The single greatest panel in the long history of Batman comics does not feature Batman or contain any reference to him. In Batman #406 (on newsstands April ’87), the third issue of Frank Miller’s classic Batman: Year One storyline (and the basis for the 2005 Batman movie franchise re-boot Batman Begins), Batman, on the run from a crooked Gotham police force, finds himself cornered in an old abandoned apartment building. The mayor (a large, pockmarked man who is always depicted wearing a Mickey Mouse pin on his lapel), desperate to capture or kill our hero, orders an extensive bombing of the building. Over the next two pages there are explosions and quite a bit of fire. A SWAT-like group of well-armed officers inspect the remnants, ordered to shoot on sight: “go for the chest, we’ll need his face for identification.” Naturally, he picks them off one by one, finally managing to escape under the cover of a flock of bats (summoned by a mysterious button on the bottom of his shoe, of course). Standard superhero fare for the most part – except for one startling and unsettling moment on the bottom of the sixth page.
The SWAT-like team is scavenging the building, and a group of them stumble upon a plain room in the basement. There’s a sink, a toilet, a stripped bed, and a table. The few personal effects are religious in nature: a “God is…” poster, a “Honk for Jesus” bumper sticker, two crucifixes and a medallion affixed to the wall, a statue of the Virgin Mary, and an open Bible on the table. “Super must’ve lived here,” one of the officers comments. “Nobody home now,” muses another. “Nothing here, men. We’re coming back up,” a third says with finality. They leave. We will not see the room again. We will never hear from the super. If he exists, it is only in the spaces afforded between the relics of his room. If he exists, it is only in our imagination.
This tradition of the tragic super (this irony should not be lost on anyone) stems all the way back to one of the first graphic novels, Will Eisner’s seminal 1978 A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories, a collection of four stories set in the Bronx of the 1930s. The third – titled simply “The Super” – focuses on the life of a large, surly, old super named Mr. Scuggs. He has one true friend, his dog Hugo; he has a tattoo of “mom” inscribed inside a heart. The hot water is broken; a woman named Ms. Farfell complains that her niece can’t take a bath in ice-cold water (she’ll catch new-monia). She appears wrapped tightly in a towel, wearing an expression that would have caused Humbert Humbert to violently convulse. The super’s eyes linger on her before he leaves.
Instead of fixing the hot water Scuggs heads into his room, a small basement affair much like the one in Gotham City. Pornographic pictures cover the walls of his room. We see him feed his dog and then proceed to drink a beer and flip through a handful of dirty pictures. There’s a knock on the door – it’s the beautiful young niece from before, and she offers him a “peek” for a nickel. He accepts. She flashes him, and then gives his dog a piece of candy. While his back is turned she grabs his moneybox and runs. He yells for Hugo – Hugo is dead; the girl’s candy was poisoned. He chases her, cornering her in a crowded tenement alley. He is powerless to do anything for no one would believe him – cries of “murderer!” and “animal!” follow him as he stumbles away. Dejectedly, he stokes the flames of the hot water heater before slumping into his room. Crying, he kneels to hold his dead dog. The police knock on the door. He gets a gun and shoots himself in the temple. The last page shows the girl sitting on the stoop, counting her money, and humming. A sign in the basement window reads “super wanted.”
In How Fiction Works, James Wood characterizes a “true” detail as one possessing a quality he terms “thisness,” part gravitas and part insight: “By thisness, I mean any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion.” He goes on to cite examples from the usual stalwarts: Emma Bovary fondling a pair of satin slippers in Flaubert, the “Kendal green” of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Mr. Casey’s permanently bent fingers in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. These details are great, he argues, because they are able to exist within themselves, able to expound upon a mostly scattered notion of “reality” in a way that somehow seems truthful. The open bible sitting idly on the table, an inconsequential nugget in a genre not known for reflection is as well placed as anything Joycean; Mr. Scuggs “mom” tattoo as heartbreaking as anything Flaubertian.
That Miller’s panel appears in a super-hero comic is almost some kind of glorious joke, like a Kerouac reference on the Disney Channel (Selena Gomez’s boyfriend on the hit show Wizards of Waverly Place is named Dean Moriarty). It’s the kind of detail that one can easily miss, and one would imagine most did. That’s certainly not a knock on the comics; no one buy’s a ticket to The Fast & The Furious for wry poofs of background detail, just like you wouldn’t purchase a Batman comic in hopes of spotting something so elegant that it could bring you to tears. You and me and everyone we know just want to be entertained, and that’s all well and good, but just because something so beautiful appeared in something traditionally not is no reason to overlook it – if anything it is all the more reason for commendation.
