Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Tag: Batman

The Man Behind the Mask: On the Creation of Batman—and Rewriting Authorship Itself

Pop quiz:  Who created Batman?

Even if you think you know the answer, it’s very possible your information is outdated.

Detective Comics no. 27, the first appearance of Batman

Detective Comics no. 27, the first appearance of Batman

In 1939, illustrator Bob Kane (1915–1998) was tasked by DC Comics editor Vin Sullivan to devise a character for Detective Comics that could complement—and ideally capitalize on the success of—the costumed hero who had the year earlier made his debut in the pages of Action Comics:  Superman.  Inspired in equal measure by Leonardo da Vinci’s 1485 design sketches of an “ornithopter,” a 1930 mystery movie entitled The Bat Whispers, and the 1920 silent film The Mark of Zorro starring Douglas Fairbanks, the commercially savvy Kane managed in short order to assemble the Bat-Man “from an assortment of pop culture debris that together transcended the sum of its parts” (Grant Morrison, Supergods:  What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human, [New York:  Spiegel & Grau, 2011], 17).  Part nocturnal predator, part avenging angel—with a secret identity as a millionaire playboy, to boot—Batman was the Gothic (k)night to Superman’s sunny savior of the day.  An enduring icon had, against astronomical odds, been created, albeit removed from a narrative framework:

“‘When I created the Batman,’ admitted Bob Kane, ‘I wasn’t thinking of story.  I was thinking, I have to come up with a character who’s different,’ and as an artist he was clearly more concerned with pictures than plot.  [Writer Bill] Finger, however, was a born story man, blessed with enough pictorial sense to realize what would work in comics” (Les Daniels, Batman:  The Complete History, [San Francisco:  Chronicle Books, 1999], 23).

Finger, a friend and former high-school classmate of Kane’s, further fleshed out the character, whom he saw “as a combination of Alexandre Dumas’s swashbuckler D’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers (1844) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes” (ibid.), and wrote countless Batman scripts in the years that followed.  By even Kane’s own admission, Finger embellished and contributed to many aspects of the mythos (including rechristening what was initially New York as “Gotham City”), yet was never credited as co-creator of Batman:  “Bob Kane had made his deal with DC Comics on his own, and Finger was merely Kane’s employee” (ibid., 31).

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The Great Escape: What the Ascendancy of Comic-Book Culture Tells Us about Ourselves

Lest anyone doubt the real-world superheroic capabilities of a fictional character, let me state for the record that Batman taught me how to read.

For in watching the syndicated reruns of the Adam West series in the late seventies—the kitschy opening credits, specifically—my not-yet-literate mind eventually recognized a correlation between the splashy title-card logo and repetitive choral chant that accompanied it, and “Batman” became the first word I could read and write.  Absolutely true story.

"Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba! Batman!"

“Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba! Bat-man!”

I loved the old Batman show—the pop-art color scheme and Dutch angles (not that I took conscious note of such stylistics at the time) were like a cartoon come to life.  The camp humor?  Entirely lost on me:  When Batman and Robin slid down the Batpoles and zoomed off in the Batmobile—staged in that glorious life-sized playset of a Batcave—the sense of adventure was kinetic.  And when the villain-of-the-week left our heroes for dead in some Rube Goldbergian contraption—their fate to be determined in twenty-four agonizing hours!—the tension was excruciating.

Unlike most of my heroes at that time—Michael Knight, the Duke boys—the Dynamic Duo weren’t confined to the limited jurisdiction of their own fictional worlds, but rather popped up elsewhere, too, in animated form on The New Scooby-Doo Movies and Super Friends, and I never quite understood why no one had thought to put Adam West, Christopher Reeve, and Lynda Carter in a movie together; with no concept of copyright issues or irreconcilable aesthetics or what later came to be called “shared cinematic universes,” it seemed like a no-brainer to assemble an all-star superhero team from the preexisting talent pool.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Thirty-five years after I—along with an entire generation raised on the same pop-cultural diet, it turns out—first dreamed it, the team formerly known as the Super Friends are getting the tent-pole treatment next month with the release of Batman v Superman:  Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros.’ opening-salvo attempt at the kind of license to print cash shared cinematic universe Marvel has so deftly pioneered (to the envy of every studio in Hollywood).  Fanboy anticipation is at a full boil, if enthusiasm on social media is any barometer; many are counting down the days with a breadth of fanaticism ordinarily reserved for the Second Coming, others forecasting the would-be mega-franchise’s stillbirth, but all are anxiously awaiting Dawn.

Not me, though.  I can say with absolute and irrevocable certainty that I’ll be sitting out Batman v Superman—in theaters, on home video, on cable.  In perpetuity.

But, more on that shortly.

