• Longform 

    Multiversity 101: The Bat Man

    By | March 21st, 2010
    Posted in Longform | % Comments

    Apparently it’s Batweek at Multiversity Comics for the first time in our history! Last week we published a lot of Bat-related material, which is usually against what I want for the site (save it for the God damn Batblog!). However, just as earlier this week Gil tackled the misunderstanding of Batman, I too am going to talk to you today about everyone’s favorite superhero. While some might view it as another look at the same side of a coin, I would say that my main focus in today’s article is simply to discuss where Batman started, where Batman is today, and finally, why Batman is not the greatest character in comics like some might view he is.

    Also, be on the lookout for one more Bat-article, this time from Walt who will discuss the essential Batman stories!

    So. Let’s begin, shall we?

    When we think of Batman today, what do we think of? We think of the dark and brooding character who took America by storm in the past few decades. The amazing thing about Batman is that, despite so many fantastical stories being told every week, people all over the world glorify this character to ridiculous proportions. Part of this is obviously due to the recent success of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight but there is also the major shift in tonality that the book have featured. Batman has always been a serious character, and definitely the darkest of the Justice League of America, but lately he is darker than dark! He is a whole new shade of black to the point that, as a reader, I can’t help but cringe. I think it’s important to state at the beginning that a) no, I don’t HATE Batman, and b) I’m aware that most of you will read this and generally disagree with what I’m saying. I retort to this pre-emptive strike by saying simply to follow my thought process. Perhaps you’ll see where I’m coming from.

    So where did Batman really begin? Batman started as a pulp comic character in Detective Comics #27, which came out in May of 1939. While going through a rather awkward planning stage, he immediately caught people’s attention with his darker look and giant bat wing cape. Of course, the most important element to note is that he, like the Spirit and Doc Savage (who he now shares First Wave with) was a pulp character, which means a very different type of story telling than we have today. The important thing to note here is that Batman was a hardened vigilante, obsessed with cleaning up the streets. How did he do that? Oh, various ways! Some included throwing crooks off the roof tops of buildings and kicking others into acid! On top of that, Bats had been known to shoot a bloke or two. See, Batman was ALL about taking the crooks down by whatever means neccesary, and if that meant takinga life, he would. The character proved to be popular enough to warrant his own series and, in 1940, he had two on-goings: Batman and Detective Comics. In November of 1939, though, with Detective Comics #33, Batman’s now well known origin was told for the first time. It would go on to be told and told and told again, but the original story lasted two-pages, and was what fueled Batman’s rage to go out and kill crooks. Later, various retcons would be made about how he chose the Bat of all things to emulate (originally a bat flew into his window, which Bruce took as an omen), and in April of 1940 Robin was introduced to help tone the character down and help a younger audience enjoy the comic. In fact, at this point the comic generally became quite silly. It’s not that it wasn’t serious, and coming out in 1940’s meant there were a lot of allusions and commentary towards the second world war, but the books were more generally light hearted. People didn’t want to read dark and heavy stories at the time. They wanted entertainment, and that’s what the Bat books did.

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    What’s interesting to me is (and a lot of fanboy forget this, or never bothered to know it) that Bob Kane wasn’t the one to write Batman’s origin, which is a fact a lot of Bat-fans get wrong. It was actually Gardner Fox with story input by Bill Finger. Bob Kane may have created the character and character concept, but he wasn’t the one to actually put the pieces into play.

    So Batman would go on to have various success throughout the history of comics, but here’s what a lot of people overlook: for a long period of time, nobody cared about the character. In fact, he (and a lot of other characters, to be honest) was greatly floundering around the ’80s because a lot of people just weren’t buying into it. It really started in the 60’s, which was right around the time the classic Batman show starring Adam West came out. Why did it come out? Because they needed to “relaunch” the character and get people interested in him again. And what was that show, at it’s heart? Basically a buddy comedy, very light hearted and humorous. In a word: it was campy. That REALLY helped boost the sales though, and from ’64 to ’68 Batman was essentially a joke. They had tried to bring the character back to detective stories, where he began as a pulp character, but it just wouldn’t stick as much as Adam West’s Batman did. But by ’68 that had worn thin and people no longer cared for the same jokes week after week.

