Category Archives: Comics

Animal Man and the Legacy of Metafiction within Graphic Literature – Part I

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Brian Bolland became the defining DC cover artist of the time after his success on The Killing Joke.

A Different Species

‘Sometimes you wonder, in an interconnected universe, who’s dreaming who?’ Grant Morrison

British writer, Grant Morrison was born in 1960 to a working class family from Glasgow where his father had become a political activist. As a member of the ‘Committee of 100’ the anti-nuclear group retaliated by producing underground reports.

‘My father was, for me, a genuine superhero. A big man. A super-tough soldier guy. He was really clever. I saw him going out on campaigns, going up against the police, breaking into bases and taking photographs to get information out to working class people. He was an immense presence, and he actually helped people. My mother would say that maybe he didn’t help his family as much as he helped everyone else, but you know what these committed activist guys are like. He was always looking to improve somebody’s life, while maybe neglecting what was going on back home. That was his Kryptonite. But I only saw that later.’ www.scotsman.com

Walter Morrison would take Grant as a decoy provoking his son to kick a ball over the fences of the missile bases. It was here he would witness striking imagery of cardboard coffins in prep for the casualties of a nuclear war – a hidden world that was more than enough to spark the imagination of the young Morrison and along with his father’s own political stance forged a strong, activist voice in his later work. Glasgow’s ties to America are therefore not difficult to see through the US nuclear submarine bases at nearby Faslane and Holy Loch where the US Navy brought American popular culture into Scotland. Morrison has stated that the Yankee Book Store in Paisley may have been the first shop in the UK to sell American comics; stocking up on what was made available to the US Military personnel who were based in Scotland. With the fear of Armageddon it is also of no surprise that Grant Morrison found solace in comic books.

With a strong taste for music and fashion, Morrison’s devotion to his mod-psychedelic punk band, The Mixers had waned in the mid ‘80s and therefore began to commit himself more to his writing. Having briefly produced work in the late ‘70s with his Moorcock influenced Gideon Stargrave strip it wasn’t until just after the success of Alan Moore’s Marvelman (Miracleman in the US) that Grant Morrison and artist, Steve Yeowell, made their first impact with 2000AD’s Zenith – a futuristic satire that examined the impact of celebrity culture. With Alan Moore already pond-hopping after the success of Miracleman, his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing had sparked an interest in British writers and with the popularity of Zenith, it wasn’t long before the headhunters of DC were about to offer Grant Morrison a similar opportunity to dust off one of their lesser known characters.

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Although Animal Man debuted in Strange Adventures #180 in 1965 he wasn’t given his costume and name until Strange Adventures #190.

Created by Dave Wood and influential artist, Carmine Infantino in 1965, Strange Adventures #190 introduced the reader to Animal Man’s strange powers. After caught in the blast of an alien explosion Buddy Baker learns to temporarily absorb the abilities of any animal within close proximity which enables him to fight crime. With his brief appearances during the 1980s; including Crisis on Infinite Earths; the crossover and modern retellings of popular superheroes ushered in the modern age of comic books and an opportunity to rebuild another universe.

As one of the more obscure characters of the DC Universe, Buddy Baker and his alter ego, Animal Man had become one of many disposable commodities to throw towards the rise of talented British writers who had emerged during the mid ‘80s. With the reinvention of Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing, Alan Moore’s genius intellect had paved a unique path, not only for Morrison’s Animal Man but also the reawakening of the Sandman by Neil Gaiman.

Where Moore’s take on Swamp Thing was very much steeped in classic EC horror titles and gothic literature, there were still traces of his interest in the dreamscape and that man is in tune with his own consciousness; a belief that we are one step closer towards understanding the true power of art and therefore the power of magic. For both writers, theses notions are very much one in the same and has become the foundation of their works – Morrison in particular believing that the stories he creates are his spells. In an interview with Publishers Weekly (2008), Morrison stated:

‘Comics specifically seem to be quite magical to me—in the sense that they are directly drawn onto paper. They relate back to the very first drawings that people did on cave walls, and people believe now that those things were meant to be magical, that by drawing and creating a model of the bison, you could affect what happened to the real bison. Your hunt would be more successful the next day. So the idea of drawing and creating representations is the very first notion that we had of magic, that you could make an image of something and affect the image and, in turn, affect the reality of the thing. Like sympathetic magic, when you make, for instance, a little doll of someone and then stab it, they will experience something. So that idea of representation, I think, is the first magical idea, and comics is still very close to that.’ publishersweekly.com

There is no doubt that these two Mages of graphic literature have had a seismic impact on the comic book industry which has remained just as important three decades later. Without delving too much into the contemptuous relationship between these two writers, this essay focuses more on the ‘nature’ of Morrison’s run on Animal Man and why it has remained an important piece of graphic literature in its own right.

Morrison’s approach, which becomes more and more apparent as his Animal Man storyline develops, is very similar to Moore’s in terms of the writer’s own belief system and personal experiences of altered states and spirituality. As Buddy Baker’s story begins to elude more and more towards a metaphysical arc of the character, it is often very clear that Morrison was injecting the story with many unconventional concepts that have often been referred to as shamanic. Where Moore’s version of Swamp Thing travels a more two and even three dimensional plane through space and time, Morrison attempts to push the narrative further and create planes that not only break the panels of the traditional sequential art form but also the very boundaries of reality.

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René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe (‘This is not a pipe’). Magritte’s surrealist and thought-provoking images challenged observers’ preconditioned perceptions of reality.