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The Lost World: An Unusual Hollywood Cautionary Tale

The other week, journalist Olly Richards published a heartbreaking piece in The Telegraph called “How Kerry Conran saw Hollywood’s future—then got left behind.”  It’s worth reading in its entirety, but, in short, it recounts the unorthodox journey of the Conran brothers, Kerry and Kevin, the former a magazine designer and the latter a freelance ad illustrator (neither with any apparent foothold in Hollywood at the time), who set out to make a cost-efficient, feature-length, dieselpunk effects fantasy entirely via blue-screen compositing, a speculative project that ultimately came to the attention of producer Jon Avnet (The Mighty Ducks, Fried Green Tomatoes), who secured the participation of big-screen stars Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jude Law.  The resulting film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), which Kerry wrote and directed (with Kevin serving as costume and production designer), represents a quantum leap in contemporary effects-driven filmmaking, in which immersive, world-building spectacles, once achieved strictly via painstaking practical effects and/or arduous location shooting (think the original Star Wars, with its model spaceships and exotic Tunisian locales) would forevermore be rendered digitally—and economically—from the comfort of a Hollywood studio.  In the wake of their cinematic accomplishment, the Conrans were invited to participate in a summit at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in which visionaries the likes of James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, Brad Bird, and Robert Rodriguez were in attendance—and professed to be genuine fans of the Conrans’ groundbreaking work (as did J. J. Abrams, per Kevin, on another occasion).

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Stoking the Fire: Finding Versatility in Genre Conventions

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy represents cinematic perfection to me:  Batman Begins (2005) was the Batman movie I’d waited my whole life to see; then, much like Batman himself emerging from the cover of shadow when least expected, came The Dark Knight (2008), a gripping thriller à la Michael Mann’s Heat in which the Al Pacino and Robert De Niro roles were assumed, quite credibly somehow, by Batman and the Joker; and just as no artist before Nolan had tackled the early days of Batman’s crime-fighting career (including his apprenticeship and inspiration to go vigilante), no one had authored its concluding chapter, either, until The Dark Knight Rises (2012)—it is, if you take my meaning, the Last Batman Story.  For a character that had been in continuous publication—across multiple media—for seventy years at the time these films were produced, Nolan managed to find new, vital aspects of Batman’s rich hagiography to explore.

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A Profile in Superheroics: Norm Breyfogle

In my analysis of the Joker, I made brief mention of Norm Breyfogle, the masterful comic-book illustrator whose work graced the pages of, successively, Detective Comics, Batman, and Batman:  Shadow of the Bat between 1987 and 1992.  Mr. Breyfogle began his tenure as resident Bat-artist at a very exciting time for the Caped Crusader:  Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) had just rocked the comics world, heralding a brand-new era for both the legendary character and the medium itself, and Tim Burton’s Batman would go on to become the highest-grossing film of 1989, thrusting its titular hero out of the shadows of specialty shops and into the national spotlight, irrevocably changing both the comics and movie businesses in the process (probably for the worse in both cases, but that’s a subject for another article, I suppose).

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Who’s Laughing Now? Different Depictions of the Joker, Part 2

Last week, we looked at the Joker as portrayed by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman and analyzed his five traits:

  1. Criminally, murderously sociopathic
  2. Wickedly macabre sense of humor
  3. Grandiose/theatrical
  4. Artistic/aesthetic
  5. Egomaniacal

This interpretation somewhat varied from those that had come before it:  He was certainly more lethal than Cesar Romero’s Clown Prince of Crime from the old Adam West series, and artistic is such a singular Tim Burton peculiarity—a signature he left on the crazy-quilt mosaic that comprises the Joker in his ever-evolving mythic totality; in American Idol’s clichéd parlance, Burton “made it his own.”  His Joker shared an undeniable DNA strand with the arch-villain created by Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger, and Bob Kane in 1940, the one later personified by Romero in the sixties, as well as then-contemporary comic incarnations as envisioned by Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns), Alan Moore (The Killing Joke), and Grant Morrison (Arkham Asylum:  A Serious House on Serious Earth), despite the markedly different aesthetics within which each of those varied interpretations were realized.

Because where is the line drawn, really, between a reinterpretation and an altogether different character?  How does an artist (in a vocationally general sense) redefine a folkloric figure to reflect his own personal idiosyncrasies, the sociocultural conditions of the day, or both, while still working within the recognizable parameters of a time-honored fictional creation?

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Who’s Laughing Now? Different Depictions of the Joker, Part 1

To commemorate his seventy-fifth anniversary, the United States Postal Service recently released a sheet of stamps featuring an illustration of Batman from each of the four culturally designated periods of comic-book history:  Golden Age; Silver Age; Bronze Age; Modern Age.  In light of Entertainment Weekly’s recent observation that we seemed to have reached peak Batman saturation, I can’t help but feel a nostalgic longing for the Batman of my youth.  My Batman.  You know the one I mean:  The Batman that hopped behind the bubbled windshield of the Batmobile, an earnest Robin riding shotgun, fiery thrust of the afterburner blasting my heroes from the Batcave…

Hmm.  That could’ve been several different Batmans—even in those more innocent times (for him and me)—now that I’m thinking it over.  My first exposure to the Caped Crusader came in the form of syndicated afternoon reruns of the old Adam West series (which had ended its run over a decade earlier); at some point, my not-yet-literate mind recognized a correlation between the show’s splashy opening logo and repetitive choral chant that accompanied it, and “Batman,” to my mother’s surprise and delight, became the first word I could read and write.  (She was, mercifully, apparently either unaware of or unconcerned with the admonitions of Fredric Wertham a quarter century prior.)  Batman also had a strong animated presence at the time, appearing concurrently in a Filmation series that served as a de facto sequel to the ‘60s live-action show, as well as the long-running Super Friends franchise from Hanna-Barbera.  (That these aired on competing networks, something that would never happen today, only serves to illustrate how comic-book characters have gone, in my lifetime, from licensed-property afterthoughts to tightly leashed, billion-dollar corporate assets.  But, that’s a topic for another article…)

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