Fates Worse Than Death: Batman and Robin (1949)

Welcome back to Fates Worse Than Death (#summerserials on Twitter). I’ll be exploring the legacy of the motion picture serial every week this summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day (which, yes, is more ambitious than last year’s biweekly schedule, so wish me luck). You can read the introduction to last year’s series here to see what this is all about, and you can access the complete list of last year’s entries by visiting the Series page.

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“Crime, stalking our city by night and day, is on the increase! Our undermanned police force is helpless to cope with the situation. But they have an ally: Batman, who, with the faithful Robin, wages unending war against all criminals!” The stentorian voice-over is accompanied by a montage of the Dynamic Duo fighting it out with a variety of gangsters and henchmen interspersed with spinning headlines describing their victories. Batman and Robin are already established crimefighters with a reputation for cleaning up the streets. However, their greatest threat looms before them: will they have what it takes to wrest Gotham City from the remote-control terror of the masked villain known only as the Wizard?

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After I reviewed 1943’s Batman serial last summer, a friend warned me that the 1949 follow-up Batman and Robin was “less racist but somehow more terrible.” Batman and Robin is much less offensive: unlike the wartime Batman, Batman and Robin has no need to demonize the Japanese or anyone else, and is purely cops-and-robbers. It’s unfortunately deficient in energy and suspense, however, so my friend’s warning proved sadly apt.

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The problems start with leads Robert Lowery as Bruce Wayne/Batman and John Duncan as Dick Grayson/Robin, who are not very convincing as either superheroes or their civilian alter egos. (Duncan in particular is cursed with marble-mouthed line delivery and is just plain too old to be the “Boy” Wonder.) They continue with a plot that, in true serial fashion, is at once baldly simple—a criminal mastermind who calls himself the Wizard has stolen a high-tech gizmo that allows him to take control of any vehicle at a distance, bringing Gotham City to its knees—and at the same time confusingly roundabout, with a boatload of characters and each chapter featuring its own distinctive crisis or mission.

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It’s not all bad, however (and Batman and Robin is far from the worst serial I’ve seen). For fans of the comics, Batman and Robin gets closer to the character’s essence than Batman, and includes such familiar characters as faithful butler Alfred (who has much more presence here, and participates by wearing some disguises and driving the car) and Commissioner Gordon, and such essential props as the Bat Signal (there’s still no Batmobile as such, however: at least once the villains wonder why Batman showed up driving Bruce Wayne’s car). There are no criminals left for the police with the “sign of the bat” stamped on their foreheads, nor is Batman presented as a government agent secretly working with Uncle Sam. One new character, photographer Vicki Vale, would prove popular enough to appear in Batman’s comic book adventures, where she is now an established part of his mythos (just as the Bat Cave was introduced in the ’43 serial and has become a constant fixture of Batman’s adventures).

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The biggest change for comics readers is the villain: the Wizard himself, a hooded, cloaked figure of scientific genius and unshakeable confidence (“I always have a plan!” he states more than once), is a type frequently found in contemporary pulp magazines and in other serials. Unlike the themed villains that were already facing off against Batman in the comics, the Wizard is fairly generic, using superscience to project his image at great distances, extract secrets by hypnotic suggestion, controlling his henchmen from a secret lair accessible only by submarine, and even making himself invisible for brief stretches.

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As is often the case, his identity is unknown until the final chapter, but several candidates are presented to the audience: is the Wizard actually radio newsman Barry Brown, whose broadcasts always seem to include information that the Wizard’s gang needs to commit their crimes? Or is it wheelchair-bound Professor Hammil, the inventor of the remote control device, who regularly visits a secret laboratory and rejuvenates himself so that he can stand and walk for periods of time? Or perhaps it is the private detective Dunne, who always seems to turn up after the Wizard’s crimes have been committed, and claims to be on the trail of the stolen device?

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From one perspective, the problems with Batman and Robin are problems with serialized stories in general, and they are the same problems that comic books, serialized TV shows, and the interconnected feature films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have all had to deal with. To wit, it’s necessary that each installment tell a complete (or nearly complete) story while contributing to the larger arc and teasing a cliffhanger or loose thread that will intrigue audiences enough to return for the next episode. Furthermore, while self-contained stories generally feature change, the classic superheroes are largely static: if one villain is defeated, another will simply arise to take their place.

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Superheroes are often described as “timeless,” and even compared to the gods and heroes of mythology; surely their simple, stylized appearance and highly formulaic (ritualized, one might say) storylines contribute to this feeling, but could their “timelessness” not also be a side effect of the sliding timeline that has made these characters contemporary–and roughly the same age–for over three quarters of a century? A few literary characters have been reinvented in contemporary fashion, their adventures updated so that Sherlock Holmes, for example, has exercised his powers of deduction during both World War II and the War on Terror, and Dracula has awoken to terrorize horror audiences in the 1930s, 1960s, and 1990s (he’s already immortal, though, so perhaps he doesn’t count). That’s different from, say, Indiana Jones, who is inseparable from both a milieu and a definite timeline.