It is during Morrison’s reinvention that the titular character becomes more and more self-aware of his fictional state – his consciousness, of which becomes so elevated, that the arch concludes with him meeting his creator who is, in fact, a version of Morrison himself. With such a lateral approach to the construct of this tale one is reminded of Belgian surrealist, René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe (‘This is not a pipe’). From this lateral point of view the reader is forced to question whether this is Grant Morrison, or rather a picture of Grant Morrison. As he continues to interact with Animal Man and reveal the cruelty and torment he inflicts; much like human beings inflict on nature, the sequence of images add further to the illusion of the medium. As Buddy engages in his final fight, his suffering is juxtaposed by Morrison thanking his collaborators and even urges the reader to join the organisation, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). ‘You care about animals because I wanted to use you to draw people’s attention to what’s happening in the world.’

In order to understand the subgenre of metafiction, Morrison’s Animal Man takes you through Buddy Baker’s own growth in human consciousness that explores an abstract ideal of a spiritual world beyond the physical – a key concept that deals with such metaphysical issues. During the course of the story Buddy gradually embraces and masters his animal instincts and forges his ability to his advantage. As his quest becomes more and more challenging through an increasing abstract perception of his world, it is here that Morrison’s narrative is one that is saturated in familiar motifs that are built on the importance of semiotics. This is where Animal Man travels a more cerebral plane; reminiscent of a number of religious beliefs and philosophies. As already referred to, Morrison is somewhat of a shaman himself and well known for traversing particular planes of existence and more than often are threaded into his multilayered storylines. Animal Man’s quest is somewhat reminiscent of enlightenment where only the truly wise may reach the borders of their own existence and transcend to a higher plane.

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Animal Man #26. Penciller, Chas Truog helped bring to life the many layers Grant Morrison applied in his scripts. In his final issue as writer, Animal comes face to face with his creator.

When Buddy Baker questions his reality; Morrison goes on to explain how, ‘You’re more real than I am’ which alludes to Hindu mysticism where the soul reincarnates on earth over and over again until it is perfected and therefore reunites with its Source. With this in mind there is a karmic philosophy and undertone that constantly drives the narrative of Animal Man.

It is in these metaphysical states that both Moore and Morrison, through their own controversial beliefs and British cynicism, helped reinvent the comic book; elevating it beyond ‘puerile’ and ‘juvenile nonsense’ left over from the post war era. Both writers’ leanings towards philosophy and more implicit methods have helped maintain a multi-layered approach to their stories. Both intended to break boundaries in storytelling and through Morrison’s emphasis on the existence of fiction and reality the fourth dimension becomes all the more accessible as he blurs the line between creator and creation; the idea and the final product. Some would argue that any neglected superhero could have been used to experiment on with these concepts but the mere idea behind the metaphor of man’s relationship with animals can be a similarly cruel one and during the final scenes of the story, Morrison’s message becomes all the more clear and helps to justify why Buddy Baker has been chosen.

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In issue #27 of Doom Patrol, The Painting that Ate Paris, Morrison creates one of the most bizarre and surreal stories that deals with a mysterious unnamed piece of artwork that has many levels. The power of the artwork goes beyond mere appreciation and is said to absorb anyone who gazes upon it.

While writing Animal Man, Morrison’s other DC title, Doom Patrol also delved into the use of meta-fiction, albeit more of a parody of popular titles such as the Uncanny X-Men and The Punisher. Much like the discarded Animal Man, the characters of Doom Patrol were relaunched post Infinite Crisis with Morrison taking over the writing from issue #19. As the antithesis to Marvel’s X-Men, Doom Patrol would explore the truly uncanny nature of a group of outcasts that literally painted a rogues gallery of surreal villains centred around the Dada movement and the free association of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up techniques. Morrison not only delivered a unique vision but also pushed how far the written word could be fragmented; forcing the reader to analyse and therefore decipher what characters such as antagonists, the Scissormen were saying.

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Animal Man and the Legacy of Metafiction within Graphic Literature – Introduction

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El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha) by Miguel de Cervantes – more popularly known as Don Quixote demonstrates a classic example of metafiction with the central characters spiralling madness highlighted by his self awareness within the narrative.

A Story within a Story

‘Books are the blessed chloroform of the mind.’ Robert W. Chambers

To help understand the complexities of metafiction it is important to explore its origins and highlight how it has been used to inform literature and theoretical studies. In ancient Greek the term ‘Meta’ translates to ‘with’, ‘after’, ‘between’ and, in true Lovecraftian fashion, ‘beyond’. It was during the late 20th century that the philosophy of ‘Metatheology’ aided in our persistence to see within, after, between and beyond; often setting the individual on a quest to look for the answers to, ‘What makes us human?’ ‘How and why do we study God?’ Philosophical questions that mankind have reflected upon in an attempt to understand their own place within the universe

Although often associated with Modernist movements; particular tropes of metafiction can be linked as far back as Homer’s Odyssey, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from the 14th century and the later work of Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy in 1756 where all these stories contained elements of self-reflexive devices. It was therefore here, within the narrative, that characters became aware of their own existence and forged a literary device that first attempted to break the fourth wall. This device has been used to delve much deeper into the narrative and, from an analytical point of view, this self-conscious method is primarily used to help highlight the work’s significance as an artefact in itself that primarily provokes a number of questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. As a clear analogy; the method could be compared to theatre where it becomes more difficult for an audience to separate themselves from the performance and it is within the words on the page that metafiction reminds the reader they are aware of reading a fictional account.

