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Friday, 17 April 2009

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nk

My expository writing professor made me read such things as Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" and Lord Dunsany's "Two Bottles of Relish".

"But why did he cut down the larches?" "To give himself an appetite."

SEK

In terms of narrative and intellectual complexity, Warren Ellis far outstrips 90 percent of the authors I studied. Such is the bane of someone who studies American realism and naturalism. For every Twain or Wharton there are a thousand Weir Mitchells or Londons.

That said, I be interested to know whether you think you could learn about how to write by studying "multi-modal texts" (as they're called). In other words, if you were in my class when I presented this, do you think you'd leave that day with a firmer grip on the idea that historical context changes over time, and that what appeals to one audience wouldn't appeal to another?

Rich Puchalsky

Huh. I've read a good deal of Lord Dunsany and never even heard of "Two Bottles of Relish".

I haven't read the comic in question -- but could young Batman be looking out at the reader? Breaking the fourth wall is almost de rigueur for anyone who's ever been a big-time Vertigo writer. And the ones who keep overlooking and overlooking this scene is us. Every extended incarnation of Batman has to have an issue where there's a flashback to the genesis scene. It's like we're tormenting that child by making him relive it over and over.

SEK

but could young Batman be looking out at the reader?

Absolutely, but 1) I want to press my kids to think counter-intuitively at this point, and 2) I'm not sure what the purpose of him staring at the reader would be (by which I mean, I can think of a couple, but I don't find any of them particularly convincing).

Rich Puchalsky

Well, I think that having him look out at the reader is pretty counter-intuitive, unless you're submersed in Vertigo.

I think that there's a good argument that he's looking at the Batman who appears. But the purpose of him looking at the reader would be primarily to yank the reader into complicity. The book is about how we need Batman. Batman, in order to exist, requires that tormented child. I've now the read the book, and ideal Batman says, after that scene: "That's what you can do for people. You can give them safety. You can show them they're not alone. That's how you make the world make sense. And if you can do that -- you can stop the world from making more people like us. And no one will have to be scared any more." Stopping making people like him means no longer needing Batman. No longer re-enacting the scene of the frightened child. Having that child gaze directly at the reader is a way of putting responsibility where it belongs.

SEK

But the purpose of him looking at the reader would be primarily to yank the reader into complicity.

The thing about teaching rhetoric is that you lean on readerly expectations way too heavily, so forgive me in advance . . . but I think the reader picks up on the significance of the plot contrivance long before shifting-Batman does, and that's important. It's not quite dramatic irony, but it's close enough, no? Ellis assumes we know enough about Wayne to suss out the parallel before Batman does, because really, Batman's plum confused.

And yes, there's a continuity problem with the fact that everyone else fatally melts into their other selves, whereas Batman shifts into another costume. But grant Ellis his meta-fictional conceit and . . . what I mean to say is that I don't imagine anyone "savvy" enough to read a comic book needs yanking into complicity. We're already there, kippah in hand, ready to mourn by proxy. (Not that we're all Jewish, mind you.)

But you get at the question I can't quite answer yet, which is whether Ellis thinks a world without Batmen is better than one with a few to spare. He's obviously building off of Moore's Killing Joke --- one bad day is all that's required to lead certain horses to water then push 'em off the cliff. I think you're absolutely right that a world that needs no Batman is a better world . . . but what does that say about the box office take of The Dark Knight? (I know it's annoying to leap from the literary to cultural elsewheres, but it's important, I think. For nearly a decade, nobody thought they needed a by-the-book vigilante . . . no one thought they need a hero to revile, yet box offices receipts can't be ignored. Quite a few people obviously wanted to indulge in this particular fantasy.)

JPool

Couple of thoughts --

I'm sure that I'm just missing a reference, but you do know that this here right now is the 21st century, right?

I'm not sure what work "historical context" is doing in your lecture as represented above. You or your students make some references to social insecurities in the late 1960s, but then you walk away from that. Mostly what you seem to do is show them how a (too) clever writer can do the post-modern thing and reference a long history of representational styles in a medium whose conceit is that Batman doesn't age but simply moves forward in time with new readers and writers. I don't see how historical context comes into that (unless the context is the relative hipness of referentiality or convention breaking moves like the one Rich noted).