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Timeless, iconic characters, while attractive from the perspective of intellectual property and merchandising, however, must still be able to take part in actual stories–stories where the setting and action are sharpened from the vague dreamtime of the iconic to the specific here and now of this time, this place–if they are to remain current and alive, lest they become only a brand.

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Batman, in particular, is a character that has been interpreted in many different ways, from the kid-friendly “happy warrior” of the Adam West-starring TV show and the Super Friends cartoons to the wounded child of Tim Burton’s films and the Arthurian scion of Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, and that’s only looking at film and television portrayals. Of those, only Burton and Nolan are interested in exploring Batman’s origins and asking (as comics did, post-Watchmen and post-The Dark Knight Returns) why an orphaned millionaire might choose this particular form of costumed vigilantism instead of, say, investing in social programs; and only Nolan chose to bring the Batman myth-cycle to its conclusion, asking what specific act of justice would heal Bruce Wayne sufficiently that he could hang up the cape and cowl for good.

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Although neither serial addresses Batman’s origins, it’s likely that viewers familiar with the comics would at least be aware of his adventures in the comics, and possibly the earlier serial as well, so it doesn’t seem unfair to compare the 1949 serial to other portrayals of the character. All adaptations carry the baggage of already-familiar characters, even if fans in the 1940s wouldn’t have expected their voices to carry like they do now. It’s useful to ask, at least rhetorically, what does this specific version bring to the table, and why was this interpretation resonant at the time it was made? (It’s not necessary for the filmmakers to be conscious of such questions, of course: it wasn’t a given that costumed heroes had anything to say about their cultures in those days, and writers weren’t churning out “thinkpieces” about either the comics or the movies.)

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In this context, the 1943 Batman serial is the wartime Batman: its excesses are those of a nation throwing all of its resources into existential war, and while that doesn’t excuse the racist caricature of Dr. Daka it gives the serial a definite identity, a context in which Batman, like all other costumed heroes of the time, were on the side of good, which meant fighting America’s foes. The 1949 serial has no such purpose, and has no dramatic vision to replace it; like many of the later serials, it is primarily aimed at children, and even within that context it’s mostly going through the motions.

What I watched: Batman and Robin (Columbia, 1949)

Where I watched it: Mill Creek Entertainment’s 2-disc Gotham City Serials, which also includes 1943’s Batman

No. of chapters: 15

Best chapter title: “The Wizard’s Challenge” (chapter 13)

Best cliffhanger: At the end of chapter 14 (“Batman vs. Wizard”), the Wizard, turned invisible by the combination of the remote control device and a “neutralizing ray” designed to counter it (just go with it), attempts to kill Commissioner Gordon (as he has previously threatened to do) by hanging from a rope and shooting Gordon through his office window while Batman and Vicki Vale stand by. The Wizard is invisible, but the rope and gun aren’t, so Gordon appears to be shot by a gun floating in mid-air. (Fortunately, Vicki is able to take a picture of the unmasked Wizard using a special infra-red flash bulb devised by Batman. Whew!)

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Best character: The only person who looks like he’s having any fun in Batman and Robin is William Fawcett, who plays the wheelchair-bound Professor Hammil. An actual Ph.D. and professor of theater with hundreds of credits to his name (mostly in Westerns and television programs), Fawcett would have been an obvious choice to play Captain Marvel’s nemesis Dr. Sivana if he had ever been portrayed onscreen. (There was a Captain Marvel serial, but it had a tenuous connection to the comic book, and Sivana is nowhere to be found in it).

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The wiry and cantankerous Professor Hammil steals just about every scene he’s in. Right off the bat, as the inventor of the remote control device everyone is searching for, Hammil demands to be driven to the research plant just to insult everyone when the device is stolen. (“You’re a pack of careless idiots! Whoever stole it probably has more brains than all of you!”) For another thing, Hammil’s house is nicer than Bruce Wayne’s (the Bruce Wayne I know wouldn’t live in the suburbs!), and even includes a secret laboratory like the Bat Cave (see Matt Singer’s comments below). Hammil actually is known to the public as an inventor, of course, so security is presumably a bigger concern than secrecy, but still: both Hammil and Wayne know that no mansion is complete without a secret passageway to a hidden lair. I’m not going to say whether Hammil is the Wizard or not, but he is nonetheless not a person to be tangled with.

Sample dialogue: “Batman gets entirely too much credit as it is, Vicki. . . . I get tired just hearing about it.” –Bruce Wayne in Chapter 1 (“Batman Takes Over”)

What Others Have Said: “The notion of an evil version of Batman is an intriguing one. . . . Hammil is a near-perfect doppelganger for Bruce Wayne: He lives in an enormous estate on a hill with his own butler to attend to all his needs (along with that hidden, high-tech cave beneath his house). He’s an ideal antagonist and dark mirror image for our hero.” —Matt Singer, whose “Complete History of Comic-Book Movies” at Screencrush is well worth checking out. Singer is, if anything, harder on Batman and Robin than I am.

