Bat To The Future

March 21, 2016


Author’s Note: With BuffaloComedy.com having gone the way of the dodo (where this piece originally appeared in January of 2015) and Batman Vs. Superman just 5 agonizing days away from its theatrical release (which I’m not laying any bets on until I see it), I  thought now might be a good time to revisit my reflections on the 75th Anniversary Year of the Dark Knight Detective.  This is an essay from the upcoming book Travesty.   

By the time you read this, the year-long celebration of the 75th anniversary of the first appearance of Batman in Detective Comics (in 1939, for those of you who don’t have a calculator nearby) will have come and gone. He’s a character who has endured the test of time, and you may know Detective Comics by their abbreviation: DC. I caught hell some years ago for defending the cultural importance of the impending theatrical release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). It was a week-long troll battle in a lesser publication and I hate to be the guy who said I told you so, but I was right, Buffalo. That film changed the superhero film forever and demolished most (if not all) box office records. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. What follows is a personal recollection/celebration of the mythos. Dates and citations have been left out, messed up or guessed at because the author is lazy.

I’ve been a Batman fan almost all of my life. As a child, I got into the comics around the same time that I caught the syndicated reruns for the high-camp television version with Adam West, three separate Catwomen and the famed ‘Bat-usi’. This led of course to Batman:The Movie, which we have to thank for the ‘Bat Shark Repellant Spray’ incident. The utility belt can only hold so much. The Caped Crusader has gone through a lot of incarnations over the decades he’s traveled through, which may be one of the secrets behind his staying power. While it was corny and cheesy (‘camp’ is an ironic form of comedy that borders on being an endangered species), the tv series hit home for at least a few seasons.

The ’80s was a great time to get into comics since the medium was growing up in terms of maturity and readership. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns made such a gritty impact on the pulp multiverse that college courses are still taught dissecting its importance. The story zeroes in on Batman coming out of retirement in order to stomp out the threat of a mutant gang, subvert government opposition to superheroes and to square off with Superman. Miller followed this up with Batman: Year One, a mini-series that focused on the roots of billionaire Bruce Wayne’s lifelong war on crime.

Toward the end of the decade, comic icon Alan Moore applied his craft to The Killing Joke, a one-shot story where the reader is taken through a retelling of The Joker’s origin, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter is crippled by same, the Commissioner’s sanity is tried by The Joker and Batman’s is questioned at the close of the arc with a punchline and a recurring pattern of raindrops. The Joker postulates throughout the book that the difference between sanity and insanity is just one bad day. Batman tries to prove him wrong.

In the early ’90s, mainstay Grant Morrison took a turn with Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth. I re-read this book almost every year and always come away with something new in this layered psychological examination of the aberrant psyche. Batman infiltrates the asylum (which the inmates have taken control of spear-headed by the Joker) and tries to keep his head while everyone else’s is long gone. This is interspersed with the story of how Arkham Asylum came to be, which is quite haunting to say the least.

Meanwhile, in the single issues, there was the groundbreaking A Death In The Family, a story arc that was revolutionary because DC set up 1-800 lines so that readers could vote on the fate of Robin at the hands of (you guessed it) The Joker. For you younger readers, people used to have phones in their house attached to the walls that we called ‘Land Lines’. A 1-800 number was a ‘toll free’ number that residents could ‘dial’ on said Land Lines. Spoiler alert (not sure if it’s a spoiler alert twenty five years later): the readers killed off Robin. Luckily, nobody ever stays dead in comics for some reason, and that particular Boy Wonder (there have been around four) came back in Under The Red Hood.

Throw Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) into the mix and you have a multimedia free-for-all at the end of the decade. Without Burton’s version, Nolan never would have gotten his painstakingly realistic incarnation off the ground. Everyone questioned the casting of Michael Keaton in the starring role and nobody came away disappointed. Nobody questioned the casting of Jack Nicholson as The Joker, who reportedly smoked entire bales of marijuana during production. I still question the decision to let Prince (who became The Artist Formerly Known As Prince shortly thereafter and then changed it back to Prince, but wouldn’t he henceforth be known as The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince?) produce the entire soundtrack. The movie still holds up. It’s dark, campy and over-the-top in turns. What followed next on the silver screen was a slow succession of awful sequels. While Batman Returns was entertaining, it created the now-standard plot device of casting too many goddamned bad guys in one movie.

*If I may take a moment, when you create a movie that’s between an hour and a half and two hours and forty five minutes long that’s based on a popular superhero, there is no adequate amount of time to explain the origin of two or three separate villains, their motivations, fears, hopes, dreams, etc. What usually happens is that a secondary or third bad guy is thrown into the mix with little or no explanation as to where the hell he came from, how he came to be or why he’s even there.*

Burton got nixed after Batman Returns because the follow-up made less money, so the increasingly flamboyant Joel Schumacher stepped in with a 2 picture Day-Glow version of The Bat that almost killed the franchise. I have two words for you: nipple costumes. Batman Forever was okay (Kilmer insisted that the rest of the people on the set called him Bruce Wayne on-screen and off), but the fight scenes are confusing and poorly shot.

Batman & Robin had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It was horrendous, from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s painfully punny one-liners as Mr. Freeze (‘Ice to see you.’) to the inexplicable and unexplainable inclusion of Bane (again, too many bad guys for one film) to Batman and Robin air-boarding out of a plane at a commercial altitude to relative safety. Unfortunately, I was working at a movie theater at the time and between the initial viewing, an employee screening and the insistence by the girl I was dating at the time that we go to see it (she adored George Clooney during an era when he couldn’t act), I had to sit through that movie three times in rapid succession. While I own the DVD, I have only watched it once and even then it was during a Batman Movie Marathon party I threw after the DVD release of The Dark Knight. Costumes were involved, as well as a lot of alcohol. Fun and frivolity was had by most.

