[21 October 2009]
PopMatters Comics Editor
He’ll leave me alone and in return I’ll stay quiet.
—Frank Miller The Dark Knight Returns
It is truly strange watching the Bonus Features disc to 2005’s Batman Begins all these many years after.
Truly strange because, viewing the assembled footage and various documentaries on this disc now, opens a vista on how very much meaning there was to the making this film.
Engineers had built The Tumbler, the 21st century Batmobile, in a shed in England. A working, drivable prototype that weighed nearly two and a half tons and could actually jump gaps up to 50 feet—just like it was meant to do in the movie. Director Christopher Nolan insisted on up-to-date research that would accurately develop the main character’s arsenal of gadgetry, research that included stealth camouflage and nextgen fabrics, mixed martial arts and urban planning, lidar cinematographic techniques and spiritual traditions of the Himalaya.
The 21st Century Batmobile Leaps Into Action
Batman Begins was no ordinary movie. Set Designer Nathan Crowley supervised a project-build that was eight times larger than any set built prior to that point. This magnificent set included caverns and highways and slums and main streets. More than that even, it was the movie that changed everything. The movie that dragged the superhero genre, kicking and screaming into the grounded reality of Our World. Suddenly, chase sequences in superhero movies would appear no less credible than those in Friedkin’s The French Connection or Yates’ Bullitt. Drama in this genre would appear no less engaging than scenes from Coppola’s The Godfather or Stone’s Wall Street.
Compared with contemporaneous movies in the same genre (2003’s Daredevil starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner and the not inconsiderable Joe Pantoliano or 2006’s Superman Returns starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth and the villainously exaggerated Kevin Spacey, and helmed by directorial heavyweight Bryan Singer) Batman Begins stands as a proper testament to a game-changer. The rules would change after Nolan’s Batman. So why did Batman Begins disappear so anonymously into the inky depths of popular culture? By 2007’s release of 300, Batman Begins’ cultural impact was almost completely set aside. A cold and distant memory.
The assembled miscellanies on the Bonus Features disc make for watching it a truly strange experience, especially now. Especially after Hannah Montana and Jonas Brothers movies are given the same Slick Treatment. Especially since the latter types of movies have armies of directors and producers, gaffers and sound engineers, cameramen and location scouts speaking in hushed tones about the importance of the their work. Long before Batman Begins, the two-disc Special Edition became an industry standard, but it seems that after 2005, a new cultural condition has taken hold: a strange economy of silence. Where Cold, Filthy Bags of Hushmoney are paid out to the superhero genre movie that can both elevate itself above the expectations of comics fans and sufficiently segregate itself from mainstream cinema. There is a cultural dissonance at work here. One that plays superhero genre movies off against its core demographic—its loyal comics readership. And in so doing, brings to the fore issues of teenage angst and repression, guilt, doubt, and invariably self-recriminations. These issues would be revisited, if not fully redressed, in the summer of 2008 with such runaway smash hit summer blockbusters as Iron Man and the critically acclaimed Bat-sequel, The Dark Knight.
But there’s a dark laugh to be had here. The ignominious anonymity that seems to be industry-standard for superhero genre movies is vaguely reminiscent of the ending to Frank Miller’s formidable classic, The Dark Knight Returns. By the book’s end, the much-too-loud, far-too-aggressive, political liability that is Bruce Wayne’s Batman is literally forced underground. Faking his own death, but mistiming his resurrection, Batman forges a secret and unspoken compact with Clark Kent’s Superman, now a stooge for a totalitarian shadow-government. ‘He’ll leave me alone and in return I’ll stay quiet’. Batman’s words ring in readers’ ears as he sets up a school for crimefighters in an endless subterranean Batcave.
And that is what we all hope for. That comics fans simply be quiet. Comics has become Respectable, after all. Along with television, it is perhaps the most sincere, most American, of art-forms. Comicbook stores are on almost every street corner now, in all major cities, all major credit cards are accepted. The august Smithsonian Institute has put out a book on the matter. Never mind that comics have seceded from the cultural mainstream, forcing themselves into an intellectual ghetto. Never mind that these Icons are in most publications delivered by rote, rather than being fueled by genuine creativity.
This is a sordid exchange, a Great And Terrible Economy. The crushing price paid for living in what comics giant Osamu Tezuka dubbed the ‘age of comics as air’, turns out to be nothing less than comics’ hasty retreat into a virtual world, its own cultural boutique of endless fandom. Ironically, the moment of comics’ coming undone lies in wait in the very moment of its greatest victory. Miller’s radical re-imagining of an older, meaner, physically weakened Batman would define the icon for generations to come. It would credibly establish Batman at least, if not other superheroes, as a vehicle for artistic license and creative vision that necessarily transcend the comics medium.
