Comics, Movies

Thoughts on Batman

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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.

History Lesson

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Notes:

  1. 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.
  2. Donald Drumpf however sounds more like a Marvel alias, right?
  3. The character of Hush is an attempt, as is the Court of Owls.
  4. For those who do not know, Identity Crisis.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
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Comics, Movies

A Reaction of sorts

Ok, this is it. Nine years – counting the time we knew of Christopher Nolan about to direct a movie called Batman: Intimidation Game, taking over from Darren Aronofsky’s I-just-snorted-four-lines-of-coke re-imagining of Bruce Wayne as an orphan working for a car mechanic named Big Al. No clue of what to expect from a director whose only credentials were a movie that played backwards and a remake of a Norwegian thriller.

Intimidation Game sounded like it meant business. Begins sounded like a Nintendo product – kid-friendly, whimsical and not at all Batman-y, if you get what I mean. Until you saw it. When did you see it? Do you remember at all? Before I saw it for real, at the IMAX theater in Hyderabad, I was there that first Friday, at Rex at Bangalore. I am fairly sure other people I came to know later that year saw it there too, and the comic-karma part of me – the one that gets goosebumps at the cheesiest references and storytelling loop-backs – sort of wonders if all of us roared at the screen in unison when Bruce Wayne stood up in the cave under his mansion, even as the agents of childhood dread swooped around him. That moment when the two-note leitmotif throbbed and soared through the speakers in the theater and you could not stop grinning like an idiot because good God, you never thought things would look this good, Christopher Nolan, you magnificent man.

Digression: If there has ever been a case of my wanting to go back in time and apologize to a creator, it would be to Hans Zimmer, whose theme for Batman Begins I dismissed as being ‘not memorable enough’. I thought his two note theme was  pedestrian, that they could not stand up to the grandeur of Elfman’s Spider-Man, at that time my personal benchmark for memorable superhero scores. I was wrong. I was so, so wrong. Those two notes, coupled with the variations on the swirling sonic tapestries in the lower register – the rumbly whoosh of bat wings, and the slowly-building orchestral sweeps – showed me how less is more. Add the dissonant Joker variant of the same two notes in The Dark Knight, and the primal chants echoing throughout the third movie, and you have probably one of the finest examples of minimalism and compositional idiosyncrasy on display. And I won’t even get into the playfulness of the piano-based Catwoman theme. Deep breath. This soundtrack is destined to be on repeat in my playlist for quite some time.

And you should also go check out the official app. Yes, Zimmer has actually come up with an iPhone app for the soundtrack, where the music, on auto mode, shifts based on what you are doing. In-app purchases let you buy the complete music suite (far more than the 52-minute soundtrack release) for $4, and enhanced auto-modes (there is one that plays at night, and another at sunset). Your fingers brushing against the mic can create interesting Gotham-city effects in the music. It’s been a few hours since I downloaded the app, and I feel giddy with happiness.

End digression.

So, uh, you watched The Dark Knight Rises, right? And you hated it, or were underwhelmed, or loved the shit out of it. Does not matter, really. What matters is this:

For the first time in the history of this 73-year old character, we have a complete story, with beginning, middle and end. The life and times of Bruce Wayne as the singular vision of a creator (and his sidekicks, if you count Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer along with Nolan senior) No studio interference, no pandering to fans, no insulting the audience. With all respect to the likes of Frank Miller, Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams, Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale, Bill Finger/Jerry Robinson/Dick Sprang et al, you tried, gentlemen, and you got really close, but this man did it. He gave us a beginning, a middle and an end. He stole, borrowed from and was inspired by you, he built on your work in a different medium, took audacious decisions on his own, paid absolutely no attention to studio demands (the Riddler? Seriously?), did not throw us knowing winks and in-jokes (or as I call it, scraps and bones for the masses). These weren’t the comic-book movies that Marvel Studios churn out every summer, those disposable, interchangeable three-act popcorn fests.

These were Something Else. Something that gave us a city where street names do not end with surnames of artists and writers. The Mark of Zorro was replaced with Mefistofele, and instead of skin bleached by Axis Chemicals, we had knife-blades and make-up. We saw that third-degree gasoline burns are just as potent as acid thrown at one’s face. Analgesic mists instead of steroids pumped into one’s bloodstream, a complete lack of resurrection-inducing medicinal pits or wise-cracking youngsters. A butler with a military background rather than one in theater. Random characters that had more lines of dialogue than Bruce Wayne’s mother ever did, the poor woman. Concentrated writer-directorfu thrown at your faces, howdja like that, huh?