Some time in the mid-90’s (the dog ate my citation), during the big fad in the industry of killing off or beating the shit out of our most beloved characters for the sake of driving up the perceived value of individual issues for material gain (see also: The Death Of Superman, which everyone’s mother, brother and second cousin owns four copies of ‘mint in box’), Batman: Knightfall came out, a story arc where Bane (who by the way was created by Buffalo’s own Graham Nolan) breaks Batman’s back and Wayne is forced to recruit a substitute teacher of sorts. The aforementioned two titles (along with many, many me-too costumed killings, maimings, disfigurings and mild papercuts on both sides of the DC/Marvel fence) destroyed the market for years to come. Comics as an investment lost their wow factor around the same time that baseball and football cards went into the toilet. Whether they’ve ever recovered is up for debate.

Taking two steps back (shortly after the release of Batman Returns), Batman: The Animated Series came out on Fox television. Visually it was absolutely stunning, and the plots walked a brilliant line between a throwback to the serial-style shorts in early cinema and a tip of the hat to the modern day. We have The Animated Series to thank for the creation/inclusion of Harley Quinn, Scarface and Detective Harvey Bullock into the lexicon. The Animated Series has given birth to even more series, from Batman Beyond to Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (while not technically all about Batman, he really is the belle of the ball in the ensemble) to The Batman (with a dread-locked Rastafarian Joker?) to Batman: The Brave & The Bold to the short-lived CGI-produced Beware The Batman (which didn’t sell enough toys to renew for another season according to Cartoon Network). I’m going to make a bold prediction here and say that there’s a remote possibility that someone somewhere will release another new cartoon show about Batman at some point.

I took a long break from reading comics around 1991 because someone made fun of me in high school for bringing a comic book to class. I started reading Stephen King after that, which is a far worse thing to do to yourself than reading comics, kids. I didn’t get back into comics until 2000 when I tried to trade my entire collection in (some eight or nine long boxes of single issues) only to get sweet-talked into trading some of them in for new graphic novels. It was around this time that I discovered Kingdom Come, Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s apocalyptic masterpiece about the end times through the lens of the DC Multiverse. Bruce Wayne (post-Dark Knight Returns era) is portrayed as an incredibly cynical revolutionary in a crumbling dystopian Gotham. A dynamic duo in their own right, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale delivered a one-two punch with Batman: The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, two succinctly grown-up storylines that take place sometime shortly after Year One in terms of comic chronology. After that, I suffered through Hush, Jeph Loeb and celebrated industry hack Jim Lee’s sensationalistic series with a trendy new villain and a trendy surprise cliffhanger identity.

In 2005, a little-known director known as Christopher Nolan began his Dark Knight trilogy, a realistic application of the Batman mythology in a modern-day, post-9/11 world where super-villains more closely resemble terrorists and gadgets designed for military application can be spray-painted black and added to the Dark Knight Detective’s utility belt. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, you should check it out. It’s pretty neat-o. Much (MUCH) has been said, written, tweeted, YouTubed, Instagrammed, Meme-ed, heard on street-corners and eulogized on the back of cereal boxes about these three movies by your humble author, critics-at-large, armchair critics and anyone with a pulse, so there is no need to delve into these three movies here. They are a pivotal part of our culture, they have changed the face of the superhero film and they have ensured the on-screen legacy of Batman for at least two or three more trilogies over the next two or three decades. ‘Nuff Said.

Around 2008/2009 (disclaimer: dates may not be accurate, factual or even tangentially related to anything in this essay), DC had a massive ‘crossover’ event helmed by writer Grant Morrison called Final Crisis. The long and the short is that Batman got killed by Darkseid, one of Superman’s big enemies. Well, not really. Weren’t you paying attention when I said that nobody every STAYS dead in comics? What really happened is that Batman got shot with a bullet that sent him back in time to the dawn of man, so he had to fight his way back to the present day by quantum-leaping through individual eras in Wayne history warping in and out through some kind of fugue state. Makes sense, right? Who HASN’T that happened to, am I right? It was a pretty intriguing storyline, and if you don’t suspend your disbelief when you open a comic book, well, you end up being the stereotypical rosacea-speckled fat kid with the asthma inhaler at conventions who argues over the minutiae and credibility of very inconsequential details during panels. Don’t be that fat kid.

2014 was (without a doubt) the Year Of The Bat. DC released two animated feature length films (Son Of Batman and Assault On Arkham, which both looked like rushed Japanime to me), the entire run of the ‘Batman ’66’ live action series with Adam West, Lego Batman 3 the video game and ‘Gotham’, a new live action prequel series that’s a delightful blend of perhaps HBO’s ‘The Wire’ and ‘Muppet Babies’ (for those of you who remember and get that reference). It was a great albeit expensive year for Batman fanatics everywhere, present party included.

By my calculations, by the time we reach the 100th anniversary of Batman I will be either dead or 64 years old. What is it about Batman that strikes such a chord in our collective unconscious that he’s maintained his chokehold on the marketplace for so long? It could be that he’s one of the only superheroes who has no alien superpowers, radioactive gifts or occult-based derring-do. He’s mortal, bruises and all; he’s a demonstration of weaponized will. He’s also got the best collection of villains in the business, better known as his ‘Rogue’s Gallery’. Maybe it’s his tragic origin story, orphaned at a young age as a child of privilege and forced to come to grips with a pessimistic worldview of a criminal society that closely resembles our own. Or it could just be the Bat Shark Repellant Spray.

Reading tentacle Bat-Manga porn by flashlight,
Tom Waters

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