JPool

On your last comment, maybe I just don't know what you mean by a "by-the-book vigilante," but I don't see how The Dark Knight fits that. The standard vigilante is the one that goes out and takes the bad people down, knowing that they're right and the bad people are wrong. Batman has a long history of tempering that with the Raymond Chandler thing of a detective who walks the corrupt streets but is not themselves corrupted, and so Batman becomes his own model of the vigilante. The Dark Knight, however tries to break that down by focusing on Batman as a symbol versus Batman as a doer of things. The film asks what's at stake in having a person remain pure (pro: doesn't become wrathful killing force; con: doesn't kill crazy murderer leaving him free to murder some more) versus a symbol remaining pure (Batman takes on Dent's pollution, because Batman is already corrupted/unstable, leaving Dent the symbol intact).
Unless we have fundamentally different takes on the movie, I worry that you're resume the least sophisticated reading from its audience.

Ahistoricality

The last "Moon over Batman" image here, the hypermodern one, actually makes me think of images of the Horned God, the stag. The horns on the headpiece are longer than usual, I think. Specifically, I'm thinking of some of the later Sandman series.....

Rich Puchalsky

"what I mean to say is that I don't imagine anyone "savvy" enough to read a comic book needs yanking into complicity"

I think that you may be overestimating the generic reader in this case. (Or overestimating Ellis as a writer; he's not really known for subtlety.) But let's say that everyone is indeed savvy -- the child Bruce Wayne looking out at the reader at the moment still does work that the shifting Batmans don't do. Without the child watching his parents getting shot, Batman isn't a tragic figure. He's just, as whatshername says, a "fetish bat". Note that she's really the right one to laugh at this, given what she wears under her long coat, but the three Planetary people wear highly eccentric but non-superhero clothes. The effect is of shifting Batman costumes is to make all of them look more clownish than they ordinarily do, because the reader keeps having the shock of re-recognition, re-evaluation of how unusual they are.

The only time we see Batman out of costume is is the child-gazing scene. Therefore, the work is saying, that's the core of him. Without that core, you can evaluate the work as Jpool does: "a (too) clever writer can do the post-modern thing and reference a long history of representational styles", as if he's a mascot used as advertising for a product whose design has been adjusted over the years. So that's the moment when it's critical that the character address the reader directly.

Rich Puchalsky

Oops, should be "*not* the right one to laugh" above.

nk

That said, I be interested to know whether you think you could learn about how to write by studying "multi-modal texts" (as they're called). In other words, if you were in my class when I presented this, do you think you'd leave that day with a firmer grip on the idea that historical context changes over time, and that what appeals to one audience wouldn't appeal to another?

Certainly that each medium has its advantages and limitations, and that although the word is still the primary and most nearly best way to tell a story, there are things it cannot do but that drawings or pictures can. I appreciated that with "No Country For Old Men", for one example. The book made the movie better, and the movie made the book better, for me. Of course, McCarthy and the Coens are superlative masters of their respective crafts and each took the little electrical impulses in McCarthy's brain and converted them into little electrical impulses in their audience's brain as good as anybody could.

If you would like to revisit Blake's "Tiger" from a non-religious idea of creation, giving an idea material form necessarily "corrupts" it and the creator's talent and skill is in the limits he sets on that corruption. So if you are a good writer but a poor illustrator, you might just want to write and find a good illustrator to partner with and vice versa.

