Chapter One Part Four: He is This Madness! (part 1)

He is This Madness

 

Around the same time that I dressed like the Flash for my first grade Halloween party another classic superhero was being seen in homes on a regular basis. The television series Batman, starring Adam West in the title role and Burt Ward as his sidekick Robin premiered in 1966 and ran for three seasons. It was incredibly popular. Played as a high camp comedy, this show inspired a level of devotion that was called “Bat-Mania.” It also helped plant in the public consciousness the idea that the superhero was nothing but parody. This light-hearted presentation of the character, while owing a lot to the portrayal of Batman in comics throughout the 50s, was not representative of what was happening in the Batman books in the late 1960s. The character had taken a darker, more serious tone, with stories that focused more on the detective angle than on wacky death-traps and light-hearted banter.

But Adam West’s dead serious delivery of the most absurd lines in the most ridiculous settings struck a chord of some kind. This image of Batman became the most widely recognized version of the character, even though it was pretty much in opposition to the original conception.

In the wake of the popularity of Superman in 1938 it was only natural that DC wanted to replicate his success. Batman was originally created by artist Bob Kane, though writer Bill Finger made several suggestions that led to revisions of Kane’s original design. The Bat-Man, as he was called then, made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in 1939. From the beginning Batman was a creature of the night, a much darker creation than Superman.

His origin story is one of tragedy. Young Bruce Wayne watches as his parents are gunned down before his eyes while leaving the theater. Orphaned, he decides to dedicate his life to stopping crime. This obsession leads him to forego a normal childhood in pursuit of his goal. Unlike Superman, he has no super powers, so he pushes his body to the limits of human capacity, gaining strength and agility. He masters many fighting skills. He does the same with his mind, becoming the world’s greatest detective.

It has been pointed out that Superman’s origin is one of tragedy as well. His entire planet was wiped out, after all. The difference is that young Clark Kent was raised by a loving family, protected from the evils of the world. He grew up with hope. In most versions of the story he doesn’t even become aware of his extraterrestrial origins until he is an adult, and even then, it is just a story to him. He never knew Jor-El and Lara, his biological parents. Jonathan and Martha Kent were his real parents in every significant way.

Bruce Wayne saw his real parents bleed out in a dirty alley. In every new iteration of the tale the killing seems to become more brutal, more traumatic to his psyche. Though he has been through many interpretations, including the campy TV series, the most common one of the last thirty years, and in the earliest days of his career, is that of a man driven by his demons. He has sacrificed everything in pursuit of his goal. He has foregone anything resembling a normal life or normal relationships. Stopping criminals is the only thing that gives his life meaning.

From the beginning, the primary weapon in his arsenal was that of fear. He decided that he needed a costume to wage his war on crime, one that would strike fear in criminals, because, “Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night. Black. Terrible.” It was then that a bat flew in the window, providing his final inspiration.

Never once did my 6-year-old mind think of Adam West as “Black” or “Terrible.” Neither did the rest of the world.

I don’t think Kane and Finger sat down to create the perfect counterpoint to Superman, but that is exactly what they did. These two heroes are, in many ways, the template for every superhero that has come since.

If Superman is the god of the sky, then Batman is the god of the underworld, as Hades is to Zeus. Superman is the god of light, Batman the god of darkness and shadows. They are Yin and Yang, the two sides of the same coin.

They represent the extremes of the superhuman experience. Superman is the embodiment of unattainable godlike powers. He was born with his gifts, and as the sky god is more removed from our human understanding. No matter how much we strive we humans can never have his powers. In contrast, Batman is the epitome of human achievement. Everything he has he has worked for (except his wealth, of course, the thing that makes his other achievements possible). There is the belief, illusion though it may be, that with enough hard work and training, any of us could be Batman. This makes him a more relatable character for many people.

He is also more flawed. At base, Batman is a damaged individual. The innocence of young Bruce Wayne died in Crime Alley as surely as Thomas and Martha Wayne did. Batman was born that night, though it took time for the persona to fully manifest.

Before we go any further I think we need to address the issue of which Batman we’re talking about in this, or any other analysis of the character. Anytime we talk about Batman, or any other character that has existed for a length of time, we need to specify which Batman. Batman is a concept that holds many definitions, which I think is part of the appeal and his continued growth and popularity. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight is not only not the 1966 TV series Batman, he’s also not the Batman of the current New 52 continuity (though there’s a closer comparison there).

There is a general, public perception of Batman these days that has nothing to do with any specific story or presentation of the character. This is probably shaped more by the movies and media than by the actual comics. More people have seen the absolute worst episode of Gotham than have read any of the N52 comics, or Frank Miller’s for that matter. Batman has become a sort of modern archetype, a bat-shaped container that holds everyone’s conception of the character but not dependent on any one specific iteration.

This is more amorphous. As a result it’s more difficult to pick out specific ‟canonical” instances to back up any claims or statements made about him. There is no ‟Canon” for Batman any more, only ‟canons.”