In Miguel de Cervantes’ seminal masterpiece, Don Quixote the use of metafiction was written to great effect through its use of realism and became a benchmark for any novelist who used this more self-conscious process in their writing. It could be argued that realism and metafiction are one in the same and simply another technique in parody to help highlight the zeitgeist of the time and force the reader to reflect on the world around them and, in turn, themselves. Don Quixote is metafiction because the central story highlights the nature behind the method of fiction through its own procedures and assumptions; yet Cervantes still managed to build a world that balances the fantastical element by delivering it as a state of mind and therefore is accepted more by the reader.

In 1970 the writer and philosopher, William H. Gass first coined the term ‘metafiction’ in an essay; later collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life (1983). Gass’ interpretation can simply be summarised as ‘fiction about fiction’ and therefore it would be easier to label Don Quixote as a ‘book about books’. Within Cervantes’ novel the multiple use of authors develops an awareness in how the name and image of the original creator influences the meaning behind the story. It is only in the opening prologue that Cervantes’ friend advises him on how to make the book, Don Quixote, resemble other tales of chivalry and then later, during further inquisition of Don Quixote’s own tomes, they discover Cervantes’ first novella, La Galatea and deem it worthy of existence. All the while, various other characters and authors within the text discuss processes, attitudes, history and social circumstances and even Cervantes himself; and as Quixote continues through the story it becomes more and more clear that the books are the very crux of his madness.

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As well as his influence on H.P. Lovecraft, HBO crime drama, True Detective tantalised fans with references to Robert W. Chambers’ classic collection of stories.

There is a genuine sense that when reading such fiction the reader himself begins to delve into the very mindset the central character is possessed by. In Ronald B. Richardson’s Metablog on Metafiction (2014), the author states:

The madness is that most people think ‘realism’ is realer than other forms of fiction.  These people are confused by the name of the genre. They take it literally. They suppose that only tragedy is honest, only violence is authentic, and only the downtrodden are ‘real people.’ When a French student of mine was leaving on a trip to Los Angeles, I warned him that Hollywood was not as glamorous as he might imagine. When he came back, he told me he was not disappointed since the dirtiness made Hollywood seem more realistic. But dirt is no realer than glitter and diamonds. And what tortuous logic induces an intelligent man to look for realism in Hollywood? ronosaurusrex.com

In 1895, Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow delivered a series of short stories centred around a forbidden play which induces despair and madness in those who read it. Although the central characters are not self-aware there is a fabricated myth of a story within a story that would go on to inspire the delirious works of H.P. Lovecraft. With his Cthulhu mythos, Lovecraft had created a cosmic deity that had become a nightmarish source of anxiety for all humanity and in the context of its own mythos, had become the subject of worship by a number of religions around the world. This malevolent entity was depicted as the amalgamation of a giant octopus, a man and a dragon; hundreds of meters tall with human appendages and a pair of crude, wings on its back – a nightmarish leviathan that harkened back to creatures of ancient legend. Here, Lovecraft was building his own world to explore where, often, it could be difficult to separate the writer from his own fiction. John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994) is a direct homage to Lovecraft and a prime example of metaphysical horror.

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With obvious rifts of Lovecraft in his remake of The Thing – John Carpenter plunged several more layers with In the Mouth of Madness which made good use of homage to build on its metafictional storytelling.

From Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, readers have witnessed central characters pulled into the very worlds they read about and, in King’s instance, even write themselves into their own fantasy. However dark or enlightening seminal literature has been; it is clear that the greatest works transcend time because they have resonance. If there is nothing entertaining at its core then it will not last and in a day and age where the internet its digital content seems to rule; now, more than ever, a metafictional state is the perfect platform to engage new readers and build on intellectual properties.

Comics and the use of sequential storytelling have often been frowned upon by the literary circle yet the 21st century has embraced this medium more than ever. Since the mid ‘80s the comic book has attempted to reinvent the medium, particularly the perception of how the superhero functions within a modern world. Although Frank Miller was to break new boundaries with The Dark Knight Returns, both Batman and Superman were able to paint a very clear picture of Regan era America that helped to connect with a wider audience. However, it was in the pages of DC’s more obscure title, Swamp Thing that Alan Moore had already been setting the precedence in how to delve much deeper into a fictional world. In true, gothic fashion, Moore’s stories were rich in texture and romanticism and it was shortly after the title’s success that DC sought a similar approach in Grant Morrison’s treatment for Animal Man that began to set the foundations for DC’s imprint, Vertigo.

Animal Man and the Legacy of Metafiction within Graphic Literature – Part I

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Shelf Bite: Rat Queens

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‘What’s with men and tentacles? I’m sick of this shit.’

Following the success of Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’ Saga, Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch’s Rat Queens continues to deconstruct the sci-fi and fantasy genre. Where Saga deals with high concept and more surreal devices, Rat Queens is perhaps closer in tone to Terry Pratchet; simply not justified by a mere ‘Python meets Thrones’; this is balls to the wall storytelling with four of the best female characters to grace the pages of the medium for a long while. Pinup bombshell, Hannah the Elf, fashion hipster dwarf, Violet, atheist human cleric, Dee and the hippy lesbian Halfling thief smash their way through the sword and sorcery sub gene in an effortless read. Inverting the cliché imagery of scantily clad females, Rat Queens is a fresh depiction of various female body types and places the cliché, heroic male as ‘second fiddle’. With the current influx of the fangirl community revitalising comics, it is not hard to see the current trend, even from the big two’s Ms. Marvel and Gotham Academy, yet Rat Queens clearly remains top of the game. Current volumes are: Sass and Sorcery and The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth.

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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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HOAX: Psychosis Blues

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Leonardo M. Giron illustrates ‘Life’.