But of course, with great directorial vision comes great personal baggage as well – gobs and piles of unadulterated plot, movies that felt crammed with Things Happening everywhere, a trilogy that could probably have been unpacked  into a septalogy, or at least a quadrology. I would be lying if I said that all three movies do not exasperate me at times, with their convenient cause-and-effect scenarios and their over-reliance on technological paraphernalia. It would have been nice to not see the Batman buffeted about by agents beyond his control – because we all know that Bruce Wayne is a control freak who plans every contingency, who has all the escape routes mapped out. (and we are wrong. Wrong fucking universe. Repeat after me – this isn’t a comic book.) I am hardly a Nolan apologist, the man does not get everything right. But even with some atrocious trees in there, the woods are lovely, dark and deep.

The Dark Knight Rises is also the first work that manages to come out of the shadow of Frank Miller’s imposing epic. Rises makes use of its ending to tell us that Bruce Wayne’s story is done, that there is no comprehensible need for a man who has given his all to his city to return as a broken old man. (it’s somewhat fitting too that the acronym TDKR leaves people confused about what’s being talked about – the 1986 or the 2012 version) And let me tell you, this is monumental, you guys, this getting-out-of-Miller’s shadow thing.

(Oh shit, I think I am now getting into emo-mode when talking about the film. Let’s talk about old-timey boyhood stuff instead)

Knightfall, cheesy as it feels now, was the Batman storyline when I was in high school. The first time I found back issues in Guwahati stores was in 1996 or so, and I did not finish completing the run (yes, Knightquest and Knightsend included. Yes, single issues painstakingly bought from the AH Wheelers and Western Book Depots and various Book Fair sales over the years. This was before BitTorrent and Flipkart made your lives easy, young ones) until 2003 or so. One painful moment in 2002 was seeing Legends of the Dark Knight #63, the final issue of the Knightsend saga in nemesis Chun’s collection. I found it a year later at a book-store in Delhi, if memory serves correctly, but the sting of seeing that one elusive comic-book in a collection that is not mine still lingers. Knightfall is also emblematic of 90s DC, where the company was shaking up every major character right after Superman’s death. Batman was broken, Wonder Woman was replaced by Artemis, Green Lantern went nuts. It was fun just looking at the house ads at that time. And things did not end with Knightsend, no sir. There was Prodigal after that, where Dick Grayson became Batman. Troika, that was Bruce Wayne’s return, complete with Black collectors’ cover. And followed by an endless slew of editorial-mandated crossovers – Contagion, Legacy, Cataclysm, No Man’ Land.

Times and editorial divisions changed, all these nineties “events” were swept under the rug like embarrassing relics of a chromium-cover-infused past. Batman fans got onboard with Hush, along with recommended Bat-canon books, the perennial Millers, Loeb/Sale’s Long Halloween and Dark Victory. Funnily enough, Batman RIP and the newer Morrison stuff did the exact same thing, getting rid of Bruce Wayne and having Dick Grayson replace him in the regular comic-books, and obviously nobody bloody remembered that it had all been done before. Bane became a one-note character used for much sidekickeSuch is the nature of the comics business.

Bully for Nolan, for a masterful use of a little-remembered, much-misused character in a lucha mask and the concept of a dystopian Gotham City cut off from the rest of the world. Most of the No Man’s Land comic read like sci-fi to me, somewhat divorced from the tone of what we expect from a Batman story. The way the winter of the Gothamite’s discontent was portrayed in the film is completely in line with what has gone before, Cillian Murphy’s I-am-not-quite-all-here appearance being the icing on the cake.
“Life-affirming”, the person I talked about this movie for the first time after watching it, said. “It’s like Bruce finally understands that not having a fear of death is great. but having the will to live is far far more powerful. It’s such a great, counter-intuitive message to put in a Batman movie, man.” I know how it feels. The Dark Knight Rises made me want to go to work (my 3:40 AM show finished at around 6:22 AM) and finish all my goals for the next quarter in a single day. It made me want to go rewatch the first two movies – yes, I had not indulged myself, partly because I did not need to, I remembered every detail of the last two movies. I did watch them again over the weekend, and now I need to figure out how many times and when I should pop in next-door (one of two true IMAX theaters in LA, FYI) to take in the moments of the film again.

Last point: I loved the way Anne Hathaway is introduced. Was the simpering maid act in the beginning a back-handed reference to Michelle Pfeiffer’s clueless Selina Kyle in Batman Returns, before the cats resurrect her? The way she changes her expression as she realizes that she’s been found out – oh hell yeah. Oh, and the “cat-ears” are sunglasses. Well-played, production team!

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Comic Art, Comics

Comic Art Update

For most of the later part of 2011, I had stayed away from Comicartfans, that great big time-sink of a site. Last year was fairly decent for my art habit. I streamlined my addiction quite a bit, paring down the collection to minimize the chaff. Yes, that means I sold and traded a bunch of pages that would have never really gone up on the wall, but which I bought just because it seemed like a good idea at that time. This has had the fortunate effect of making me feel contented about the pages that I own right now, being on a plateau of sorts, where I can just relax and not worry about art-related expenses. Pages come and go, and nothing really grabs my attention unless it’s really cheap or truly one-of-a-kind. The former makes me wonder if I really need one more portfolio-warmer, the latter inevitably makes my bank account whimper.

