THE BACK PAGES

HOLY IDENTITY CRISIS BATMAN

JAIME J. WEINMAN July 21 2008
THE BACK PAGES

HOLY IDENTITY CRISIS BATMAN

JAIME J. WEINMAN July 21 2008

THE BACK PAGES

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HOLY IDENTITY CRISIS BATMAN

Dark Batman isn’t any more 'authentic' than crazy, silly Batman

JAIME J. WEINMAN

Film

Which version of Batman is the real, authentic one? Is it the dark, depressed treatment in movies like the upcoming Batman: The Dark Knight

(opening July 18), in which the Joker is a terrifying serial killer and Batman is plagued by self-doubt? Or is it the Batman who fought crime with a teenaged boy in green underwear, got turned into a baby, promptly declared himself to be “Bat-baby,” and fought villains like Catman and King Tut? There’s not much doubt which Batman is in fashion these days; Dark Knight, from the British team of writer-director Christopher Nolan and actor Christian Bale, is being aggressively marketed by Warner Brothers as even darker than the same team’s Batman Begins. Even the tragic death of Heath Ledger, whose role as the Joker in this movie turned out to be his last, seems to fit in with Nolan’s deathhaunted comic-book noir world. As a tie-in, Warner Brothers is releasing the violent, anime-inspired cartoon Gotham Knight, and the Batman comic books are doing a round of stories about serial killers and titles like “Batman, R.I.P.” What we’re not seeing is the fun, happy, kid-friendly take on the character, the version some fans consider the “real” Batman. At least, we’re not seeing it now. But that will change. It always does.

When a new Batman movie comes out, it’s common to hear not only that Batman can be dark and serious, but that he always should be. Christian Bale, who plays Batman as a scowly vigilante whose vendetta against crime may cause as much trouble as it solves (Batman Begins ended by implying that Batman might be responsible for the existence of the Joker), told UGO.com that his version of Batman is the true one: “I think that that was what Bob Kane intended when he first created the character.” But saying that Batman was meant to be dark is like saying that Charlie Brown was intended to be happy-go-lucky; he started that way, but it didn’t last.

The original Batman comics from the years

1939 and 1940, created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, were certainly more violent than your average Superman comic; the whole concept was heavily influenced by Dick Tracy—the original square-jawed crime fighter with a rogues’ gallery of grotesque villains. But the origin story of the character always had a bit of inherent silliness; Lorenzo Semple Jr., the head writer for the ’60s Batman TV series, recalls that when he looked at the original comics, he thought the premise was kind of crazy: “It said he became a crime fighter when his parents were murdered by criminals. And it also said that it was a well-known fact that criminals are terrified of bats, and therefore he decided to take the form of a bat. That’s the entire backstory.

I found it deliciously absurd.”

In any event, the hardboiled violence of the early comics didn’t last long; Batman was quickly cleaned up and lightened up, appropriate for wholesome all-American readers: in 1941, the New York Times cited the threeyear-old Batman as one of the favourite reading materials of baseball star Joe DiMaggio.

Batman sales took off, including a sale to Hollywood for a series of B-movies after the creators stopped portraying him as a lonely vigilante and gave him a kid sidekick, Robin, to make Batman a better role model for kids.

Batman became a domesticated father figure, fought villains like the Penguin (nothing’s more threaten-

©ing than a short man with a top hat), and starred in stories that were, while often excellent, mostly lighthearted.

By the late ’50s, when Batman was one of the few superhero characters to survive a government crackdown on comics, he was living in a cornball science-fiction world that Christopher Nolan would scoff at. Scott Shaw, a cartoonist and comic-book expert who runs the oddballcomics.com website, explains that the version of Batman he grew up with was the one “with Batman and Robin fighting more monsters and aliens than costumed villains. Since I already loved movies with monsters and aliens, that was fine with me. ‘The Zebra Batman!’ ‘The Robot Batman!’

‘The Rainbow Batman!’... I couldn’t get enough of ’em.”

For anyone who grew up in that era, the true, authentic Batman is the one who palled around with Superman and sent the Joker a Christmas card that read, “As you sit in jail today, with fellow crooks hobnobbin’ accept the season’s greetings gay from Batman and from Robin!”