The Art of Collaboration

‘This illness will not claim me, not today.’

HOAX: Psychosis Blues is a work of major importance, primarily in its support of mental illness but also in its expressive collaboration that helps to deliver how sequential art can only highlight the power behind poetry. The result is a limited first edition that acts as a counterpoint to writer, Ravi Thornton’s HOAX: My Lonely Heart, a theatrical production also inspired by her brother, Rob who tragically lost his fight against schizophrenia in 2008. Interspersed by Leonardo M. Giron’s subtle and expressive illustrative style, each year, Ravi reflects on key moments she observed followed by a selection of comic book artists and illustrators (Bryan Talbot and Rian Hughes to name a few) adapting a number of Rob’s poems. Heartfelt and tragic, Rob’s soul clearly resides in his collaboration, which is brought beautifully to life by a sister who has not only produced the ultimate tribute to a loved one but also a project to help others realise they are not alone in their own torment. For more information about the book and other projects, please visit: www.ravithornton.com or www.ziggyswish.co.uk

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75 Years of Batman – Part II

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The earliest origin tale is depicted in Batman #1, Spring, 1940.

Origins

‘The idea of Batman starts with alienation and acceptance themes. It’s the idea of a kid orphaned by crime.’ Michael E. Uslan, Legends of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman

The privileged son of socialite parents witnesses their brutal murder in a cold dark alley. Traumatised by the horrific events the young Bruce Wayne vows vengeance and invests his wealth to hone mind, body and spirit in his quest for justice. Born out of darkness, as Batman he channels his own childhood fear in to a tempered discipline that aids him in his fight against crime.

Influenced as much by the popular culture of the time as the historic touchstones; Batman’s iconography and persona was also informed by newspaper strips showcasing pulp heroes, The Phantom, The Shadow, Dick Tracey and Doc Savage who lent their sense of high end adventure and secret identities, while classic literary characters such as Sherlock Holmes helped shape him in to ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’. The Golden Age of film presented glamour and dynamic storytelling with The Mark of Zorro (1920), and The Bat Whispers (1930) both of which reflected aristocratic heroes and double identities which left an iconic signature and symbol – other important details that helped shape Batman’s own personality. But it is within wider context and social issues of the time that have been a major, contributing influence on the birth of Batman.

Although the United States had already begun to witness a decline in their gross domestic products it was not until the infamous Wall Street Crash of October, 1929 that its severe effects began to have more visible repercussions. The result was not just a national epidemic but a major worldwide economic crash that marked the beginning of a decade of unemployment that painted a bleak picture of the 1930s. It was during these times that lost opportunities in personal advancement and loss of confidence in the system contributed to an increase in violent crime.

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A US newspaper from October 29th, 1929 presents a bleak picture of the beginning of a new decade.

Numerous factors played in to the politics of Depression era America such as high consumer debt and unregulated markets where unrealistic loans by banks drew many parallels to the recent crash of our times. All these major areas spiralled into a reduction in consumerism, lowered production, a fall in confidence and, for many, an increase in fear. To escape the austerity and overwhelming sense of dread and personal anxieties that could often be projected on the younger generation, children and adults alike turned to escapism. As well as the pulp literature of the time and the heyday of cinema; the birth of the first superhero in Action Comics #1 paved the way for a fresh, new art form the Americans could take ownership of.

After the huge success of Superman in 1938, the Editors of National Publications (later DC Comics) began to see the huge potential of the superhero and set their sights on commissioning like-minded creators to develop other characters. Although there are definitive examples of how the idea for Batman was sparked there has been much contention over the years about whether the original creator, Bob Kane came up with the concept all by himself. Early collaborator and writer, Bill Finger referred to how Kane’s idea resembled more of a ‘Birdman’ in his reddish Superman tights and domino mask, which was closer to Robin in origin. With stiff, impractical wings, this precursor to the bat-wing cape was suggested by Bob Kane after he had been inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s images of the ornithopter flying machine he had seen as a child.

As with the original creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; both Bob Kane and Bill Finger were the children of Jewish immigrants who had settled in New York. Born Robert Kahn in 1915 his studies in art led to him working as a trainee animator at the Max Fleisher Studio in 1934 before entering the comic book field in 1936 where he worked freelance for editor, Jerry Iger’s comic book Wow, What a Magazine! Having known the Godfather of comic books, Will Eisner since school, Kane had now secured work the following year when Iger partnered with Eisner becoming one of the first ‘on demand’ publishers of the medium. Working exclusively through Eisner & Iger, Kane began to produce work for the three companies, Adventure ComicsDetective Comics and More Fun Comics, all of which would eventually merge in to DC Comics.

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The cover of Batman #1, Spring, 1940 already depicts some significant developments. Aside from the addition of Robin the Boy Wonder, Batman displays a tinge of blue, the iconic gauntlets and a slightly less imposing appearance.

