Sick Of The Dark Knight

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Am I the only person on the planet who's sick of the Dark Knight? Not Batman himself, but the current vogue for portraying the caped crusader as a dangerous vigilante psychopath.

I think Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan have a lot to answer for.

I tell a lie. Frank Miller has a lot to answer for. Who he? I can hear the non-fanboys among you asking. Frank Miller is the cult graphic novelist responsible for Sin City, and in March 1986 the four-issue mini-series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns which has coloured the franchise film noir black ever since. Miller, one of the first comic book artists to get proper artistic recognition, took the ailing Batman franchise and made it darker than it had ever been in the early days of the 1940s.

Comic books had never really enjoyed any kind of recognition from the conventional art world. Regulated in the US since the scandals of the EC horror comics of the 1950s, comics had been sanitised and were dismissed as only fit for kids. By the 1980s, the artists and writers creating the comic books craved artistic recognition. It wasn't enough to write a comic book, they wanted to write graphic novels. Fair enough, artistic snobbery is a hard wall to butt your head against when you're creating something and it's dismissed by the Establishment as "for the kids".

The thing is this post-modern world seems fixated on two words - "dark" and "gritty". Anyone who knows me (and it is something of a running gag hereabouts) knows my feelings on "dark and gritty" - the only good thing that's dark and gritty is properly laid tarmacadam. And that was what the artists did to Batman, and for that matter all the DC Comics characters.

Whenever I make anti-Dark-Knight noises, I always get accosted by fanboys who sneer "have you ever read the comics?" in that supercilious "have you ever read Shakespeare?" tone. Well, as a matter of fact I have and I've probably read more comic books in my time than most, and over a wider time frame. I've read Batman comics going back to the franchise's conception back in the 1940s (reprints admittedly), and the concept of damaged-Batman is purely recent.

Yes, Bruce Wayne was set on his course as the caped crusader by the killing of his parents, but in the original comic that gave him more of a sense of right and wrong, and a purpose as a crusader against crime. The modern Batman is more of a Dirty Harry character in bulletproof latex.

I appreciate modern audiences need more depth to characters - more motivation and back-story - and to that extent, modern Batman admittedly does work but at the cost of the scope of imagination of the early strips.

Batman was first published in the May 1939 issue of Detective Comics, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. In his earliest incarnation, Batman was admittedly a superhero vigilante not above using a gun to dispatch his adversaries.

Published monthly, the comic book built slowly on the Batman story. His back-story - the killing of his parents - was only put in place in November 1939. Robin The Boy Wonder made his first appearance in Detective Comics #38 in April 1940. The first of the familiar supervillains The Joker and Catwoman debuted in the spring of 1940, and the influence of DC Comics' story editor saw Batman swear off the use of firearms. Gotham City only got its name and the Batmobile finally appeared in the early months of 1941.

The character of Batman, however, was a success from day one. Earning his own title in the spring of 1940, he continued to appear in both that and Detective Comics and make guest appearances in other DC Comics throughout the Golden Age of the comics right up to the present day.

The history of Batman splits into four distinct ages. The Golden Age, according to the cognoscenti, lasts from the debut of the character in May 1939 to 1956. It includes the introduction of all the familiar characters, supervillains and technology. The Silver Age came in the late 1950s, introducing the concept of "Earth-2" to explain away inconsistencies in the DC Comics universe as many of the DC Comics franchises were re-booted. The Silver Age lasted into the 1970s when further re-boots took place under the aegis of writer Dennis O'Neil and artists Neal Adams. The Modern Age of Batman dawns in March 1986 with Frank Miller's best-selling re-boot of the franchise Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

A lot of Batman aficionados (from the Latin for fanboy) look down their noses at the 1966 series, citing it as that "silly comedy show", but personally I have my doubts whether you could call it a comedy show. If you've ever watched the repeats on BBC4, the thing that's most noticeable is the absence of a laugh track - that pre-recorded cue for the humour-confused that was added de facto to all US-made comedy shows throughout the 1960s. Batman never had canned laughter added, and it was only the producers of M*A*S*H in the 1970s who finally managed to convince the Networks that a laughter track was completely unnecessary for a filmed comedy show.

If you look at the comics of the 1940s and 50s, specifically those scripted by Bill Finger, you can see all the elements from the 1960s tv Batman large as (and larger than) life. Finger's scripts frequently featured oversized props such as umbrellas, musical instruments and even a manual typewriter.

Adam West's Batman is a character of genius, a caped crusader who treats everything with the deadly seriousness of defusing an atom bomb. In comedy terms, he is the perfect precursor of the Zucker Brothers characters in the Airplane and Naked Gun franchises - delivering the most excruciating lines in a completely deadpan manner. But the incredible thing about that delivery is if you take it all at face value - if you can accept the idea of the Joker holding Gotham City to ransom by turning the water supply to strawberry jelly - it successfully straddles the two chairs of absurdist comedy and derring-do adventure. Batman isn't a send-up or spoof; it's a glorious adventure series that happens to keep its tongue in its cheek.

Call me weird, but I'd love to revel in the sheer nuttiness of the classic comic books - not just Batman, but Superman, Wonder Woman and the rest. The Dark Knight concept is twenty-two years old, while Batman himself will be celebrating seventy years of caped crusading next year. Isn't it time for a change?

