Please do this for me. Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons
Orson Welles, to film director Henry Jaglom, 1989
Recolored comics have been all the rage in the last decade. Both Marvel and DC routinely release their collected editions with new colors, especially the classic comics from the 40s to the 80s, when comics were printed with a limited palette on cheap paper. With few exceptions, most of these coloring jobs look like crap, but that is a subjective opinion coming from someone who grew up with the pre-Image era acetate overlay-based coloring, with benday dots and all. There was a period of transition during the 80s, when the paper quality visibly changed, and some titles began to sport more garish tones than others. By the time Image released their books, and companies like Olyoptics and
At the same time, there began the trend of indie black-and-white comics getting reissued in color. Early examples were hit-and-miss, like Barry Blair’s Elflord, or First Comics releasing airbrushed deluxe editions of Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Better results came about when creators took it on themselves to oversee the coloring. Jeff Smith’s Bone, and later, Rasl, were best-sellers in their color editions. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim has found a new generation of enthusiasts once full-color editions came out. Even manga, the final frontier where two-color holds sway, has seen classics like Dragonball, One–Piece and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure embracing digital coloring.
But when I received the news of From Hell: The Master Edition, I felt a disturbance in the Force. For one, the scratchy black-and-white artwork felt like the perfect style for a book that was set in the soot and fog of Victorian London. This was one of the rare works where the artist worked in tandem with the writer to create something so iconic, that any thought of a remaster felt like it was interfering with perfection. The plan, according to publishers IDW/Top Shelf Comics, was to have the seminal black-and-white comic recolored by Campbell himself. And that is part of what allayed my fears and made for less trepidation. The person approaching IDW with the idea was Eddie, and it looked like he knew the kind of changes he wanted to make. There was precedent — Brian Bolland did it with deluxe edition of The Killing Joke, because he felt John Higgins’ psychedelic palette was not what he had envisaged. I really loved the original colors on the Killing Joke, but I also liked Bolland’s version. So maybe it wouldn’t be that bad after all.
A short preview of the recolored pages showed promise, but there was still the nervousness that the color would ruin some of the mood of the minimalist, dream-like nature of some of the panels. That the splash of red in a gore-dripped sequence would detract from the strength of the scratchy black and white line-work.
By the time I was on the tenth chapter (volume 7 of the re-release, which compresses 14 chapters into 10 volumes), all my fears had vanished. This particular chapter is a creative high point between Campbell and Moore’s collaboration, occurring in one room in London’s East End, featuring Sir William Gull’s final act of cruelty against the last of the five women. It also jumps through time, both forwards and backwards, in the course of its 34 pages. Gull imagines himself in the presence of his long-dead friend James Hinton, who we last saw in chapter 2, and then in his capacity as surgeon, displaying his sanguinary skills to a shadowy array of onlookers.
The final hallucination is the one that jumps forward in time, where Gull finds himself transported in the middle of an office-space of cubicles and computers, in the twentieth century. This is the moment that sends shivers up my spine, and Moore’s words drip acid and venom at the state of the world.
It would seem we would suffer an apocalypse of cockatoos…Morose, barbaric children joylessly playing with their unfathomable toys. Where comes this dullness in your eyes? How has your century numbed you so? Shall man be given marvels only when he is beyond all wonder?
Alan Moore – From Hell
The attention to detail is spectacular. A pink-haired girl, the blue in the fluorescent lighting on the ceiling, the design pattern on a shirt sleeve peeking from a jacket. The dry-brush effects in the panels are intact. The subtle way in which the blood splatter effects are just the right shade of muted red, while the backgrounds remain a flat grey. That final panel in the page below is both grotesque and hypnotic. This feels like a reclaiming of Campbell’s artistic vision, brought to life by a virtuoso meld of technology and ambition.
I would love to talk about this series, in detail, once the final volume is out. I have tried to speak of it in the past, but not only were my words not sufficient, but I feel like a superficial essay does not do From Hell justice.