    Enter: Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams. I would go so far as to say that outside of Bob Kane and Bill Finger and one other, these two are the most influential writers of Batman today. The two of them helped shape the Batman into a much different and much grittier character, based on their interpretations of the old Bob Kane stories. What O’Neil and Adams did was turn Batman into the avenger of the night and a seeker of intense justice. With large ears and a larger cape, Batman was distanced entirely from the campy element that had made him popular in an effort to help drive sales. On top of that, their book heavily featured the return to detective work that Batman had been lacking. See, he had a nice rogue gallery at this point, as well as some high flying adventures, but O’Neil and Adams wanted to distill him down to his essence, and that to them meant bringing back the Detective in Detective Comics (although to a much less pulp-y scale). Unfortunately, it didn’t work. As influential as these books are now, at the time the widespread masses still didn’t care. It did well with it’s fanbase, but it wasn’t enough to really help catch the sales DC wanted.

    That is, until a young man name Frank Miller came along.

    This is where I really start to get wary on Batman, personally. Before I continue on with this tale, I just want to point out that Batman started as a murderous jerk who kicked people off buildings. This obviously didn’t stick, as retcons were made, but this to me seems the most important thing to note when we look at the evolution of Batman. Especially in the ’40s, where Batman had really become a popular character, he was largely a bufoon. I’ve talked with modern comic fans, and a lot of people don’t really enjoy the Golden Age, as it’s referred to. That’s somewhat understandable, I suppose, given the VERY different writing styles these book had. In fact, many people choose to overlook it entirely. This seems incredibly odd in my book. As long as you enjoy the Batman books, you should be fully aware of what he is and was, right? Apparently not. Although, with retcons and Crises, I suppose they have somewhat of a valid reason… but we’ll get to that, and it still doesn’t stop Batman books from being really, really, REALLY silly and/or ridiculous at times (and yes, they are all 100% canon now, crisis or no crisis).

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    So with 1986, we saw The Dark Knight Returns. This is easily the most famous comic Batman has ever been in, full of iconic moments and lines, despite the fact it’s not part of regular continuity (it actually takes place on Earth-31). Yet people love it and adore it and, in it’s own weird way, it becomes canon. It’s just that damn popular! And following Crisis On Infinite Earths, in which all the different alt universe stories were thrown out the window and continuity re-solidified, O’Neil stepped on as the Batman editor to help push the Bat-books in this new direction. We saw books like The Killing Joke by Moore, which attempted to give the Joker an origin (and crippled Batgirl), and Year One which re-defined Batman’s. Batman books would begin to see a surge in popularity, and as the popularity got bigger, the stories got darker. One famous story is, of course, the fan-voted Death In The Family, in which over 10,000 people voted to have Jason Todd, the second Robin, beaten to death with a crowbar by the Joker. This would further help to fuel the dark horizon coming in to Batman, and before long he was the darkest character in the books.

    The popularity of the books allowed for a push into the mainstream media again, which had not been done since Adam West’s show. It started off as a Tim Burton film and it’s sequel, and before long we were given Batman Forever and Batman And Robin, two absolutely ridiculous films starring Val Kilmer and George Clooney (which most people would rather pretend didn’t happen post-Nolan’s films). Even so, the character was back in the mainstream spotlight, and 1992 had Bruce Timm and Paul Dini bringing a Batman cartoon that brought Batman to a brand new audience of children every Saturday morning. Again though: these did still have the lighter elements in them, which many people seem to forget. The Batman cartoon was definitely more lighthearted than the book (Compare it with today’s Batman: Brave and the Bold, though, and it’s practically a drama), and do I even REALLY need to discuss Batman And Robin? On the plus side, the TV show alone was responsible for multiple spin-offs and brand new characters who then ported to the book (like Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya) and a large set of cameos in similar cartoon media (i.e. Superman and Justice League cartoons), making Batman very prominent and popular with a young audience.

    The 90’s were an odd time for comics though, featuring some of the most maligned yet still popular books in existence for all publishers. With Batman, though, we somewhat universally all agree that he had a pretty good run. It depends on personal taste. For people like me, Knightfall (in which Bane broke Batman’s back and other people temporarily filled in for him (i.e. Azrael)) was a pretty awful book but the The Long Halloween (by this neat new writer named Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale) was awesome. I find that with the 90’s, it’s often better to skip over it and take what you like. Most just go on to the year 2000 because almost no one can agree on the majority of stories from that time. It really is a love it or hate it decade for comics of all kinds.

