Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Goddamn Batman #1-9

With the upcoming release of The Dark Knight, you’re probably going to be hearing a lot of interviews about how Chris Nolan wanted to make it “just like the graphic novels,” i.e. dark and grim and gritty. Now, the very notion of creating a Batman film that’s true to the comics is a bit ridiculous. The comics have spanned everything from the legendary Rainbow Batman to the archetypal darkness of The Dark Knight Returns. So, in some ways the Adam West Batman is true to the comics, in some ways Batman Begins is true to the comics. Unlike Marvel characters, and despite Grant Morrison’s best efforts, Batman doesn’t really have any sort of logical character arc, he’s a myth, a collection of elements that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Writing Batman is like playing jazz, it’s the same few notes, but everyone plays them differently.

So, I don’t think a Batman movie has an obligation to be “true to the comics.” Batman Returns is one of my favorite movies of all time, but it doesn’t resemble any particular Batman comic. It’s the intersection of Tim Burton’s thematic concerns and the Batman archetype. It’s almost absurdly self indulgent, and at times ridiculous, but still brilliant. That same sentiment applies to Frank Miller’s latest take on the Dark Knight, or should I say The Goddamn Batman.

I’ve been following the online reaction to the series, and have been wanting to read it ever since I saw the legendary panel from issue 2. “Are you retarded? Are you dense or something? I’m the Goddamn Batman.” How could it be real? What kind of story could contain such a speech? I wasn’t going in looking for something traditional, I wanted the insanity promised by that panel. I wanted the Goddamn Batman, and Miller delivers. This is a series that is at times completely nonsensical, but hangs together, and really works for me as it goes along. It’s better than Morrison’s take on the character, and far better than Jim Lee’s previous run on the character, Hush.

Part of why I really like the book is the way it continues the stylistic approach of Miller’s brilliant Dark Knight Strikes Again. Rather than being a dark and tormented soul, the Batman of DKSA and this book loves what he’s doing. Nothing pleases him more than beating up a gang of crooks, the height of the series so far for me is issue #7 in which Batman assaults a gang, then proceeds to fuck Black Canary, with the masks on because “it’s better that way.” The book is perhaps the most quotable comic of all time, there’s so many over the top lines. How could the book seriously contain the line “I’ve taken enough grief about calling my goddamn car the goddamn Batmobile. I’m the goddamn Batman and I can call my goddamn car whatever the hell I want to call it.” “Sweet Jesus, the goddamn Batman!” indeed.

There’s some works where all logic and real world coherence is left behind in favor of an immersion in a creator’s obsessions. This is Frank Miller with the filter off, you could easily imagine him saying “I’ve taken enough grief about calling him the goddamn Batman. I’m the goddamn Frank Miller and I can write my goddamn Batman however the hell I please.” I guess people were expecting something more coherent, a dark and serious look at the character, along the lines of Year One. But, that era of comics is over. Frank Miller knows it, but the world’s a bit behind. The thing I love about this book is the way it’s still dark and gritty, but within that milieu is full of total insanity. Miller goes beyond parodying himself right from page 2, with those totally gratuitous shots of Vicki Vale in lingerie and heels. There’s no reason for it except he wants it to be there, so it is. I love the absurdity of that panel with a shirtless Alfred holding Vicki in the train, yes it’s ridiculous, but this is a comic about a man who dresses up as a bat. Batman’s insane, this world is insane and everything’s played totally over the top.

Reality is boring, and even if you don’t think so, don’t you get enough of it in the life you’re living here? Isn’t it nice to take a trip to the intersection of the DC Universe and Frank Miller’s brain, to spend a little bit of time in a world where Wonder Woman calls a man a sperm bank and Batman tells Robin to eat rats, all the while laughing maniacally. He loves being the goddamn Batman, and I love watching him be the goddamn Batman. This is the most exciting Batman comic I’ve read since DKSA, if Batman is the devil in the knight, fighting evil, shouldn’t there be an element of danger about the character. There’s a danger and exhilaration in what he’s doing, and you share that feeling as you read the book.

In this book, Batman is chaos, while the JLA is order. In their confrontations, we see the way that Batman can overwhelm people with power much greater than his because he is always one step ahead of them. Batman is fighting chaos with his own kind of chaos. His methods are infectious and empower others. That’s why I really like the time spent on Black Canary in issue 3. We see her listening to all these ridiculous taunts, and rather than just accept how things are, she decides to fight back, because that’s what the goddamn Batman would do. It’s the same for Batgirl, who hops out into the night rather than stay at home, because she wants to be like Batman. In Miller’s world, Batman is emblematic of the citizen’s right to take the streets back. That was the revolutionary message of DKSA and we see it here again. I’m guessing down the line we’ll see a confrontation between Batman and his gang, and the JLA.

It certainly seems like Miller and Lee will be on the book for a while. The Joker plot is just getting started, and I’m eager to see how he integrates Selina into this world. I felt like she would have fit in the role he had Black Canary play, but I guess he’s got something else for her to do down the line.

Much as I enjoy the insanity, throughout the book, it’s clear that Batman is putting on a persona. Robin constantly makes note of how fake his voice sounds, like a Clint Eastwood imitation. He plays at being this badass, but underneath it all, he’s just a scarred little boy. The last scene of issue #9 is the first moment of real emotion, when the momentum of everything that’s happened slows, and we see Dick mourn his parents for the first time. There, Batman sees that his approach might not have been the best. He’s turning Dick into something worse than himself. I like the way he can segue from this hilarious segment involving Batman and Robin taunting Hal with the yellow house into something pretty harrowing when Batman thinks Dick might have killed Hal. For the first time since issue #1, we see Batman without the mask. He may love being the Goddamn Batman, but he doesn’t want to see this kid become a murderer on his watch.

So, I’m not sure where the series will go in the future. I hope the over the top craziness continues, but I wouldn’t mind seeing some real emotion mixed in. What does Batman’s behavior do to the city? When will the wrong people get hurt, and how will Robin help to heal Batman’s deep wounds?

I also want to throw some respect to Jim Lee’s artwork. He’s one of those people who was so popular, I think it’s easy to say he’s overrated or take him for granted. This is my favorite Jim Lee art to date, he does a great job of conveying the characters’ emotions and can handle even the craziest things Miller can come up with. He captures the spirit of Miller’s own pencils, but gets his own style in there too.

For me, this is pretty much the perfect Batman book. It takes the spirit of Dark Knight Strikes Again and applies it to the present day of Batman continuity. Miller indulges all his whims, and that’s what makes the book work. You’ve got to take it on its own terms, get in tune with its over the top tone and just roll with it. I mean, are you retarded or something, this is the goddamn Batman.


antmansbigXmas said...

I liked alot of the points you made about Batman. Very insightful. I've always felt the same way - that the campy 60's era Batman is as much "true to the comics" as is any other interpretation, and that it has its place among the mythology. I don't know about Miller's All-Star run though; the over-the-top-ness is a little much for me. said...

Well, I do not really imagine this is likely to work.