Thursday, March 15, 2012

Batman's Politics

By Jay Stringer

I wrote last week about how I like to let the reader do as much work as I can get away with. Create the looks and sounds of things in their heads based on a few hints on my page. It brings to mind something that we all do; we project ourselves into characters. No matter what the author has out on the page, we, the reader, have free reign to imagine whatever we want.

How many times have we read a character description but decided to stick with an image we have in our mind that's a little different? How many times have you read a James Bond novel and spent a little time wondering which Bond actor you're going to cast in this story, or whether you're going to go with Fleming's original description?

I like to call this element of readers licence 'Batman's Politics' because, really, we see what we want to see.

I've had discussions with people who want to argue that Batman is the ultimate lefty; liberal of spirit but militant of fist, standing up for the poor and downtrodden, progressive. He hates guns. He's against capital punishment. He believes everybody should have a second chance, and he gives up on nobody. He helps little old ladies across the road and he votes for the nicest, wooliest candidates come election day because, really, he just wants a world where everyone is equal and everybody gets along, free of crime and death.

I've had conversations with people who want to argue the exact opposite. Batman is "one of the 1%" He lives in a mansion on the hill. He believes in strong responses to crime, and is only ever an army away from being a fascist dictator. He's a rich man who beats up poor people. Does he stop to ponder what social context has led a criminal to be on the end of his fist? No, he gets on with the punching. His crusade isn't based on making the world better for humanity, it's based on the fact that he's a spoiled rich kid who's angry at his parents.

But think what you will, the story doesn't change. Batman's politics never play a part. He goes out each night, and we get a story, and his political or social leanings can be whatever the reader wants them to be.

Would characters like Batman be as huge, as adaptable and as long-lived if there wasn't that wriggle room? There have been characters like Mr. A, The Question & The Punisher who all seem to have a clearer political stance, and who are all arguably more believable than a man whose response to trauma is to dress as a bat, yet they've never had the enduring appeal of the dark knight. Aside from all issues of media proliferation, could an element of it not be down to the phenomenon of 'Batman's Politics'? He is whatever you want him to be, and in that way, he's everybody's character.

I realised that when I was younger, I would fill the gaps in these characters with myself. Batman, Bond, whoever. They would deep down agree with me on almost all things, it was just that they were better at stuff. But as I got older I stopped doing this, and I tried to let them be themselves. Bond was allowed to be a jerk, Batman was allowed to be a control freak, Daredevil was allowed to be deeply religious.

As a writer now, it's fun to play with these things. To look at it as you're writing and to decide which bits you're happy to leave blank for the readers to fill in, and, more, to see if you control the craft enough to decide when the reader can and can't do it.

These are just some of the random thoughts going through my head on a Wednesday night.

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