Batman stories got so silly for so many years that every Bat-fan has his or her own choice for the goofiest Batman story of all time. Shaw’s favourites are the ones from the ’50s by the great veteran Batman artist Dick Sprang, in which “Batman and Robin co-starred with Superman in adventures that usually featured—you guessed it—monsters and aliens.” He’s particularly fond of a i960 story called “The Alien Who Doomed Robin!,” in which “Robin’s life essence is devoured by a big slob of an alien whose stomach acts as some sort of viewable chamber for the Boy Wonder’s slowly dying image.” Other fans go for “The Joker’s Comedy of Errors !,” in which Batman’s arch-nemesis declares, “So, they laugh at my boner, will they? I’ll show them how many boners the Joker can make!” A particular favourite online is a comics page that features the Joker snatching a boy’s report card out of his hand (“Ha ha!” the Joker screams, “I’ve made someone cry!”); it inspired a Web page of its own called “The Joker Stole My Report Card.” And, of course, childish innuendo about the relationship between Batman and Robin has been a huge part of Batfandom ever since Dr. Frederic Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent accused DC

Comics of trying to corrupt America’s youth.

There was an inevitable backlash after years of Batman being turned into a space creature or forced to wear pink costumes, and DC Comics started toning down the silliness of the stories. Len Wein, who edited Batman comics in the ’70s and ’80s, told Maclean’s that the decision to make Batman darker was “a conscious decision to go back to an earlier incarnation of the character. He was a dark avenger of the night, as opposed to a costumed clown.” Yet even while the comic ¡¡j books were crawling back toward sanity, the thing that made Batman a true international icon was the goofiest, campiest Batman ever:

Adam West’s version from the ’60s television series, in which Batman once tried to search for a villain by asking a bystander if he’d seen someone who was “strangely garbed.” Lorenzo Semple told Maclean ’s he “had no respect for the material,” and treated the whole show as a deadpan satire of comics and the tendency of superhero characters to take themselves too . seriously: “We were all, if I may say

so, very sophisticated people, and we said this was going to be a crazy comedy.” The series inspired a backlash among fans who didn’t appreciate Semple’s mockery, but it accomplished something that allowed the Batman character to survive and grow: the ironic, postmodern humour made him an icon for adults, not just kids.

Ever since that time, there have been dozens of unique takes on Batman, inspired both by the dark ’70s comics and Semple’s ironic version. The ’80s was the golden age of dark,

stylized Batman adaptations, like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Tim Burton’s first Batman movie, but the ’90s brought a new round of lightweight Batman adventures in the ’50s tradition, like the movie Batman and Robin, in which George Clooney played the hero as a grinning idiot who tells the villain Mr. Freeze, “Hi, Freeze. I’m Batman.” For their part, diehard comic-book fans would rather see Batman as a brooding vigilante: “I think overall, as professionals, we prefer the more serious version of the character,” Wein says, “because it was more entertaining to write.” But there’s also aversion of Batman for people who notice that Batman is the most ridiculous of all the major superheroes: he’s a guy with no powers who thinks he’s a superhero because he wears a mask and has a lot of expensive toys. Artists, writers and directors can pick and choose which elements of Batman they prefer at any given time; Batman Begins and The Dark Knight may be the product of a backlash against how silly the character became in the ’90s, but that doesn’t mean the Batman character will stop evolving. Batman in 2008 is very different from the Batman in 1997, who was wearing a suit with plastic nipples, and there’s no reason to expect there won’t be another new approach a few years from now.

That’s what gives Batman the broad appeal most superhero characters don’t have: he’s one of the few comic book characters who keeps changing. Spider-Man and even Superman have to be more or less the same character all the time, but ever since the moment when the comics were retooled to add Robin, Batman has been open to every possible interpretation. The cartoon hit Batman: the Animated Series once showed a group of children arguing over what Batman is like: one imagines him as the goofy version, with Sprang-style artwork; another pictures the older, ultra-violent Batman of Frank Miller. At the end of the episode, they encounter the version of Batman portrayed in the animated series itself. “I think the audience accepts whatever it’s given at the time,” Wein says. “They really don’t have much of a choice.” Nl