Nine years ago, (freeze-frame, record scratch, “wait, nine years ago?!” “Oh yes, it has indeed been that long”) nine long fucking years ago, one fine day in June (May?), I torrented a bunch of comics off of Demonoid. For those who came in late, Demonoid was a sort-of elite bit-torrent hub that guaranteed quality content. Umm, quality pirated content, back in those Dark Ages when the internet was a mud-pit you needed to dive in to and swirl around in for a bit before you grabbed onto something that might be good but you wouldn’t really know until you got the dang thing on your hard drive and clicked on it, but then oh no, all your file extensions would change and you could not click on anything anymore and the only way to do anything was to set the computer on fire and move to another city and start over with your life…. Ok, maybe not that dramatic, but close. Things were not synchronous — you could not press a button and have movies, music, or books streamed to you with zero delay. There was work involved in consumption.
But Demonoid was a safe space, in the sense that the torrents were vetted properly, and uploaders were particular about what sort of files they put up. My deal with Demonoid was that every night, I would scroll past the comics section, checking for new uploads that looked interesting. From the descriptions and an accompanying Google search, of course. Most of it was filled with random superhero trash, most of which I already read and owned, or random underground trash that I did not like, or porno comics that barely fit the constraints of “porno” or “comic”.
Except that night, I came across this series called Dungeon, and a creator named Lewis Trondheim. Searching for him led me to French blogs and websites. The cover artwork looked great, cartoon figures done in a minimalist way, and with just the kind of signals that tell you the content within is not for kids. And turned out the American publishers were an outfit called NBM, who were bringing in, among other things, works by Hugo Pratt, reprints of classic Terry and the Pirates. Cool. I downloaded the set, and read the first two arcs. The reading order was included in the description, because apparently the series had been published as collections of stories that jump through time and various characters. Even the choice of artists was different, except of course, for the common elements — creators Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar.
I loved it. I loved everything about it. I loved it so much that I sat down and wrote a long review of the first arc, Dungeon Zenith, for my ongoing Rolling Stone column. It is still online, bad formatting and all. (Not my fault, I believe their website mangled some encoding characters) I stand by nearly everything I wrote, and that’s a kinda-sorta miracle considering how much my tastes have changed in the last decade. Except I cringe about the fact that I say Joann Sfar is the artist. I am wrong, Trondheim did the art. Sfar is an artist as well, and you can read his incredible work in The Rabbi’s Cat, but the distinctive look of Herbert the Duck and Malvin the Dragon is all Trondheim. And as I found out later, Trondheim has a thing for anthropomorphic animals.
The problem with reading Dungeon back then, and with writing the review, was that I ended up getting inundated with questions about where one could buy the books. To close friends, I told the truth, and even passed on a DVD burnt with the set of downloaded Demonoid files. (On an aside, isn’t it strange that the phrase “burn a DVD” will cease to exist in a few years? If it hasn’t already). To others, I pointed them to the NBM site, because at that time, their books weren’t even stocked on Amazon. It was obscure beyond belief.
A year and a half later, I traveled to Spain for the first time in my life, and ended up meeting a whole new universe of comic art friends with whom I had corresponded online for the better part of a decade. They in turn took me to meet various creators, in their studios, and to the homes of their friends. And funnily enough, every shelf I glanced at (and drooled over, because the Spanish publishing houses did not skimp on their deluxe editions. This was the time when Preacher did not even have a hardcover release in America, while Spain had them published in oversized editions with faux-leather covers, designed to look like family Bibles) had a couple of series in common. There was the ever-popular Tintin and Asterix, and Franquin’s Spirou and Pratt’s Corto Maltese. And there was, surprise surprise, Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar’s Dungeon series.
To my surprise, these were large, album-sized volumes. It was jarring to realize that Twilight was actually six volumes when I had read three, but flipping through them, I realized that the American editions were 2-in-1 editions. My friends told me about how the rotating crop of artists were fan favorites, names like Christoph Blain, Manu Larcenet, and Boulet, whose works I would go on to explore later. It transpired that this series that I had thought of as an adorable, little-known whimsy was actually quite the cultural cornerstone. In France and Spain, Donjon or Mazmora was a phenomenon among fans and creators alike.
In 2017, Trondheim visited San Diego Comic Con, along with his wife Bridget Findakly, as part of the release of Bridget’s graphic memoir Poppies of Iraq. That was a year when my SDCC plans had fallen through, but I got a pass for a single day just so I could go meet them (and a few other creators, like Marjorie Liu, Adam Warren, and Nate Powell). It was a pleasure meeting them, and Lewis did a beautiful sketch in my copy of Ralph Azam and another in Poppies, which Bridget colored beautifully.