What’s Next: Join me next week as I explore Atlantis in Undersea Kingdom, starring Ray “Crash” Corrigan.

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Fates Worse Than Death: Batman (1943)

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Industrialist Martin Warren, after serving his sentence for an unnamed crime, is about to be released from prison; his niece, Linda Page, asks (her boyfriend? fiancée?) playboy Bruce Wayne to accompany her to pick him up.  Although Wayne’s life of leisure doesn’t allow him to get out very early in the morning, he promises to accompany her.  But before they arrive, Warren is picked up by some other old acquaintances, who coerce him to meet their boss, Dr. Daka.  Daka is a Japanese spy striking at the United States from within, and if Warren doesn’t join Daka’s ring of “dishonored” engineers, bankers, and other professionals and agree to serve his “League of the New Order,” he’ll be turned into a mindless zombie by one of Daka’s inventions.  In the mean time, the costumed crimefighter known only as the Batman, with his sidekick Robin, leave a pair of crooks (complete with the “mark of the Bat” on their foreheads) for the police to pick up.  Who are Batman and Robin, and what do they have to do with Bruce Wayne and his young ward, Dick Grayson?

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There can be hardly anyone reading this who isn’t aware that Bruce Wayne and the Batman are one and the same, of course, and the 1943 Batman serial wastes no time in letting the audience in on that information.  In making the leap from the comics to the screen, only the core trio of Bruce/Batman, Dick/Robin, and Alfred the butler were retained (Batman’s police contact is Captain Arnold, not Commissioner Gordon), but their characters and identities are recognizable to readers of the comic book (for the most part: Alfred is relegated to comic relief, skittish and easily flustered, but he still comes through when his services are needed).  None of Batman’s usual enemies like the Joker or Penguin are present (many of the most familiar villains weren’t created until later anyway); Batman was made during wartime, and the enemy he faces in Dr. Daka is a nationalistic one.

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Even allowing for its wartime origin, it saddens me to report that Batman is incredibly racist.  As a cringe-inducing caricature of the effete, treacherous Oriental, Daka is grossly offensive, but if the serial stopped there Daka would fit in with the pseudo-exotic threats I’ve mentioned before (and he is, after all, supposed to be a villain).  But that isn’t enough: Daka’s lair is located on a street in “Little Tokyo,” which according to the enthusiastic narrator has been nearly empty “since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs.”  That’s in the first chapter and it doesn’t get any better: even Daka’s own henchmen despise him and throw around racial slurs behind his back.  “I’m not afraid of him or any other squint-eye,” says one named Forrester before rebelling.  Forcing Daka to surrender, Forrester tells him “That’s the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin,” when he (briefly) has the advantage over him.  Subtle it is not. (Unsurprisingly, Daka was played by a heavily made-up white actor, J. Carrol Naish, a common practice in 1940’s Hollywood.)

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The wartime angle is also apparent in constant references to America’s fighting spirit and the important work being done by the armed forces and munitions manufacturers.  In a twist from the comics, Batman and Robin undertake secret missions for the U. S. government, receiving coded messages from contacts about threats to America’s intelligence and infrastructure.  (According to Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut in The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury, rigid censorship ensured that serial heroes were never shown taking the law into their own hands.  Since being a vigilante is central to Batman’s identity, in the serial he remains independent from the police, taunting an exasperated Captain Arnold who nonetheless depends on the cases his “best agent” wraps up for him, but ultimately Batman gets his orders from Uncle Sam.)

After the generic “spy ring” of Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island, Batman has a refreshing specificity: Daka plots to steal radium (both to fuel a superpowered “radium gun” and to build an even larger one), blow up a supply train, steal an experimental plane, jump a claim on a radium mine (truly a magical element that allowed screen writers to add a contemporary touch to the hoariest plots), and more.  The political context may have brought out some ugly, jingoistic racism, but there is also never a question of the time and place and what the stakes of the conflict are.

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The oddest aspect of this propagandistic impulse is in the setup of Daka’s Little Tokyo hideout: the League of the New Order has its headquarters hidden in a “Japanese Cave of Horrors,” a wax museum primarily containing tableaux of Japanese war atrocities.  Every time the front of the business is shown, a carnival barker is pitching its importance to the war effort: “See the life-size models of the victims of our savage enemies! . . . See how they treat their prisoners. It’ll make your blood turn cold!”  It almost seems as if the filmmakers intend the barker’s words to represent the serial itself: “Come on in here and spend a dime, my friends, and wise yourself up. It’s not a circus, it’s not a carnival—this is a serious proposition!”  Yet the carnival barker is in league with Daka, sending his henchmen to the secret entrance and selecting victims to be brainwashed.  It’s either brilliantly self-referential, a commentary on the bottomless duplicity of the enemy, or just goofy.  Daka believes in hiding in plain sight, apparently.