This may sound zen, but the art-habit seems to have settled down from a burning “I-want-this-page-now” feeling to a gentle simmer of a “Do-you-really-belong-in-my-collection?” question.

High points:

A Kelley Jones Sandman page and a Dave McKean Sandman commission. ‘Season of Mists’ is one of my favorite Sandman arcs, as I have mentioned before, and I already have a Dringenberg page from it that fills my heart with joy every time I look at it. A bulk of the art from the run though was by Kelley Jones, who does not sell most of his originals. Whatever’s available in the market comes from Jones’ inkers, Malcolm Jones III and John Beatty. This page came up for sale on Scott Eder’s gallery at a mind-numbing high price during Wondercon last year. It did not sell. He put it up on eBay a few weeks later, and I emailed to ask if he would accept time payments. Long story short, I bid on it, won it for a little less than my final bid, and much less than the original asking price.

The Dave McKean commission was bought at San Diego, thanks to my friend Joe’s contacts with McKean’s agent Allen Spiegel. McKean himself did not make it to the con, thereby putting my plans of asking for a personalized commission on hold, but he had sent a few pre-done pieces to Allen’s booth, and I got a chance to select and pick one of them up. This conveys just the right amount of grandeur and melancholy associated with the Lord of Dreams. Also, it did not involve me paying $25000, which is the price that one of McKean’s covers usually go for.

 

Kelley Jones - Sandman 22, page 6 and Dave McKean - Sandman

Two Batman pages by Kelley Jones again. One of them was the promotional poster image from a Batman and Dracula crossover, which is one of the most recognizable images of Batman from the nineties, if you were buying comics back then. Jones, in my opinion, is one of the top 5 artists that have worked on Batman, his neo-Gothic, somewhat-surreal style meshing perfectly with the tone of the character. The other one is a cover pencilled and inked by him, and knowing what I just mentioned about him not selling his art, I have no idea how this came into the open market. I saw both of them on a dealer’s page a few days before San Diego Comicon, and jumped on it without hesitation. They were priced well below-market, and also, I fucking love Kelley Jones’ art, man.

 

Click on each image to enlarge

Three Preacher pages. I owned a Preacher page before which was a self-proclaimed placeholder – quite cheap, but not really something I would put on the wall. It got traded away this year. One of these came from eBay, from the collection of Albert Moy, dealer extraordinaire. It encapsulates the story of Preacher so far in a single-panel spread that caught my eye. The one with the bar scene from a collector who was, in his own words, cutting himself to the bone to get money for a Bolland Killing Joke page. And the third from a close friend. The three of them represents three different art styles through the series, as Dillon drastically stripped down his line-work as the issues chugged by, sort of evolving as an artist and also increasing his output to meet his deadlines.

The third also has an interesting history – it came up on eBay one fine day a few years ago at a ridiculously low Buy-It-Now price, so ridiculous that most of the usual Preacher-maniacs were wary of pulling the trigger. That ensured that my friend saw it and bid on it, and was deluged with higher offers over the years from the ones that missed it. I had asked him to let me know if he was selling it any time, and he made up his mind recently. Needless to say, I pounced on it.

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Three Preacher Pages (Click to Enlarge)

And finally, something that came in a few days ago. An Adam Hughes painting of Jean Grey as the Black Queen from the Hellfire Club. Now I could give you a manic foaming-at-the-mouth rave about how Adam Hughes’ work combines early 20th century pinup-girl aesthetics with a distinctive art-deco-influenced style and how it is so gosh-darned beautiful and so on and so forth. But I’ll just let you go take a look at his site to decide for yourself. If you collect comic art, getting an Adam Hughes page is a trial in itself. But getting your hands on a good Adam Hughes pinup without breaking the bank? Forget it. He used to do special sketches for fans at conventions – with rates at 200-400$, the pinups would fetch 10 times the amount on eBay when collectors went around to selling them. Due to some “fans” selling their pages a day after a convention was over, Hughes stopped those sketches, causing prices to jump even more.

So I do not exaggerate when I say that this piece fills a very important hole in my collection, and does so in style. It’s 26 inches by 19 inches, and drawn using a combination of crayons, colored dyes and markers. Adam did it as a commission for a collector, and made it extra-large because he made the guy a long time. The collector went on to sell it to someone I know because he was getting married and he needed to raise money quickly, and I bought it from the latter recently. Not cheap, but not that expensive either. And it makes me really, really happy.

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Adam Hughes - Black Queen

So yes, happy happy.

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