Friday, March 26, 2010

"Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot..."

By Russel D McLean

Forgive me for waxing lyrical, but as is always the case when I am coming to the end of a redraft, I have been reading comics. And, yeah, they ain’t just for kids, they’re a valid form of storytelling. Deal with it.

I was always a Batman kid.


I loved Spiderman, sure. And Superman was momentarily distracting. But it was Batman that did it for me every time.

I don’t know why. And as much as I remember the 60’s TV show (which was on permanent re-run during Saturday morning 80’s TV when I grew up), it is only as a blur of noise and sound. The details escape me. But watching it now, I know it isn’t my Batman. The camp, day-glo thing never worked for the character. How could it, when the essence of the character is tragedy?

Of course, that’s perhaps the joy of Bats – he is open to a myriad of interpretations. But there was always a specific style of Batman comics that drew me in:

I still have my first Batman Annual, which opens with a Joker story by Denny O’Neil. I remember it opening with an escape attempt from Arkham and Batman getting his ass handed to him only to be rescued by Two Face. I’d never seen Two Face before and remembering being intrigued as to why a guy who helped Bats was in Arkham. Took me years to figure it out. But much of that story stuck with me. As the plot unfolds, Batman is infected with a derivative of the Joker Gas that means he will laugh himself to death in 48 hours. He cannot control himself. But the sad truth is that he only laughs at morbid things. His own death is what’s giving him the giggles. This was my first introduction to the darker side of the Dark Knight. There was no Robin in the annual, and the Batman was a grim crusader, but fascinating to me. Perhaps because he was everything I was not.

He was strong. He was smart.

But he was always flawed.

He was a superhero gripped by anger, and something in that spoke to me. I was not an angry child, but I was a child who probably knew his own flaws and weaknesses and Batman was the same in his way. But he battled past his own weaknesses to become something greater.

That was my role model.

Superman didn’t earn anything.

Spidey was too cocksure.

Batman had his doubts – like me – and yet he still battled on.

As I grew older, the darker side of Bats fascinated me more and more. I didn’t know it then, but if you had a noir comic character, then it was the Batman. His was a life of tragedy. Not just for the man himself, but those around him. I remember reading the storyline where new Robin, Tim Drake, loses his mother. It was a brutal and brilliant arc that drove home the point that the superhero gig was not all battling bad guys. Tim had come into Batman’s life looking for adventure. But there was a cost to be had, and that was his mother’s life and his father’s well-being.*

When Batman failed – as he has often done – it was always something that really got to me.

Even he could make mistakes. It was a revelation.

I remember reading the KnightFall storyline** week by week in the UK collected editions of the Batman comics, with a horrible feeling in my gut as we progressed towards an inevitable climax. There was a scene where, shortly after dispatching serial Killer Zsasz, the Batman hides in the alcove or a roof, and issues a silent scream to the night.

He is in pain.

He is exhausted.

He has allowed his anger to get the better of him.

And he still will not give in.

He is the ultimate noir hero. He knows pain and suffering, was born in tragedy, and yet he retains a sense of morality that is in absolute juxtaposition to everything he knows. He must know that he is one man against a tide of filth and corruption and yet he persists.

Moral superiority?
A special kind of idiocy?
Or something far more complex?

(and, yes, he often puts a child in danger, but let’s just skip the question of Robin, shall we?)

I don’t know why I am drawn to these kinds of characters. The lone hero, the one man who cannot make a difference but still tries, the hero who could just as easily be a bad guy if he allowed himself one moment of weakness. He is a hero who is imperfect, who sometimes makes the wrong choices (if for the right reasons), who gets beaten, broken and battered, who has allowed villains to escape and friends to die. He is, to me, a believable hero in a world that

Let’s put it this way, if you’re a noir reader, chances are you are or you were (and should still be) a Batman fan. He is the one character I return to again and again. Yes, he has had his rough spots (I was never a fan of the whole Cataclysm storyline, but maybe that’s because it signalled the end of one of my favourite writing/art teams on the books, Doug Moenech and Kelly Jones who gave the books a supernatural/Gothic twist of the most beautiful kind), but at his finest Batman delivers a hyper-stylised kind of noir in the comic book world. He is comics’ answer to Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, Lew Archer. His world is a dark and twisted reflection of our own. And, yes, there have been, down the years, rocket ships and superhero insanity – things that are inevitable given the nature of comic writing’s history – but at his finest, Batman is pure noir, and that, for me, has always been the appeal of the character. He is about moral choices, walking the line between vigilante and hero, and one man’s attempt to uphold his own morality in a universe that has none.

*And it was all Batman’s fault, from what I remember.
**where Batman’s back was broken by a criminal named Bane.


Paul D Brazill said...

yep, I'll echo that.

Jay Stringer said...


I think you've just inspired the subject of my comeback DSD blog.

The only suerhero i like more (and find more noir) than Batman.

Tune in...same bat-channel....

Scott D. Parker said...

You know, everyone always talks about Batman being one of those non-super-powered heroes. He does have the one super power that no other hero has: his brain. I can't think of another comic hero with the brain power of Bruce Wayne. He's beyond brilliant. He has showed that innumerable times over the years. One favorite example is the Tower of Babel storyline from JLA where his dossier on how to defeat all super-powered heroes was stolen and used. His banishment from the JLA was no skin off his back.

What's great about Bats is his ability to shift with the changing times. Yes, I still love and prefer the dark, brooding vigilante detective. But I've got a huge crush on the current, comedic cartoon, Brave and the Bold. It's the title of my favorite book of Bats back in the 1970s. The Jim Aparo art was definitive for me until Jim Lee showed up.

Batman has been, and always will be, my favorite comic character. I'll never outgrow him. And I'm looking forward to this new DC title, First Wave, that showcases Bats, Doc Savage, The Spirit, and other pulp heroes. Classic. And exciting.

Mike Dennis said...

Way to go, Russel. You've just reconnected me with Batman. I was a Batman kid (long before you were, I'm sure), and my Batman was not nearly as flawed then as he's been in the post-Tim Burton era.

However, something about him attracted me, even when I was seven, eight, nine years old. I used to buy Batman comics every month, as well as Detective Comics, and World's Finest Comics (which came out less frequently and paired him with Superman).

And now I know why. He was my introduction to noir.

Chris said...

Great post. I've always loved Batman. Nice work.