I kept a diary when I was young. On Monday 13th February, 1978, I wrote a story about Batman. I don’t know if it was the first time I wrote about Batman – it certainly wasn’t the last – and I don’t know where that diary is anymore. I don’t need to know. I can now find my story online, within seconds, on Google Books.
I started my PhD in 1996. I didn’t think of it as a book. I was writing it for a couple of people – my supervisors – and perhaps also for myself. It was the first thing of that length I’d ever written – 103,000 words, over three years – and I thought it might be the last thing of that length I would ever write. So I put a lot of myself into it. Some of it was arrogant, some of it was pretentious, some of it was stupid. I put it all in there, and then I put it all out there, out into the world, as a book called Batman Unmasked, in the first months of a new millennium.
In 2005, I was asked to write about Batman again for Alan McKee’s Beautiful Things in Popular Culture. Like before I wrote about Batman and myself:
You have… a relationship with a man, an older man, for around three years. You get used to people asking how he’s doing when they meet you; you’re treated as a couple, your names joined in friends’ minds. It ends amicably, affectionately. No big split, just a drifting, a sense that this period of your life is now over. You take his pictures off your wall, file the souvenirs away. People ask you about him as if you should know; you tell them that was years ago. Gossip about him filters through to you from time to time: he’s revamped his image; he’s been seen with a new partner or an old flame. You wish him well.
And then someone asks you to name the best time. To pick out one adventure, one great day, one moment.
Batman, to me, is more than a character from comics, films, and television: Batman is a phase of my life, from 1996 to 1999, when I holed up in Cardiff – in an apartment as tiny as a monk’s cell, the shower in a cupboard next to the kitchen sink and the bathroom a dank cubicle – and plastered images of my chosen icon across the walls, loading the shelves with graphic novels. Even now, five years and five books later, I still carry the label the tabloids gave me when they discovered my PhD research, one day in spring 99: Doctor Batman.
Batman, to me, is a photo-album of moments: a montage compiled of snatched clips from 60 years: a flick-book of images, each with its own charm, each tugging with it a rush of memories. The ‘Negative Batman’, reverse-processed and fearing the light, from an annual in the 1970s; the Adam West Batman, always heroic rather than ridiculous when I watched him as a child; the Denny O’Neil ‘Shaman’ Batman, which gave me fever dreams during a week of flu; the stark, ludicrously brutal Batman of the first, late-30s episodes, dealing out death and rough justice; the thin-lipped, scar-hardened Batman of Grant Morrison’s Justice League comics, which I followed religiously every month; the stylized Expressionist Batman of the animated TV series, swooping across the city with more grace than any human actor could hope for.
Around 2008, I came back to Batman. I deliberately avoided reading my earlier work, as much as I could, and avoided putting myself into the writing: I felt the world had seen enough of my diaries.
In Hunting the Dark Knight, I describe Batman as myth and mosaic:
Batman fights crime in Gotham City, aided by his trained mind and physique, and supported by his wealth and ingenuity rather than any superpowers. That essential framework can hold Frank Miller’s Batman, Joel Schumacher’s Batman, Bob Kane’s Batman, and even – with only a little generosity in the interpretation – Adam West’s Batman. This Batman encompasses everything he has been: he is ridiculous and fearsome, a fatherly protector, a big boy scout, a grim vigilante and a gothic guardian. Each individual story and iteration is an expression of the archetype, a part of the whole; the myth is the langue from which each story is the parole, and each new narrative also contributes to the whole, building our many-faceted sense – partly a shared sense, partly entirely individual – of what Batman is. The figure at the heart of this process is a mosaic icon: a collage of images and graffiti, portraits and texts, some serious and dark, some light and silly. It is never finished, it catches the light differently depending on your angle, and it belongs, in its crazy, glorious complexity, to all those who help construct it; that is, all of us who can imagine Batman.
So I couldn’t avoid being pretentious, but I managed to avoid the personal. People still ask, though, in real life and online, about my favourite Batman. They also ask, often, whether I own a Batman costume myself. The questions are related.
