“I won’t bury another Wayne” – a goodbye to Nolan’s Batman trilogy

I will always be fascinated by the attempts that “nerdy” subject material will make in order to be perceived as art. Memorably, video game fans attempted to rake Roger Ebert over the coals when he claimed (rightfully) that video games will never be art. I never questioned the logic of either side, as interesting points were often presented, but I was more intrigued by why these fans were obsessed with having one of their favorite mediums be recognized as something more than mindless entertainment.

There have been untold of thoughtless news stories focusing on the ways in which comic books have grown up, with many recent ones focusing on the financial success of darker comic book films such as 2008’s “Watchmen” adaptation and Nolan’s epic Batman trilogy. That being said, I have the same view about this as I did about the aforementioned video game discussion. Did we ever really need these movies to justify comics? Did Nolan’s movies accomplish anything in the culture at large that actually needed to be done?

For me the answer will always be a definitive no. Don’t get me wrong, I vastly enjoyed all of Nolan’s films, particularly “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight Rises” but everyone seems to be focusing on how Nolan’s work somehow legitimized something that had been missing. I just don’t think that was the case. Nolan’s films did a great job giving people exactly what they didn’t realize they wanted: a darker, excessively mature comic book movie that made non-comics fans feel like they understood comic books.

Because I’m an extremely petty and narcissistic person, I was deeply upset when people started saying that they liked Batman after the release of “The Dark Knight.” They didn’t understand the intricacies of the conflict between the Joker and Batman like I did. They didn’t understand the complex moral and ethical chess match for the soul of Harvey Dent like I did. To me, if you didn’t understand what made the film work so well under the hood, you didn’t really have the right to enjoy it like I did.

Nolan succeeded by making the labyrinthine power structures of Gotham City into something that the layman could understand. He didn’t dumb anything down, rather he introduced easily digestible nuggets of world-building that enabled anyone to understand the motivations of all the characters that made “The Dark Knight” work. People didn’t leave loving the film for what it was. They left thinking they had seen a movie that let them feel like they had it all figured out. “The Dark Knight” let viewers feel like they had just passed a test they didn’t study for.

In hindsight, I’m glad that people ended up liking Batman from “The Dark Knight.” I still think it may be the least satisfying and necessary film in the trilogy but it accomplished a very necessary end. Nolan was able to make a superhero film that used neither the structure nor the formulas of other films and was able to do something unique. It was an admirable work and an innovative one and it paved the way for the ambition of “The Dark Knight Rises” (which I will not be reviewing as to avoid spoilers).

Nolan excelled at making a trilogy of films that made its nerdy viewers feel like researchers and neophytes feel like experts. All the while, he was able to craft a brooding series focused on fear that never was bogged down into misery or undo complications. Its an admirable effort, one DC needed to learn. That being said, I still have concerns for his next work “The Man of Steel” which appears as if it could be attempting the same self-serious tone that the Batman films effortlessly attained. Hopefully, Nolan will be able to help director Zach Snyder make something that dodges the problems their other films have had. And hopefully, not feature too many slow motion bone crunches.

“A rope stretched between bat and Batman” – 11 uncharacteristically adult episodes of “Batman: The Animated Series”

“Batman: The Animated Series” may be one of the most technically accomplished, innovative and well written animated series of all time, able to appeal to both adults and children alike. The show would occasionally handle this balance masterfully with classics such as “Heart of Ice,” “The Man Who Killed Batman,” “Trial” and “POV” but other times, they didn’t quite hit the mark. That, however, is when we really get into the head of the dark knight, exposing children to the mind-set of an aging billionaire who dresses up in leather to punch out psychopaths. For whatever reason, whether it be the aforementioned psychological content, sexual themes, long spanning Bat-style or plain old uber-violence, these are the episodes that should have gotten a second look before plopping the kids in front of the TV and might just have been more entertaining and well-rounded for their parents.

1. “Dreams in Darkness”

Clearly inspired by Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth,” this episode finds Batman being checked into Arkham and having to confront the futility of his quest for justice as well as his own psychosis. Although there’s the copout of having Scarecrow being behind his enemy’s incarceration, the dream sequence in which Batman watches an amorphous blob morph into his enemies in disgusting ways is a standout sequence in the entire series.

2. “Mad Love”

“Mad Love” is a bit of an adult episode for an entirely different reason. While it does succinctly explain the origin of Harley Quinn and her obsession with the Joker, it is most remembered for a sequence in which Harley petitions the clown for sex, asking him if he’d like to “rev up his Harley” and then making the above shown motorcycle motion. There’s a difference between the innuendos that the show trafficked in early in the run and this one that makes the character’s relationship a bit too explicit.