But it was San Diego, so there was not much in terms of interaction other than a thank-you and the hurried drawing. There were other fans waiting behind me, and there were signing schedules to queue up for. I felt lucky to have met them — and Findakly’s book was an excellent read during my train ride back. The little sketch they drew almost looked like it was printed on the paper, and brought a smile to my face every time I saw it.
* * *
At SDCC 2018, I saw an ad for a comics festival due to be held in May 2019 at Huntington Beach. The guest list for the festival was awe-inspiring. Sergio Aragones, Dan Clowes, Los Bros Hernandez, usual SDCC stalwarts. Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips would be there, Sean’s first Stateside appearance in more than a decade. And a treasure trove of French creators, including Lewis Trondheim and Boulet, another Dungeon artist. I marked the dates on the calendar, eager for a chance to meet Trondheim again.
Last September, I visited Rose City Comic Con, as part of an attempt to visit more conventions outside California. It was held in the heart of Portland, and the experience made me eager to continue my non-California con trips. Talking about this convention experience will take a whole post of its own, but what was important about Rose City was that at one particular booth, Cosmic Monkey Comics, I found a near-complete set of Dungeon, and Trondheim’s autobiographical Little Nothings for a price that made me want to go around shrieking with joy. I had tried, without much success, to look for Dungeon in bargain bins, but NBM did not run discounts. Their books were on Amazon, but at full price.
So last weekend, when NCSFest was due to happen, I decided to go overboard with my signing plans, and took every single one of those books with me. The worst that could happen was that I would get one or two signed, and I didn’t even want to think of the best-case scenario. Which was that I would get all the books signed by Lewis Trondheim.
(That is a conscious thought I have at the moment, dear reader. To have every book on my shelf be signed. It just makes the pleasure of owning a thing also be tied in to the experience of meeting a creator, and it somehow adds a meta-story to the physical object. Anybody can buy a book, but it’s an honor to create a story around something you have bought. Is that hubris?)
The thing about NCSFest was that they were trying to emulate the European model of having the town be involved in the convention. Everything was free. Parking was free at City Hall, and shuttle buses carried you over to the pier, where all of Huntington Beach Main Street was cordoned off to traffic in favor of streetside booths. Events were held at the Huntington Beach library and the Arts Center. There were live drawing sessions organized right on the pier. The best part was everything looked so laid-back. The crowd was a mix of comic-book fans and casual tourists who were curious about what was going on. A lot of children and parents together. My favorite retailers Stuart Ng was set up, in association with Comics BD, who were hosting a bunch of signings.
Lewis Trondheim was due to arrive at the ComicsBD booth from 11:00 AM, and I was there, with my Dungeon: Zenith books. Boulet, the artist on Vol 3 (vols 5 and 6 in the European versions) was sitting next to him, and he grabbed my copy. Apparently he had never seen the English version before, and for a few nervous minutes, I thought he was making good on his claim that he wanted to keep the book. He didn’t. Instead, I got a breath-taking sketch inside.
Since this was a very informal event, the amount of people making their way to the creators could only be described as a trickle, especially that early in the morning. The majority of visitors who came up were French expats. I chatted a bit with Boulet as he was sketching, asking him what he thought of the show. “The lines in France are crazy”, he said. “I am kind of a big deal there with the blog.” He sketched a copy of his English release for me as well. Trondheim sketched on my two books, and then refilled his pen. He had some free time, and I put the Little Nothings books in front of him, saying that he did not have to sketch in them, just a signature would be enough. “I have all the time in the world”, he said. “I am here for you.”
Long story short: I bought a few more of his books from the ComicsBD store. He sketched in all of them. He drew sketches in every single one of my Dungeon books. “I am a huge fan”, I said, and with a glint in his eye, he deadpanned: “I see it”. Which made Boulet crack up.
