ekm’s BAT-MANUAL: CHAPTER 1 – THE BATMAN (1943)
At some point during the ballyhoo leading up to the release of THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), the conventional Comic Shop Narrative that Batman is the only plausible superhero became Batman is absolutely realistic and possible, because Christopher Nolan says so. Coming from the mouths of seven year-olds, this is perfectly understandable (and expected) discourse; Grown Ass Men – socially stunted or otherwise – are held to a slightly higher standard, even when they take to the internet to compose Listicles and pretend it’s pseudo-academic journalism.
Friends and neighbors, let’s put this particular fallacy to bed, tuck it in, and then punch it in the face when it won’t go the fuck to sleep. There is nothing remotely plausible about Batman. Just because he doesn’t have quote-unquote Super Powers, and just because he occasionally gets his ass kicked by the three or four villains that Fanboys use to justify the equally-erroneous claim that his is the BEST ROGUES GALLERY (it isn’t), this does not justify an argument for the potential existence of a similar crime fighter. Simply put, an actual Batman is about as likely as an actual Superman, and as far as I know, there are no heavy-handed flying Christ metaphors here on Earth besides Scott Stapp…and you saw what we did to Scott Stapp, didn’t you? Same thing we did to Jesus, that’s what.
I’m not taking anything away from those Nolan films – not yet, anyway; we still have half a series before we get there – but no matter what pretentious declarations of intent the director might have made about REAL WORLD This and I THINK COMIC BOOKS ARE FOR STUPID BABIES SO KEEP THAT SHIT OUT OF MY MOVIES (BUT I’M HAPPY TO USE THE BRAND TO FURTHER MY CAREER) That, Batman is less realistic than most of his peers. Marvel gets the love for telling stories about people who just happen to have powers; DC was and continues to be about Gods among Men. Superman, for example, is an alien whose powers are the result of a yellow sun and Earth’s atmosphere. Green Lantern is an intergalactic space cop in possession of a magic ring. Aquaman is half Fish. Wonder Woman’s mom was raped by Zeus (or something). And on and on. The pantheon of DC characters has origin stories running the gamut from traditional/derivative (The Flash) to Fucking Batshit Insane (Alan Moore’s retconning of Swamp Thing’s, er, roots). In a way, it’s easy to rationalize these characters, because magic, or science, or whatever. You can just roll with it. But Batman? No way.
For one thing, he sticks out like a sore thumb amongst his peers. Even the Franken-Snyder’d JUSTICE LEAGUE turns Bruce Wayne’s super power (wealth) into an unfunny joke. The comics constantly take great lengths to find excuses for why the League is always so dependent upon Batman’s presence during an intergalactic state of emergency. He’s so intelligent that he determines every outcome in advance, we’re told. He even has a stash of Kryptonite weapons set aside, just in case! Meanwhile, BATMAN v SUPERMAN best illustrates his overall uselessness during the so-called Trinity’s anti-climactic battle with Doomsday, during which a barely-able-to-move Ben Affleck is hauled around on digitally-erased wires the animators were then tasked with transforming into something resembling “swinging.” In real life, that guy would be dead in ten seconds. He’d need the entire Justice League just to get in and out of his car, to say nothing of the bathroom. Before anyone wants to say that body armor is an addition of the movies rather than the comics, I’d counter that 1) this has since made its way into the printed publications; 2) spandex means Dead Sooner; and 3) it’s a fucking comic book, you big nerd.
And let’s stop to qualify something, right off the Bat: I, too, am a big nerd, and I, too, love Batman. I collect the comics, and I mouth-breathe along with the best of them – hence these sorts of articles, which I craft with loving care for maximum Talkback dismissal. It’s with that in mind that Nolan’s whole notion of “legitimizing” Batman as someone who might indeed fall upon his criminal prey IN REAL LIFE, GUYS! caused me to nearly injure myself through the act of eyeball-rolling.