Rich Puchalsky

One addition: I think that you originally mentioned this comic in response to someone's comment about how many of some list's top 100 comics weren't that great. Well, not to harsh on Ellis, but I think this has particular flaws, perhaps rhetorical flaws -- I'm not sure where you delimit "rhetoric" -- in any case, it has to do with the fact that while in the comic, the three Planetary people are the protagonists, in actuality, Batman has a much larger cultural reach. Therefore, nothing he does needs to be explained, while what they do often does. When he takes out a stylized bat-wing-shaped thing and throws it, he doesn't have to say "And now I'm going to pin you with my Batarang!" The other guy, though, does have to say that he froze part of Batman's brain. The younger guy has to say that he's shocked from the world transition because all the electronic transmission patterns have changed. The two of them have to keep reminding the reader of their clumsy, rather annoying dislike for each other. (If there was a scene where e.g. the Planetary people did something embarrassing and technical to the Joker, Batman wouldn't have to say something like the "Someone finally punched you out, and it wasn't me".)

So the problem is that the work is trying to treat Batman as a sort of archetype, or at least a mythic figure. But the protagonists aren't archetypes, nor are they ordinary people; they're really competitors for the same kind of attention that Batman gets. When whatshername says at the end "I totally beat you up, you know," and Batman replies "If that's what you want to believe" it's funny because of course we know, from the limitations of the medium, that there's no way she can be depicted as totally beating up Batman. (Matt Howarth, an independent comic book writer/artist who I like, once did early on a booklet for a Star Trek convention in which one of his characters beats (or possibly kills, I don't remember) Captain Kirk. Reaction was reportedly severe and he resolved never to do anything like that again.) So the three of them interfere with what's going on. They aren't the ideal platform from which to tell this story.

nk

Actually, these days, I have been mulling the idea that all the basic principles of effective communication can be found in the basic principles of music. Consonance/dissonance, timing, creating and resolving tension.

SEK

I'm sure that I'm just missing a reference, but you do know that this here right now is the 21st century, right?

The book's from 2003, so most of their historical research concerns matters from the 20th Century. Explicitly so: Elijah Snow --- the guy in white --- is a "Century Baby," and it ain't the 21st.

I'm not sure what work "historical context" is doing in your lecture as represented above. You or your students make some references to social insecurities in the late 1960s, but then you walk away from that.

Well, first I model them a little research with the history of the logo. Yes, it seems unimportant, but I'm telling them (without telling them) that things they think are obvious still merit investigation. Then I get them started thinking about how each iteration of Batman is culturally grounded in a particular historical moment as a lead in to what I'm covering next week: The Dark Knight. One of the most difficult things to do is get students to realize the situatedness of the now: just because you're so steeped in contemporary culture it's invisible to you doesn't mean it's not there. The Nolan/Bale Batman says as much as the Kane, the Adam West, the Neal Adams, the Frank Miller, &c.

Mostly what you seem to do is show them how a (too) clever writer can do the post-modern thing and reference a long history of representational styles in a medium whose conceit is that Batman doesn't age but simply moves forward in time with new readers and writers.

The book does that, but that's not how I teach the book. The tension I'm setting up --- and if you're one of my kids, STOP READING YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO PEEK BEHIND THE CURTAIN --- is between the apparent universal appeal of the origin story and the compulsion to retrofit it to suit the needs of each new generation of readers. What I want them to get from this is that the act of retrofitting is culturally bounded and thus significant: how a culture retells a long-told tale can be a crucial bit of social history.

The standard vigilante is the one that goes out and takes the bad people down, knowing that they're right and the bad people are wrong.

I'm tipping my hand a bit there: yes, Batman's not the Punisher, but at what moment does cultural saturation turn an exception into a model? Which is only to say:

Batman has a long history of tempering that with the Raymond Chandler thing of a detective who walks the corrupt streets but is not themselves corrupted, and so Batman becomes his own model of the vigilante.

Yes, but I need the students to earn that reading, not assume its validity.

The last "Moon over Batman" image here, the hypermodern one, actually makes me think of images of the Horned God, the stag. The horns on the headpiece are longer than usual, I think. Specifically, I'm thinking of some of the later Sandman series...

It's been a while since I read Sandman, and google's returns for "horned god sandman" are wretchedly new age, so could you jog my memory a bit more? I've got all my issues, up, sealedinplasticbackedbycardboardinanairtightboxshutup and it's difficult to browse through them. Because frankly, I'd be much happier reading that amalgamated Batman through Gaiman than Plato/Aristotle. (It would make more sense.)