Later, I went and found a bottle of wine at a store, and came back to the booth to hand it over to Trondheim, who was by himself. He graciously accepted, and we talked a bit about art collecting and what kind of books he read. Joann Sfar was his favorite collaborator, and he hadn’t read any American comics in ages. I told him that Dungeon Monstres vol 1 was the only volume I did not own, because it was out of print. “I can ask my publisher if they have it”, he offered. I said that I had already spoken to them in Toronto, and they apparently were sold out and did not have plans to bring it back into print. He shook his head. Apparently, there were a couple of new volumes of Dungeon he was working on, but he wasn’t sure if NBM would publish them in English.
Finally, just before I was due to leave, I asked him if he sold any art. “Yes, but it’s very expensive”, he said, laughing. “You may look on my website”. He was right, the two pages up were indeed in the five-figures, but he had a surprise for me. He took out a small portfolio filled with watercolor sketches of La Lapinot, his character that hasn’t yet been translated into English. They were all superb, and I picked one immediately, because the price was perfect too!
(A warning: This is a story about seeking and finding a book. Like most book-finding stories on this blog, this has a happy ending)
About a decade ago, I wrote this, after buying a copy of the first oversized Fantagraphics Popeye volume, called I Yam What I Yam.
Popeye, to most people, is this wisecracking cartoony sailor who woos the awkward Olive Oyl and occasionally pops a can of spinach to knock out baddie Brutus. It comes as a surprise, when one reads the original Elsie Segar stories from the 1930s, to find out that Popeye was originally conceived as a hot-headed, muscle-bound brawler. The original character used his fists to make his way out of an argument just as casually as he went about decimating the rules of grammar while talking, his romantic life secondary to his penchant for fisticuffs.
The Segar Popeye stories hold up surprisingly well. You wouldn’t binge them, true, but unlike the staidness of the venerable Prince Valiant and Gasoline Alley, Popeye is much more rambunctious. The characters are inappropriately zany, and prone to antics that have me laughing out loud. It’s strange how Segar’s humor holds up despite our standards for comedy having changed in the last 80 years. Especially as I get older, and I find that work that tickled my insides a decade ago no longer carry the same power. Sad but true.
The Fantagraphics reprints were solid gold. Printed on stiff paper with excellent production values, each volume had a die-cut opening on the front, and was accompanied by essays from the likes of Bill Blackbeard, Rick Marschall, and Donald Phelps. Every volume had its own title, a famous Popeye-ism (or is that Segar-ism?). But my favorite design touch of all was the fact that the six volumes had the letters “P”, “O”, “P”, “E”, “Y” and “E” imprinted at the bottom of the spine. Which meant you would always shelve them left to right, the correct way, and the six books would look great together.
It was annoying, therefore, that I neglected to buy Volume 5, Wha’s A Jeep, before it went out of print sometime around 2012.
I have a valid excuse — I was in the midst of a cross-continental life-reboot, and part of setting up one’s presence in a new country was the thought that I should stop with the endless materialistic pursuits that marked my twenties. I put a moratorium on book purchases as much as possible, and the newly bought iPad became my gateway to all reading material.
So when I got around to noticing that what should be spelt “POPEYE” on my shelf showed up as “POPE”, I decided to get the two missing volumes, cocksure in the assumption that prices would have probably come down, especially in the secondary market. Volume 6, called “My Li’l Sweepea” was easy enough to find, but Volume 5 was nowhere to be seen!
Mild correction: it was to be seen, but at prices that caused volcanoes to explode on Jupiter. The book had gone out of print, and like bees who do the Waggle Dance, the listings on all online bookshops featured exorbitant numbers. Don’t take my word for it, dear reader. Go search for “Popeye” or “Segar” on Abebooks, sort by highest price. The last I checked, some acolyte of Beelzebub (and in LA, no less!) was asking for $1190. The next person on the list has a modicum of shame, and is asking for a mere $501. Looks like the free market works for some people. (Editor’s note: these are asking prices, I can’t imagine anyone buying at that price point)
Oh, did I throb and fret with torment. The books on my shelf now read POPEE, and that of course got my gut churning with the kind of indignation that is accompanied by the sound of bells and matronly voices repeating the word “shame” really loud. From the foggy recesses of my checkered past, there arose a Quest Monster, a single-minded creature that creates Ebay search filters, sends missives to all corners of the globe; and nudges book-sellers and book-buyers alike to go poke around ancient shelves. I found myself once again haunting aisles of local bookstores, a near-extinct practice that reminded me, as I stood up after having squatted for 45 minutes, that I was once a fierce and tireless Book Fiend that had fallen out of practice. Friends asked whether translations of the book were acceptable (no) or damaged copies (nope) and if I had contacted Fantagraphics about publisher’s copies (yes, and they had laughed in my face. Gently enough for me to still care about the publishing house though).