Born in 1914, Bill Finger moved from Colorado with his family to New York where he worked as a shoe salesman. His aspirations in writing led him to work for Bob Kane where he was employed as a ghost writer on numerous scripts which led to their initial meeting about ‘the Bat-Man’. Finger’s more informed approach as a writer had built on those important, iconic details that are still associated with Batman today. With Kane’s initial idea, he suggested the cowl, gauntlets and cape instead of wings and removed any distinct colour so he blended in to the night and, although certain personality traits can be linked to Bob Kane and Batman’s alter ego, the secret identity of Bruce Wayne was also created by Finger. Understanding the importance in a name and the resonance it can carry, Finger combined the Scottish patriot, Robert Bruce and another individual who would suggest a colonial reference to the American Revolution with soldier, Mad Anthony Wayne. However, due to Finger’s meticulous details, his research would often result in a slow approach to his work, which led to the Editor of the time, Whitney Ellsworth suggesting to Bob Kane that he should be replaced. During Finger’s absence, Gardner Fox contributed to the scripts that introduced some of Batman’s familiar arsenal such as his utility belt, Bat-Gyro/plane and Batarang. When Finger later returned he added the Batcave and Batmobile that have become synonymous with the world of Batman along with the introduction of Batman’s sidekick, Robin in Detective Comics #38. Although the Boy Wonder contradicted Batman’s motives and morals (essentially placing a child in danger!), Finger believed that his presence would help with a stronger narrative style and help stay in touch with the younger audience. Within the first year, Batman had become a huge, breakthrough success and, in the Spring of 1940, Batman #1 was released.

Without Bob Kane’s initial concept, it is questionable whether there would have ever been a Batman. The creative process of collaborating on a project that is suggested by and then owned by the original publishers can be one of heated debate, however, once an intellectual property becomes a multi-billion dollar franchise, subsequent creative players only help to contribute and own nothing. Bob Kane’s shrewdness and more business-like approach was in contrast to the ‘notoriously tardy’, Bill Finger and over the course of Batman’s first twenty-five years in print, it was a known fact that Bob Kane directed a number of ghost writers and ghost artists to ape his own style.

In 1965, Bob Kane discussed the creation of Batman in an open and heated letter to Batmania Editor, Biljo White where he rebukes a number articles that question whether he was soul creator. After presenting both the myth and the truth behind a number of details, Kane only suggests, Bill Finger was a contributing force on Batman right from the beginning. He wrote most of the great stories and was influential in setting the style and genre other writers would emulate … I made Batman a superhero-vigilante when I first created him. Bill turned him into a scientific detective.’ During this time, Kane’s name had disappeared from the comic book. Due to having signed away ownership of the character in exchange for a mandatory byline on all Batman comics, by the mid-1960s it was the writer and artists who were credited. After artist, Neal Adams had reinvented Batman with Dennis O’Neil in the late-1960s, Adams went on to champion original creators such as Siegel and Shuster which resulted in theirs and Kane’s original byline added once again to the credits. Finger’s recognition, however, was not received in the same light. Limited acknowledgement for his writing of Batman was a result of his contract as a writer and although credited for the creator of the Riddler, he only received his page rate with no further byline. In 1989, Kane would go on to admit:

‘In those days it was like, one artist and he had his name over it – the policy of DC in the comic books was, if you can’t write it, obtain other writers, but their names would never appear on the comic book in the finished version. So Bill never asked me for it and I never volunteered – I guess my ego at that time. And I felt badly, really, when he died’

The Joker's first appearance also in Batman #1.

Batman #1 was also the first appearance of the ‘Clown Prince of Crime’ – the Joker was credited as Jerry Robinson and Bob Kane’s design but acknowledged Bill Fingers writing contribution.

Artist Jerry Robinson, who was also was seen as a major contributor to the Batman mythos and often acknowledged as the creator of the Joker, criticised Kane for failing to share the credit and recalled Finger’s resentment, stating in a 2005 interview with The Comics Journal:

‘Bob made him more insecure, because while he slaved working on Batman, he wasn’t sharing in any of the glory or the money that Bob began to make…he should have credited Bill as co-creator, because I know; I was there. … That was one thing I would never forgive Bob for, was not to take care of Bill or recognize his vital role in the creation of Batman. As with Siegel and Shuster, it should have been the same, the same co-creator credit in the strip, writer and artist.’

Despite many of the disputes surrounding Batman it is clear that both his origins and the processes in which the original creators worked were vastly different to how comic books are produced today. Both Superman and Batman ushered in a fresh medium that had not been practiced before and therefore the legislations in place resulted in creators often losing properties, being discredited or naively signed over to their publishers. However, the origins of the character have as much resonance today as they ever have – a heroic character that fights for honour and the greater good during a time that has its own, deep-rooted issues. Batman endures because writers, artists and editors have not only continued to contribute to his world but, most importantly, have not forgotten that he functions as a man, not a superman and with that are the flaws we all carry.

To be continued in Part III: Mythology

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75 Years of Batman – Part I

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Aside from the fact that Batman’s sidekick, Robin the ‘Boy Wonder’ was based on Hollywood’s version of the mythic hero – a number of characteristics of the common outlaw, Robin Hood can also be shared with Batman’s own motivations. Although he has great wealth he uses this in a similar act to aid the less privileged of society.

Foundations

‘Lo! The Bat with leathern wing…’ William Blake, An Island in the Moon, 1784

Although the majority of blueprints for Batman can be linked to American culture and help to define a more archetypal American hero, it is within other historical references where some of the more interesting facts about the character and the world he inhabits are seeded. Noir undertones, gothic stature and iconography are the bones of what has made Batman so enduring and it is while exploring a more archaeological approach that we begin to understand where the many other aspects of the world he inhabits have been formed. Before Co-Creator, Bob Kane’s more obvious references to DaVinci’s flying machines and the pop/pulp culture of his time, one of the more interesting links to the mythology of Batman can be located in the legendary city of Nottingham, England. Not only can references be made to its Anglo-Saxon namesake, the ‘Place of Caves’ but more directly with the original Gotham at a time when knights and the most infamous outlaw of them all robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

