Monday, June 18, 2012

The Dark Knight Dissected: An Interview With Batman Expert Dr. Will Brooker

Batman is the most enigmatic of all superheroes.  He exudes the most pathos, and invites the most analysis.  He’s also the most enduring.  He’s survived any number of incarnations over the past seventy three years, to varying degrees of success.  Amazingly, his mystique has remained intact throughout.  A number of different artists, all working in various mediums, have tried to pin him down.  None of them have been able to conclusively answer the million dollar question:  Who is Batman?

Photo by Theo Botha.

Like so many before him, Dr. Will Brooker has spent much of his professional career trying to answer that very same question.  His credentials speak for themselves.  He holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from Cardiff University, as well as a BA in Film and English Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.  The expanded version of his PhD thesis was published in book form under the title ‘Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon.’  He will delve even further into the Batman mythos this July with his upcoming book ‘Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman.’

I recently contacted Dr. Brooker, hoping that he could shed some much needed light on the Dark Knight Detective.  Just like the many creators and artists who have tackled him over the years, I too wish to figure out the man behind the mask. 

Scott Wilson: What direction do you think that the Batman franchise will take now that Christopher Nolan has finished his “trilogy?”  Will it continue down the same path, or do you think that Nolan has taken the pseudo-realistic approach as far as it can go?  

Dr. Will Brooker: I suspect that the ‘Untitled Batman Reboot’ scheduled for 2015 will try to follow Marvel’s superhero franchise success in one of two ways: either rebooting with a younger cast to tell the ‘untold’ story of Bruce’s Year One in Gotham, Amazing Spider-Man style, or as part of a broader Justice League of America franchise. The two ideas could quite possibly dovetail into the same movie – younger Bruce in a team with Henry Cavill’s Superman and whoever else they could cast as Flash, Wonder Woman and a rebooted Green Lantern, but the new Spider-Man movie is independent from the equally-successful Avengers series, so it depends what aspect of Marvel’s recent success Warners wanted to emulate.

Note that I don’t think either of these concepts is particularly promising. I think Batman is always an odd fit with the JLA because of the vast difference in power range – they are essentially gods and have to face god-like menaces, whereas he (Batman) is obviously human and tends to be city-based, fighting psychopaths with knives and explosives rather than angels and aliens. Nolan’s street-level Batman would not fit easily in a Superman or JLA movie, as far as I can see, and the character would have to be treated with a more science fiction, rather than gritty 1970s cop drama, approach.

I’m currently developing a piece for that pitches four possible ways of rebooting Batman after Nolan – along more interesting and original lines – which should be published online within a couple of weeks, alongside some brand new art from my top creative team.

Scott Wilson: Some people feel that Frank Miller’s iteration of Batman, particularly The Dark Knight Returns, has cast too large a shadow over Batman’s legacy for the past 25 years.   

Coverart from the 10th anniversary edition of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

Dr. Will Brooker: I think Dark Knight Returns is a momentous, magnificent piece of work, with incredible historical importance, and it’s still stunning now. It’s one of the few comics I can take off my shelf any day and be instantly drawn back into. I published an article in 2006 arguing that it was the best ever single Batman story, and I’d find it hard not to stick to that decision.

However, I think there are a lot of inferior writers and artists who were influenced by Miller and attempted to capture his style, and the legacy of Dark Knight Returns is unfortunate to an extent. There have been too many grim, gritty, rainy, grainy, ‘dark’ vigilante stories, told in staccato captions with macho descriptions of injuries and martial arts. Miller’s recent work in All-Star Batman and Robin is an example of this hard-boiled, tough-guy, ‘sexy’ style, and for me it tries so hard to be utterly masculine that it actually comes full circle and comes across as pretty hilarious and campy. I didn’t feel that Dark Knight Strikes Again worked so well, but with Jim Lee trying to illustrate ridiculous scenes like Batman painting Hal Jordan’s house in yellow, in his intricate, realist style, All-Star is a riot.

There are many other Batman stories though that have the brutality and military detail of Dark Knight Returns, without the wit and verve of Miller’s 1986 original or the crazy absurdity of All-Star. I’m afraid for me, the recent Dark Knight comic by David Finch falls into that category. Most early-1990s Batman is also pretty dull to my mind, and that includes the Bane/Azrael saga. It just tries too hard to be grown-up and tough, and plays out like a teenage boy trash-talking and acting adult before he’s ready.

