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Will Brooker is Director of Film Studies and Television at Kingston University, UK. He is the author of several books, including studies of Batman, Star Wars, Blade Runner, and Lewis Carroll.
ORIGINS AND WARTIME
We tried to console ourselves with Bat Man, but he was really too `bad'. It appeared that one of his main pleasures was to scare women in their sleep ... Bat Man gave no comfort. (Heinrich Böll, Irisches Tagebuch, Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch (1957))
Ba. What is that flying about? Swallow? Bat probably ... Like a little man in a cloak he is with tiny hands.
We open with a paradox. Barman's survival as a cultural icon over sixty years can be attributed to his ability to adapt and change with the period. Yet for the first four years of his existence, the opposite appears to be true. The Batman of this period is notable more for his consistency and adherence to an established template than his fluidity; a fact made all the more remarkable when we consider that the surrounding culture was undergoing the profound changes of the Second World War.
This consistency in the face of change seems at first glance entirely contradictory to expectations. Perhaps this is why more than one popular history of the Batman chooses to misremember these first years, glossing them into a more convenient framework in keeping with the overall notion of the Batman as an inherently fluid signifier; in an earlier piece I was even guilty of perpetuating this `official' version myself. I now believe this reading to be an oversimplification, and hope to offer a more complex interpretation informed not merely by secondary texts but by a study of the original comicbooks and the Columbia film serial of 1943. This reading will of necessity involve many more questions, tentative theories and multiple possible solutions than it will present definitive answers.
We can establish certain facts. Batman made his public debut in the May 1939 issue of Detective Comics, issue #27. Robin first appeared in the issue of Detective dated April 1940; the first issue of Batman, the spin-off comic book, was dated April-May of the same year. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The Columbia film serial Batman was released in 1943.
Around these key dates, America witnessed a massive shift in its popular culture as the majority of commercial forms — films, advertisements, posters, radio, comics — were given a common focus and enlisted into the war effort. My argument in this first chapter will be that Batman proved remarkably immune to the wartime `recruitment' process, and largely managed to retain his own unique style while so many other popular texts — and certainly most comic book characters — were drawn in to serve as part of a propaganda monologue.
I will argue that the Batman `brand' — the forms and conventions governing Batman and his world, and all the primary aspects of the Batman `mythos' — were established by the time America entered the war, and were largely adhered to during the next three years. During this period we might speak of Batman adopting elements of his surrounding culture, rather than adapting to it. There are propaganda messages within Batman comics of the war years, but these are almost entirely along the lines of war bond appeals rather than militaristic or anti-Japanese content, and furthermore are in the great majority of cases restricted to cover images. That these very rarely bear any relation to the stories in the comic itself suggests a form of tokenism or a meeting of minimum requirements, whether set by editors, publishers, audience or even government: a lip-service to the wartime context which almost feels tacked on to the very different agenda of the established Batman `mythos'. Similarly, while the Columbia serial is described by Bob Kane as a crude `propaganda vehicle' and by Bill Boichel in turn as `a blatant vehicle for World War II propaganda' — that is, as a co-opting of the Batman character to serve as an anti-Japanese patriot — the propaganda aspects of this film also seem bolted-on, mainly confined to voice-over or even, at a greater remove, imposed upon the film through its secondary publicity material.
While the consistency of the Batman style and mood during this period of great flux may on the surface seem contradictory, I will suggest a simple explanation. During the first years of the Barman's existence the character proved a great commercial success, as is indicated by the launch of his solo comic book in early 1940, a syndicated newspaper strip in 1943 and related merchandise such as cut-out Batplanes and stick-on transfers, to say nothing of the extent to which the formula was imitated by other comic publishers. One the initial `brand' was established by late 1940, it was in the interests of National Periodical Publications, later to be renamed DC Comics, to retain the elements which made Batman popular, and also, crucially, to differentiate it from the rest of the superhero market. In turn, when Batman was adapted to cinema, Columbia's producers marketed the serial explicitly on the back of the comic book and clearly saw the importance of keeping to the key elements of the Batman `mythos', while including sufficient `propaganda' aspects to locate the film within the contemporary patriotic-adventure genre and so to draw on a larger audience than merely dedicated comic fans. The details of this process require us to consider the roles of readers, writers, artists, editors and producers in the creation and subsequent governing of the Batman narrative, and thus explain the various factors behind Batman's resilience, consistency and fidelity to a strangely removed ideal of urban crime-fighting while the rest of his culture went to war.
1. Establishing the Brand: Year One
In June 1998, some fifty-nine years after the publication of Detective #27, Denny O'Neil — group editor of DC Comics' Batman titles — gave me a printout of the current Bat-Bible. This ten-page loose-leaf document outlines `everything the present editor thinks new writers and artists need to know to do basic Batman stories'. As such it represents an updated version of the manuscript viewed by Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio in April 1989, which in turn forms the basis for much of their discussion in the concluding chapter of The Many Lives of the Batman. Pearson and Uricchio outline `five key components [which] constitute the core character of the Batman: traits/attributes; events; recurrent supporting characters; setting and iconography'. O'Neil's 1998 Bat-Bible follows similar categories, with no-nonsense headings: `Who He Is', `Where He Lives', `The Batcave', `His Associates', `His Character', `Bruce Or Batman?' `His Gear', `His City'. Some of these categories have evolved in their detail since Pearson and Uricchio's 1989 meeting with O'Neil; Tim Drake, the third Robin in current `continuity', was introduced in 1990, while the supporting cast of Gotham City's police force has also developed during the last ten years. These changes, however, do not invalidate their basic summary:
the character remains a rich man who dresses in an iconographically specific costume (cape, cowl and bat-logo). Because of the murder of his parents, he obsessively fights crime, using his superb physical abilities in combination with his deductive capacities. He maintains his secret identity of Bruce Wayne, who lives in Wayne Manor in Gotham City. He is surrounded by a supporting cast of friends and foes.