It was during these times in the late 12th and early 13th century that King John requested a Royal Highway to be built through the village. To avoid the build and maintenance of the route, locals feigned madness – an act that, during these times, was believed to be highly contagious. Therefore, when King John’s knights witnessed the villagers’ insanity they withdrew; resulting in the King’s road rerouted to avoid Gotham. According to the story, Cityscape in Batman Chronicles #6, Gotham City is revealed as having initially been built to house the criminally insane – a journal, written by a villain plotting murder explains, “I even have a name for it. We could call it ‘Gotham’ after a village in England – where, according to common belief, all are bereft of their wits.”In direct reference to the legend, it is of no coincidence that Batman’s arch nemesis, the Joker, represents this feigned madness of Gotham – an enemy who, in a modern world, develops more anarchic personality disorders. This is made all the more disturbing through the use of his jester / clown-like appearance where, traditionally, a medieval fool would be summoned to entertain the ruler of his kingdom to help di ‘jest’ his food. The comedian – iconic of fun and laughter is now transformed in to the nightmarish grim reaper dealing the chaotic hand of death and destruction, which is all the more difficult to swallow.

It wasn’t until 1807 that the American author, Washington Irving became aware of the original tales and began to frequently refer to Manhattan as Gotham in his own writing. Irving’s satirical periodical, documented as the Salmagundi papers, were the first to refer to the legendary English village and, in time, eventually evolved in to a popular nickname for New York displayed on shop signs and important institutions such as the Gotham Center for New York City History.

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Gotham had been known as a common synonym for New York since medieval times where the original villagers claimed to be mad. Similar ‘fools’ were later recalled in the nursery rhyme, The Wise Men of Gotham as they sailed from their mother country to make their fortune in New York as residents of a ‘New Gotham’.

American Historians, Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace also explained how the name was adopted by New Yorkers in their book Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, stating: ‘Manhattanites would not likely have taken up a nickname so laden with pejorative connotations – even one bestowed by New York’s most famous writer – unless it had redeeming qualities, and indeed some of the tales cast Gothamites in a flattering light.’ It could be said that the famed stories recounted by the villagers, who later influenced further tales of the ‘Wise Men of Gotham’, went on to represent a group of people who were not quite so mad after all and that their allusion to the apparent affliction was no more than an elaborate ruse that symbolised a hidden cunning to outwit their ruler and prevent their village from being destroyed by a Royal Highway.

In subsequent tales this concept is built further on these foundations of fools and mad men surrounding the origins of the fictitious psychiatric hospital, Arkham Asylum. A direct nod towards the works of the influential American horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft, the hospital is named after the Sanatorium in the fictional city of Arkham, Massachusetts that frequents a number of the author’s short stories. Having developed its own long and brutal history of insanity, suicide and murder; most of which is directly linked to those who helped build the asylum and treat their patients. Arkham Asylum has gone on to house all of Batman’s Rogues Gallery at some point, only for them to escape or once again let lose on Gotham City all the more broken and insane.

Originally an unnamed ‘teeming metropolis’ in Detective Comics #29, by issue 31 Batman’s city was explicitly identified as ‘New York’ before Co-Creator, Bill Finger changed the name after finding the name ‘Gotham Jewellers’ in a phonebook. The resonance of the name stuck and ever since those early issues, the character of Gotham City has continued to inspire readers and forge the perfect environment for a Detective to thrive as he forever delves in to the disturbing undercurrents of crime. Ever since, the architecture of this fictitious world has managed to grow from historical references and popular culture, as many artists and writers have continued to build on Batman’s original concept of a primordial being that manages to become one with his environment. Without such a strong sense of identity and connection to his city, Batman would become redundant in his actions and insignificant in his message.

It is the inheritance of any identity that can always be seen within the traces of ancestry. Batman is a legend in his own right and one of which has been shaped by many other stories and designs that have come before. Where the medieval period delivers familiar, parallels that help convey a sense of myth, it is within the Gothic movement that we begin to witness the world of more complex characters and worlds truly take shape. Therefore it is unavoidable to delve in to the foundations of the fictitious universe of Batman without exploring the more potent and obvious influence that succeeded the medieval period.

Before these darker times drew to a close with the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and the end of The War of the Roses, a more romanticist style of architecture had begun to flourish throughout Europe. The term ‘Gothic’ did not appear until the late Renaissance with its origins in a specific period known as Opus Francigenum which translates to ‘French Work’. Characteristics include the pointed arches that now rest uneasy among modern architecture; the ribbed vault, flying buttress and looming Gargoyles that have provided familiar company for the Dark Knight as he surveys his city. Most familiar as the fabrication and structure of the great cathedrals, abbeys and churches it can also be seen in castles, town halls, guild halls and universities; the latter of which tend to be more associated with the Gothic revival in mid-18th century to late 19th century England. It was this revival that inspired the great literary works of the time.

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Familiar silhouette and iconography in the demonic appearance of English, urban legend, Spring Heeled Jack.Tales of vampires, ghosts, maniacs and dopplegangers ran rampant through the underground passages left over from darker times, playing on the imagination and challenging the reader on what possible truths such fiction could offer. During the Victorian era, English folklore told tales of ghosts roaming the streets of London and inspired the apparent sightings of the entity known as Spring Heeled Jack who was first documented in 1837. The urban legend soon spread all over England and due to his strange appearance and his ability to leap across rooftops, he became the subject of several works of fiction. Illustrations resembled a proto-Batman of diabolical, physical presence that revealed wings, clawed hands and fiery eyes. Further reports referred to helmets and garments that resembled oilskin while others described the tall, slender figure of a gentleman – a variation that perhaps alluded to a potential duel identity.

