“Among twenty empty warehouses,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the Batman.”
–sorta Wallace Stevens
You should know right from the start that I’m a terrible geek—not extremely geeky, but bad at being a geek. Continuity in the sense of an overarching, epic and harmonized chronology just isn’t that important to me. What I really like about comics is the possibility of seeing different versions of the same character or even the same story. To me, comics are a mythic media using shared characters and stories.
Sure, it’s still corporate and commodified and god knows artists get screwed. But there is so much possibility within a simple discipline: a boy sees his parents gunned down in an alley, swears to avenge them and grows up to be a vigilante. It’s mythic, only this time with by-lines.
There’s a couple of pages in writer Warren Ellis and artist John Cassaday’s Planetary/Batman crossover, Night on Earth (Wildstorm, 2007) that I’ve been thinking about. Planetary is a secret organization busy uncovering the “hidden history of mankind.” They claim to be “archaeologists of the impossible.” In Night on Earth, Planetary are in Gotham City busy tracking down a kid who unfortunately causes reality to shift all around him like he’s flipping channels. Gotham slips from one possibility to another and because it’s Gotham, Batman gets involved and moves through several incarnations himself from Bob Kane’s to Adam West’s to Frank Miller’s and each one is slightly—or radically—different from the others. And it all happens in the alley where Bruce Wayne saw his parents gunned down.
Those few pages really struck me. They made me think of all the different Batmans: detective Batman, ninja Batman, crotchety right wing vigilante Batman, monomaniacal Batman, Batman with baggage, trapped in a well Batman, campy Batman, deputized peace officer Batman, science Batman, loner Batman, Batman leading his own flock of superheros, future Batman, the sorta Peter Parker Batman on The Batman cartoon, Batman created by crime and creating criminals.
And while for the purposes of this essay it doesn’t matter which ones I like and which ones I don’t that doesn’t mean I don’t have preferences. My feelings about Adam West in the Batman tv show have been inconstant. As a kid, I took every peril very seriously (“Oh, no, Batman is going to be turned into a giant key!”). When I was older, that Batman was painfully uncool. Now I love camp. Superfriends Batman left me cold. His reliance on gadgets, his lack of superpowers and his relentless toadying for the Man just irritate me. Both these shows might well also be responsible for my abiding Robin issues. While clearly seminal and definitely testosterrific, Frank Miller’s ninja Batman is wearing on me. I am ever fond of Bob Kane’s stiff and pointy-eared Batman.
The stripped down, streamlined Batman from Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series and Batman Adventures is the Batman in my heart and I don’t care who knows it. For me, somehow, that Batman embodies what Jules Feiffer says in The Great Comic Book Heroes: “With Superman we won; with Batman we held our own” (27).
Batman’s victories are often about holding his own, in surviving. He is vulnerable without being entirely defined by that vulnerability—a phobic boy trapped in a well—or a fascist, psychotic thug or a schizoid mirror image of the Joker. Although, the Joker thing is still interesting
So with, say, Batman Begins, I can think it’s very good and very interesting even though I wouldn’t make the same choices. My Bruce Wayne isn’t a boy in a well. I like a Batman who likes bats. But the story works well, and while I might regret it’s becoming canonical, I can turn to another I prefer—even one that’s not as good. Or I can wait for a new take. No one storyline ever wins for long. There’s always an artist fascinated by some new take or another artist who remembers something they liked and revamps it when they get a title.
I hear that just as crows come in a murder and ravens come in an unkindness, bats come in a cloud. I can live with a cloud of Batmans floating like electrons in indeterminate relation to one another—some of them even generated in an attempt to clean up the continuity or re-appearing when an artist or writer misses an old storyline or incarnation. But if all those Batmans didn’t exist in their infinite possibility, there would never be those huge multi-comic spanning arcs trying to harmonize the back story once again. And other fans wouldn’t get the chance to see their favorite old Batman rise again.
One Batman doesn’t supplant another. Adam West doesn’t nullify Alan Moore. From Bob Kane to Frank Miller to Neal Adams to Bruce Timm to Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s, all the Batmans stand in a line holding hands. All Batmans equally.
Carol Borden knows noble accents / And lucid, inescapable rhythms; / But she knows, too, / That the Batman is involved / In what she knows.
(This was originally published at The Cultural Gutter on December 7, 2006)