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The seriousness of Japan’s Imperial ambition isn’t necessarily foreign to either the serial format or Batman as a character—both have featured their share of would-be world conquerors—but it is an odd fit with the tone of the 1943 production, which is frequently light, even whimsical.  Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin appear to be having a ball whether in costume or out: this isn’t the grim, tortured Batman of Christian Bale, or even the reclusive weirdo Michael Keaton portrayed.  Even Naish as Daka gets to rub his hands gleefully and display a few moments of humor, like when he feeds raw meat to his pet alligators and briefly considers throwing a zombie to them as “something special.”  The actors and narrator embrace even the most absurd contrivances with gusto, and I’m not convinced this is entirely a case of straight-faced material only appearing funny in hindsight: comic relief was an essential component of the serial, and I daresay the funny parts are fresher and more entertaining than the repetitive fistfights and formulaic cliffhangers.  (It became very easy to predict what the cliffhanger would be in each episode, as the same beats were employed to set the stage each time. When, as in Chapter Six, a thug says, “Let’s get out of here before that chemical reaches those wires!” you know exactly what’s going to happen next.)

The 1943 Batman serial is likely to be of interest primarily to Batman completists, but I doubt it will satisfy any fan who would describe themselves as such.  It was rereleased to theaters in the 1960s as a camp film, where it influenced the next wave of Batman adaptations. Fans of the 1966 Adam West Batman TV show will recognize many elements: the deadpan acceptance of ridiculous situations, enthusiastic narrator, and even the two-part episodes with cliffhangers very much in the serial style.

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So what works?  For all the fistfights, Batman engages in quite a bit of detective work in this serial: not only does he find and analyze clues, he goes undercover (he disguises himself as a thug named “Chuck White,” and sends Alfred out in disguise a couple of times), gets information out of Daka’s henchmen through a variety of means, and even manages to turn their traps around on them, all while maintaining his secret identity.  Batman also delegates responsibility to Robin and Alfred, who several times come to the rescue.  The complexity of the puzzles is laughable and the level of thought isn’t that deep, but within the bounds established by the script, it’s easy to believe that Batman and Daka are waging a high-stakes chess game against each other, striking and counter-striking until the big confrontation.

I also liked Lewis Wilson as the title character more than I expected: to cover his real purposes, his Bruce Wayne is vapid and silly, and his excuses for not being around—he took Dick to a polo match or an amusement park; he doesn’t get moving until around noon—are amusingly flip.  He expects Linda to believe him, because what red-blooded man would use such indolence as an excuse unless it were the truth?  When one of Daka’s henchmen suggest that Wayne might be the costumed troublemaker, Daka sneers, “Don’t be absurd—that simpering idiot could never be the Batman!”

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What I Watched: Batman (1943, Columbia)

Where I Saw It: I watched a Columbia Pictures DVD set, but it is on YouTube (in many parts) starting here.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Almost all the chapter titles are pretty great, with the kind of snappy immediacy and hint of exciting developments that all the best pulp titles have.  If forced to choose, I’ll go with Chapter Four, “Slaves of the Rising Sun” (balanced out by the fifteenth and final chapter, “The Doom of the Rising Sun”).

Best Cliffhanger: Chapter Thirteen, “Eight Steps Down,” ends with a double cliffhanger: Batman, trying to sneak into Daka’s lair, is threatened by the classic spiked-walls-closing-in trap, while at the same time, Linda Page is about to be turned into a zombie by Daka’s mind control device.  However will they escape?

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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Many of the escapes in Batman are of the kind that would infuriate Annie Wilkes: a train bears down on the hero, or an armored car plummets off a cliff and explodes, only to be revealed in the next chapter that Robin pushed Batman off the railroad trestle or Batman leapt from the armored car just in time, all shown from a different angle.  If any of those are cheats, then they all are.  However, I can’t say any of them explicitly undo the setup of the cliffhanger.

Actually, my favorite is the resolution to the cliffhanger of Chapter Fourteen (“The Executioner Strikes”), in which Batman, knocked out and placed in a coffin-sized wooden crate, is carried to Daka’s lair; the box, unopened, is dropped into Daka’s alligator pit.  At the beginning of Chapter Fifteen, it’s revealed that Batman had escaped before the crate was even brought to Daka’s lair, and it was Daka’s henchman Wallace in the box.  You can bet he didn’t get the benefit of a last-minute cheat.

Sample dialogue:

Bruce: “Well, we never got to the cave.  It was so hot out, we laid down by the side of the road and took a nap.”

Linda: “Asleep! Just when I needed you both so much.  If it hadn’t have been for the Batman I’d be dead in the cave!”

(Chapter Nine, “The Sign of the Sphinx”)

What Others Have Said: “Where could even a Japanese spy get enough ration stamps for all that meat?” Harmon and Glut, referring to the fodder for Daka’s pet alligators

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as I vicariously travel the Western frontier through Fighting with Kit Carson.