It’s not simply the fact that it’s easier to believe in a hypothetical flying alien than it is to believe that a smart guy in a cape could punch criminals and hang out on space stations; the entire Batman persona is dependent upon unimaginable wealth; an impossible ability to know every physical and intellectual skill possible in order to design, produce, maintain, and upgrade his entire technology-dependent Creature of the Night schtick; and the ludicrous idea that no one in Gotham City would ever realize that there was only one person capable of affording the price tag associated with IP. Neither Lucius Fox nor Alfred Pennyworth make this military-level operation more plausible, considering it’s essentially run out of Bruce’s basement; neither does it make it any more believable that our hero isn’t missing all his teeth, suffering from brain damage, or at any point becomes the source of public speculation (and investigation). “I figured out Bruce Wayne and Batman were the same person because they had the same sad eyes” says Not Dick Grayson in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (it’s not an exact quote, but no less stupid); meanwhile, no one pondered the fact that the incongruous sidekick wearing a domino mask looks exactly like the Pet Kid that Bruce Wayne has living in his mansion. Besides: even the World’s Greatest Detective must realize how much DNA he’s leaving on every crime scene he’s bleeding or sweating all over. This isn’t even touching the notion of all the Bat-paraphernalia he couldn’t possibly get away with owning, guarded by nothing more than a waterfall on the outside, and a Grandfather Clock to keep visitors out of the underground den of near terrorist-level activity. TOTALLY POSSIBLE, indeed.
So let’s take a step back. Allow me to shrug off the disposition that I’m sure has managed to alienate many readers who consider Batman (and the Christopher Nolan trilogy) some pinnacle of character, and cinematic, execution. Let’s consider the notion of a Real World Batman, and what that would look like. I know just the example, and you probably haven’t seen it. If you have, you probably dismissed it outright, because it’s a dumb, cheap, and xenophobic, Japanese-hating serial produced by Columbia Pictures…a studio that would go on to be purchased by Sony, a Japanese company. Think about that last point if and when you next watch 1943’s THE BATMAN.
I made an argument a few months back that the live-action AMAZING SPIDER-MAN show from the 70s was the most fascinating take on the character, as it showed what an actual guy would look like if he tried to replicate what we saw in the comics, for real (and with all the No Money that Peter Parker supposedly has in his wallet). THE BATMAN operates in similar fashion, with the notable difference being that the Caped Crusader can’t stick to walls, doesn’t have a Spider-Sense, and has the same physical strength as his similarly “normal” opponents. In other words, Lambert Hillyer’s 15-part epic is an actual, no-shit depiction of Bob Kane’s character brought to glorious life in the actual era of his comic book genesis.
That last point is particularly important. The Batman most fans think of is a guy who gets around in a variety of armored cars, tanks, and planes; when he isn’t using one of these methods of transport, he’s traversing Gotham City by way of zip lines and grappling guns. He uses a variety of explosives, adhesives, and devices to heat or freeze just about any substance. His utility belt has cures for every known ailment (and even the unknown variety, because he’s thought that far ahead). He carries portable breathing apparatuses for breathing underwater, or in space. And it’s not just Bruce who has every conceivable situation covered, single-handedly -- his butler‘s resume contains a lengthy list of ADDITIONAL SKILLS including Genius-Level Surgeon, Mechanic, Military Strategist, Chemist, Engineer, and Time Management Expert (best exemplified by the way in which he manages to carve out time and energy to clean the toilets and prepare those “ferocious” chicken sandwiches Nightwing loves so much). ALSO: Batman can punch a shark in the face, and not in an ironic way. Seriously, he keeps punching sharks in the face. It’s an ongoing thing.