POSTSCRIPT: I'm actually dreading Frank Miller's screen version of Will Eisner's classic comic book The Spirit. The Spirit I recall was a character full of humour, especially one-liners. From the pre-publicity currently out and about, it's looking more like a fetishised version of The Shadow, to the extent I wonder if somebody has their comic books mixed up…

Your Opinions and Comments

I must confess I sort of miss reading comic books. I went through a phase in my early teenage years of obsessively reading about 10 or so Marvel comics, with Spiderman (I think there were 2 or 3 ongoing different types of just that one super hero) and Iron Man being amongst my favs.

Strangely Batman never really appealed, despite growing up adoring the camp TV series.

I have no idea how much stuff from the mid eighties onwards goes for now, but if it wasn't too pricey (a couple of quid each say) I'd seriously consider getting them again from that golden age (well for me anyway) onwards.
posted by RJS on 8/7/2008 00:33
I've seen these Marvel Masterworks collections in my local library, whole volumes of classic era comics for all characters from Spiderman to Daredevil... They're about 250 pages each, so I'm guessing each volume captures around 10 issues...

They've got a whole section in Forbidden Planet

There should be some in paperback too, but I can't find them here.

EDIT: Here they are, under Marvel Essentials, and a whole lot cheaper too...
posted by Jitendar Canth on 8/7/2008 09:58
I prefer the noir-ish versions of Batman. The character, the backstory and his little slice of the DC universe just fit with the glum moodiness.

However, they've yet to better the 60s Batmobile!
posted by Matthew Smart on 8/7/2008 16:42
I've just been reading electronic versions of the original 194O's Batman stuff and you'd have to say that it's very dark indeed....closer to the Frank Miller depiction than to the 60's show by miles. The Joker was esepcially sinister in his earliest incarnation - all his victims would be found dead with a murderous grin upon their faces which was spooky stuff indeed.

That said, I loved the camp sixties thing. I loved it as a kid and I love it now. Full of bright primary colours and crazy chipboard studio sets, it was what TV was all about in those halcyon years of early colour. It certainly wasn't the era for 'dark' - unless you count 'Dark Shadows' which was in black and white and well, you get my point!

As I spent four years as a kid (9-13) in the US, comics became really important for me in a way that 'Whizzer and Chips' and 'The Beano' never could be. That love continues to this day. Maybe I should start a dedicated microsite? Hmmmmmm.....
posted by Stuart McLean on 8/7/2008 17:59
Go on Stu - you can do eet!
posted by Matthew Smart on 8/7/2008 21:41
10 / 10
I'm intrigued, Stu. Electronic versions of the 1940s comics? I still prefer the sixties Batman, but if the original comics are that dark I might revise my opinion on the Dark Knight.

I've got to say, the shots of Two-Face that Chewie posted look a bit over the top for a 12A. The Mummy got a 15 for not-so-nasty imagery. Time was once a face like that would have got an 18, no sweat.

Maybe I'm just pining for my youth. I'll go play with my 1:18 Batmobile...
posted by Mark Oates on 8/7/2008 22:39
I always preferred 2000ad...
posted by Si Wooldridge on 8/7/2008 23:08
Mark -

I have several thousand 'silver age' comics in electronic form, and quite a few 'Golden Age' (including the complete Batman). I particularly like Horror comics so I have rather a lot of those. I don't keep them in a particularly orderly fashion but would be happy to pass on some discs. You can download the 'Comic Reader' free and for nothing.

Other highlghts include the complete MAD which was a bona fide electronic CD-Rom release, as well as complete collections of most Marvel stuff from 60's to 70's.

Let me know if you'd like a look. Never as good as the real thing but who knows....could be the start of another un-healthy addiction for you!
posted by Stuart McLean on 9/7/2008 20:42
10 / 10
Gasp - that would be amazing! I'd love to look at the DC materials, but what really jumps out at me is Mad, which I adore even though I only have a handful of paperbacks.
posted by Mark Oates on 9/7/2008 23:00
Jits, you are my hero! I'm going to order some. :)
posted by RJS on 10/7/2008 18:05
Mark - can you PM me your address again? Thanks.

Also RJS - can I recommend the Marvel Essentials Dracula series. I have all four volumes and though they're reprinted in black and white they're brill! Also - closer to 500 pages per volume (they all are) and with at least 20 comics per volume. Great way of enjoying extended story arcs...
posted by Stuart McLean on 10/7/2008 19:58
So this is what you all get up to now...I think you lot could replace the trioka from Top Gear if you play your cards right

posted by Sue Davies on 15/7/2008 16:52
Captain Slow can be my superhero name!
posted by Jitendar Canth on 16/7/2008 12:29
10 / 10
And I am - dan dan da!!!! - The Hamster!
posted by Mark Oates on 22/7/2008 00:59
Hold on a minute...did I just hear the voice of (gulp!) a ....girl?!

It must be Sue! Or 'Wonderful Woman' as she will always be to me! (sigh)

Sue - how the devil are you?! Ready to re-join the fold I hope?!
posted by Stuart McLean on 22/7/2008 21:58
It's very dark in here and needs a bit of a tidy :)
posted by Sue Davies on 31/7/2008 21:25
Oh Sue how we've missed your wonderful prose!

posted by RJS on 6/8/2008 15:10