Monday, July 6, 2009

Comic Message: Batman, "The Dark Knight Descends"

The Dark Knight Descends
by Bryan Stroud

“Well, certainly Batman is a hero, but Batman is the antithesis of the superhero if you think in terms of what superheroes have become."
- Neil Adams, Batman Artist

“When the student is ready, the master shall appear.”—Buddha

Does this quote sound familiar? It should. It’s one of many inspirations and thoughts here at good old It seemed a fitting prologue for the thoughts I wanted to share with you this time out.

Did you know, dear reader, that this year, 2009, marks the 70th anniversary of the debut of the Batman in Detective Comics? Issue #27 from May of 1939 introduced the Dark Knight Detective to the world and he’s been with us ever since, not only in comic book form, but also as a newspaper strip, animated character, television star, and movie star several times over. For all those 70 years he’s managed to capture the imagination of people all over the world. Why? I’m sure there are many reasons, but I suspect one of the primary ones is the fact that this character is very human. He doesn’t have other-worldly powers or abilities, only the skills he has worked hard to develop on his own.

Batman is, in many ways, one of us. Despite that, there’s something of an enigma to this persona. In the novel “Batman Knightfall,” by Dennis O’Neil, a new villain by the name of Bane enters Batman’s world, and in his first encounter with the World’s Greatest Detective, he speaks the words that perhaps many have thought:

“How strange. You are a creature cloaked in nightmare. A thing of terror. Yet you will not break the Fifth Commandment. You do not kill.”

Even Denny O’Neil in his afterword makes mention of the fact that this is an unusual hero:

“But if he is an archetype, he should have earlier incarnations. Other denizens of the mirror world certainly do. Superman is a modern version of Gilgamesh, Hawkman is Daedalus, Flash is Apollo, the Hulk is Hercules… But if we look for an earlier version of our man, we find little or nothing that can be labeled “hero.” We’re successful if we search for him among the villains: the demons, the bloodsuckers, the were-creatures, all the dwellers of dark places, all those who shun the light.”

In an interview not too long ago with Denny O’Neil, he told me that he preferred writing for human-scaled characters, so Batman was a favorite of his. Furthermore, when I interviewed Neal Adams, one of the quintessential Batman artists, he said this:

“Well, certainly Batman is a hero, but Batman is the antithesis of the superhero if you think in terms of what superheroes have become. You know, bitten by a radioactive spider is pretty much the standard. Batman is the opposite of Superman. You have Superman, who is the most powerful superhero there is, essentially and almost too unrealistic to consider to deal with, and on the other end of the scale, you have a person who is, in fact, not a superhero at all. Batman is a NOT superhero. I don't know who else is a NOT superhero and is successful. I mean, there have been guys around who have put on costumes and have acted like superheroes, but generally they get themselves pasted. Batman succeeds where no one else succeeds. He is not, in any way, a superhero. He wears a costume, but that's to scare people.”

Neal is, of course, correct. When Batman first appeared in Detective comics so long ago, he was very much the grim avenger, perhaps modeled on The Shadow. In that first story, a mere 6 pages, he literally uttered dialogue in only 4 panels.

It wasn’t until he was given his own self-titled book, Batman #1 in the Spring of 1940 that we even learned his origin, which revealed that the young Bruce Wayne was with his parents, walking home from the movies when an armed thug tried to rob them. When Thomas Wayne resists, he is shot and killed, as is Bruce’s mother, leaving him an orphan and the sole witness to the crime. This drives Bruce to spend the next several years dedicating himself to become a master scientist and detective and honing his body to physical perfection so that he may one-day wage his one-man war on crime so that others do not go through the horror he did. One night at his home, musing by the fire, Bruce Wayne utters these classic words to himself:

“Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…a…a…” Just then a huge bat flies into the open window. “A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen…I shall become a bat!”

Source of excerpt below: Batman: Dark Detective #2, page 14; reprinted in Batman: Dark Detective trade paperback (DC Comics, 2006), page 40;
written by Steve Englehart, pencilled by Marshall Rogers, inked by Terry Austin

Going back to the Knightfall novel, Denny O’Neil also delves into Bruce Wayne’s memories:

“Young Bruce, wandering the globe. A university here, an apprenticeship there. Paris, Chongju, Cape Girardeau, Manchester, Bhopal, even Krasnoyarsk and Zimbabwe, anywhere there was anyone who could teach him anything he might find useful.”

And that brings us full circle, dear readers. Remember the quote at the top of this column, “When the student is ready, the master shall appear”? To me, the essence of the Batman is his preparation and willingness to learn. He gave himself a mission and then set about doing the things necessary to prepare him to follow through with it. Similarly, our lives, to be lived heroically, require similar preparation, through the gathering of as much knowledge as possible and through the development of those requisite physical attributes. One of the consistent themes at Hero School is taking care of the body- the temple of the spirit- through exercise and nutrition. These not only strengthen and improve our physical performance, but also allow our mind to excel as well.

"Every man is my superior in some way.
In that, I learn of him." -Emerson

Is Batman a hero? Absolutely, positively. Do we have the same stuff that has made him what he is? Again, absolutely, positively. So, my admonition is to do likewise. Learn and prepare, remembering that learning is available in many, many places outside a classroom. Avail yourself of inspirational material from books and other media and never neglect the great resource of others who can mentor and teach you so that you too can benefit from their wisdom and experience. Yes, knowledge comes in many forms and it all is beneficial to the student who is ready and willing to listen.

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