3. “Two Face Part 1”

In what might be my favorite episode of the animated series and in my opinion, one of the most important moments in DC’s TV future, “Two Face Part 1” shows Dini’s genius by fundamentally changing Harvey Dent to make him an even more tragically flawed character. Here, Dent has been fighting a losing battle with schizophrenia, trying to hold back an angry and violent alter-ego. Dini is able to balance the idea that Dent may have always been damned to become a villain with the fact that he’s another character, much like Batman and the Joker, who just had a single terrible day.

4. “Sideshow”

Batman’s goal is to stop crime and his sole tools have always been fear and brute force. “Sideshow” is the first episode of the series to posit the idea that a villain could voluntarily leave crime behind. After a train escape, Killer Croc is on the run and he teams up with a rogue group of sideshow freaks. The entire episode focuses on his turmoil over whether he’ll be able to find a new life in a community that accepts him or if he craves anarchy.

5. “Harley’s Holiday”

Dini always adored writing Harley Quinn and it was rarely done as well as it was here. When Harley tries to go straight after being discharged from Arkham, she struggles to change the way she reacts to people, leaving beside her psychotic violence and cruel treatment of other people. The episode concludes with an incredible action sequence that sees all of Gotham turning against Harley but that’s nothing to the way Batman associates with and feels sorry for a girl who he sees much of himself in.

6. “Perchance to Dream”

One of the theories that fans love to debate is whether Batman is the alter ego of Bruce Wayne or the other way around. “Perchance to Dream” doesn’t try to answer the question definitively but it does show the way that Bruce Wayne needs to be Batman. The dark knight is Bruce’s purpose and as the episode advances, audiences see the lengths he’ll go to wear the cowl once again.

7. “Second Chance”

The relationship between Harvey and Bruce is one of the friendships that define the early episodes of the show and makes Harvey’s fate even more tragic. “Second Chance” takes another look at their relationship with Batman having to challenge the dichotomy between Two Face and Harvey and it leads to one of the most tense and heart-rending finales of  the series.

8. “House and Garden”

Its a shame that the animated series was so rarely able to really take advantage of everything that makes Poison Ivy such an effective character. Rather than use her femme fatale charms, here, she’s claiming to go legit, be a mother and totally give up all the killing and robbing. Instead, Ivy reveals how twisted her vision of the domestic life and the actual psychosis of the men and women who terrorize Gotham.

9. “Babydoll”

I’m always amazed when presumably children’s shows do episodes about the ennui of fame and the hollowness of public admiration. “Babydoll” pulls it off admirably, focusing less on the ways in which Babydoll’s life is empty and more on the tragedy of finding out how figuratively small you are. “Babydoll” ends up being one of the best combinations of literal and symbolic storytelling that the show could pull off. Rather than have a character who became a villain because of a tragedy, here, we’re exposed to a villain who is and will always be a tragedy.

10. “Deep Freeze”

“Heart of Ice” is the better and more memorable episode but “Deep Freeze” is a considerably more adult tale, with viewers not only having to deal with Mr. Freeze’s lost loves but also the loneliness he faces as an immortal that will never be able to feel. Freeze’s work with a blatant Walt Disney parody who wishes to be made immortal is cruelly ironic and the final image of him sinking into the sea, gazing at the frozen Nora is haunting.

11. “Legends of the Dark Knight”

One of the pleasures of being a long time reader of any comic series is seeing the ways that a book or a character changes in big and small ways. “Legends of the Dark Knight” shows a pair of vastly different versions of Batman, one based off of the art of 1940’s penciller Dick Sprang, with the other being a direct homage to “The Dark Knight Returns.” Its a fun episode and by the end, there’s an approachable look at the way that all the visions of Batman make for a character that people enjoy for a variety of reasons.

Summer Classes: “Batman: Hush”

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, I take on Jeph Loeb’s final Batman arc, “Hush.”

As I mentioned yesterday, the intensive pre “The Dark Knight Rises” Batman reading sessions have helped to change some of my opinions on some of the most well known classics of the hero’s comic book history. If anything, it has reminded me of how much I adore Jeph Loeb. “The Long Halloween” is undoubtedly one of the best Batman stories, “Dark Victory” is an under appreciated gem, “Haunted Knight” is an intriguing anthology and I’ve enjoyed much of his work at Marvel, particularly “Spiderman Blue” and “Daredevil Yellow.”

That being said, I hadn’t read “Batman: Hush,” Loeb’s last story of the Dark Knight and one of DC’s best selling arcs of the last 10 years. Naturally, I knew the big plot twist, many of the ramifications of the plot and that Jim Lee’s art work in it was incredible. I pretty much knew what I was getting into, I just needed to get into it.