    With a new decade dawning, comic books as a whole needed to shift to keep the younger audience who were now older in order to keep them buying comics, which meant a largely adult tonality shift for all books. Batman had once again reached a good level of popularity throughout the 80’s and 90’s, so it was time for DC to do things “right” and keep the levels up. This is when things really got dark (if you don’t count Knightfall as dark). Batman became a rather angry character, although he had his morals (“no guns, no killing! I would never do that!”). He had lost one Robin, and Dick was moving away from him to be off on his own (which was then made into a much bigger father/son dichotomy than a young ward moving on). Throw that in with him still reeling over the loss of his parents and the death of some ladies and you have all the elements you need for a character to spend half of his comic brooding while kicking some ass. All-star writers were coming in to lay their hands at the book, and 2006 saw Grant Morrison taking over (we’ll get to that) in the main title and Paul Dini taking over main duties in Detective Comics.

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    What I think is important to note here is that Batman became an essentially one note character (and this is where people will start hating my article). As much as people complain about characters like Superman and the Sentry for being too powerful, I’d argue that Batman is even beyond that. Why? Because after the Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Batman became the character NO one could beat (he took down Superman, who is apparently “unbeatable” according to whiners), and these stories were most prevalent in the influx of readership in the year 2000. I dare you to find me a book in which Batman wasn’t put in some kind of compromising position in which no one else would be able to escape from, yet he still did, either due to an outside deus ex machina or the deus ex machina of his own brain (outside of Bane breaking his back in the 90’s, of course). Rag on the Sentry all you want, fanboys, but at least we know he will be defeated, and I’d argue that ever since New Krypton, Superman has been nothing but a defeated character (bazinga). Then you have Batman, who even in death is going to fight against time to return. Granted, my support of this story is besides the point (since I’m a Morrison fanboy), but it’s important to note that as far as character development, I’d say Bruce Wayne as Batman is pretty much void of significant character development and has been for quite some time. A lot of Bat-stories, even my favorite ones by Grant Morrison during his run, have become paint by numbers: create insane/odd problem, have Batman go against situation, have Batman fix situation where no one else could. This is EXTREMELY prevalent in Grant Morrison’s JLA run, where Batman is the glorified hero every arc. Superman can be taken down, the Justice League can be left in shambles, but not Batman. He finds a solution EVERY time, even when Darkseid takes over the entire planet and kills everyone. So Superman being immortal and able to stop bullets by standing in front of them is too powerful, but Batman being a walking deus ex machina of every DC story he’s in… that’s not?

    Let’s take a brief look at Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, which is some of his most polarizing work by fans (although I will sing it’s praises until the end of time). Morrison is a high concept writer and quite frequently goes against the mold of what people expect, but Morrison has always glorified the crap out of Batman. Like I’ve said, I love Morrison’s work, but his portrayal of Batman is no better than anyone else because Batman is still an undefeatable character with no real character development. That’s probably why, out of all the cool things Morrison did, my favorite moment was when he killed Batman. Batman RIP is my favorite point in all of Batman history because, after all the glorifying people to do the character, Morrison was unafraid to come in and take the character down a few pegs, breaking his “one rule” (which Batman technically did himself when he started out…) and allowing him to die. Of course, in recent issues of Batman and Robin it was revealed he didn’t “die” (which we all knew) but the fact Morrison had the balls to show off a charred corpse of Batman is still a great moment for me as an anti-fanboy.