Then one fine day in August, the Quest ended. A seller on Amazon put up his “new, undamaged” copy for sale at the grand price of $50. Turns out I had a 30$ gift card from an office event, and 14$ in Amazon points. I swear I could feel the spindles on the server whirl in a symphony of mutual happiness as I clicked on the Buy button. In the back of my head, I wondered if “new, undamaged” meant the covers were barely intact, and if the seller was hiding secrets that were dark and deep. The book arrived ahead of time, and as I gingerly snapped the cardboard envelope open, I held my breath.
It was perfect. It was better than my copy of Volume 4, to be honest. It looked like it was meant to be on my bookshelf.
So what is the moral of the story, dear reader? There are several, actually. The first, of course, is that the story never ends until the series is complete. Banal, I know, but them’s the facts. But wait, wait, yes, we’re talking morals, not facts. So how about this –– consumerism is a vile and insidious parasite, slowly gnawing away at your reason for existence. You don’t really need any of this shit, you know, but somehow you are compelled to add just one more series to your shelf, and make your life feel whole.
The last and most important moral is that if you are into classic comics, it is both a fine and terrible time to be alive. There are more high quality comics in print than at any other point in human history. But, yes, you knew there was a but coming, but FOMO is real in the comics business. Books keep going out of print in a manner similar to series being released on Netflix –– which is, all the fucking time. Do you want to read Chic Young’s classic Blondie strips that IDW reprinted a few years ago? Vol 1 of 2 is out of print. Buz Sawyer by Roy Crane? Vol 2 is out of print. George Herriman’s Krazy Kat? Nearly all of it out of print. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts? The bulk of the 24-volume set is no longer available. Perilous times, friends.
The word ‘Gaiman’ here is an abbreviation of “Gaikoku no manga’, literally, ‘foreign comics’. This refers to comics translated from foreign work and published in Japan. For those of you who fret over what is comics and what is manga and bug-eyed-styles and all that, here you go: ‘Civil War’ translated into Japanese and published in Japan becomes manga, and can even get nominated for a manga award. You can keep your Western biases to yourself, thank you.
The list of comics nominated since the award was instituted in 2011 shows a curious mash-up of titles, including the aforementioned Marvel title; Superman: Red Son rubs shoulders with the likes of Nicholas de Crecy’s Celestial Bibendum (French), Schuiten and Peeters’ Les Cités Obscures (Belgium),Lat’s Town Boy and Kampung Boy (Malaysia),Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura’s I Kill Giants. All of which make for great, solid reading — though the jury’s still out on The New 52: Shazam, which managed to make an appearance on the 2015 nomination list. (The previous sentence is vague hyperbole, the prize went to Sweden’s Sayonara September, by Åsa Ekström)
One thing to note: the titles nominated are based on translation date, and not on publication date. This causes similar confusion as the ‘Best US Edition of International Material (Asia)’ Eisner award, where classic material ends up being nominated alongside newer ones, just because they were translated the last year. In 2016, a work by Shigeru Mizuki from the 80s (Showa: A History of Japan) beat the contemporary Master Keaton and Assassination Classroom in the Eisners.Doesn’t that make it overly confusing to judge something that is fresh along with another that has been coated with the patina of time and generational acceptance?
Batman vs Superman is out this week, and here are a couple of disorganized thoughts on the State of the Superhero.
I dislike Batman. It’s funny that I should say that about a fictional character, especially one that has brought me such joy while growing up. You guys are well aware of how much I have been into the character, and there is this element of hypocrisy that looms large over a statement like this one. But I have problems with the character, and more specifically, what has become of the the storytelling engine behind Batman.
