as Beowulf and Milton’s Paradise Lost. As with the majority of these examples of fictional work it is within these studies that the classic ‘hero’s journey’ has been explored in great length through such works as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) – a ‘monomyth’ outlining there are specific, universal themes that define a hero. Self-sacrifice, reluctance to the cause, the quest, the old man as guide are just some of the parallels that can be drawn, however, Rollin’s analysis argued that Batman’s hero type could also, more specifically, be identified by influential Canadian literary theorist, Herman Northrop Frye. In his article, Beowulf to Batman: The Epic Hero and Pop Culture (1970) Rollin references Frye’s Type II hero as: human yet morally and legally superior to others – a conception that gives him “a semi-divine aura” (Rollin, p. 435) that places him beyond real human concerns, “Though limited, he is still overwhelmingly powerful and overwhelmingly virtuous” (Rollin, p. 435). Frye’s conclusion presents a cohesive vision of unrivaled morality that expresses an appropriate code of conduct to the reader.

Where Campbell’s hero’s journey described an individual who ventures from the normal world into a supernatural one; winning a decisive victory and returning with their reward – in contrast, Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence set out to argue for the existence of America’s own monomyth in their book, The American Monomyth (1977). As later extended in, The Myth of the American Superhero, they defined:

‘A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.’ (Jewett, Shelton Lawrence 2002, p.6)

The American Monomyth suggests a level of cultural belief in American society that helps to explain the desire in American government to ‘save the world’ and is perhaps a quality mostly associated with the superhero complex. Having observed the major differences between heroes of ancient mythology and those of popular American culture, Jewett and Shelton Lawrence developed a critical definition of a cultural American pattern. They observed that these heroes fitted this pattern and were ubiquitous in American culture, which made them problematic and, some would argue, an almost ridiculous contradiction:

‘In these conventions the monomyth betrays an aim to deny the tragic complexities of human life. It forgets that every gain entails a loss, that extraordinary benefits exact requisite costs…The American monomyth offers vigilantism without lawlessness…He unites a consuming love of impartial justice with a mission of personal vengeance that eliminates due process of law.’ (Jewett, Shelton Lawrence 1977, p.196)

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One of the most iconic symbols around the world, this unique graphic device distills and personifies the character and attributes of Batman and has helped him transcend many barriers of communication – a major contribution to his universal appeal.

Impartial justice and personal revenge have always played an important role in the story of Batman. His motivation is brought to the forefront by the strict moral code he has defined in order to help protect the innocent and the legacy of his parents. Despite his brutal approaches in working outside the law, his refusal to use a gun symbolises an individual who forms the antithesis of one of America’s most controversial laws. It is this decision alone and the discipline of the character that helps him transcend any form of patriotism and conformity that, to some, may seem a step too far and another important facet that lends a more universal appeal – where Superman represents how America views itself, Batman can be seen as how the rest of the world views America. His mythology is built from one man’s quest of vengeance and although justice is not as tangible as the Holy Grail it is still the chalice that Bruce Wayne searches for, not only defining his character but the also the world he inhabits.

To be continued in Part IV: Psychology

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