Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Essays on Comics Characters: Batman!

batman250.jpgOkay, it's time I got around to the Caped Crusader himself, Batman. Hold on to your seats, gang, this could be a doozy, as I feel like I've got a lot to say about the Dark Knight!

My first exposure to Batman was probably Filmation's animated cartoons of the late 1960s, with the comics following very shortly after that (it's possible I may have read a Batman comic before that, but I don't know for certain). I don't believe I ever saw the Adam West version when it originally aired, although I do recall seeing the movie on TV fairly frequently. Later, I did get to see it in syndication (I was probably seven or eight at the time), and of course, also saw the Dynamic Duo on Super Friends, as well as Batman's appearances on The New Scooby-Doo Movies.

batman - joker filmation artI don't specifically recall the first Batman comic I ever owned... the earliest one I know for sure I had was a 100-Page Super-Spectacular that reprinted the original Golden Age appearances of Two-Face... oh, wait, there was one that was before that which reprinted the story with the vampires that Batman shot from his autogiro! It's likely that I'd read several issues of Justice League of America with Batman in them before my first Batman comic!
batman_ahi_batcycle.jpgEither way, I dug Batman very early on. Possibly one reason for this was that it seemed possible that one could become Batman, so long as someone was willing to put the effort in at a young age. Oh, there was no way I could've managed to get a Batmobile and Batcave, but a lot of the items in Batman's utility belt seemed to come right out of the ads found in the comics themselves! There were mini-cameras, fingerprinting kits, and the like, all at bargain prices.

And I had Batman toys, too... the Megos, a couple of the AHI toys (parachutist and stunt cycle), even the Aurora slot car version of the Batmobile. I dreamed of making my own Batman movie (remind me one of these days to write about my desire to make movies as a kid).

mego8bat_batmanboxI read the comics, watched the cartoons and TV show, and never once did I have a problem as a kid reconciling them. Sure, the comics' Batman was a bit on the grim side, but he was still the Batman to me, just as the other variations were.

I grew up, and somewhere along the line, I began to look at Super Friends and TV's Batman with disdain, as I'm sure a lot of fans my age did, because they didn't treat Batman seriously, like the comics did. In the books, Dick Grayson grew up and went off to college, and Bruce Wayne moved out of Wayne Manor. For myself, I got a chance to read Batman: From the 40s to the 70s, which reprinted a wide range of Batman stories, and I also read the Batman volume of the all-too-short Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes. I read about him in All in Color for a Dime, and much later in Steranko's History of Comics. I became pretty immersed in Batman lore, if I do say so myself (although some of that knowledge seems to be gone now).

Gradually, things continued to change in the comic books. It all started, it seems, with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which led to the further darkening of Batman. Over a very short period of time, Batman became grimmer and grittier. He'd always been dark in the books I read (I didn't read too many of the 50s and early 60s stories, before the detective aspect came back to the forefront), but not that dark. The Killing Joke came out, bringing a much crazier and more lethal Joker into the books and putting Barbara Gordon (the former Batgirl) into a wheelchair. New Robins came and went, Bane was introduced and broke Batman's back, causing an all-too-long period of time with a replacement Batman that was supposed to show a really crazy Batman...

...and even when Bruce returned to the cape and cowl, things still felt like they were going off-track. Major events were occurring in the comics, new writers came on board, and Batman got crazier and crazier, and I stopped buying the books.

batman_66tv05Thank goodness for the wonderful Batman: The Animated Series and its various follow-ups. This was the Batman I'd started to miss! He was grim, but not obsessive! He used his brains, and focused his grief over losing his parents at a young age to trying to prevent others from feeling the same loss. The much later Batman: The Brave and the Bold continued showing a Batman I could get behind, although this was more of a 1950s/early 60s Caped Crusader than I'd been accustomed to.

The movies? Well, I thought the first one with Michael Keaton as Batman wasn't too bad, and Batman Returns was pretty decent, but even then, I was feeling like someone wasn't getting what Batman was about. The movies got worse and worse, and then they stopped, until the new trilogy started with Batman Begins (an improvement over the last few films, but still falling short of what I felt Batman should be). I still haven't seen The Dark Knight Rises, and unless it pops up on Netflix, I might not get around to it.

detective040.jpgYou see, like a lot of fans my age or older, Batman hasn't been himself in way too long. He's a detective first and foremost (heck, he first appeared in Detective Comics after all!). He uses gadgetry, but nothing lethal. He's probably the world's greatest athlete, and a master of many styles of fighting. He doesn't need to wear armor, because it gets in the way of being agile. He uses his cape to help make it difficult to tell where to shoot at him, as well as to help frighten the criminals, who are a superstitious, cowardly lot (as he noted in his origin story).

He's not crazy. He might be one of the most sane men around. Certainly, after his parents were killed by Joe Chill, he was obsessive about training himself to fight criminals as any other child might be if something that tragic happened in their youth, but he put that obsession to good use. By the time Bruce Wayne was an adult, he knew he had to temper that obsession, that desire for vengeance, with justice.

Batman has friends, whether they be people like Commissioner Gordon, who don't know his secret identity (although I always felt that it should eventually come out that he'd figured it out, and did his part to keep it from becoming revealed to the public), or Alfred and Dick Grayson, who lived with him day in and day out, sharing all his secrets with them, or even his fellow heroes, who he would call on when he needed assistance, because even Batman can't do everything by himself. He has allies like Leslie Thompkins, who may have been a huge influence on his tempering vengeance with humanity, thanks to her comforting him after his parents were killed.

He's not obsessive, but he is very strong-willed and goal-oriented. This means that if the Joker or one of his other arch-foes is on the loose and committing crimes, he'll focus on finding them and apprehending them. He won't use excessive force on them, either.

I can see him using Bruce Wayne's wealth to improve conditions at Arkham Asylum as well as Gotham Penitentiary, trying to find ways to help rehabilitate the patients and prisoners, respectively. And not all of his arch-foes belong in Arkham, by the way – they're not all crazy!

Batman would keep his primary focus on Gotham City, but would not ignore the rest of the world – that's why he's in the Justice League, and why he continues to deal with the plots of Ra's Al Ghul, even if those plots don't directly affect Gotham City.

I think Batman should be shown as enjoying his work. Let's face it, he drives around in the coolest car ever, has all sorts of excellent gadgets, and is friends with the World's Greatest Super-Heroes... how could he not have fun? This doesn't mean that I want him to go back to making wisecracks as he's fighting criminals all the time (although the occasional joke wouldn't hurt, so long as the situation isn't too grim – I can't see him making jokes while fighting the Joker, for example).

He's made sacrifices in his life, most notably in his civilian identity as Bruce Wayne, but he shouldn't always have Bruce act as the worthless playboy – Bruce should be presented as a civic leader of sorts, making sure that the Wayne Foundation's funds are being used in a way to best benefit the citizens of Gotham City. Let's face it, Bruce would be considered almost as big a celebrity in Gotham as Batman, even if for entirely different reasons.

I'd like to see this Batman return to the comics, as well as to the movies and cartoons. But I doubt it'll ever happen. Still, there's always hope... and I can aways revisit the interpretations of Batman that I enjoy, even if the current stuff doesn't meet my own personal expectations.

I welcome your comments.

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