In many ways, “Hush” is incredibly similar to “The Long Halloween” and “Dark Victory” in all ways but art. Loeb always loved cramming as many iconic heroes and villains into a single story as possible. I’ve criticized him for this before, usually for the fact that many of the villains don’t exactly get their due and it often doesn’t add much to the story and that vastly is the case here as well. Killer Croc shows up for a chapter just to kidnap a kid. Poison Ivy is in a pair of issues so she can pull the same stunt that she did in “The Long Halloween.” The Joker pulls a gun on Thomas Elliot when just about anyone could have been the trigger man. I know that people love seeing their favorite villains in Batman stories but Gotham is a big place and there’s lots of room for these guys to be doing vastly different things.

Where Loeb’s use of villains in “The Long Halloween” feels organic and useful to the plot, here it does nothing but distract. We’re led to believe that Hush and (spoiler for a 9 year old story) the Riddler are manipulating all of the most dangerous villains in Gotham to put Batman off balance. What’s worse, none of the motivations for the villains make sense until Batman explains why they did it at the very end of the book. Its a crappy way to end a fairly engaging mystery. I always want to feel as if I have a chance at figuring out who-dun-it and I can’t imagine anyone wants to feel like they’re being cheated at the end of a story.

“Hush” has been criticized since its release for several seemingly bizarre reasons. The most common one seems to be that by the conclusion of the series, two additional characters know the identity of Batman. Personally, I have no idea as to why this bothers people as much as it seems to. Bruce’s reveal to Catwoman of his secret identity is an emotional moment in the series and it makes sense for a character who sees a chance to maybe connect to another person. “Hush” offers a great take on the seductive nature of the complex relationship between Batman and Catwoman and Bruce and Selina and his reveal of his secret identity shows how much Bruce could learn to be a different person.

Much more of the criticism was leveled at both the revelation and the explanation of the Riddler’s knowledge of Batman’s secret identity. Admittedly, its one of the least successful moments of the series. The Riddler suddenly knows Batman is Bruce Wayne because of his diagnosis of cancer as well as a trip into Ras’ Lazarus Pit. It isn’t a particularly well established property of the pit or Nigma’s personality and it comes from nowhere. What makes it even worse, Loeb cheats Nigma right away, making it so the Riddler would never be able to reveal what he knows. This is one of my most hated cheats for characters learning secrets. If there’s a need to have someone know something hidden, why cheat them out of the use of the knowledge immediately. Its barely worth letting the Riddler be a part of the mystery if he ultimately gains nothing of it.

Like much of early 2000s Batman, “Hush” is just fine. Its a shame that much of the plot would be retconned, changed or otherwise made null by later stories. Ultimately, its another fine story from Loeb and a solid artistic work from Lee.

Next Class: Mel Brooks has made some undisputed comedy classics but I’ve always dodged one in particular. For this Summer Class, we leave the heat wave and enjoy some springtime and fascism with “The Producers.”

“I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be” – How Christopher Nolan made Frank Miller the least essential member of the Bat-canon

In my years of following Batman, the massive piles of issues, stacks of trades and meticulously calculated opinions on storylines, plot developments and the writers and artists that defined the character, I was sure of one thing.

Frank Miller was king.

I’ve written before that Miller has long been one of my idols in the comics industry. He wrote and drew violent, hard boiled and whip smart stories of brutal heroes who remained just slightly more ethical than the villains they took on. His twin masterpieces, “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Batman: Year One” virtually defined the Bronze Age as well as the brooding and troubled hero that Bruce Wayne would become.

Looking back, it is abundantly clear as to why I so deeply associated with Miller’s take on the character. I grew up with comics desperately wanting to be taken seriously. I wanted one of my favorite stories to be viewed as something adult and interesting and something that I could show off. When Image was marketing little but unmitigated id with guns and massive cocks, I wanted a Batman that was doing all that he could just to survive for another day.

That makes it all somewhat surprising that the man to tear down one of the most innovative storytellers in comics was a filmmaker who distilled nearly 30 years of comics history into a smart, dangerous and hopeful movie. Christopher Nolan’s high profile and well received take on Batman was able to show off an adult take on comic films with “Batman Begins” but he really showed off what he wanted to do in “The Dark Knight,” most likely the movie he will be best remembered for.