This lineage of Batman “troubled man who dresses up to exorcise his demons” obviously begins with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Year One in the mid-1980s. But these books were one of a kind — DKR was an interpretation, not a definition of who Batman was — and it took a long time before Miller’s rage-and-angst-fueled ingredients seeped into the character’s engines. You had the pure joy of Mike Barr and Alan Davis’s short run, which ran in tandem with Year One, funnily enough; Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s vulnerable yet foreboding Batman; Doug Moench and Kelly Jones’ surreal Goth-meets-art deco incarnation; even the group-think endeavors like Knightfall and Prodigal and No Man’s Land, the messy products of their time that they were: all of these retained some amount of humanity that made you like the character likable, even relate to him, maybe, because Batman always did the right thing. But yes, elements of Miller’s work were creeping in slowly — Jason Todd, Robin #2 died at the Joker’s hands, something that Dark Knight Returns had alluded to. Making that book prescient almost made it seem like that dark future was in store for Batman, but we weren’t there yet.
It was Grant Morrison who is to blame, when you think about it. Morrison, fresh from a career of revamping DC’s fringe characters such as Animal Man and Doom Patrol, found himself in charge of the Justice League of America in the late 90s. The JLA had their share of troubled history in that decade – editorial diktats mandated the use of second-tier characters in the team because the Big Guys were involved in soap operas of their own 1. Morrison insisted on using the main characters, and among the changes he made to the JLA status quo, the major one was this:
Batman, despite having no superpowers, was the most dangerous man alive.
Batman has it all covered.
He can take down anybody. He is the embodiment of human perfection. He has a contingency plan for everything — seriously, everything. If the universe was about to be destroyed, Batman could pull a universe-undestroying glove from his utility belt and punch the universe into being whole again.
This particular concept found much favor among fans, myself included. Unfortunately, when combined with the climactic scene of Miller’s seminal work, people — writers, fans, the ecosystem at large — began to extrapolate the facts in a very strange way. What was a one-off sequence involving careful planning and execution suddenly became a trope in itself. Batman can beat Superman anytime, they said. There was a proliferation of stories where indeed, Batman was not only rescuing the JLA from problems that stymied all of them, he was also beating Superman almost on a yearly basis. Miller’s 2001 sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, begins with a showdown where Batman, now even older, drops a pile of rocks on an angry Kal-El, punches him with a pair of special gloves and says “Get out of my cave”. In Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Hush, in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s newest incarnation of the Batman, in tales of alternate realities and stray one-shots, the message remains the same: Batman can take Superman. Any time.
And all of that brings us to Batfleck taking on hairline-receding Superman on the screen.
End History Lesson
At the heart of it all, along with his seeming ability to go toe-to-toe against super-humans, Batman is still Bruce Wayne, a middle-aged rich guy who uses his money to dress up and go out and punch criminals. He says “My City” without a trace of irony. He is always right. He is rude and insensitive to people around him, and over the years, this assholish behavior has been amped up to stupendous levels. He will be part of a team, but everything and everybody has to play by his rules. He has an extended family, recruiting a bunch of boys and girls, men and women as part of his war on crime, but he also insists on being a loner, incapable of having a normal human relationship with anyone around him. His intensity has been stretched to such an incredulous length that Batman the character has become a self-parody. Batman is a scary reminder of what happens when Big Money meets Mental Illness meets Misguided Intentions meets Non-scalable Implementation.Somehow, “Batman does not kill” has become an excuse to make the character as unlikable and smarmy as possible. 2
But wait, you say, isn’t punching criminals the focal point of every superhero story?