This isn’t the Batman who first appeared in Detective Comics #27 back in 1939. That Batman not only worse tiny purple gloves that didn’t compliment the rest of his black and grey ensemble; he actually, no kidding, used a gun. The I HATE FIREARMS BECAUSE THEY KILLED MY PARENTS! thing wouldn’t come along until later, along with the BATMAN DOESN’T KILL! rule that people mistake as having been a part of the character’s DNA. It wasn’t. As originally presented, Batman was a guy in tights who shot some people, punched the rest, and then went home with a kid who wore short, tight panties. It was an incredibly low-fi (and sexy!) affair.
And that’s what THE BATMAN gives us: a character who – in real publication time – wasn’t even old enough for Kindergarten, and who was getting busy using the tools of the era. His costume was competent yet amateurish (after all, he couldn’t exactly order it online, nor did he have in-universe superheroes to use as a reference point for how he ought to look). His underground headquarters was, well, just a cave with a desk and a couple of chairs. Best of all? He drove a car. Not a Batmobile, mind you – a Cadillac. The exact same Cadillac he also drove when he was out and about as Bruce Wayne. Take that, Christopher Nolan!
I mentioned that the character was still in his relative infancy. Batman may turn eighty this year, but he was four years old when the first serial reared its racist head back in 1943. Many of those items I listed previously -– namely the more technologically advanced gadgets – were still decades out from their earliest pulp inspirations; but so many of those Givens were anything but. The Batmobile, as I said, didn’t appear onscreen, but the Batcave did, because it was created specifically for the serial,* along with the Grandfather Clock that served as its entryway. Oh, and that tall, slender, proper-English-butler-looking fellow dusting said Grandfather Clock? That’s not an actor cast to slavishly depict the comic book version of Alfred Pennyworth, who was a portly Mr. Monopoly Guy type on-page…until the serial was in release, that is. After that, Alfred received a physical makeover. These aren’t insignificant nitpicks, but rather acknowledgment for THE BATMAN’s influence on eight decades’ worth of iconography – much the same way that the SUPERMAN radio show introduced minor people and plot points such as Lex Luthor and Kryptonite.
While the earliest appearances in Detective Comics – prior to the spinoff book, simply titled Batman – presented Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego as a weird creature of the night, the serial presents the character both as the Robin-saddled, Good Citizen-friendly crime-fighter he was becoming in newsprint, and who he’d actually be on the streets of Gotham, circa 1943. In other words, he’s hilarious. By my estimation, the most effective onscreen presentation of the character to date has been the first BATMAN (1989): not only is the costume modified to enhance both Michael Keaton’s physique and gravitas, but a point is made to keep his face shadowed and mysterious; this latter element s dropped in the sequel. Even so, semi-authentic replicas of the outfit are available online, and a million Dads have worn reasonable facsimiles to a million birthday parties. Batman IRL looks ridiculous, especially when serious-minded auteurs like Christopher Nolan try to drop him into scenes designed to evoke realism. The odds that criminals would be cowering in fear of The Dark Knight are slim; chances are, they’d be having a laugh over the idiot in tights and a cape who was running around with a kid, trying to scare people.
That’s what you get here, in fifteen very long chapters. Batman isn’t putting on a Monster Voice — he’s punching gangsters in broad daylight and then calling the cops, literally giggling as he informs them in a thick, New England accent of the present he’s tied to a street lamp. The unnamed Police Captain doesn’t respond in awe to this mysterious vigilante prowling the streets; instead, he more or less shakes his head, and tells his officers to come with him to check out what the lunatic who dresses up as an animal is yammering about. Neither member of the Dynamic Duo bother to conceal their vocal identities during these pay phone adventures, and make a point of calling one another by their first names while in costume. The “Batman Rules” weren’t in full effect as we currently know them, and these rules have since been honed by countless writers in a valiant effort to make the character seem less foolish than he’d be were he in fact walking the Earth today.