1989’s Batman: The Movie would be a radical break with hitherto traditional depictions of the lead character. But Tim Burton’s late ‘80s blockbuster would also lay to rest the ghosts of Dick Donner’s Superman: The Movie. There would always be a shimmer of elegance around the Superman franchise. Superman was a movie that absolutely insisted on being made. Marlon Brando would win the largest fee for a bit-player to date. And critics the world over would make the pronouncement that all movies henceforth would be B-movies.
But within the comics industry also, Miller’s accomplishment (there really is no other word) would have an enduring effect. The character would be elevated from the morass of stories, and would once again have A Story to tell. Batman would once again be About Something. There would be a domino effect for other characters. And the world would be watching the medium. Within a decade, hard-won creative rights issues would finally be tabled and negotiated. The industry would see the rise of independent publication. And audience imaginations would be infused with scores of new characters and settings. The highwater mark would come with the founding of Image Comics, a group of high-flying creators banding together to form their own independent publishing brand. They would benefit from their celebrity status, as would anyone published by them. When Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn began outselling Marvel’s various X-books, and Image began successfully wooing writers and artists fleeced by Marvel’s past management, the world began to take notice.
The decade following on after Dark Knight Returns’ publication would prove to be a roaring time for comics. Superman would meet his death in the Doomsday Saga. This was a commercially courageous decision. The events of Knightfall would see Bruce Wayne’s spinal column shattered and would eventually have him cede the Mantle of the Bat to a sociopathic replacement. Equally courageous. Even relatively minor characters like DC’s Flash or Marvel’s Ghost Rider would appear just that little more credible. But for comics, this would not be the staging area for better times still to come; for comics this would be An End. If by a decade after, the high-point was hit, two years after that the bubble would burst. By the turn of the new millennium, it would all come crashing down. Speculative investors would leave the comics market and hack-writing would once again be the order of the day.
If there genuinely are issues to be resolved, these go around the moment of victory. Comicbook fans won. No doubt about that. We stepped in and set up conventions. We began to control the culture. We convinced Second Gen comics publishers (houses like DC and Marvel dedicated to the idea of printing comicbooks as separate items) that it was OK to market to us directly. Why send out a 1,000 ‘maybe-purchase’ books to a newsstand, turning over possibly no more than 200 books in sales, when all that was needed was a direct market that would guarantee 600 sales of the same book? In and doing so, comics-fans changed the culture again.
What at first seemed like a birthright, soon became a rope around our collective necks. Comics was becoming an intellectual ghetto, not a cultural boutique. By the early ‘90s, comics had already seceded from the mainstream of popular culture. It had nothing to say to music, or television, or politics, or topical events. And what is worse, it had nothing to learn from these. Hollywood would continue to tap comics. But even that was drawing to an inglorious defeat. The first glimmer of failure could be seen in the Jean-Claude van Damme actioner Timecop based on the Dark Horse limited series of the same name. A fairly solid film by all accounts, but convincing forgettable. It stands as a prime example of that regular kind of mediocrity that drapes our lives with just sufficient amounts of storytelling. By the time the vertically-integrated atrocity Batman & Robin hit the Silver Screen, even the most ardent supporter knew that it was time to go. The movie’s over, fade to black.
It took us about a half-century, but we eventually exhausted ourselves. We’d moved from an artform that was reasonably plugged-in, something that was part of the day-to-day of human life in daily newspapers of major cities, to a cultural system that was so exclusive, it began excluding. We’d won our victory riding the crest of a wave, but that wave had already begun to break. The battle for cultural legitimation, the perennial cry that ‘comics ain’t just for kids’, had become the worst kind of lingering nightmare. Sure they weren’t for kids anymore, because they were for no-one but us. Those of us who already had a foot in the door.
Think of how badly we lost, just by winning.
With comics now accepted into the cultural fold, with the full legitimation of the medium as a unique artform, is there anything left to contend for? Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer for Maus the harrowing account of his father’s trails in Auschwitz. Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen stands as the most direct visual record of the bombing of Hiroshima. Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde make for startling first-person journalistic narratives of the twentieth century’s war-torn places. But while comics has become acceptable, legitimated even, while the ghost of Will Eisner can rest easy tonight, the medium has also become irreconcilable with its roots in the cultural mainstream.