Five Favorite Images of 2013

First of all, I don’t do Pinterest.  Or Tumblr.  (Never say never, but not right now, at any rate.)  But I do like to keep track of pictures I enjoy.  The end of the year is a time for solemn list-making by critics and fans alike.  By its very nature, this blog isn’t focused on movies, music, or books alone, so I won’t pretend to sum up the year in depth.  Making lists is fun, however, so here is a (hopefully) fun list: some of my favorite images from 2013.  Some of these have been around for a while, but they were new to me in the last year.

5.  Super Lil Bub!

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Everyone knows Lil Bub, the google-eyed cat that has taken the Internet by storm.  This 8-bit style retro design by Drew Wise was available as a tee shirt earlier this year.  I didn’t get one–I have a lot of tee shirts already–but this needs to be commemorated.  Even if it was just Lil Bub flying her saucer around space, who wouldn’t want to play this game?

4. Cookie Monster Cupcakes: Nailed It

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Yes, these are everywhere.  But so help me, I laugh at this one every time I see it.  Never not funny.

3.  Injustice: Gods Among Us: shocked Batman

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I haven’t read Injustice: Gods Among Us, and frankly I doubt I’ll bother.  Although I have a documented interest in stories that put familiar characters in extreme situations, a graphic novel tied into a video game (from the makers of Mortal Kombat, in case that wasn’t obvious), and in which Superman is tricked into killing Lois Lane–and then goes on a rampage and kills pretty much everyone else–doesn’t grab me.  I’ll grant that Injustice has been polarizing: depending on whom you ask, it’s either the best or worst thing to happen to comics in years.  But what I like about the above illustration (from artist Jheremy Raapack) isn’t Superman disemboweling the Joker with his bare hands, but the look on Batman’s face in the background:

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If someone wanted to put this on a tee shirt, I’d seriously consider it.

2.  Platypus Venn Diagram

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This one has apparently been around for some time as well–as far as I can tell it’s the creation of Tenso Graphics, but I first saw it on this They Might Be Giants Tumblr.

1.  Sleeping Tyrannosaurus Rex

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This illustration, by artist John Conway, just tickles me.  It’s from the excellent book All Yesterdays by Conway, C. M. Kosemen, and Darren Naish, which I may write about in more detail in the future.  The book is subtitled “Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals,” and the artists are deliberately trying to avoid the clichés that often define paleoart.  As Naish writes in the accompanying text,

Most hunting animals spend long days resting, either in order to conserve energy, or while digesting the food acquired from a fresh kill.  Like most warm-blooded predators, the fearsome T. Rex may have spent most of its time asleep.

Fearsome, yes, but just look at it: it’s almost as cute as Lil Bub.

Points of Connection, Part Two: A is A . . . or is it?

What can one say about Watchmen that hasn’t already been said?  Since its initial publication in 1986-87, more ink has been spilled about the graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons than probably any other modern comic book narrative. It’s been named as one of the greatest (defined as most artistically accomplished, most influential, or most successful—take your pick) comic book projects in history, and even one of Time magazine’s Top 100 Novels, period.  Since the release of Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation and DC’s decision to publish the Before Watchmen prequel books in 2012, there has been even more commentary and debate. I don’t intend to add more to the pile of Watchmen verbiage outside of the narrow scope I established in my last Medleyana post: the use of doppelganger characters.* Alan Moore’s influence on the mainstream has lessened as his projects have become increasingly idiosyncratic in recent years, but it is impossible to discuss the reworking of characters and the exploration of archetypes without bringing him up.

Watchmen is probably the best-known use of pastiche on a grand scale in comics. Originally, Moore meant to write his story about characters from the Charlton publishing company, which had been acquired by DC; after DC decided those characters could be profitably relaunched within DC’s established continuity, they were off the table, and Moore chose to create new characters along similar lines: the Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, the Question became Rorschach, and so forth.

Here’s where it gets interesting: as established previously, an intertextual double (a misprision, in poetic terms) follows the same broad outlines as the original, but is a character in itself, independent of its source.  Points of connection between the two are also points of departure: in other words, the double is only beholden to the original up to the threshold of reader recognition (for purposes of commentary) or satisfying the needs of a given character type (for narrative purposes); after that, they are effectively a blank slate, just like any other original character.  The difference between an effective analogue and a ripoff, then, has nothing to do with “originality” (a much overestimated quality, and especially meaningless in such a codified genre as the superhero), and everything to do with the creator’s success in infusing him or her with convincing motives and actions.  If a character would live, it must have the spark of life: nothing else matters.  (I’ve alluded to the writer’s role in crafting a convincing character, and that is just as true for “original” characters as doppelgangers, of course.)  For Moore, whose entire purpose was to establish a psychological realism to a degree that had only been spottily attempted in the superhero narrative previously, the inner life was a given, but for the achievement to have impact, the characters would also have to resonate as plausible superheroes.**  The Charlton stable were important models, but Moore and Gibbons also drew on the broader common property of superhero archetypes and the visual tropes of costume, accessories, and even the illustration styles of pulp novels, comic books, and advertising art in order to create a convincing, lifelike world, divergent from ours but believable nonetheless.

