Batman Unmasked

Analysing a Cultural Icon by Will Brooker

by John G. Nettles


Out the Dark Knight

A cursory glance at just about any of the content at PopMatters will reveal a startling fact about its writers and editors: we’re all really involved in this stuff. There are very few straight “thumbs-up/thumbs-down” reviews here. Instead we look at these films and TV shows, CDs and comic books, and try to navigate the ebb and flow and currents of human society through its cultural artifacts — a friend of mine calls it punk archaeology. We don’t just review the new Madonna album — we dissect it, analyze it, worry at it like dogs with calcified bones. We try to pinpoint the higher meanings to be found in Dude, Where’s My Car? Most of us are college graduates and many of us are working academics, and so while our fellows are bringing their powers to bear on the question of the existence of God and the Unified Field Theory, we bring ours to bear on the tougher question of why Rob Schneider has a film career.

Go ahead, laugh. We get a lot of that.

cover art

Batman Unmasked

Will Brooker

Analysing a Cultural Icon

(Continuum Books)

Not as much as Will Brooker, though. In 1996 the Cardiff University student found himself yanked through the looking-glass, as someone in the British media got wind that his doctoral work was a cultural analysis of the various media representations of Batman and decided to make an example of him. For three months or so, Brooker was the focal point of a nationwide debate over the fitness of popular culture as a subject for advanced — and taxpayer-financed — study. Dubbed “Dr. Batman” in the tabloids and on talk shows, Brooker stood his ground against accusations that he had blown the realm’s valuble coin reading funnybooks. It didn’t help matters any that the main thrust of his study argued to allow a queer reading of the hero’s adventures — Brooker doesn’t actually say Batman is gay but rather that there is ample textual evidence to support anyone who does say it. And plenty of people have, from the infamous psychiatrist who testified to it before the Senate, to viewers of the unabashedly campy Sixties TV show, to the audience of the third and fourth feature films with the nipples on the Bat-suits and Joel Schumacher’s lingering crotch-shots.

Batman Unmasked is Brooker’s argument laid out for public consumption, and it is a contentious mother. There are no trademarked images of the Batman to be found here, not even on the cover (among the sparse photos are a news shot of a man in Sarajevo wearing a Batman T-shirt as he flees sniper fire and a cover from a gay-advocacy magazine with Chris O’Donnell in his Robin outfit), because DC Comics forbade it. It’s hard to blame them — Brooker’s book is less an analysis of the Batman than a repudiation of a number of other texts that support DC’s “official” reading of the character, among them the autobiography of Batman’s creator, Bob Kane, whom he catches in a number of little white lies and factual fudgings over the authorship of various supporting characters and villains and the level of his continued participation in churning out Batman’s adventures.

Brooker is looking to clean house here, and he takes a big broom to the reputation of Dr. Fredric Wertham, reviled within the comic-book community as a latter-day Cotton Mather, only not as laid-back. Wertham was a New York state psychiatrist whose 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent sought to show a definitive link between comic books and juvenile delinquency, based upon his observations of young patients at a mental-health clinic he supervised in Harlem. Wertham’s findings became a cause celebre in the media, and he was called upon to testify before a Senate subcommittee, causing comic-book publishers to unite and institute a self-censoring Comics Code as a pre-emptive measure to avoid a government crackdown on the industry. Squeaky-clean, Code-approved comics were a far cry from the lurid crime and horror comics that had proliferated before the Code (and less exciting than television), and plunging sales forced the majority of comics publishers to retool or fold. While there can be little argument that, given some of the pre-Code comics’ penchant for beheadings, eviscerations, and red-hot pokers in the eye, Wertham had something of a point, four pages of Seduction of the Innocent refuse to die: Wertham’s assertion that the relationship between Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (and their civilian identities, “Bruce” and “Dick,” who live together in an opulent mansion with a male servant, with Bruce frequently drawn relaxing in his dressing-gown) may be easily perceived as running a tad deeper than parents should be comfortable with. Wertham’s detractors, then and now, have pointed to his reliance on blatant gay stereotypes in making his assertion to vilify him as the worst sort of homophobic creep, especially since he was talking about drawings on paper, but the question hung heavily enough in the air for National Periodical Publications (later DC Comics) and the producers of the next decade’s TV show with to enact measures to give the Dynamic Duo girlfriends and move a maiden aunt into stately Wayne Manor in an effort to butch up the Bat (the biggest irony here, as Brooker reminds us, is that Robin was originally created to stave off another media accusation, that Batman was too grim-and-gritty for kids).