There are two answers. If anything, my attitude to Batman – my love for Batman – has become broader, more all-embracing, during the sixteen years since I started my PhD. Then, I openly preferred the heavy-set, gruff commander of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, who scolds Robin for going off-message but also hugs and comforts her: ‘Good soldier. Good soldier.’ I also admired the towering, swooping figure of the animated series, built like a brick outhouse but agile as a cat. We can pick the Batman who suits us and our age, and I had rediscovered the character – and comics – at the age of 16, when my dad brought home Miller’s monthly series. No wonder I still identified with Robin – is it notable that Frank Miller’s Robin was a girl? I don’t know – and enjoyed the idea of a Batman I could look up to, a protector, the grim general of a crime-fighting family.
Time is notoriously slippery in comics; but Batman, in current canon and continuity, is about thirty-three. Something shifts when you become older than Batman. You see him as more fallible, more ridiculous and flawed – a bit try-hard sometimes, too set in his ways – but you can also see him more generously, as you would someone you’ve watched growing up. You’ve seen him being silly, and that shapes your perception of him whenever he tries to be serious. You don’t like everything he does, but overall, you love him in all his varieties.
I like the fact that this is Batman:
And this is also Batman:
Both hoping desperately to be taken seriously, despite their stupid costumes.
I like this Batman, who seems to accept his own inherent camp, and knows the importance of acting like a lawman while you’re looking like a clown.
But there’s another answer. I like Batman because he’s a man, dressed as a bat. He isn’t a Kryptonian, or an Amazon, or a Green Lantern; he isn’t a Martian Manhunter, or a Flash, gifted by science and the supernatural with the Speed Force. He’s just a man. And yet he walks with gods, and holds his own. He can even scare Superman.
Batman represents a fantasy – but an almost-plausible fantasy – of what we could be if we just tried hard enough, studied hard enough, trained hard enough. To me, the key appeal of Batman as a character is that you could possibly, possibly, be him… maybe if you’d started twenty years ago, and your loved ones had been killed, and you’d inherited a lot of money. Maybe if you started tomorrow and worked really, really hard.
It’s a fantasy. But it’s a fantasy just within reach, unlike becoming a super-powered alien or an Amazon. Bruce Wayne is a very rich, very clever, very athletic man, but he’s just a man.
And that’s why, on one level, I like the Batmen who seem most human. I like the Batman of Miller’s Year One; the way he makes mistakes and tells himself ‘lucky amateur’, the way you can see the folds in his bodysuit, the way he’s the same size and build as an average cop.
It’s why I like Christopher Nolan’s Batman, grinding his own weapons and spraying his own costume, and letting every viewer share in the fantasy that, sure, if they had a big enough garage and the right order from eBay, they could do pretty much the same thing.
I like these versions of Batman because their costumes are chunky and crude, pieced-together rather than custom-made. Paul Pope’s Batman Year 100 wears shorts like a champion boxer, and solid, lace-up boots; Mike Mignola’s vigilante from Gotham by Gaslight has a heavily-stitched overcoat rather than a cape.
I like them, in simple terms, because you could be those Batmen.
Have I ever owned a Batman costume? Not exactly. But you can go a little crazy in the final six months of your PhD, cooped up in a tiny cell of an apartment, immersing yourself in the myth of a man who dresses up and fights crime. Especially when you’ve been in a fever for a week, dreaming of shamans and totems, and one night your head clears and the window opens to the night, and it seems so much more inviting than leaving by the front door. No, I didn’t have a costume. But I had a coat like that, and boots like that, and leather gloves, and a small city to explore.
Do I own a costume now? Not exactly. But after reading Batman Year: 100, while writing my last book, I went out and spent £150 on these boots. ■
Will Brooker is the leading expert on the Dark Knight, and his new book Hunting the Dark Knight: 21st Century Batman is out later this month. He is Reader and Director of Research in Film and Television at Kingston University, London, and the first British editor of Cinema Journal. Follow him on Twitter @willbrooker
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