Cynically perhaps, there’s Hushmoney to be had here. Pulitzer’s are not simply doled out to every writer worth reading. But a comicbook writer is now numbered among that elite. Katsuhiro Otomo’s post-apocalyptic epic, Akira won a Sci-Fi Grand Prix. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman short story, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” became the first comics to win a World Fantasy Award. Due in no small part to its radical inversion of expectations by wrestling with the Shakespearean play of the same name in its comics text. The accolades and the awards keep piling up. In return for this cultural ascendancy, what’s asked of the longtime fan, the fan from before the direct market, the Kid In The Candy-store armed with a pocketful of dimes for a dozen or so comic books ... what’s asked of that Kid is to simply remain quiet.
Nineties logic is not easy, but it is simple. Superheroes are something garish. Harsh, blunt and crude, they are treated as such by the cinema. Comics for its own part, attempts a cultural divorce from the superhero genre. Sure, comics can be culturally relevant, just no more men in tights. This profound thing that two kids-grown-older from the Midwest invented when they first conceived of Superman, this strange marriage between a heroism of storytelling that can redeem an angst-ridden, socially-bullied teenage reader with a medium that absolutely requires emotional involvement to animate its tale, this thing was at an end. Superheroes would never be legitimated, at least not in the way comics could be. The polite thing to do now, was to turn your back on that dream. To relegate it to the trash-heap of failed childhood schemes and to bask in the warm, soothing glow of that Pulitzer. Time to grow up again.
I Wanted To Believe
The crest of the comics wave had begun to break just around the time Chris Carter’s X-Files was back on the cultural agenda. A touchstone for the ‘90s, production company Ten Thirteen’s number one show would ring its curtain down with an impact crater of unprecedented upheavals. Longtime series lead, David Duchovny would reprise his role as Agent Fox Mulder, after two seasons’ absence. He would be closing out a decade-long crusade to bring shadowy conspirators within government to light and make them answer for hiding knowledge of extra-biological entities.
Mulder’s Quest in many ways mirrored comics own quest for a cultural legitimacy of the medium. Why not? Both seemed just causes. Both seemed to be trapped in a cultural labyrinth of being perpetually forestalled. Both seemed tantalizingly just beyond their dreamers’ grasp. The two causes, Mulder’s fictive hunt for aliens hidden by an untrustworthy government, and comics’ credible search for cultural legitimation, for acknowledgement as a unique artform, seemed to sync in just the right way at just the right time in the popular imagination.
Scott McCloud—the phenomenal mind behind Understanding Comics—is perhaps the most eloquent of comics’ ardent supporters. His seven-years-in-the-making follow-up, Reinventing Comics, would make the most passionate of arguments. That he was a cartoonist. That his life was in comics. That he really wasn’t at all interested in retooling his intellectual properties as movies, or as videogames. That he could really care less about speculating in comics as a means of building a stock portfolio. He worked in comics, and his financial security should come from the comics industry. Dark fantasy guru Neil Gaiman would praise McCloud’s work as a ‘manifesto’, and laud its purity of vision as a polemic meant to change the world. Comics should always be about comics. This impassioned plea seemed so fragile in the days before 2005’s Batman Begins, and so vital, and so necessary. Our Candle In The Dark, as astrophysicist Carl Sagan would have had it. Something to keep us all going in the lean times.
On the surface of it, McCloud’s plea is a rational response, even a courageous response to the cultural decimation of a medium. Who would speak for comics? It is Kantian in its elegant simplicity. Comics as a medium deserves its interior spaces. It deserves adoration for the thing it is. But like the great Immanuel Kant, McCloud glimpses at an interiority even as it is beginning to fade from view. Supporting McCloud’s vision of a comics for comics, is a host of cultural assumptions. Given the radical tear-away cultural politics of the ‘90s, McCloud’s passion seems perfectly situated as the voice cultural professionalization of the medium. That comics itself should remain segregated from the cultural mainstream.
But isn’t the best measure of an icon, its enduring and wide-ranging cultural impact on the popular imagination? Isn’t the dream of any creator to have has broad an impact as possible. The move from comicstrips to comicbooks was for Siegel and Schuster, entirely pragmatic. It meant a broader audience, and an increased revenue stream. For comics publishers, this move meant something else entirely. It meant an economic legitimation. A Final Victory that would ensure their own segregation from the newspaper industry.
This search for cultural independence which ultimately ends in cultural exclusion, is a product of Second Gen comics publishers, as Gerard Jones reminds us in his deeply moving Men of Tomorrow. Wanting to remain segregate is what we were taught we always wanted. Unsurprisingly, it is the same thing comicbook publishers always wanted, to distinguish themselves from the newspapermen they once hoped they would be.