Robin presents a whole new set of problems. As presented on the page, he’s always been something of an albatross. Actualized on the screen, he repeatedly punches the Get The Fuck Outta Here button more effectively than he does the denizens of the criminal underworld. It doesn’t help that Douglas Croft’s thick, curly hair makes him even more distinctive in and out of costume than the illustrated Dick Grayson, rendering his bizarre and constant relationship with a constantly-yawning playboy like Bruce Wayne all the more noticeable, and creepy. Dr. Wertham had plenty of fertile ground to plough during his attack on the BATMAN premise, and whether or not the psycho-sexual readings of the Bruce/Dick pairing are simply a case of reading too much into things, the realization of this partnership presents the reading as a valid interpretation. Seduction of the Innocent was an attack on the comic industry’s perceived negative influence on young audiences, and one that many felt went too far, particularly in retrospect; but a guy running around wearing his underwear over his pants, subjecting a minor to potentially-fatal scenarios, would cause genuine civic outcry rather than hero worship. Imagine the thousands of Facebook memes and church signs a real world Robin would inspire.
But there’s a catch…! This Batman isn’t working outside of the law (except for when he is, but isn’t): he’s been recruited by Uncle Sam to track down the nefarious Japs who’ve formed a crime syndicate under the leadership of Dr. Tito Daka (played by that Man of a Thousand Racist Caricatures, J. Carrol Naish). As such, he’s a secret government agent, which begs the question of whether the cape was their idea or his. One would think there would be considerably more effort to select a candidate less public than Bruce Wayne, and to likewise employ a greater degree of oversight. Hell, maybe a better getaway car, or even just a presence in Gotham to run interference with the police force. The key question is what constitutes the secret in “secret government agent,” and why a weirdo dressed up like a bat would be the first choice to swing the iron fist of Justice in response to Pearl Harbor. Then again, Daka’s Big Evil Plan involves creating decidedly non-Romero-like zombies, so it was clear that absolutely no one, good or bad, was thinking clearly during WWII.
While Nolan’s slavish devotion to plausibility works in terms of the villains (a terrorist with a breathing apparatus; a lunatic in greasepaint; an unhinged psychologist who puts on a burlap sack before spraying victims with fear gas; the star of LOVE ACTUALLY with a goatee), he simply can’t make his protagonist look anything more than perpetually goofy. Lewis Wilson, decked out in his crude circus strongman getup and punching “Jap devils” alongside a teenager who’d get shot in the face three seconds in, is differentiated by production values only. Only by viewing Gotham City through the off-kilter lens of warped reality can Batman exist. Commissioner Gordon lets out a Droopy Dog-like Oh. My. God. when he first lays eyes on Michael Keaton at Axis Chemicals, and it’s equally-relevant to interpret that response as a man stunned by the sight of an urban legend made suddenly manifest, or a lunatic with military-grade weaponry who’s dressed like a flying mouse. The distorted Burtonverse allows such interpretation. Stark realism offers only the latter, and then only at best.
Most aficionados are quick to dismiss THE BATMAN as cheap, stupid, and offensive. It is. By that same token, anyone claiming that it doesn’t accurately represent The Dark Knight is wrong. For one thing, it, like BATMAN ’66, portrays (and betrays) the source material during the time the live-action depictions were made. Just as importantly, this is the “plausible” flesh and blood realization of a character we haven’t seen depicted in that specific fashion despite many claims to the contrary. All that’s missing is the flipside to the story, in which we chronicle Gotham’s real-world reaction to the baffling lunacy taking place in broad daylight around them, where psychologically-incompetent citizens put on animal-themed Spandex and take to the streets to dish out a very bizarre brand of vigilante justice. If ever there’s been a BATMAN film begging to be made, this is the one.
*While the Batcave – referred to onscreen as “The Bat’s Cave” -- made its first comic book appearance three months before its live-action debut, there’s little doubt that even as rushed a production as THE BATMAN would require development time predating Bob Kane’s suspiciously quick introduction to the four-color mythos. Kane never acknowledged this any more than he was willing to credit Jerry Robinson and Bill Finger for their sizable contributions to Bat-Lore, making Kane the first in long, depressing line of comic book creators willing to steal credit from collaborators.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)