Hence Brooker’s defense of Fredric Wertham is certain to raise more than a few hackles, but it’s a necessary entry into the dialogue and not without merit. Brooker points out, rightly so, that Wertham’s reputation as a shrill, misguided quack is largely perpetuated by people who’ve never read the book (it’s been out of print for decades) and who’ve taken his points grossly out of context. Wertham never engaged in a personal mission to play “Spot-the-Homo” in Batman comics but rather based his findings on the statements of several of his patients who’d had “aberrant” homosexual fantasies (remember, this was the Fifties) surrounding the Caped Crusaders — in other words, he was reporting on queer readings of Batman independent of his own, but before such readings were socially tolerated, and any assessment of Wertham’s work must take that into account. Moreover, Brooker points out that those who accuse Wertham of homophobia must, it follows, have come to the same conclusion he did, thus giving Wertham’s findings complete credibility. Basically, Wertham’s biggest crime was doing his work before Stonewall, something he could not possibly have helped.

While Brooker’s defense of Wertham is eloquent and reasoned, however, the rest of the book is something of a mess as Brooker attempts to expand upon Wertham’s point that there is ample evidence to support a queer reading of Batman (again, not that Batman is gay but that anyone looking to argue that interpretation could find plenty of ammunition in the various Batman texts). Brooker cites passage after passage from the comics — the many incidents in which Robin the Boy Hostage (to borrow from Frank Miller) is taken prisoner and Batman angsts, or Batman is seemingly killed and Robin cries; the introduction of female counterparts Bat-Woman and Bat-Girl (as opposed to Batgirl, who came later) and the analysis of their aggressive femininity against the Dynamic Duo’s baffling reticence to get it on with them; the Eighties’ post-Dark Knight Returns interpretation of a dysfunctional homoeroticism between Batman and the Joker — to support this argument. Further discussion of the feature films dwells heavily on the intentional campiness and in-our-faces gay iconography of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman and Robin as evidence of a queer reading that enjoyed the institutional sanction of DC Comics’ parent company Warner Brothers.

Now who’s playing “Spot-the-Homo”?

Brooker attempts to frame this excessive exercise in academic nudging and winking in postmodern terms: all texts are subject to different but equal interpretations, so long as there is evidence within the texts themselves to support those readings. But by making the point that there are so many reasons to support a queer reading without actually endorsing one — he tells us emphatically that he is straight straight straight — Brooker in fact commits the crime he defends Wertham against, but without Wertham’s excuse of working in a homophobic age. Yes, a queer reading of Batman is as valid as any other, but without a solid commitment to the theory Batman Unmasked is basically a collection of clever observations run amok, little more than a batch of prurient snapshots. If the discussion had been limited to defending Wertham, it would have made a solid conference paper or scholarly article. Bloated to encompass the whole of the Batman intertext, the book hasn’t enough steak for a decent sizzle.

And in the end, does it really matter? After all, Batman isn’t a real guy but a character whose motivations, actions, and choice of makeout partners are entirely in the hands of writers, editors, actors, and filmmakers. Hell, according to the DC Comics “Bat-Bible,” Batman is celibate! Perhaps the British media was right and people like Brooker and all of us at PopMatters have better things to do with our time than look for meaning in the candyfloss of popular entertainment. Perhaps, except that the comic books Brooker refers to, the TV episode where Adam West does the Batusi, and the movie where George Clooney activates his highly unlikely Bat-skates were all read and watched and purchased by millions of people over the course of sixty-plus years, a hell of a lifetime for something supposedly that disposable. Batman, like Madonna and Elvis and James Bond, strikes a resonant chord in too many of us to deny that there is something about him that speaks to us at the level of myth.

Go ahead, laugh. We get a lot of that.

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