Things in mainstream comics are changing. The next Spiderman (in Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man series) will be a half-black, half-Hispanic teen named Miles Morales, and in September DC comics is rebooting their entire franchise, dialing every issue back to number one and sweeping decades worth of continuity under the rug. Batman is an American icon, as much as George Washington or Coca-Cola, and next month he gets to start over (which is nice – a lot of shit has happened to him in the last twenty years). When Bruce Wayne looks in a mirror he might just see Jay Gatsby staring back, except Jay will never get a do-over (there will always be another Great Gatsby movie, but the ending will always be the same). It seems obvious to say, but wouldn’t we all like that chance to start from issue one, with a whole slew of villains and love interests and story arcs to cover? The tragedy, and beauty, of life is that we can’t. Our redemption lies not in our pasts but in our futures, much like the faceless super in an abandoned tenement in Gotham City.
Note: The above images first appeared in Batman #406, written by Frank Miller, illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, colored by Richmond Lewis, and lettered by Todd Klein, and A Contract With God, and Other Tenement Stories, written and illustrated by Will Eisner.
Reading Nikil Saval (my Stanford friend and colleague)’s review of The Dark Knight at n+1 today, I found myself of two minds about his take. I too had exclaimed angrily about the impossible bustiness of the whole troupe of Russian ballerinas Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) kidnaps on his yacht, and the befuddling reappearance of Cillian Murphy (villain psychiatrist from Batman Begins), as well as the almost unwatchable chaos that was most of the action scenes, and the manipulative gotcha “black criminals are human too!” scene. I had exclaimed about other things Nikil hadn’t mentioned – like why bother getting the wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal to play just another insipid damsel in distress (albeit, weakly disguised as a “strong, independent woman”: she’s a DA! and she kicks the Joker in the balls while wearing an evening dress!)But the meat of Nikil’s review was his reading of the Dark Knight’s plot as political allegory. I am a rather bad reader of allegorical plots and having been told in vague terms by many people that the political implications of this Batman were intense, I hoped my symbolic reading skills were up to the task. My reading of the plot as allegory went something like this: our country has been taken over by a demented clown who burns money and oil and whose motives are incomprehensible. As you can imagine, I was very disappointed reading thus – I thought that this was not a very useful or provocative take on the current state of the union. I had also been told that Batman “goes over to the dark side” in this movie, but as far as I could see, except for wearing the black he always had, he was still the good guy (we knew his motives remained pure). Never, not once, did he seem taken in by the thrilling chaos that the Joker was peddling. (I had had a vague image of Batman and the Joker a la Danny Aiello and Bruce Willis in the under-appreciated Hudson Hawk synchronizing a heist by both singing “Swinging on a Star” in the same tempo. Holding hands while causing mayhem together! What fun! Try pulling that plot off next time, Christopher Nolan!) Again, I was disappointed.As Nikil’s review will show you, I missed rather a lot. The crux of the allegory and the moral ambiguity lies in Batman’s recourse to criminal methods to get the job of crime fighting done: his creation of a god-like surveillance system that violates the privacy of every resident of Gotham to find the Joker, and his beating information out of the Joker about the location of hostages and ticking bombs. In this, we can see the spectral reenactment of our own political situation: The US, which imagines itself as the world’s superhero, the champion of good, betraying its ideals (civil rights, the sovereignty of law, peace, justice) to defend these same ideals. Here was the genuine ambiguity and the interesting symbolic plot I had missed. As Nikil puts it “to fight anarchy is to lose one’s bearings, and move one’s own soul dangerously close to evil.” And this anarchy, of course, is terrorism and terrorists embodied in the Joker.No matter what you might, in the end, think of Batman’s (or the United States’) ultimate moral affiliation after these adventures, Nikil’s plot reading holds. My being of two minds takes issue more with Nikil’s idea that The Dark Knight is somehow a propaganda classroom, manufacturing citizenly consent for US policy and reinforcing in even its youngest viewers “every conceit that this childishly self-regarding nation has about its mission in the world”:And so the Joker, like other criminals in the film, is treated by Batman the way America treats terrorists: he is tortured. Intellectuals who favor the use of torture in the United States often reduce the ethical question to a hypothetical “ticking bomb” scenario, in which a terrorist reveals he has a plot to blow up thousands of people in one hour, and the only way for officials to extract information from the lunatic in time is through ruthless physical violence. “Ethics 101,” Charles Krauthammer calls it. “Hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.” It doesn’t matter that, in a real Ethics 101 class, one would learn that legal ethics is not reducible to a childish theoretical picture; that there is not a shred of historical or present evidence on which to base such hypotheticals. (There are bombs in the real world, but they never tick.) Yet the real-world debate over torture is frequently reduced to this argument, because it has a terrifying simplicity to it. As in the scenario itself, the argument doesn’t even give you time to think: you are simply asked to decide, and your decision then becomes actual policy. When it is presented in something like real time, as it is in The Dark Knight, it actually functions as “Ethics 101” for the children who see the film.And I take issue with this not only because, dunderhead that I am, the only childishly self-regarding conceit I came away from the movie with on my own was “our president is a psychopathic jester who is burning down our economy and must be stopped at any cost – damn the law.” No, I take issue with this because it means that there is no difference between art and life – that the moral and social rules and actions we observe and tolerate in comic books and novels foist themselves upon us as we read and work their way into our real lives. Saying that children who watch Batman are being primed to condone their country’s use of torture is like saying that reading Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels will make us kill our rich friends and assume their identities – or, at least, that we’ll approve of those who do.This just gets what movie-going and novel-reading is about all wrong. I think most people go to the movies for escape – we get out of our own heads, away from our own worries, we suspend the real world for a while to move into a variety of different, often joyfully impossible, worlds. Here we find respite from our own lives. I also think the rules of genre are comforting. Real life-plots are unpredictable: We never know in real life when we’re walking into a chapter of personal tragedy, when things might take a romantic turn, when they’ll go Beckett-y or Kafkaesque, but if I rent, say, 27 Dresses or The Holiday, I have the comfort of knowing how it will go, even though I have the pleasure of not knowing quite how it will go. It’s soothing. And I don’t, unless I’m Don Quixote, get up from either movie and expect life to yield up to me the personalities or plots I just watched. Just as I don’t get up from Batman thinking that I wouldn’t mind seeing more terrorists water-boarded, even if, obedient student of the comic book genre that I am, I accepted whatever “the good guy” had to do to get the job done as “good” – which is probably why I missed identifying Batman’s “criminal activities” as such (“Yeah, but it’s Batman who’s spying on everyone. Now if the Joker, it’d be another story”).Admittedly, this is part of a larger resentment and even anger I harbor against intellectuals at the movies – and indeed part of my somewhat perverse occasional campaign against taste and connoisseurship generally. Should Batman induce such anguish and demand such moral seriousness at it does at n+1? (“Why so serious?” as the Joker puts it.)Although I agree with much of Nikil’s reading, I find in it something repellent (morbid, paranoid, despair-inducing) that I associate with the Leftist intellectual temperament. I have written before about Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, Reflections on a Damaged Life and it is from Minima Moralia that I find the purest expression of this attitude that troubles and repels me:There is nothing innocuous left. The little pleasures, expressions of life that seemed exempt from the responsibility of thought, not only have an element of defiant silliness, of callous refusal to see, but directly serve their diametrical opposite. Even the blossoming tree lies the moment its bloom is seen without the shadow of terror; even the innocent “How lovely!” becomes an excuse for an existence outrageously unlovely, and there is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity holding fast to the possibility of what is better… The malignant deeper meaning of ease, once confined to the toasts of conviviality, has long since spread to more appealing impulses… Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse.Adorno’s book is a long collection of fragmentary meditations in the same inconsolable tone as this one. And while I have moments of deep sympathy for his tragic worldview, his sense that everything in our world is broken and sinister and corrupting, I think, for myself, that to linger in this mindset for long would be devastating. I would kill myself. I continue to marvel that the anguished consciousness on display here managed to survive itself for 250 pages. There is something of Adorno in Nikil’s take on the Dark Night – that watching this movie – maybe movies generally? – can be dangerous and morally suspect: That we Americans are watching our crappy, multi-million dollar nation-affirming movies while the world we set on fire burns. We retreat into movies (becoming ever easier in this era of Netflix, iTunes, and pay-per-view), neglect the world, and become dumber for our retreats into escapism, thus less capable of fixing the world we fled in the first place. “History will record,” Nikil writes, “that, while a monumental catastrophe overtook the world financial markets and a new colonialism destroyed the lives of nations, the United States still found time and money to resolve in its films what it could not, for the life of it, perform in the world.”Maybe History will. And maybe my logic is disgraceful and maybe I am deluded – or just weak (a junkie). The number of head pats, cheek pinches, and chin chucks I continue to get even now that I am almost 30 suggests that intellectual seriousness continues to elude me: but I love movies. And I defend them. They allow me to go into worlds that are more beautiful and make more sense than ours. Going to the movies, reading novels, is a kind of idealism for me, a longing for order and beauty that I will never find in this world. Maybe this isn’t morally justifiable, but it’s psychically necessary. Even Batman, flawed as it was, gave me a much needed respite from myself.Is Batman the problem? Is Batman a bigger problem than is an impenetrable seriousness, than a relentless critical certainty that would seem sometimes to insist that despair is the moral highground?