The only time we see Batman out of costume is is the child-gazing scene. Therefore, the work is saying, that's the core of him.

Can a moment be a core? Can a memory? I see what you're saying, but isn't that exactly what post-Killing Joke iterations of Batman have addressed: is Batman a disguise for Wayne or is Wayne a disguise for Batman? The Nolan films clearly paint Wayne as the disguise: Alfred has to tell him what normal people do, but he's so out of touch that he overdoes it, spending an evening buying hotels accompanied by two models and a Lamborghini. I do think that's what Ellis is getting at, though: that moment is all the many iterations share, and it grounds the character in a narrative that's inherently (as much as you can say that) compelling. I don't want to claim universality, but universalish is certainly arguable given the evidence of his continued popularity.

should be "*not* the right one to laugh" above.

And yet, "note" worked too. I'm going post this and then start another comment after Windows updates so it'll stop nagging me.

Rich Puchalsky

"isn't that exactly what post-Killing Joke iterations of Batman have addressed: is Batman a disguise for Wayne or is Wayne a disguise for Batman?"

The child who saw his parents shot -- whose name was only coincidentally "Bruce Wayne" -- is the precursor of both of them, the ground of their being. The later Bruce Wayne is basically a disguise. He only exists in order to play the part of a playboy, and therefore make everyone dismiss him. At the beginning, in some versions of the story, the Bruce Wayne disguise is unfamiliar, and Alfred has to tell him how to wear it more convincingly. But it's as much a costume as the Bat-suit is. As such, the above appears to be not really the right question. Both halves of his bifurcated adult identity are concealments for the child who was traumatized. Bruce Wayne is no more the real person than the Batman is.

That seems to me to be the key to a lot of the whole "the Batman is crazy" bit that was a feature of so many of the Dark Knight stories; the Batman is not the real person any more than Bruce Wayne is, because his costume is a disguise in more than the apparent ways. He says that he wears it to scare criminals, but it pretty clearly actually has totemic value for him. He says that he wants to bring justice as Batman, but he's pretty clearly obsessively acting out due to trauma, and the justice is incidental. The Joker was driven crazy and was a bad person and became a supervillain; the Batman was driven crazy and was a good person and became a superhero.

A real attempt to bring justice immediately runs into the issues of Watchmen; the Comedian sneering and setting the map on fire and the impingement of larger issues on the locality. The movies try to finesse this by making Batman a character out of The Wire, an urban reformer trying to remake a corrupt city machine. I suppose that it works as well as anything does, but it's silly. It's letting the microcosm stand for the macrocosm in a way that breaks down. Why should we care about Batman if Batman is a Baltimore local politico?

My favorite Batman was actually the version in Superman: Red Son, the anarchist in black who inspires other anarchists. That seemed to me to be an unusually truthful retelling of the story. Batman would inevitably come into conflict with the powers that be at the largest scale, because all of the petty injustice that happens happens within a system that they create.

JPool

how a culture retells a long-told tale can be a crucial bit of social history

Sure, right, I just wasn't seeing much of that in the post itself.

the compulsion to retrofit it to suit the needs of each new generation of readers

Yeah this is what I was talking about before.

Ahistoricality

could you jog my memory a bit more?

I went back to my mostlyboughtusedworthlessboundvolume Sandman collections, and my memory seems to have failed me, sort of. The issues I was thinking of (The Hunt, in particular) don't really have the image as I remember it. But leafing through a few other books -- especially Season of Mists -- I find that there are a lot of panels in which Morpheus and the other Endless (and various deities and angels [especially the angels]) are backlit in that fashion. It's a way of highlighting their power, and deemphasizing their physicality -- which is not the way it works above, I know.

SEK

"This is just to say"

Blog has eaten
the comment
that was on
the screen

and which
I was certainly
saving
for posterity

Forgive me
it was long
so excellent
and I'm tired.

lemmy caution

There was an episode of "batman: the animated series" that also had different versions of batman in it. Here is the Miller portion of the episode:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoZLPwRCjcQ

They used kids telling stories as the framing device.

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