The relevance of such stories and folktales – especially to the religious audiences of the time – were seen as a negative comment on society where a taste for the Gothic was spurned further by the Enlightenment period. Professor Alison Milbank raises a crucial point in her Guardian article:

‘In the 19th century, attention moves to the horrors that lurk in our own psyche. The unconscious comes to be a subject of attention and exploration in stories such as the celebrated Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.’ (Milbank. A, 2011)

Before exploring the psychology of Batman in more detail in Part IV, it is important that this area is touched upon from earlier, significant influences. It is in these Gothic works that the existence of the supernatural often confirms the ‘haunting by a second self’ – the anxiety of a double persona later argued by Neurologist, Sigmund Freud to be a repression caused by the irruption of disquiet when separated from our mother’s womb. Yet, despite some of these links to the divided personalities of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his creature along with Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, to name a few, there is a also a significant link to the ‘sense of loss’ in major works of Gothic literature – none so more apparent once it had reached the shores of America through the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

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One of a number illustrations by Gustave Dore’s based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. More than reminiscent of a brooding Bruce Wayne as he awaits the call of the Bat. Poe’s poem depicts a slow descent into madness as the main character laments the loss of his beloved.

Poe’s own mysterious death had not only left behind speculation and conspiracy surrounding his own demise but a legacy that defined both modern horror, science fiction and the birth of the Detective novel. References to his fiction, whether subliminal or not – have embedded themselves in most of the art forms that embraced such revolutionary times. Poe died at the height of the Industrial Revolution – heralding dramatic change in political, economical and social status where commentaries were circulated at an alarming rate through the rapid growth of newspapers and periodicals. The writers who followed Poe; such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells with their proto sci-fi tales; Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Detective, Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft’s distinctive horror were all a direct product of their time and it wasn’t until during the late 19th and early 20th century that these writers’ own contributions to literature became hugely influential in their own right.

Although there are traces of Poe through the character’s brooding, gothic nature, Bruce Wayne does not wallow away in self-pity as witnessed in Poe’s stories. Instead, as a more modern hero, he channels his negativity in to a zen-like instrument of self-control that is unleashed and executed with necessary force. His choice of symbol is one to strike fear in to the heart of organised crime and the mask he wears allows him to hide behind its potency. All the while the boundaries between the symbol and how much of the mask is truly Bruce Wayne, are blurred in direct reference to Gothic undertones of repression and a second self that delivers a more fearful, demonic image.

Poe’s influence in particular was imbedded in modern literature and his stories had begun to forge part of the modern American myth, yet it would need less personal accounts to take his themes of loss and despair to a whole new level. It would take not just the death of a writer to spark this change and give birth to modern heroes, but the collapse and depression of an entire nation.

To be continued in Part II: Origins

75 Years of Batman – Introduction

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Alex Ross’ Batman is often depicted as lo-tech – highlighting the character’s mystery. In Ross’ universe he still has the rope, the unmarked car and crude weapons. ‘He just appears, which is even scarier.’ Alex Ross, Mythology.

True Detective

‘Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…a…a bat! That’s it! It’s an omen. I shall become a bat!’ Detective Comics #33, November 1939.

During a time when there were less distractions in the world, those children who first witnessed the birth of the superhero during the harsh climate of Depression era America gave very little thought in parting with their own pocket money. Detective Comics #27 illustrated a new character in contrast to the bright colours and optimism of Superman and instead delivered a dark, demonic figure cloaked in cape and cowl more reminiscent of gothic horror than innocent adventure. The Batman was composed with cinematic verve, a criminal clutched under his arm as he flies on bat-like wings high above the city with perfect grace and strength. As those kids clutched that comic book in their hands for the first time and studied the cover more closely, they realised that he wasn’t flying at all, yet merely swooping on a rope as would any mortal man attempt to traverse the rooftops. Here was a primal, mysterious new character hinted at through his own concealed eyes – nothing more than knife cuts that helped convey an air of menace and, perhaps, secrets that any good Detective story thrived on.

It is questionable in today’s society if criminals are ‘superstitious’ and that modern audiences would accept a hero whose reason behind dressing up as a bat was forged by an omen. There is, however, the gothic undertone that harkens back to classic American literature, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven and therefore the details surrounding his origin bore strong, cultural significance. In subsequent stories, certain details have been altered due to changes in society and audience perception. But what hasn’t changed since Batman’s origin unveiled in both Detective Comics #33 and Batman #1; is his humanity. Omens have been replaced with a more psychological approach that has helped to develop more intention and reasoning behind the actions of one man who wears the mantle of a bat to avenge the murder of his socialite parents.

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Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 is the second highest valued comic and has sold for over 1 million dollars.

The Bat-Man of Gotham, Caped Crusader, Dark Knight, The World’s Greatest Detective – Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s iconic creation of American pop culture has embedded himself in the hearts and minds of generations of children and adults alike for the past 75 years. Much more than a product of his time, the cultural phenomenon of Batman has been shaped by a rich tapestry of historical and contemporary references – a character that has grown throughout the stories and world he inhabits; transcending his medium and gaining the ultimate accolade of global success and universal appeal.

First and foremost it is the journey of alter ego, Bruce Wayne that has helped display the importance of his humanity and a key aspect that distinguishes him from other popular characters within his genre. Where the patriotic Superman lends himself more to classic myth and religious archetypes – a godlike figure that some demographics struggle relating to – Batman represents a more introverted and psychological aspect of the superhero that helps define his nature and make him more accessible. While Clark Kent had no recollection or memory of his parents’ death and was nurtured by his humble, adoptive family, Bruce Wayne witnessed, first hand, the violent death of his wealthy parents and was left in the soul care of his Butler. This defining moment could be seen as the night Bruce Wayne also died, leaving a deeply disturbed individual who has sort solace in avenging his Mother and Father’s death. It is this demon of vengeance that contributes to his own psychopathic tendencies; a vigilante born out of a traumatic experience that has set him on a path of self-discovery and discipline.