To cite an example from Watchmen, I had little familiarity with Steve Ditko’s severely moralistic vigilante the Question, or his follow-up character, the even more stringent Mr. A (whose uncompromising slogan, “A is A!” was taken directly from Ayn Rand’s Objectivism), when I first read the graphic novel.  Still, Rorschach is a clear enough character type: a vigilante with a moral code so strict that no one can live up to it, with equal contempt for criminals, their victims, and even other heroes if they aren’t willing to go as far as him.  The details that Moore invents for Walter Kovacs, Rorschach’s alter ego, speak to Watchmen’s interest in both the social problems and individual psychoses involved with superheroics: childhood sexual trauma, a connection to the infamous Kitty Genovese murder, and of course the horrific crimes that sped along Kovacs’ psychotic break.  One doesn’t need to know Ditko’s original characters to appreciate the drama, but it adds some intertextual depth (if anything, reading some of Mr. A’s cases show how little Moore had to exaggerate Rorschach’s ruthlessness and black-and-white morality).

The Question dons his mask; art by Steve Ditko

The Question dons his mask; art by Steve Ditko

Origin of Rorschach's mask; art by Dave Gibbons

Origin of Rorschach’s mask; art by Dave Gibbons

Likewise, I was familiar with the Blue Beetle from his introduction into DC continuity rather than his original Charlton adventures, but I didn’t immediately connect him to Nite Owl when reading Watchmen: he too is a familiar type, a “gadget hero” like Batman (or, to a lesser degree, Iron Man).  Within the narrative, Dan Dreiberg is actually the second Nite Owl, borrowing his name and persona from a Golden Age model, Hollis Mason (the first Nite Owl, representing both the ideals and the institutional memory of the original costumed heroes).  This pattern was true of the Blue Beetle, but also of characters such as Green Lantern and Hawkman who had very different Golden and Silver Age incarnations.

Watchmen also benefits from an important opportunity afforded by pastiche: the ability to replace the ad hoc jumble of origins and histories typical of established continuity with a streamlined history that both gives all the characters a common point of reference and allows for meaningful points of connection between them that goes beyond the simple “team-up.”  Although, as Geoff Klock points out, Moore has in many cases deliberately introduced the kind of contradictory history that plagues long-running comic book series into his original stories, in Watchmen he plays it straight, with his “real-life” costumed heroes taking inspiration from fictional comic book characters, and eventually supplanting them.  As for points of contact, in addition to the obvious shared history between them, there are subtle connections: the shape-shifting cloth which Rorschach wears as a mask, and from which he takes his name, is referred to as a spin-off of technologies introduced by Dr. Manhattan, the only truly superhuman character in the novel; other technologies and businesses mentioned are part of the empire of Adrian Veidt, the “self-made” superhero Ozymandias (and a major driver of the plot).

Film adaptations of superheroes often make connections where none exist in the comics in order to tighten up the plot, as for example the Joker/Jack Napier being identified as the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents in Batman, or Ra’s al Ghul serving as both Wayne’s mentor and eventual antagonist in Batman Begins. Such circularity is more dramatically satisfying, and easier to establish, in a two-hour film or self-contained novel, although asserting such symmetries can be one function of rebooting or “retconning” an established series.  As an example from another narrative, when J. Michael Straczynski rebooted the Squadron Supreme for his 2003 series Supreme Power, he started from the ground up, effectively creating a “trope of a trope:” in Straczynski’s version, the escape pod that brought “Mark Milton” (Hyperion) to earth as an infant was part of an alien battle, the shrapnel from which also gave powers to the Blur (a trope of the Flash, replacing the original Squadron Supreme’s Whizzer, because really: the Whizzer?) and provided the “Power Prism” to Doctor Spectrum (a trope of Green Lantern, here reconceived as a special ops pilot nicknamed “Doctor” because of the surgical precision with which he executes his missions); some of the villains Hyperion faced were created through government experimentation with his own DNA.***  The reboot/misprision allowed Straczynski to focus on the elements that most concerned him: instead of the Squadron imposing its rule in the name of the greater good, as in Mark Gruenwald’s narrative, the Squadron are tools of a shadowy, not always benevolent government that doesn’t reveal its purposes to its super-military (as exemplified by Mark Milton’s upbringing by government operatives instead of Ma and Pa Kent), the expression of a twenty-first century anxiety that remains as relevant as ever.

The two incarnations of the Squadron Supreme by Alex Ross (l) and Gary Frank (r). Source: I love comic covers

The two incarnations of the Squadron Supreme by Alex Ross (l) and Gary Frank (r). Source: I love comic covers

Next time, I’ll examine a few examples from movies and television.

* But for the record, I liked Moore’s original “space squid” ending, and I think it could have worked on film if it had been reconceived in cinematic terms by a director more concerned with duplicating the feel than the look of the book.  How terrifying—and believable—could Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi have made that ending?