But this task of would require a Great Work of cultural unplugging. One that would eventually end in an impassioned plea for the segregation of comics the medium, from the superhero genre that popularized it. If on the cusp of the millennium, The Kid In The Candy-store was ready to forego the superhero genre in order to redeem, it was because this false choice was engineered into the industry at its inception. The ongoing skirmishes of the 1930s and 40s that eventually ended in the establishment of Second Generation comics publishing houses, would eventually spillover into mainstream culture in an unprecedented way.
Agent Mulder’s infamous poster depicting a UFO in clear view hanging above the treetops, with the tagline “I Want to Believe”, would need a radical revision before it could be adopted by comics people on the cusp of the millennium. The X Files and comics had parted cultural ways. For comics people, it was no longer a question of that steady, familiar suffering of waiting for a dream to come true. For all the cultural legitimacy that flooded comics people by the millennium, the feelings were wholly different. This was a question of That Kid having to refuse superheroes. If there was a tagline for this wave of emotion, it would read “I Wanted to Believe”.
There is genuine meaningfulness to be found in the creative process that produced Batman Begins. Nolan began working on the treatment by writing in his garage in the LA summer heat. First he roped in co-writer David Goyer, next his longtime collaborator, set-designer Nathan Crowley. The three would circuit through each others’ ideas. Crowley would visualize the settings as scale models, while Nolan would consider shot-angles for the emotional weight Goyer would bring to bear on the story unfolding before them.
Nolan’s project came with prefabricated secrecy. Even to Warner Brothers’ corporate the project could not be named as Batman. 24-hour news cycles might kill any chance the project had of being realized as the visionary output Nolan hoped for. Ironically perhaps for the comics-cultural world that Nolan’s project was being birthed into, the director had chosen the title Intimidation Game to designate the new Batman movie.
But if there was an Intimidation Game being run on the Kid in the Candy-store, if That Kid was being taught to say ‘yes’, it is because he was a known squealer. That Kid had learned to say yes a long time back. The cusp of the millennium was a strange time. It was marked by the cultural ascendancy of comics and the simultaneous refusal of the superhero genre that had once had such a vital role in popularizing the medium. Hushmoney was being handed out, cultural legitimation long fought-for was now being awarded to the medium. Dire times, but this situation had its roots in the machinations that produced comicbooks as a unique publication format. Cultural legitimation of the comicbook was something of a false trail, a failed concept. The search for legitimation of the comicbook is the newer, sleeker model of a far older debate—the radicalization of the pulp industry which comicbook publishers hoped would put them on equal footing with mass-published daily newspapers.
But contending for the cultural legitimacy of the comicbook, or for that matter of comics themselves, loses the true mass-broadcast popularity of the Icons that graced the panels of the medium. There has always been something revolutionary about comics’ association with superheroes. Something mindbendingly elegant about seeing our everyday world mirrored in eerily familiar ways. Lest we forget. Superman was always the fictive frontman for FDR’s New Deal. He was busting up Depression-era crime syndicates and proving that authority figures could be trusted. Reed Richards and the Fantastic Four would always be the postwar hopefulness most typified by public scientist Richard Feynman. With comics a part of the daily cultural mainstream, there seems very little need to perpetually rally to its defense. As a standalone item sold for no other value than its own, a faction continually decrying it as a Secretly Dying But Vital Part of culture becomes a surprisingly effective marketing tool.
By the millennium, the implicit plea of elitism would very nearly win the day. Comics would conceivably endure perhaps even Evolve well beyond superheroes. If this were to happen, it would be for no other reason than comics longtime fans had already been educated in minimizing losses. That tradition goes back to the 1950s, when in the wake of psychologist Frederic Wertham’s publication of Seduction of the Innocent and the ensuing Senate hearings, the comics industry accepted a self regulating board. The Comics Code Authority as it came to be known, would hold the industry in its thrall for two generations. The rampant creativity of the old EC comics, books like Tales from the Crypt or MAD, would never be repeated under the Code’s watchful eye. After all, the Code was the only antidote for the homosexual ravings of a Bat-costumed S&M’er who regularly put underage youth in the line of fire. Wertham’s thesis in Seduction might have been the firestarter, but comics as an industry was ready to shut itself down.
