From man in tights to dark knight of decay

Wednesday, September 4, 1996 - 10:00

By Arun Pradhan

When times are bad, it's no time for big risks. Movie producers are not going to sink money into untested "potentially" groundbreaking innovations. They go for the guaranteed money — the sequels — or they resurrect past successes.

Popular culture today is fraught with regurgitations of previous creations. There are the countless covers of everything that moved in Motown, or even Hollywood, shamelessly churning out a string of "this is the ultimate Robin Hood" movies. But once they have been regurgitated, they are never the same.

The recent Dr Who movie is a far cry from the old big green aliens with the zippers on their costumes showing, and it even left one wondering if the Doctor has a libido after all. The remake of Mission Impossible has spies questioning their line of work after the Cold War and looking for new forms of job security which would have been unthinkable to the Mr Phelps of old. In both cases Hollywood fell back on old familiar concepts but had to make significant changes to make them acceptable for the '90s.

Enter the bat

One of the best examples of such changes has been the development of the man in tights himself, Batman. You might ask what substances Bob Kane was taking when he first penned the idea over 50 years ago — a millionaire playboy who dresses like a bat, hangs out with a boy and beats up criminals. Nevertheless, it caught on beyond all expectations.

During the '70s the legend took a turn to the kitsch when Adam West donned the tights in the television series. Each episode left us asking if he and the Boy Wonder could possibly camp it up any more. The bizarre camera angles, the walks up the sides of buildings, the "wham", "pow" and "thwak" sound effects: it would be impossible to be more over the top. Even in this guise, Batman's following grew into cult status.

When Batman hit the late '80s, things got really complicated. The black and white of old became very grey. Comics became "graphic novels" and were pitched at a growing adult market. Batman became darker, with the line between him and the criminals he obsessively hunted down becoming very blurred.

Take the story of Robin, the Boy Wonder. From Burt Ward's "Holy gee whiz Batman" in the '70s, the fate of Robin went downhill. The original character never seemed to fit into the new darker stories; in the end he grew up, asked questions and walked out. Eventually another Robin stepped into the breach but, reflecting the times, he was described by one story writer as a "smart mouthed delinquent". Any naively left from the original stories was surely smashed when the Joker beat this Robin to his bloody death in the comic A Death in the Family.

In the nineties also, the bad guys got worse. One comic has a retired Riddler bemoaning the changes, remembering his old partners in crime — King Tut, Egg Head and Bookworm. He tries to come to terms with the fact that criminals today kill people, pathetically asking, "Was I away when they changed the rules?"

Most such harmless, endearing bad guys have been replaced with the sort that would torture, kill and burn their own grandmothers just to pass the time. Other characters were introduced who began to make readers question the whole bad/good guy divide. Anarky was one such. He fell into the stereotype anarchist bomb-toting image, but did stand for anarchist principles, redistribution of wealth and saving the environment. Although sympathetic to his motivation, Batman still went after him because of his "unlawful methods".

A few familiar faces survived the changes; indeed, the character of the Joker revelled in it. The Joker allowed writers to bring out the disturbed, sick and frankly grotesque aspects of society. In comics such as the Killing Joke, we were shown the story behind the Joker's creation and the disturbing depths to which this creature could sink.

Batman's city, Gotham, is painted as a slightly cooler version of hell. Muggings, senseless murders and rapes are all commonplace. In the classic comic Return of the Dark Knight, Frank Miller looked at the US in social decay, got a magnifying glass and brought out its most horrific warts. He manages to portray capitalism gone mad — the insanity of a world that runs on profit and greed, the fear and alienation and the growth of an underclass who do not care about anything or anyone.

Who will save us?

With such a backdrop, is there still room for super heroes? Basically while the culture of the "macho hero" still exists and the range of potential toys and accessories still grows, there will be lots of room. But the development and success of the Batman character say something about the times.

He can be contrasted to characters like Superman, who do not have the same impact. Batman once referred to him as a "costumed boy scout": Superman's clean and pure image even led writers to kill him temporarily to reinvigorate comic sales.

Meanwhile, Batman falls deeper into the shadows. His obsession is often portrayed as madness and his methods as criminal. It is common for him to be compared to the evil he claims to fight. His world, Gotham City, also sinks deeper, with violence growing and becoming more twisted and meaningless.

You can get a sense of this from a range of writers and artists in the field. There have been interesting explorations into computer-generated comics, such as Batman: digital justice. The graphic novel (it does not do it justice to call it a comic) Arkham Asylum: A serious house on a serious earth is a venture into insanity, with art work that is nothing short of brilliant. Blind justice, in which Bruce Wayne is (falsely) arrested for being a communist spy, is perhaps one of the most compelling and interesting plots around. More recently, Knights Fall and Knights End provided drastic story lines and many a crisis for poor old Bats.

Wallowing in horror

It has been a long trip from Kane's original. Somewhere along the way, Batman lost his innocence. The changes to Batman's world were not chosen arbitrarily: gang wars, mass homelessness and unemployment, violent cults, rising crime are all a growing reality for the United States and many other countries. It was this reality that caught up with fiction.

The writers and artists behind Batman and other graphic novels are very often political in the sense that they see the system and the horrors it produces. But while this is a starting point, they tend to go no further. Most of these comics revel in the social decay and alienation and provide a window to a possible future where things just get worse.

The writers are not stupid or infantile; they know that no super hero can save us. But they also do not see it as their responsibility to look for or communicate other ways out of the mess. Instead their understanding of the system simply provides a context for their heroes as they wade through seemingly never ending waves of crime and death.

A main character in Blind Justice put some perspective on it: he mused at Batman's naivety, seeing him as a "bandaid on a cancer patient". This is quite flattering, for in other comics he would more accurately be portrayed as another symptom of the cancer.

The super heroes which many children looked up to are now often portrayed as obsessive control freaks out of their depth. The real life "cancer" that provides such fertile soil for their stories continues. Our world no longer recognises "full employment"; the poverty divide in the First World is matched only by the growing gap between the First and Third Worlds.

It has been a difficult couple of decades for the left, for those who have fought against the onslaught of capitalism. The austerity drives, the wearing away of past social gains, the breaking down of solidarity all impacted on countless aspects of our society. The changes to supposedly invincible super heroes and their worlds have shown that even they have been vulnerable to the capitalist offensive. Thus comics continue to offer glimpses into what this world is and is becoming. In doing so they add to the countless other urgent reminders of why many choose to continue fighting.

From GLW issue 245