** Interestingly, Moore and Gibbons have stated that Mad‘s parody “Superduperman” was an influence on their approach, revealing depravity and greed beneath the slick costumes.  It’s not uncommon for transgressions that are comical to one generation to be taken seriously and developed in earnest by the next.

*** Marvel attempted something similar with its “New Universe” line in 1986, sort of the flip side of DC’s unification of its universe, and showing that it isn’t easy to build a compelling narrative world from scratch.

The Pleasures of Anthology, Part Three

You can read Parts One and Two here and here.

As far as shared worlds go, it doesn’t get much more eclectic than superhero comics: just as an example, the three most recognizable characters in DC’s universe are an alien from another planet, an Amazon warrior with ties to the Greek gods, and a self-made vigilante, illustrating nicely the superhero genre’s connections to science fiction, mythology and pulp adventure.  It helps to realize that Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman were not originally invented with the idea of coexisting in the same world, but grew organically in their own books, developing their own identities, casts of characters, themes, and locales before anyone thought of teaming them up.  It was only later that the tangles of continuity across different books had to be cleaned up and what were often spur-of-the-moment inventions rationalized and codified.

Beyond the editorial offices of DC and rival publisher Marvel (and to a lesser extent Charlton, Fawcett, and the other small publishers that would either fold or be absorbed by DC), the first serious considerations of comic book worlds and how they were put together were written by fans, for fans.  The comics fanzine Xero emerged in 1960, and more were to follow.  Fanzines and amateur press publications have largely moved online since the rise of the internet, but organized fandom used to leave quite a paper trail, spread by word of mouth and united by newsletters, fan clubs and conventions, often advertised in the comic books and science fiction magazines where like-minded readers would be most likely to find them.  Many of the fan writers would go on to work in the industry: Roy Thomas and Mark Gruenwald were both superfans who had in common an encyclopedic knowledge of characters and plot points that they would build on in their own stories for Marvel in the 1970s and ‘80s.  Gruenwald had even made his name with a self-published thesis on comic book universes and their interconnected nature.

Even when writing about comic books began to enter the mainstream, it was still written from the point of view of a comics reader rather than a disinterested outsider.  Jules Feiffer got the ball rolling with The Great Comic Book Heroes in 1965, a critical history of comic books in the 1930s and ‘40s mixed with Feiffer’s memories of reading comics as a child and working in the industry as a young adult; All in Color for a Dime, edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson, was published in 1970, collecting a number of essays, including Lupoff’s own “The Big Red Cheese” (about Captain Marvel) from that first issue of Xero; and so on.

Feiffer, of course, was the long-running cartoonist in The Village Voice­ and had counter-cultural cachet; Lupoff would make his mark as a science fiction author and scholar of (among other subjects) Edgar Rice Burroughs; Thompson, with his wife Maggie, founded the influential Comics Buyer’s Guide.  Authoritative as their essays are, one of their chief values is in putting the reader in the shoes of a young kid encountering Superman or Captain Marvel for the first time, seeing the characters through their eyes and accepting them on their own terms.  But such is almost always the way, especially when pop culture subjects are involved: the first writing on jazz was descriptive, by journalists rather than musicologists, and the first jazz discographies were written by aficionados to aid fellow record collectors.  Scholarly writing would later lag behind journalists and fans of rock and hip-hop as well.

A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, edited by Michael Barrier and Martin Williams, appeared in 1981, by which time scholars were taking note of comic books and it was more common for books on the subject to disentangle history and criticism from the personal and anecdotal.  A Smithsonian Book may not have been the definitive volume on the subject, but it certainly seemed so to me as a young teenage comic book reader encountering it for the first time.  Of course, more than the scholarly apparatus it was the reprints of comics from the “Golden Age” (up to 1954, the date of the adoption of the Comics Code by the industry) that made the book so valuable and enjoyable.  I had been collecting superhero comics for a couple of years, starting with reprints of Stan Lee’s and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man in the pages of Marvel Tales and gradually getting into the current stuff from there; reading about the storied history of Marvel and the Distinguished Competition made me feel like a real newbie, but the truth was I had been reading comics most of my life.

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Before middle school, when I was younger than ten, most of the comic books I read were licensed “funny animal” books starring the Looney Tunes or Disney characters, and were often more far-ranging and imaginative than you would expect: Did you know Goofy had a side career as a superhero?  If you read Super Goof you did!  Just as Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse strips gave its title characters a sense of scope and adventure grander than what could be shown in the short animated cartoons, so the licensed Gold Key and Dell comics expanded my young mind by showing the “further adventures” of characters I already knew and loved.  And needless to say, I enjoyed the Uncle Scrooge comics of Carl Barks long before I knew who Barks was, having a particular fascination with the evil duck sorceress Magica de Spell: who was this vivid character whom I had never seen in an animated cartoon?  Why would Walt Disney (for of course I thought that’s who drew all the comics—he signed them, didn’t he?) create such a great villain and not use her in a movie?  Why did all the Disney characters have such complex, fulfilling lives offscreen?