Nick & Nora Versus The Infinite Playlist
The True Victory does of course arrive. The victory over both cultural marginalization as a result of the good work done in the 80s, and the victory over the far more subtle, far more insidious waves of elitist secession of the late 90s. Batman Begins tabled the debate, but 2008’s season of summer blockbusters, including Jon Favreau’s culturally redemptive Iron Man and Nolan’s formidable Bat-sequel The Dark Knight, would ultimately settle the matter. Superheroes could be credibly exploited in other media, while comics continued to enjoy cultural legitimation. What had suddenly happened between these short few years? What had changed? The answers may lay in another 2008 movie, the indie sleeper-hit Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
It is hard to spot at first. Once you see it however, it’s hard to see anything else. But Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is really a modern retooling of an old Dash Hammett pulp fiction series, “The Thin Man”. The dead-giveaway clue (for anyone sufficiently familiar with both the 2008 movie and Hammett’s Prohibition-era socialites, the Charleses) comes right at the end of the film when Nick and Norah forego the band they chased down the entire length of the movie. Nick grabs Norah’s hand and they flee into the bright, cold warmth of Penn Station. ‘We’re missing it’, she whispers. ‘We’re not missing it’, Nick shoots back, ‘This is it’. The audience is caught in that same elegiacally urgent energy that impels Our Sweethearts down into the womb that is Pennsylvania Station. And the end-credits begin to roll.
What distinguishes Nick & Norah’s, and what situates the film historically is the ‘playlist’. An emerging cultural phenomenon, playlists only have real meaning after iTunes and Napster and the anthropologically ubiquitous iPod. Before the era of widescale piracy, and P2P exchange networks, before Demoniod and The Pirate Bay, playlists had almost zero cultural value. But the rise of the playlist is also the fall of the hit. The full and finer mechanics of this phenomenon are interpreted by visionary thinker Chris Anderson in his lucid and thoroughgoing book The Long Tail.
Anderson writes something momentous, what amounts to Adam Smith’s classic The Wealth of Nations for a 21st century cybermarket. In it he describes how limited shelf-space (attention span) meant a hit-driven economy was the surest way to ensure a revenue stream. But hits, for all their economic certainty, make for an uncomfortable creativity. Hits cater to 60% of the population, 60% the time. Limited shelf-space and limited attentions make hits an absolute necessity in the old economy, but with the digital marketplace, hits become a thing of the past. Subcultures become the order of the day, with subgenre and micro-genre being the industry standard. Choice is the watchword for the new economy, and the cultural end-user, the reader or listener, becomes the focus. It is the reader that assembles the culture.
Haunted by having dispelled the shadows of cultural illegitimacy, and the manticore of isolationism that was paraded as elitism, comics stands at the fore of this renaissance of social media. A media driven by the choices and concerns important to readers is also a media only just now coming to terms with the wrestlings of comics since Miller’s Dark Knight Returns.
In the comics industry, the hit-driven economy was already decimated in the early ‘90s. It is in this way that comics’ recent history becomes a roadmap for the navigations that await the major genre of the popular culture mainstream. Music, cinema, television, even print journalism are beginning on that same path that will soon enough see business models once thought to be rock-solid, crumble. What stands out however, is the redemption of the Icons that have always been the true socio-intellectual yield of these mass media. There will always be a Superman. The New Marketplace simply means that there will always be a Hellboy too.
With ten years already under the bridge, PopMatters Comics is gearing up for this New Marketplace of Social Media. The recent buy-out of Marvel by Disney and the establishment of a Warner Brothers’ corporate entity for exploiting DC properties as movies means Second Gen publishers have rallied in the early stages. Will Third Gen publishers like Image and Dark Horse, publishers predicated on creator rights and creative freedoms, be wholly eclipsed? Or will they themselves rally.
With comics already having walked the path away from a hit-driven economy, PopMatters Comics becomes central to delivering cultural commentary on not merely comics itself, but on bridging the gap between the intellectual boutique of comics culture, and the mainstream of popular culture. We’ve refined our tools. We will rely on our vast, internal libraries of comics, using them to comment on the day-to-day. We will deliver topical content, no longer strictly determined by publication schedules. We will trace the legacies and the histories of the Icons that inspired our younger life.
Since our summer 2009 reboot, we’ve begun unveiling our new publication format. Regular features like “The Iconographies” and “My Perfect Panel” are absolutely necessary in explaining both the inspiring and the tyrannical nature of comics in popular culture. These Icons and their medium haunt us in the best of senses. They provide fertile soil for early dreams. In the weeks and months to come, we will be expanding our format to reach even deeper into this strange nexus of imagination and inspiration and dread. These are Strange and Terrible Times. They can only be properly understood through a full exploration of the subjunctive cultural vectors that have haunted a century of American comics. In its lingering battle for cultural legitimacy, in its weird engagements with cultural secession, in its crucially unacknowledged skirmishes with elitism, comics offers a richly-textured cultural complex. PopMatters is uniquely positioned to deal with such cultural complexity. Won’t you join us in watching as this New Journalism unfolds?