    So what is it that really eats at me with Batman? Well, as Gil pointed out, he is easily one of the most misunderstood characters today, both by the writers and the fans, and has been since the extreme push into the gritty world he now resides in. I could lay blame on Frank Miller, and I could blame some of this on Nolan’s Batman Begins and Dark Knight as well, but that doesn’t negate the fact that a) this is what sells and b) this is what people want to read now. What we have ended up with, though, is a character who can’t be defeated despite “just being a guy.” That’s one of the biggest arguments I hear as to why Batman rules: that he’s “just a guy.” No. No he isn’t. Not anymore, anyway. Batman was just a guy when he started out, but the dangers that befall every superhero didn’t apply to him until Morrison wrote Batman RIP and the Three Ghosts – i.e. there was no risk of Batman “losing his morals” and/or falling/dying. Batman would overcome every obstacle, and his stories lacked real depth that other DC characters had, because we feared for them. We may have always known Green Lantern would beat Sinestro, but we never knew what would be the cost (such as the Green Lantern Corps now striking terror into the hearts of those it seeks to protect). Batman is always going to defeat his enemies, and what, is his world going to get darker? Is that possible? Batman is so dark that we shouldn’t even call the color black black anymore. We should just call it Batman. And that’s positively ridiculous that we’ve come to this point.

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    It’s not that I’m clamoring for a story where Batman and Robin go to the carnival and eat some cotton candy (because that would probably be inappropriate if he brought Dick), but the reason I enjoy someone like Kevin Smith writing the character is because he recognizes that he doesn’t have to spend his entire story talking about how moody Bruce is. Granted, I may not think the Widening Gyre is all that great, and its certainly not a canon story, but at least he’s taking a different stand than everyone else was when Bruce is alive. And now Dick is Batman which is really great because Dick has more personality than Bruce ever will have! Honestly, 99.9% of every Batman story I’ve read that’s come out in the last decade that was canon featured a dark and moody character who failed to effectively connect with anyone, and became a character that the Justice League felt the need to mind wipe. (see: Identity Crisis, which then led to Batman creating OMAC in order to patrol all his fellow heroes, which then backfired in Infinite Crisis, at which point Batman told Superman that the last time Superman inspired anyone was when he died. Real nice, Bruce.) Dick is the type of character that writers can still effectively explore and push in new directions, and Bruce dying and him taking over was the best thing that’s happened to the Batbooks in a while. It allows us to bring depth to the character of Batman again, because we aren’t pigeonholed to try and think of what dark and broody place we can push Bruce to THIS time.

    On top of that, talk about over saturation. People complain about Wolverine and Deadpool in too many books, but can we talk about how many different Batbooks consistently come out that STAR him? Detective Comics, Outsiders (which featured Batman before his death), Batgirl, Azrael, Red Robin, Gotham City Sirens, and Streets of Gotham which, while not featuring Bruce Wayne as Batman for the main character would not exist without him, and they regularly (outside of Outsiders) feature cameos by Dick as Batman. Then we have the Widening Gyre mini (starring Bruce), Batman, Batman and Robin, as well as various random books coming out by people like Sam Kieth (i.e. Batman Confidential) and Joker’s Asylum. If Bruce Wayne were alive, do you see how many books would feature Batman on a regular basis? Oh, and don’t forget that the Return of Bruce Wayne is coming in it’s own mini outside of the events that will be transpiring within the Batman and Robin title. That’s 12 books, 11 if you don’t count Outsiders anymore since it’s had a great shift in tonality with DiDio writing. At least Deadpool stuck to four.

    Finally, as I previously mentioned, there’s the fans. It might be tacky for me to attack a whole group of people, but there is a point of contention for me when a character stops being a character people love and becomes a God (note: this doesn’t include fans of the New Gods, or just fans of God in general). The biggest problem that I can point as an example is fans when The Dark Knight came out. Now – kudos to everyone involved for making a great film. I applaud the performances all around. However, the fanboy narcissism on that film is uncanny and unbelievable. Before the film, there were immediate attacks to every other superhero movie ever (most notably Spider-Man 3) and how Batman was infinitely better. Then when it creamed at the box office, it became the “best comic movie ever”, which I still contest. To this day, you can’t talk about superhero films without someone talking about the Dark Knight. However, there is a grand difference between people pointing out what the film did right and how this could positively influence future superhero films vs fanboys just gushing with ounces and oodles of fanboy love excretion to the point where it’s unbearable. On top of that, you had people who were fans of the movie now believing that they could just rush in, grab a comic, and “get it.” That’s really not the way things work in comics (although there are points of contention that comics should be THAT accessible). What bugged me is that, as a fan of Grant Morrison, I now had to listen to large groups of people complaining about Batman RIP and Batman’s role in Final Crisis, and that Morrison was a “gimmicky” writer who didn’t know anything about Batman. Really, newfound fanboy of the Dark Knight who “always watched the cartoon as a kid”? Batman would never use a gun and the ending of Final Crisis was dumb because to save the universe Batman shot the ultimate evil that is Darkseid, choosing the life of millions upon billions upon zillions of life forms over his one stupid moral rule? Yeah. Ok. Sorry if I choose to side with the comic that pushes the character in a new direction versus one that panders to be fanboy wankage. Oh, and did I mention that it’s not even the first time Batman has thought to solve a crisis with a gun?