Initially, it seems as if Nolan’s take on the character owes much to Miller’s hyper-violent Batman but that’s strictly a cover-up. Nolan embraced the darkness of Gotham in order to make a compelling product, yes, but he ultimately was setting up something even more ambitious, a Batman that genuinely is interested in bringing light to Gotham. I think most people forget about the quietest moments of “The Dark Knight” in favor of loving Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker but for me, Aaron Eckhart stole the show as Harvey Dent and his line, “the night is always darkest just before the dawn and the dawn is coming,” is the most telling moment of the film. For Nolan, chaos is temporary, Batman is forever.

I have my fair share of complaints about “The Dark Knight” but Nolan’s theory that darkness pushes people to justice rather than corruption pushing us to anarchy is a potent one. Whether it is the rejection of mutually assured destruction on the boats, the sainthood of Harvey Dent or Gordon’s sense of hopelessness as he destroys the bat signal, this is a film about people being pushed to the heights or heroism by the darkness they are forced to oppose.

Nolan made no secret of drawing extensively from Jeph Loeb’s “The Long Halloween” when he and David Goyer wrote the first two films of his trilogy and the evidence is clear, particularly in “The Dark Knight.” The partnership between Dent, Gordon and Batman, men and women powerlessly watching as an empire crumbles and the ethical ambiguity of fighting crime is all prominent in “The Dark Knight” and shows clearly the cost of fighting monsters. The end of Nolan’s masterpiece even parallels the ending of Loeb’s classic, with Batman and Gordon both wondering what the cost of fighting crime is when they’re forced to lose their brightest of heroes.

Through all of this, Nolan directly contradicts the world Miller created, prominently displayed in “The Dark Knight Returns.” For Miller, anarchy creates anarchy, spawning lawlessness and corruption in a never ending cycle of pain, misery and death. Nolan dares to be positive in the face of chaos. Where Miller’s Batman is forced to brutally murder his archnemesis in a fun house, Nolan’s leaves the Joker hanging. Miller’s Batman is defined by the never-ending battle against crime, Nolan’s knows that the a future is more important than the pain.

The words “I believe” loom over Loeb’s “The Long Halloween” and equally haunts Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” Bruce Wayne believes in Gotham, Gilda Dent believes in Harvey Dent, Alberto Falcone believes in Holiday; these are hopeful men and women, even when they’re in the worst places possible. In comparison, the only word that looms over the works of Miller is “goddamn,” in sentences like “I’m the Goddamn Batman” and so many others.

As I prepare for the premier of “The Dark Knight Rises,” I’ve been going through many of the Batman classics and I’ve had to go back to many of Miller’s most well known works. Rereading “Year One,” “The Dark Knight Returns” and the fairly awful “All Star Batman and Robin,” I’ve been struck hard by how violent, ugly and pessimistic these stories are. In the last few years, great writers and artists such as Scott Snyder, Grant Morrison, Frank Quietly, Paul Dini and Jeph Loeb have given us a Batman with pathos, one that is sometimes required to make the hard choices but isn’t defined by them. I don’t want a Batman who has to be one with the night, Nolan and many others have helped to show that the best Batman may be the one that may be able to walk away from the darkness.

“Well, it isn’t our dapper dark knight” : 10 intriguing Batman stories that don’t feature the Caped Crusader

Batman has long been one of DC’s most enduring heroes and one of the most recognizable characters in American pop culture. He’s also one that is ripe for examination, parody and re-appropriation. What makes this more and more interesting is the way in which different authors have used the Batman archetype to explore different universes and to examine the character in ways that he hadn’t been looked at in his own universe. Some great books even manage to spin the character into someone that could be interpreted far differently than the hero we all know.

1. “Astro City: Dark Age Part 1”

In Kurt Busiek’s epic retelling of the way that comics evolved from the late silver age into the hyper violent and complex bronze age, Street Angel plays a moderately small role. A vigilante battling crime in the streets while the more powerful heroes battle against the intergalactic enemies that are taking on the city, Street Angel is hoping to keep his moral code against killing as the city descends into chaos but as Silver Agent begins to make the difficult choices, Angel has to face that the pain he brings criminals may not be worse than killing them. When we last see him, he’s sitting in his misery, not knowing whether his future in Astro City will be an accommodating one.

2.  “The Duck Knight Returns” – Darkwing Duck

Frank Miller is may be my favorite comics writer ever but he’s really easy to mock. If you know his best known work, “The Dark Knight Returns,” you’re going to have a lot of fun with Darkwing Duck’s take on the story. When he finds his city completely under the control of publicly traded organizations with businesses even controlling the police force. He’s driven to put back on the cape and sombrero and bring justice to St. Canard. Making everything more fun, classic “DuckTales” characters  contribute to the Darkwing Duck adventure in major ways.