Pearson and Uricchio find their `lowest common denominator of longlasting and recurrent components' echoed in a cereal box panel of 1989, where the same key elements — `Who He Is', `Where He Lives', `His Character' — are once again repeated, albeit in melodramatic style and, curiously, in the past tense:
His name was The Batman. A dark, mysterious character of the night, stalking the streets, defying criminals with intelligence, athletic powers and state of the art gadgetry, terrifying enemies who dare cross his path. The Batman had a secret identity, that of Bruce Wayne(tm), wealthy playboy. At a very young age his parents were killed on the streets of Gotham City(tm) ...
The same basic template, the key codes which identify Batman and distinguish him from any other character in popular culture, can be found in a multitude of Batman texts in various forms and for various audiences, whenever a brief definition is required. The entry on Batman from the 1986 History of the DC Universe, intended for comic book fans, adopts a yet more hyperbolic prose style but incorporates the same essential points:
In Gotham City, the child orphaned by a killer's gun sharpened both his mind and body to a keen razor's edge. With his young partner Robin, the Boy Wonder, Bruce Wayne became a cancer on the underworld in the form of the Dark Knight Detective. The Batman.
In turn, The Super Dictionary, an educational volume using DC superheroes, which I bought with my own birthday ten-dollar note back in 1978, introduces the character to its projected audience of undertens:
Batman is an inventor. In his secret cave, he made his car, his helicopter, and many other things. Some of the bad people he fights are the Penguin, the Joker, and Catwoman, His other name is Bruce Wayne.
This privileging of Batman's `inventions' over his detective abilities is unusual, but even here we are given the traits of intelligence and physical skill, while the character's dual identity, war against crime, supporting characters, location and accessories are also suggested or stated outright. Finally, the same characteristics are vividly presented in a media studies textbook for further education students, as part of a case study of Batman:
He has never had superpowers. He succeeds through ingenuity, skill and integrity as he faces everything the criminal world can throw at him ... he is a man dressed as a bat who seeks revenge on the criminal community who murdered his parents in cold blood in front of him when he was a child.
If I seem to labour the point that Batman can be reduced to key characteristics, it is because so much that follows will threaten any sense of consistency or constancy around the character. I feel the necessity to establish a simple collection of defining waits as a raft to cling to before embarking on sixty years during which the Batman undergoes so many transformations, and is subject to so many competing, often contradictory interpretations, that any defining essence sometimes seems eroded: the character seems to become merely a name and logo adopted by a multitude of different `Batmen', each representing a different facet of a specific cultural moment and taking on the concerns of a period or the tastes of an audience. Although it will be my argument in the chapters that follow that Batman is to a significant extent a fluid signifier, and that this has ensured his continued popularity for six decades, part of the character's cultural resonance must be attributed to the fact that the societal concerns or audience meanings which the Batman has carried are not merely absorbed by the yielding, malleable figure of a man in a bat-mask, but fitted within a quite rigid and consistent template which specifies not just the character's appearance but his location, associates, motivation and attributes. Whether Columbia wants to produce a patriotic wartime Batman, or Dr Fredric Wertham wants to argue that Batman has a homoerotic relationship with Robin, or Grant Morrison and Dave McKean want to portray the Batman as a wraithlike figure tormented by inner demons, the interpretation must correspond to a minimal defining structure, or it is simply not recognisable.
The character's position as a cultural icon is, then, due to the extent to which he can adapt within key parameters. He must remain familiar while incorporating an edge of novelty; he must keep the loyalty of an older generation who remember their childhood through him and secure his place in popular memory, while constantly pulling in the younger audience who constitute his primary market. He must always serve the concerns of the present day, while retaining an aura of myth.
This sense of myth and resonance which still surrounds the Batman hag its source not in the specifics of his changes over time, but in the opposite, in those elements which never change. The myth lies not in the details of continuity debated by fans, but in the narrative which has entered popular consciousness. I could stop anyone on the street and ask them what they knew about Batman, with a virtual guarantee of hearing back the same list of key traits, the same story.
Indulge me. This is what I would have told you about Batman when I was five years old: Batman is Bruce Wayne, a millionaire who dresses in a bat-costume and fights crime. He has no special powers but is very fit and strong, and very intelligent. He lives in Gotham City. He fights crime because his parents were killed when he was young. He is often helped by his sidekick, Robin. He fights villains like the Joker.
This may seem childishly basic. I am fumbling to express a vision of the Batman as I think `popular consciousness' remembers him: vaguely, naïvely, mythically, as it might remember the story of Jesus or Dracula, Robin Hood or Sherlock Holmes, As Denny O'Neil has argued,
Batman and Robin are part of our folklore. Even though only a tiny fraction of the population reads the comics, everyone knows about them the way everybody knows about Paul Bunyan, Abe Lincoln ... Batman and Robin are the postindustrial equivalent of folk figures. They are much deeper in our collective psyches than I had thought. Because these characters have been around for fifty years, everybody in the country knows about them. They have some of the effect on people that mythology used to and if you get into that you can't avoid the question of religion.
|1 1939-1945: Origins and Wartime||33|
|2 1954: Censorship and Queer Readings||101|
|3 1961-1969: Pop and Camp||171|
|4 1986-1997: Fandom and Authorship||249|