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    I will admit that what started as a brief lesson on the evolution of Batman as a franchise or a brand has turned into an annoyed rant (which would probably make sense as one of Josh’s Hate Mail articles). The point that I was hoping to make, though, was that people need to know their history before spouting off, whether it be you arguing with me in the store or you arguing with me in the internet. Batman has such a rich and creative history, that to see him devolve into a one note character/walking deus ex machina is really boring to me. I’ve been a comic fan all my life, and Batman has of course been a big part of it. I won’t deny that. It just saddens me that as much as I like reading comics, I can’t get people into a book like Batman and Robin because a) it’s not Bruce Wayne and b) the whole point of the book is not to be dark and gritty. They want realism! Well then go somewhere else. Batman may have elements of realism in his books, sure, but the majority of it is just as ridiculous/fantastical as every comic book DC and Marvel put out, and some of his most popular villains include a man who needs to have his temperature regulated to sub zero temperatures to survive, a woman who can control plant life and kill you with a kiss, a walking mound of clay, and a clown. What is realistic about that? He fights a guy who regularly dies and rises from the dead, and he slept with that guys daughter. Batman is not a “realistic” character who spends all his time in a dungeon solving riddles, which some people would like to believe because they “saw the Dark Knight and it was totally cool.”

    Furthermore, you can have a character who has a dark and sordid past, but is still a readable character who can be pushed in new directions. Look at Iron Man: Tony Stark is an alcoholic and is the man responsible for the big disarray between heroes in the super hero civil war. His armor has been stolen and used for genocide, and he used to sell weapons for similar things. Yet, despite Armor Wars and Demon In A Bottle and Civil War, Tony Stark has still managed to become a hero worth reading about, a hero who is redeemable and enjoyable, and he is just a guy. All Tony Stark is and ever was was someone who studied hard (like Batman), learned a lot in the ways of engineering (like Batman), became an industrial engineer and billionaire playboy (like Batman), began to create his own gadgets and tools (like Batman), and then used them to fight crime (like- you get it). Yet, as dark as Tony Stark as been (and yes, he is 100% responsible for Norman Osborn being able to take over the country in Dark Reign), he is still being pushed into new places by writer Matt Fraction with Most Wanted, Disassembled, and the future in the Heroic Age. There are still new things to be done with Tony Stark, and I can’t say there are many things left to do with Bruce Wayne besides bring him back to life and let him brood some more.

    The long and short of what spurned me to tackle this is when I read another article on another (nameless, because I don’t want to seem like I’m attacking them) site in which they talked about the downfall of comics, the surge of “torture porn,” and how comic books have made it ok to be excessively dark as an acceptable form of entertainment. The writer talked about how it was cool to watch people be tortured in whatever form and fashion, i.e. Ultimatum and Cry For Justice. The writer furthermore went on to talk about things like Siege and the death toll of Soldier’s Stadium, as well as that of Civil War. And me, as a reader of the site and someone familiar with this persons writing, said, “Yeah, ok, I can see your points, but aren’t you still a huge Batman fan? What’s the difference?” Bruce Wayne, as far as we view Batman and what happens with his character, is nothing more than us enjoying watching a man placed into a dark hole and not being allowed to rise from it. Batman is, in a sense, nothing more than torture porn.

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    //TAGS | Multiversity 101

    Matthew Meylikhov

    Once upon a time, Matthew Meylikhov became the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Multiversity Comics, where he was known for his beard and fondness for cats. Then he became only one of those things. Now, if you listen really carefully at night, you may still hear from whispers on the wind a faint voice saying, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not as bad as everyone says it issss."


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