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Oddly, when I graduated to more “mature” (or so I thought) comics, I completely discounted the funny animal comics I had cut my teeth on, and got rid of them completely.  This isn’t an unusual experience by any means: most of us go through at least one phase where we clean out all the “kid’s stuff,” only to regret it later.  What separated my later comics habit from my funny animal years wasn’t just the subject matter—there were some Twilight Zones, Archies, quite a few issues of Mad and Cracked, and even some superhero books mixed in with the comics I threw out—but my self-consciousness that I was collecting comics, that I had to keep them organized, follow a checklist, fill in gaps in my knowledge, and basically keep up: all the demands of fandom.  Before that, comics were acquired at random (sometimes brought home by my parents when my sister or I was sick), often in one of those packs of three miscellaneous comics in a plastic sleeve (you could see the covers of the two on the outside, but the one in the middle would be a mystery, and may or may not have anything to do with the other two).  That’s how we ended up with a bunch of Spire Comics’ gospel-themed Archie comics, basically church tracts starring the Riverdale gang.  Except for a few favorites, they were equally disposable, in the tradition of pop culture since the dawn of mass production, and the ones that didn’t completely disintegrate wound up unceremoniously dumped in a cardboard box, a sort of comics slush pile.

A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics helped me make connections between my undiscriminating childhood and my status-conscious adolescence.  It taught me Carl Barks’ name and helped show me that his talking duck characters weren’t just for little kids; it introduced me to the original version of Captain Marvel, before DC ensnared publisher Fawcett in a crippling lawsuit over his supposed similarities to Superman; it let me connect the name Basil Wolverton to the grotesque caricatures I had already seen occasionally in Mad; it introduced me to the ambitious and insightful work of Will Eisner in The Spirit and the breadth of E. C.’s output before the comics panic of the ‘50s and the Comics Code forced them to cancel everything but Mad; it made me unable to see Marvel’s parodic Forbush-Man without thinking of the similarly attired Red Tornado from Sheldon Mayer’s Scribbly.  It would even, much later on, form a foundation for me to understand what the heck was going on in the historically-informed comics of Tony Millionaire and Art Spiegelman.

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Aside from giving me some ammunition if I’m ever cornered by Harlan Ellison, the Smithsonian book provided a great deal of entertainment and enriched my appreciation of the current books I was reading.  My adolescent comic book collecting in the 1980s coincided with a period of reassessment in the superhero world: Superman’s fiftieth anniversary would be celebrated in 1988, and (perhaps not coincidentally) fifty years of world-building and cross-referencing would be consolidated (or swept away, depending on your perspective) in 1985 by DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, clearing the decks for a “fresh start” for Superman and company in the first and biggest of many company-wide “reboots” to come.  The complexity of DC continuity included a number of parallel worlds, including separate universes for the Golden and Silver Age versions of characters, introduced to explain how Superman could fight saboteurs during World War II and still be a young man in the 1960s.  It was simple, really: there was an old Superman in one world and a young one in another, and sometimes they would break down the barriers between universes and team up.  Captain Marvel even came on board in the 1970s, at first in his own world (“Earth-S”) and later woven into the fabric of the DC universe as other characters had been before him (although he started going by the name Shazam to avoid confusion with that other comic book company).

The 1980s were also truly DC’s decade on screen, especially for Christopher Reeves’ iconic portrayal of Superman, but not overlooking Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman on TV and the truly game-changing 1989 Batman directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton (many fans have cooled on Burton’s Batman in favor of Christopher Nolan’s grittier trilogy, but it’s hard to overstate what an event the 1989 film was at the time).  By comparison, Marvel’s best-received screen adaptation was The Incredible Hulk in the early ‘80s.

I don’t bring up Crisis or Burton’s Batman to make comparisons with DC’s New 52 or to point out Marvel’s current domination of the big screen.  The contrast speaks for itself, and more importantly the industry has changed greatly: one’s preference for a particular era of comics says as much about one’s age as it does about one’s taste.  I’m thankful I stopped collecting before the huge boom of the early ‘90s—otherwise I might be burdened by nostalgia for foil-stamped hologram covers, oversized guns, and costumes festooned with pouches!  Nor do I want to say things were better then just because I was younger: Crisis on Infinite Earths pissed off plenty of comics fans, myself included.  I liked the alphabet soup of parallel worlds and twisting timelines in the DC multiverse.  It irritated me to see whole settings and storylines erased from official existence.  On the other hand, if I were an editor or writer, chained to stories that had been written decades before, I might have felt differently.  Still, good writers had ways of getting around that, and a good story trumped pedantry any day.

And of course the characters who had been written out came back: Supergirl came back.  Titano the Super-Ape came back.  The Huntress came back.  Kamandi and OMAC and all the rest found ways back in, sometimes in different places and sometimes greatly changed, but eventually they came back.  And when Superman himself died, and it turned into a media frenzy, comics readers just nodded sagely to each other and knew it wouldn’t be permanent.  He’d be back.  Just ask Captain Marvel.

(Continue to Part Four)