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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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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 – 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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Bats and Ravens: Analogy of a Dark Knight

plate14On October 3rd, 1849, one of the great literary figures of the 19th century was found in a state of delirium on the streets of Baltimore. Four days later, Edgar Allan Poe passed away, not only leaving behind speculation and conspiracy surrounding his death but a legacy that defined both modern horror, science fiction and the birth of the Detective novel.

To say that Poe was an influential writer would be an understatement. 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. These 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. It was during the late 19th and early 20th century that these writers’ own contributions to literature became hugely influential in their own right.

Poe’s influence was imbedded in modern literature. 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 a nation.

Where Superman was heralded as the beacon of light during the Great Depression – one that would give hope and strength – Bob Kane’s Batman was the antithesis that lurked in the shadows. One was a God raised by humble farmers whereas the other was born in to wealth and luxury only to witness his parents’ murder. The result is a man of deep torment who channels his loss to hone newfound skills to fight organized crime. 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 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 organized crime and the mask he wears allows him to hide behind that symbol. All the while the boundaries between the symbol and how much of the mask is truly Bruce Wayne, are blurred.

batmanyearone_06To view more parallels to Edgar Allan Poe, let us look at the iconic scenes of a man in mourning, the most famous of which, The Raven presents the writer alone in his study, where the infamous bird reminds him of the loss of his dear Lenore. Bruce Wayne, contemplating his future alone, witnesses a Bat, not so much a tapping or gentle rapping; but more of a dramatic crash through his window. The incident inspires a potent symbol of fear, a scene so similar to the works of Poe it seems somewhat awkward in its intent. But the story of Batman is one that has been reinterpreted through zeitgeist by many talented writers and artists, which is where such a character becomes an interesting analysis. This dissection of the character is a dissection of both a state of mind and the society it inhabits. Understanding this unlocks the layers and delivers the classic tales that are important and influential; whether it is the sadistic nature of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke; Frank Miller’s origin of Year One and bookend, The Dark Knight Returns; Tim Burton’s gothic pantomime, Batman; Warner Brothers’ definitive Batman the Animated Series or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy; each tale has it’s own, distinctive style and message.

What sets Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy apart from previous incarnations is the sheer scope and believability of the world – an earnest rendition that could be criticised for taking itself too seriously. Here we have a series of films that have embraced the mythology. Not only is Nolan conscious of the characters’ roots but also the commentary they have on today’s society. In Nolan’s universe, Bruce Wayne has never been closer to Poe as he mourns the loss of his loved one and hides away in his mansion burying himself in further remorse. In the final entry, The Dark Knight Rises, our hero is broken in mind, body and soul and is unlikely to ever recover until he is thrust back in to the pain and turmoil of his city. It is here that he must, once again, confront his enemies who are only a reminder of what he could become if he crosses the line.

Is it a coincidence that the Dark Knight returns during a time of turbulent, economic crisis throughout the world? There are many who would say otherwise. However, for an icon to become such a potent symbol it must survive particular social commentary, political views, ideals, age groups and universal language. All of these areas carry an interpretation and help build the mythology and the legend of any story worthy of standing the test of time.

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Kevin Smith interviews Grant Morrison

Higher States of Consciousness

‘This world is like a low res 1950s TV, compared to this experience.’

Kevin Smith’s insightful two part interview with Grant Morrison is both a reminder of his seminal works and, more than often, an enlightened experience to say the least. Much like the documentary, Talking with Gods, Morrison never shies away from his beliefs and experiences, no matter how exaggerated they may sound to some. Whether you believe it or not, this is transdimensionalexistentialist (if ever there was a word!) theory at its best. This is an individual who continues to not only rewrite the rulebook but could form his very own religion. If the afterlife and the worlds parallel to this one are anything like what he describes…I’d buy that for a dollar.


For more podcasts, visit Fatman on Batman over at SModcast.

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