Some writers have stated that they believe that Batman sees every criminal and villain as a potential Joe Chill (the name that was eventually given to the thug who killed his parents; the movie version that blamed the Joker for this crime is not part of the comics continuity). If this is true it makes his mission one of vengeance. Since no amount of criminals stopped and punished will ever bring his parents back it is a never-ending war with no resolution in sight. Any war on a concept… crime, drugs, or terror, is doomed to failure because these ideas will never go away. One definition of mental illness is repeating the same maladaptive behaviors over and over and expecting a different result. That sounds like a good description of Batman, given this set of parameters.

When Grant Morrison took over the writing reins of JLA (as the Justice League of America was known in the late 90s), there was an article in Wizard Magazine that printed his thoughts on each of the characters. He addressed this issue of Batman and vengeance. I can’t find the actual issue, so I’m paraphrasing here, but I remember being impressed by his vision of the character. Instead of seeing every villain as a potential Joe Chill who needed to be stopped, he believed Batman saw every citizen as an eight-year-old Bruce Wayne who needed to be protected. That may seem like a subtle difference but it is one I find profound. Rather than being motivated by personal vengeance against something, this shift in focus more firmly entrenches him in the category of protector of the innocent. It is a more heroic stance. The first is a selfish motivation that only benefits society as a side effect of his actions. The second is an act of heroism.

But the truth of Batman’s portrayal, at least in the last three decades, is that he is usually seen as the dark knight of vengeance and the god of fear. This is a far more successful take on the character and for some reason, the one that resonates most strongly with people.

I see this reaction in the comics shop every day. Readers want Batman to be dark. There has been a now decades long backlash against the Bat-Mania of the 60’s and the camp version of superheroes, at least among actual comic book fans. Anything that seems to backslide into that view has a hard time winning favor with them. The 1997 film Batman and Robin, while a box office success, is universally reviled among comic book fans precisely because it slipped too far into the realm of parody. Fans of the superhero want their genre to be taken seriously, and while I think most would agree that there is a place for humor, they don’t want to be made fun of. The TV show and 1990s movie franchises did just that. The source material was not taken seriously. There is a difference between a parody of superheroes and superheroes being perceived as a parody.

It can be difficult to see the difference, even for the fans. Part of the reason for this is that Batman has been all of these things, and each is a legitimate interpretation of the character. As an icon, as a fictional character, there are any number of interpretations of him. Within a single run of issues Batman can change depending on who is writing the series at any given moment. The Batman of Grant Morrison is not the Batman of Tony Daniels, though these interpretations ran concurrently in 2011. Neither of them is the Batman of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams in the 1970s, though technically they are part of the same continuity. Readers who have only seen the “Grim and Gritty” Batman of the last three decades cannot accept the Batman of the 1950s (even though Morrison has done his best to incorporate many of those elements into his modern work).

The phrase “Grim and Gritty” became a cliche to describe a trend in comics in the early 1990s, and part of that movement began with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (though Batman had been taking a darker, more “realistic” approach in comics since the late 1960s). Miller’s Batman is acclaimed for many reasons, but primary among them is that it was one of the comics that made the rest of the world sit up and take notice in the 1980s. The story was much more adult and literate in tone than most people thought comics could be. This was certainly not the first or only comic to achieve this (Maus was being published at the same time), but because it was Batman, who everyone outside of comics still thought of as that quaint, goofy TV series, it was noticed.

Set in a non-specific near future (though the president is pretty obviously meant to be Ronald Reagan), Batman has not been seen for ten years and Gotham has descended into a crime-ridden hellhole. Yes, even more so than usual. Circumstances conspire to bring him out of retirement. This Batman is more violent and reactionary than ever before, the embodiment of the outlaw hero (more on that idea in a moment). Batman’s reappearance serves to bring the Joker out of retirement as well, which, as you may imagine, leads to nothing but trouble.

Perhaps one of the biggest issues that Miller addresses in this series is the idea that the very presence of Batman in Gotham is what motivates the supervillains in the first place. He is a magnet for this type of behavior. The average street thug or petty criminal can be handled by the police. But the crime sprees of people like the Joker, Two-Face, and all of the other costumed madmen seem to be inspired by their personal vendettas against the Dark Knight. They simply wouldn’t exist without him. In this view, Batman’s presence has caused more problems for Gotham than it has prevented. This is certainly a darker idea than anything Adam West ever had to deal with.

Miller introduced this idea through the voice of the Joker’ psychologist:

Batman’s psychotic sublimitive/psychoerotic behavior pattern is like a net. Weak-egoed neurotics like Harvey (Two-Face), are drawn into corresponding intersticing patterns.

You might say Batman commits the crimes… using his so-called villains as narcissistic proxies…”

That has been one of the primary themes and influences on how Batman has been presented ever since. I don’t think that Miller intended this to be a defining characteristic. The psychologist is a weak man and seen to play right into the Joker’s hands. But this concept, out of context of the rest of the story, seems to resonate with people.

