Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Foreshadowings: Batman

This week is another first for the Gothic Reading Group as we turn our attention to not one, but two new media and consider the role played by the long-running Batman franchise in defining a kind of popular Gothic. Batman may seem an odd place for a group of (predominantly) eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary specialists to end up, but it doesn't take long to see just how seminal this material is to the place and reception of the Gothic in the modern period. What's more, the Batman character and universe provide their own rich multi-media timeline within which we can plot some fascinating trends in popular uses of and attitudes towards the Gothic itself. From psychology to criminology and political theory, there's plenty to explore in Gotham. Here Richard Gough Thomas offers a concise introduction to the history of Batman and offers a few ways into our session. Kapow.


(Gothic) Batman: a Brief Introduction

Richard Gough Thomas

Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939. He was, at first, indistinguishable from the period’s other pulp heroes – a vigilante crime fighter with a mysterious soubriquet and a collection of gadgets – but within a few short years, the character had moved away from the brutal world of popular crime fiction and into the brighter arena of fantastic adventure. Robin, Batman’s vow against killing and his rogue’s gallery of bizarre adversaries are all elements of a developing ‘child-friendly’ identity for the character. The Batman of the 1940s and 50s embraced moral authority and de-fanged its villains to present a straightforward conflict between square-jawed heroes and the anarchic ‘other’ represented by the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin. The franchise’s caricature morality and increasingly gimmicky fantasy elements were exacerbated by the demands of monthly and weekly deadlines and increasing political and legal pressure from the recently established Comics Code Authority.[1] The ‘fantasy’ period of the Batman franchise persisted into the 1960s and became well-entrenched in popular culture with its migration to television (1966-68), an adaptation that revelled in the camp elements of the character.[2]

Batman's first appearance (1939) - not particularly Gothic, yet?
The re-vamp came as the writer/artist team of Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams took over creative duties at Detective Comics in January 1970. Although O’Neil claimed to be returning Batman to his ‘pulp’ roots, the Batman of this period is one of Gothic atmosphere. O’Neil and Adams’ first collaboration, “The Secret of the Waiting Graves” seems inspired more by Roger Corman’s Poe cycle (the series of films beginning with House of Usher in 1960) than any image of Batman as a crime fighter.[3] One of the texts we’ll be looking at, “Challenge of the Man-Bat” (written by Frank Robbins, with art by Adams and Dick Giordano), dates from June 1970. Just a superficial glance at the comic illustrates the mood the authors were trying to create: the extensive use of up-lighting gives every character a sinister cast and the story itself scores a strong note of tragic abjection in a franchise that had hitherto treated the freakish as an unacknowledged signifier of criminality.

"The Secret of the Waiting Graves" (1970) - getting there?
The relaxation of the Comics Code in the 1970s and 80s, and the growing market of more adult comics readers, saw a proliferation of Batman titles that sought to again redefine the character and his backdrop. The most famous of these were Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: Year One (the latter being a re-envisioned and more detailed origin story for the hero). Year One (1987) was particularly significant for its return to the crime stories that Batman had grown out of. Miller’s hero battled police corruption and organised crime in a grimy, low-key Gotham city – a far cry from the cathedral-like city of Tim Burton’s films a few years later. Rather than elaborating on the Gothic trappings and conventions of Burton’s Batman however, I’d like to use this juncture to discuss the franchise as the meeting point of two related artistic modes: the Gothic and Noir.

Batman: Year One (1987) - now we're talking.
Noir has its origins in the same crime dramas that spawned Batman, but became something much greater on film. Like the Gothic, Noir is a form, mode and genre that proves difficult to pin down. Like the Gothic, however, we know it when we see it. As Borde and Chaumeton put it, "We'd be oversimplifying things in calling film noir oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel", but those characteristics are all useful hooks for discussion.[4] Bruce Timm’s Batman: the Animated Series (1992-5) plays with the border between Gothic and Noir. The cartoon’s mise-en-scène is consciously that of a ‘hard-boiled’ detective story – men wear hats, gangsters wield tommy guns and women affect a dangerous kind of glamour – but another visual style is also at work. The long, stretched lines of Gotham city and the occasionally jagged bodies of Timm’s characters call to mind the Expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Since time constraints dictate that we watch only one episode in the seminar, “Heart of Ice” provides the best example of these elements mated to a Gothic story – Mr Freeze, previously an absurd ‘mad scientist’ villain is given a new backstory of lost love, betrayal and revenge.

A still from the Batman: the Animated Series episode, "Heart of Ice" (1992)

The final text for our consideration this week is Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989) a stand-alone graphic novel that spends time with the founder and inmates of Gotham’s notorious mental hospital-cum-prison. Ambitious amongst the comics of the time, Arkham Asylum might – for us as readers of the contemporary Gothic – fit a familiar mould. A cycle of madness, murder, madness wrapped up in a family package is not an uncommon formula, nor is its use of an unfolding parallel story to play on the reader’s sympathies any great surprise. Its importance is in its context as a Batman story – its de-centred narrative a challenge to the usual linearity of ‘sequential art’ and its themes (having even Batman himself question the line between sanity and insanity) an attack on the moral certitude of superhero fiction.

Arkham Asylum (1989)

And if there were ever a place to ask difficult moral questions in popular media, Batman would be it. For all the franchise’s more protean visual and narrative aspects, Batman’s moral character is remarkably consistent. Though he often exists in a morally grey universe; Batman fights for justice, eschews lethal violence and endorses redemption for those who would strive for it. As noble as all that might be however, his life-long project is an obsession born out of a child’s desire for vengeance and facilitated by un-earned economic power. In selecting these three texts, I hope that we can explore different creative responses to this paradox; as writers and artists have asked whether Batman is a hero staring into the abyss, or a madman driven by what he sees as the highest motives.

[1] The Comics Code was a reaction to the moral panic brought on by the publication of Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, which alleged that the moral bankruptcy of American comics was responsible for the younger generation’s delinquency.  Wertham is particularly interesting for our purposes, not for his reaction to Batman (which he denounced for its suggestion of gay subtext) but for his attack on the heavily Poe-influenced genre of the horror comic. 
[2] I will, with reluctance, write about Batman as a ‘franchise’ throughout this article. The discussion here tackles both Batman and his (fictional) context, across multiple texts and under a series of titles.
[3] For a dissenting view of “The Secret of the Waiting Graves” as a watershed moment, Pat Curley’s essay at Silver Age Comics is instructive. It also features several excerpts from the comic that convey the Gothic atmosphere I’ve discussed.
[4] Borde, Raymond and Chaumeton, Etienne; A Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-53); (Paul Hammond, trans.) (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2005), p.2

Richard Gough Thomas is a PhD researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University and a visiting member of the Gothic Reading Group at the University of Sheffield. His thesis considers the later work of William Godwin and you can check out his personal blog here. He can probably tell you what Godwin would have thought of Batman.

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