Despite his brooding and deeply troubled backstory, it is these very details that have contributed to the myth and legacy of Batman. At the heart of the character he is simply a man and the fact that he relies only on his wit and gadgets is his everlasting appeal – many wish they were Batman while others simply are. His humanity can also be defined by how he has dealt with and continues to deal with his own psychosis. Despite being labelled an outlaw in true American mythological fashion, he attempts to justify his actions by saving the lives of others and following a strict code – that he will never, under any circumstances, kill. But, when one picks up the mask, others follow. Whether it is his allies or Rogues Gallery of villains, Batman sets precedence in his actions and, in some way, is responsible for their creation – the high price a man pays for the personification of vengeance.

It is in this study of Batman that the roots of the character will be explored in order to understand what has made him such an enduring figure – how the icon of the bat has evolved in to an identifiable message that goes beyond the potent imagery of fear and, instead, represents the hero and justice in an otherwise imperfect society.

Part I: Foundations

Part II: Origins

Part III: Mythology

Part IV: Psychology

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The Conflict of Captain America – Part IV

After Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting laying the groundwork in The Winter Soldier, Marvel's Civil War event would signal The Death of Captain America and follow Bucky's conflicted version of the Sentinel of Liberty.

After Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting laying the groundwork in The Winter Soldier, Marvel’s Civil War event would signal The Death of Captain America and follow Bucky’s conflicted version of the Sentinel of Liberty.

Paranoia

‘They’re right. We’re not fighting for the people anymore, Falcon… Look at us. We’re just fighting.’ Civil War, Mark Millar

Inline with the new millennium, the adjustment from sixty years in suspended animation would now bear more weight and relevance for Captain America. Through the eyes of a born leader, we would begin to witness how one man catches up with the rest of the world and acknowledge the truth that some wars can never be fought – post 9/11having given birth to more complex and socially relevant stories.

Despite their acute mythology and fantastical origins, writers now sought an angle that would expose weakness and conflict in these characters in an effort to make them more human. With the introduction of the Superhuman Registration Act in Mark Millar’s Civil War crossover event signalling a major turning point for Captain America, his refusal to sign sets a major tide in motion. Branded a traitor, Rogers becomes a fugitive and with those few who follow him he comes in to direct conflict with Tony Stark.

In the aftermath of the conflict he hands himself over to the authorities when his battle with Iron Man destroys both his faith in society and himself. It is here, in Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s run on Captain America that the seeds are planted in their first arc, The Winter Soldier; leading towards one of the most finely crafted series of the past decade.

‘What I found is that all the really hard-core left-wing fans want Cap to be standing out on and giving speeches on the street corner against the George W. Bush administration, and all the really right-wing fans all want him to be over in the streets of Baghdad, punching out Saddam Hussein’ Ed Brubaker

Pitched as an espionage thriller, Brubaker delivers what is primarily James ‘Bucky’ Barnes story in the wake of Steve Rogers’ assassination. What follows is the complex nature of how a man who has been used as a weapon against the United States, by the Soviet Union, is able to carry the Shield and become the patriotic symbol that Rogers’ unrivalled, untainted soul originally represented. Bucky’s Captain America is the antithesis of the United States at conflict with themselves; an individual who fits the ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ tag – a brainwashed individual who serves a faceless enemy. The difference here in Brubaker’s reinvention of Captain America’s sidekick is the exploration of the antihero in true, western fashion. After all, isn’t this also part of American mythology?

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Having lost his arm during WWII, Captain America’s sidekick, Bucky Barnes, is presumed dead. Recovering his body the Russians craft a bionic arm and brainwash him in to becoming the Winter Soldier.

Inevitably, Rogers return in issue #600 signalled his own miniseries with Steve Rogers: Super Soldier before wielding his Shield, while Bucky’s alter ego, The Winter Soldier is recruited to hunt down other brainwashed assassins he trained during his days during the Cold War.

In 2014’s entry in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo’s sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier delivers a finely crafted espionage thriller based on Brubaker and Epting’s original reinvention of the characters. Already considered, by many, the strongest Marvel film to date, Chris Evan’s stoic portrayal of Steve Rogers explores, in full detail, the problems he faces when the organisation he works for stop at nothing to protect their nation.

‘He is one of us, and he represents the best in all of us. Because he represents an ideal, his popularity has never faded out entirely, even when comic books have struggled to survive. With the world today — more dangerous even than it was back in World War II – people need that ideal more than ever. That’s why it’s the perfect time for him to be more popular than ever. We need him.’ Joe Simon

For me, as with the real heroes of WWII, Captain America represents the very best of his generation – a man who lives by a strict moral code who fought a common evil in order for us all to live in a better world. People are easy to dismiss such ‘boy scouts’ as dull and predictable, but for all his original propaganda and patriotic nature; for most, Steve Rogers is a fictional Grandfather and perhaps the only reminder of our greatest generation. Captain America is an honest hero – a man who knows right from wrong even if it questions his own identity and has been reborn at the right time to deliver a more universal message. Whether life has improved since WWII is debatable, but one thing is for sure – if any superhero can be the platform to explore the conflict and ramifications of a modern world, it’s Captain America.

The Conflict of Captain America – Part III

The Conflict of Captain America – Part II

The Conflict of Captain America – Part I

The Conflict of Captain America – Introduction

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