Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Don't go to sleep, you may wake up a hero

I've been thinking a lot about Batman recently (no doubt inspired by some truly astonishingly long sessions on my flatmate's copy of Lego Batman for the XBox), and have honestly been meaning for quite some time to turn a lot of my half-baked thoughts on the character and his history into a full-fledged post here on the blog, but I've been having some difficulty. The issue at hand is essentially my inability to reconcile my desire to do a full-on, fully-researched, post-grad level essay on the political/social underpinnings of the character and his fictional universe, a lot of which have re-entered public discourse since the debut of The Dark Knight and its at times sledgehammer-subtle allusions to the Bush doctrine; and my desire to simply rabbit on about some of the sillier comics/videogames that I like and post some pretty pictures (except that I never really like adding pictures in blogger, it really is too much of a pain).

Above: the source of so much recent consternation for me.

Still, I imagine I'm not going to be able to write about anything else until I've at least got this one out of my system, so here goes a pretty half-assed post about a 70-year old superhero (I mean that the comics have been around for that long, not that Bruce Wayne is a septuagenarian, obviously) written almost solely so that I can then go on to write about other things.

Firstly, to sate the former of the two desires outlined above in quite possibly the laziest way possible, here's a pretty neat sixty-second summary of why Batman is at heart a character straight out of Conservative fable (courtesy of Reginald D. Hunter):

I've honestly tried to elaborate on Hunter's point, but every time I do, I read my words back and realise just how incredibly pretentious they sound, so I end up scrapping the whole thing. Needless to say that I think that I'm going to need to have a good, long look at superhero fiction as a whole, and wonder whether there can be any way around the political paradigms so deeply embedded into the narrative that makes up the backbone of the genre.

Then I might make a start on analysing that whole "women in refrigerators" thing, too.

One thing I would like to point out though is a specific Batman comic book I read recently. "Urban Legend" was written by Bill Willingham and was published in a 2003 issue of the Batman comic Legends of the Dark Knight (I could spend entire posts looking at Willingham's own politics, but that's not the point of this post), although I read it as part of the "and Other Tales" of the Batman Begins: The Movie and Other Tales of the Dark Knight collection. The story begins with a beaten and brusied Batman, shown to be suffering from amnesia, all ailments apparently resulting from a recent fight against some unknown criminals against whom Batman clearly came out the worse off. Still, despite his lack of knowledge about his whereabouts, his secret identity, or even his specific mission, and with some really remarkable physical injuries slowing him down, Batman takes one look at himself and realises the superhero he must be, and sets off to find and mete out justice to the villains whom he works out must be responsible for his current condition. The whole thing reads like a bit of a darkly comic farce, to be honest, with Batman phoning the Gotham City police from a payphone, calling a cab because he cannot locate his Batmobile and getting brained by a prostitute that he actually manages to save from a vindictive pimp. Still, when Batman finally reaches the headquarters of the gang of criminals he has spent the last twenty-or-so pages searching for, the twist is revealed as the real Batman shows up and dispatches the criminals, exposing the Batman that we've been following as merely a confused amnesiac who woke up in a Batman suit (for reasons that are explained within the comic but are mundane and incidental, really) and jumped to the wrong conclusion.

Above: Urban Legend

The whole thing has echoes of everything from Memento to Dark City, but a more specific mirror can be found in Alan Moore and Rick Veitch's 1999 Greyshirt short "Amnesia" from the pages of Tomorrow Stories #1. Whereas "Urban Legend", despite its occasional comic turns, seems ultimately an optimistic piece about the innate goodness that could be awakened in us all ("what if, tomorrow, you woke up believing yourself to be a superhero? Maybe you too would act upon all that that role bestows," the comic seems to be saying), "Amnesia" looks at this same concept from the other side of the looking glass, imagining instead an amnesiac who wakes to find himself surrounded by just the right clues to make him believe that he is in fact a certain notable serial killer. In his quest to flee the police, whom he believes are after him, he kills another couple of people, before it is of course all revealed to him that, before those murders, he was in fact a completely innocent man, and actually received his amnesia-causing injury in an altercation with the real serial killer (if memory serves me correctly, that is. It's been a while since I've read this one).

The two tales may, on the surface, appear to be telling the same story, but it's hard to ignore the ultimately far more optimistic note of the former (although that was published later and may, perhaps, have actually been inspired by the Moore tale). An idea central to the Batman mythos is that fact that he really is just a man (a concept from which Batman Begins extracts a lot of mileage, emphasising the difference between a mortal man and a faceless figurehead, the darker side of which is explored in that film's sequel), but one whose 'powers' come from the fact that he has spent years building himself into a very different kind of 'superman': the unspoken implication being the supposedly inspirational message that anyone of us could do the same if only we had the will to do so; if only we could also spend years training our minds and bodies the way that Bruce Wayne did. Of course, this is once again where the spectre of the underpinning right-wing politics of superhero narratives begin to show, as such an assertion renders totally invisble the phenomenal privelege that Bruce Wayne enjoys. Despite what certain people would have you believe, we literally cannot all afford to become superheroes.

Edited to add: there are of course exceptions to prove every rule. For a great example, I'd highly recommend immersing yourself in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta as well as almost any comic featuring transparent V knock-off Anarky. Also, while we're on the subject of Mr Moore, don't forget to go out and read Watchmen right now, before the film comes out and potentially ruins any chance that you might be tempted to read it. Hurry, the film's release is only days away!

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