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.
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).
Last week, we looked at the Joker as portrayed by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman and analyzed his five traits:
- Criminally, murderously sociopathic
- Wickedly macabre sense of humor
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?
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…)