3.  “Revenge is a Dish Best Served Three Times” – The Simpsons

Bartman has been aluded to many, many times in “The Simpsons” but in a direct parody of “Batman Begins,” Bart tells a story about how awesome and useful revenge can be. It might be worth watching just to see Snake taking the role of Joe Chill.

4. “Showdown” – Batman: The Animated Series 

Batman and Robin both show up briefly in “Showdown” but most of the episode is a flashback about one of Ras al Ghul’s sons being defeated by one of Old Gotham’s best killers, Jonah Hex. Its an invigorating episode, filled with great fights, an awesome plot and a great peak at the relationship and respect that Batman and Ras have for each other, despite being enemies.

5. “Asro City: Confession”

Busiek’s written Batman for the Justice League as well as in his exceptional “Trinity” series but its clear that he has a soft spot for the violent hero that could face down anything and anyone. “Confession” stars Astro City’s other Dark Knight analogue, the Confessor, and is told through the voice of his sidekick, describing a series of slayings in Shadow Hill, a bizarre storyline featuring alien invasions and corrupt government officials and a hero in black who’s controlled by his own moral code as well as struggling with who he is. This is less of an analysis of Batman and more of an engaging what-if story, but it does delve into the mindset of the teenage Robins who give the dark knight their allegiance.

6. “Holy Terror”

By no means is “Holy Terror” a good book. Its misogynistic, utterly dark, misanthropic, overly violent, overly masculine and jingoistic. Frank Miller’s mess of a 9/11 graphic novel was meant to be about Batman’s hunt for Osama bin Laden but ended up being a book about dull Batman and Catwoman analogues shooting terrorists. On its own, “Holy Terror” is an utter failure but it does almost make one consider what it was that Miller was really intending to communicate in the thematically similar “The Dark Knight Returns.”

7. “Battle for the Cowl”

Sadly, Grant Morrison will probably be best remembered for killing Batman in the frankly, pretty terrible “Final Crisis.” That being said, he was able to craft much more engaging stories about the Dark Knight, namely “Batman Incorporated” but “Battle for the Cowl” is an enormously engaging series about the future of Gotham. As Bruce Wayne battles his way through time, the Bat-family engages in a city encompassing war for who will wear the cowl. Morrison is obsessed with Robin and he shows it here, developing Dick Grayson into an adult hero as well as showing the future role that Damian would play in fighting for the future of the city. Much like Jeph Loeb’s “Dark Victory,” “Battle for the Cowl” explores the ways in which the Robins have to accept power and what the future of holding this power can hold.

8. “Kabuki: Circle of Blood”

Perhaps the best comic series of the ’90s, David Mack’s “Kabuki” is an enthralling fusion of neo-noir, international espionage, World War II fiction, metatextual analysis and “Alice in Wonderland” imagery. The story, initially a battle between the agents of the Noh and a terrorist group, the narrative blooms into a story about Japanese trauma, living up to the memories of a parent and leaving a better world than the one you came into. The story of Ukiko, a child orphaned after her mother’s murder, and her eventual transformation into the assassin Kabuki borrows heavily from the Batman mythos and repeated uses of Alice and Wonderland imagery, particularly borrowed from Grant Morrison’s “Serious House on Serious Earth,” ties Kabuki very strongly to a certain Western hero. However, the way that Mack grounds his hero in real world trauma and extistential angst makes us view both the minds of Bruce Wayne and Batman in a considerably more nuanced and fractured way.

9. “Death of the Goon” – The Goon #39

The list of characters, writers, artists, trends and storylines that are skewered in Eric Powell’s delirious parody issue of superheroes is nearly endless and he manages to mock the Batman/Catwoman relationship mercilessly. In a series of panels where Goon decides to become an interracial street avenger who stops people who realized that “hanging out in an alley would really pay off,” he saves a woman only to go into a long monologue about why he can’t fall in love. Meanwhile, Franky checks “angst ridden monologue” off the list of tropes that need to appear in their superhero issue. Of course, that’s all before Goon and Franky decide to become gay Republican Puerto Rican socialist transvestites from space who believe in Jesus. You know, solely for the media attention.

10. “Sin City: The Hard Goodbye”

After smoking his 400th cigarette of the day and fucking a hooker with a heart of gold, Frank Miller spits on the piss slick floor of his apartment, swallows a mouthfull of whiskey, curses and wonders whether there’s a way he could add more hardcore violence to neo-noir. After “The Dark Knight Returns,” Miller devoted himself to putting even more violence into a story about a man with nothing to live for, trying to save a city that long ago lost its’ soul. This is the Batman that Miller wishes he would have written and it serves as a better companion piece to “Year One” and his other works than “The Dark Knight Strikes Again.”