In the same story Harvey Dent is committing crimes as Two Face. When Batman stops him it is revealed that a plastic surgeon has fixed his face. The excuse that he has always used for his behavior is gone, but he still sees himself as scarred. When we see him through Batman’s eyes his entire face is monstrous, not just half of it. Batman sees him as a monster because of his actions, not because of his scars. What’s most telling about this scene is that there is a panel interspersed between the whole and monstrous images of Harvey of the giant, frightening and monstrous bat Bruce saw in the caverns when he was a child, the thing that inspired him to be fearsome. He says, when he looks at Harvey, that what he sees is, ‟A reflection.”

Which seems to imply that Batman is aware that he is perceived as monstrous by some.

But this version of Batman, at least in theory, has been there since the beginning. As well known as the TV version is, it doesn’t represent the true history of the character. In his very first appearance Batman punches businessman and murderer Alfred Stryker and knocks him into a tank of acid where he dies. Batman’s response?

A fitting end for his kind.”

This was pretty typical for a while. Batman, who had no prohibition against carrying and using a gun in his early days, regularly ended up with dead opponents.

While Superman continued to square off against gangsters in pinstripe suits and fedoras, corrupt politicians and businessmen, Batman’s foes very quickly began to exhibit a tendency toward the macabre. It was an initial creative impulse that Miller eventually used as a theme. If Batman was a darker, creepier hero, then his villains needed to reflect that. In Detective #30 we meet Dr. Death and his manservant Jabah. Dr. Death apparently dies in a fire in that issue, but in #31 he returns, horribly disfigured. In the next issue Batman fights a crimson-robed figure, a vampire known as The Monk (and fights an overly large gorilla in the process). He meets a man without a face, the strange menace of Dr. Hugo Strange, and a horde of giant man-monsters.

Chief among these strange foes was the character destined to become Batman’s arch villain. The Joker debuted in the very first self-titled issue of Batman in 1940 with no explanation for his strange appearance. While his motivation at the time seemed to be simple robbery he used a gas that killed people and left a death rictus smile on their faces, effectively signing his crimes. This was a motif that would become a regular trope for many of Batman’s villains.

The Joker was created by Jerry Robinson. Robinson was hired by Bob Kane’s studio as an artist and worked initially as an inker on the Bat books at the time. Robinson is also usually credited with the creation of Robin, the Boy Wonder, who first appeared in Detective #38. Both characters would, of course, go on to have significant influence on the superhero genre.

*****

And now for a personal aside…

In August, 2011, I was privileged to host an appearance/book signing at the Pittsburgh Toonseum by Jerry Robinson. There are many online resources that tell his story better than I can. A book from Dark Horse called Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics would be a great place to start. Jerry was 89 at the time and though a little frail his mind was still sharp. He gave a slide presentation and regaled us with stories and anecdotes from the entire span of his career. I was supposed to interview him but I ended up asking very few questions. Though I asked him to elaborate on a couple of points for the most part he covered everything I wanted to ask in the course of his presentation. At the end, when I did ask him a couple of things he gave long, wonderful answers.

He was, quite simply, an amazing presence. Rarely do I find myself in the company of someone who awes me. His career, and more importantly his life, embodies so many of the things that have given my life meaning: art, writing, scholarship and integrity. It goes so far beyond his connection to Batman and any fanboy reaction I may have had (and I did feel a little fanboyish).

Jerry Robinson died a few months later in December. I believe I was the last person to interview him. At 90 he embodied a life well lived.

*****

The Joker struck a chord with readers, and returned to the pages of Batman and Detective often. Like the Caped Crusader, the Joker has gone through many permutations. In the TV show he was played by Cesar Romero as a petty thief with a gimmick. Even though the 1989 Tim Burton movie was inspired by the dark version of Frank Miller’s work, Jack Nicholson hammed it up as the Joker. He was more dangerous than Romero, but still primarily an over-the-top clown. Miller portrayed him as a psychopath with no morals, leaving behind a huge body count as the punchline of his jokes. In Grant Morrison’s original script for Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth graphic novel, released in 1989, the Joker cavorts around in fishnet thigh-highs and a bustier, commenting on the possible sexual connection in his obsession with Batman that was hinted at by Miller (DC toned down the eventual release of this book).

Perhaps the apotheosis of the Joker was Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland in 1988. There had never been a deadlier, or crazier version of the character. In this story he casually shoots and cripples Barbara Gordon (who was Batgirl, as well as the daughter of Commissioner Gordon). We see an origin story for him that may or may not be true. The end of the story is controversial for many reasons. Did Batman simply laugh at the joke, even though his friend Barbara had been maimed? Or did he finally end his arch enemy’s life by pushing him off the roof? This was originally meant to be an out-of-continuity story, so the latter ending is possible. Either way, Moore overtly makes the point that both Batman and the Joker are probably insane.

The Killing Joke was one of the primary sources the late Heath Ledger used as a base for his portrayal of the villain in the 2008 film, The Dark Knight.

*****

This has gone on longer than I intended and there is more to come on this topic. Check back for more He is This Madness, same blog time, same blog channel…

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