Yes, you are right. At the end of the day, superhero stories are still about grown men — and women — punching each other into submission. But hey, it has been 75 years since we have had a man putting on a suit and heading out late at night to deal with the trauma of his parents being killed in front of his eyes. You could say that problem with Batman is emblematic of my problems with superhero stories in general. To be more precise, the mainstream superhero scene, these characters that have plodded through decades of reinvention, retelling and occasional resurgence. With a character like Batman, there can only be an attempt to retell the story with a fresh angle, to rearrange the familiar pieces and give them weight depending on which pieces we are focused on. Every now and then, someone figures it’s a great idea to add another piece 3 but all it does is add chaos to an already teetering structure. Add to it the fact that DC/Marvel comics, since the 80s, have been stuck in this confusing identity crisis (pun intended) where they are unsure about whether they are a children’s medium or aimed at adults. You point out flaws in the machine, and they want you to take a deep breath and lighten up, because superheroes are for kids. At the same time, the themes they handle try to be mature, the Comics Code Authority was thrown out the door a long time ago, and any attempt at wholesomeness stopped when anal rape became a plot point 10 years ago. 4
There are of course attempts to upend the structure every now and then: by what is referred to as a reboot. Scott Snyder, who I mentioned above, is the writer working on the new Batman. It is the first time in years that the origin story has attempted to break free of the long shadow cast by Year One. Snyder calls his version Year Zero, and rather than the shadows and grime that Miller brought into his version, Year Zero has psychedelic colors and an out-there, sci-fi vibe to it that I dug quite a bit. But the 75-year old legacy cannot help but creep into the pieces that a creator adds to this new structure, and it takes very little time for the building to collapse yet again. By the time the Joker is added to the mix, in a story called ‘Death of the Family’, we have — deep breath — the Joker in Arkham Asylum with a villain called the Dollmaker “who surgically removes Joker’s face at his request and then pins it to Joker’s cell wall as a sign of his rebirth”. By the time the Joker shows up again, in “Endgame”, he has become a scientist who has come up with a new chemical isotope (called, er, ‘Ha’), and the story also “implies that he is immortal, having existed for centuries, and has developed a means to regenerate from mortal injuries…(the story also) restores the Joker’s face, and also reveals that he knows Batman’s secret identity”. Umm, okay.
Add to it the fact that Batman’s story never does have an ending. 5 He has gone from being a lone vigilante killing people as he sees fit, to a good guy working with the law, to someone who is an urban legend. Look at the origin story: Where once it was Joe Chill and Lew Moxon, one retelling made Ra’s Al Ghul serve as a catalyst; in another, it was a person named Jack Napier; yet another has the Court of Owls. What I am getting at is that: the entire enterprise of keeping a superhero’s motivations and methods relevant in our world seems to be an effort that sucks in writers and makes them spew out fan-fiction that grates against my expectations and knowledge as a rational reader. More so in terms of Batman, because writers tend to latch onto their inner anger, that part of them that wishes that they could respond to the world around them by dressing up at night and getting out to break a couple of jaws and kneecaps. 6And the worst part of it all? Nothing changes. Bruce Wayne will always go out at night and beat criminals up. Maybe he will disappear for a while, maybe there will be a new costume, maybe an unknown adversary of the past will suddenly come back in his life and upend Everything That You have Ever Known. The common storytelling engine to all superhero tales seems to be a treadmill: a tiresome, frustrating journey that goes nowhere and yet tires you out.
It therefore becomes easy for me to say that Batman — or superheroes, in general — are not for me any more. Which is a valid point, but goes against my innate approach to popular culture, which is that New is always good, and that creators in any field are getting better at what they do because they learn from the past, and can pick and choose elements that work wonderfully, and discard the things that do not make sense. But it is a problem when the past weighs so heavily on your appreciation of any future work; when in order to explain who a character is, you have to go read Wikipedia. It’s a shame when to explain or make sense of what is going on, you have to suspend your reading to understand that what you are reading may or may not be a part of the story; and that there was a story and it’s not valid any more, and what you are reading can be replaced by a completely different story.
If you are not convinced, and are framing your apologist fanboy arguments about why Batman is awesome, here’s a question for you: how many Robins have there been? What happened to them? Let me get my popcorn while you scramble for the answer.
Superman died, and came back again. Batman had his spine broken, and then it was healed. Wonder Woman was replaced, and then she came back. Green Lantern went crazy, and another Green Lantern took his place. ↩
Donald Drumpf however sounds more like a Marvel alias, right? ↩
The character of Hush is an attempt, as is the Court of Owls. ↩
Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns as the last Batman story, and that went on to get its sequel 15 years later, and there is a third part out now. Neil Gaiman wrote a story called ‘Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader’, which was Gaiman interpreting every supporting character in Batman as erudite people that knew exactly the right thing to say, just like bad fan-fiction. ↩
Not to kill anyone, of course, because Batman does not kill. But it’s perfectly fine to break a wrist and maybe an elbow too, if a guy just pointed a gun at you, or flashed a knife, or maybe a crowbar. Hmm, maybe if he even looked wrong at you, or cut you in line, or honked at your car when you were merging into his lane. ↩