Scott Wilson: In Batman Begins, it’s firmly established early on that Batman does not kill.  Yet, during the climax, he leaves Ra's al Ghul to die in a train crash.  Doesn’t Batman violate his own code of honor by doing so, especially seeing as how he facilitated the crash in order to save Gotham?

Dr. Will Brooker: Yes, you could say he does. But this is very much in keeping with the early episodes of Batman in the late 1930s – in the first ever story, Batman allows a crook to fall into a vat of acid, and just remarks ‘A fitting end for his kind.’ [see this link]

Batman (Christian Bale) interrogating crooked Gotham City detective Arnold Flass (Boone Junior) in Batman Begins.

As Nolan’s film depicts the very start of Batman’s career, we could argue that he is still evolving into character and still working out his moral code. Note that he won’t let the same thing happen to Joker in The Dark Knight.

Scott Wilson: Certain detractors of The Dark Knight feel that the film neglected to portray the duality of Batman.  They felt that the character’s unique brand of schizophrenia, which is considered a fundamental part of him, was largely absent.  Do you agree with that?  If so, why?

Dr. Will Brooker: I don’t really agree with that. I think The Dark Knight powerfully explored Batman’s tensions and ethical dilemmas through his encounters with Joker, and the difficult decisions he has to make – infringing civil liberties, for instance, sacrificing Dent (or so he thinks) to save Rachel, carrying out international rendition to interrogate a mob suspect and brutalizing an unarmed prisoner to extract information.

If you see Joker – as I do – as representing aspects of Batman, then the whole movie is about Bruce battling aspects of his own personality. Joker represents the wild, disordered, carnival, playful and destructive side that Batman tries to keep in check and under control.
Personally I see the whole Batman/Joker interrogation scene as a gripping exploration of Batman in conflict with his own urges.

The interrogation scene in The Dark Knight was one of the films highlights.

Scott Wilson: The aforementioned detractors also feel that the Heath Ledger’s characterization of the joker merely stripped away the characters trademark mischievousness and prankster qualities, leaving the only the menace.  Is that a misreading of Ledger’s performance?

Dr. Will Brooker: I wouldn’t say it is a misreading as I think everyone is entitled to their interpretation, but that isn’t how I personally see it. I do think Ledger portrays Joker as a prankster and trickster. Just think about the way his past is always so fluid – ‘multiple choice’, to use the phrase from The Killing Joke – and the fact that he lies about not being a schemer and never planning. He is utterly unpredictable, which is what makes him so dangerous.

I agree of course that this isn’t the Cesar Romero Joker of the 1960s TV show, but if Joker had turned up harmlessly spraying water out of a plastic flower on his lapel and challenged Christian Bale’s Batman to stop him, the movie wouldn’t have lasted very long.

Scott Wilson: Admirers see The Dark Knight (perhaps mistakenly) as the definitive cinematic adaptation of the character.  Certain detractors see it as being Christopher Nolan’s loose interpretation of the source material, bearing only a passing resemblance to what can be found in the canonical story arcs of the comics.  Which of those stances do you believe is the correct one?

Dr. Will Brooker: I do personally think The Dark Knight is not just the best Batman movie, but the best superhero movie we have seen so far. I don’t really feel that any one story can be ‘definitive’ as Batman has become such a diverse and complex figure over the last 73 years or so – it would be very difficult for one story to capture his essence, when he has been so many different things.

We should remember that comic book canon is also a slippery thing. Year Two, for instance, and Son of the Demon, both written by Mike W. Barr, have moved in and out of continuity over the years. Sometimes they officially ‘happened’, sometimes they didn’t. Harley Quinn originated in the Animated Series and was officially not in the DC Universe; and then she moved across, and was part of canon. Sometimes Joe Chill killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, sometimes it as a random mugger. Sometimes Lew Moxon employed Joe Chill; sometimes he’s out of continuity. Until Grant Morrison’s recent run on Batman, most of the 1950s and 1960s stories with science fiction and fantasy elements had been written out of continuity by the 1986 Crisis. Morrison re-incorporated them as drug experiences and crazy memories from the Black Casebook. Then 52 came along and told us Batman had only been active in Gotham for five years, and Barbara was suddenly back on her feet for the first time since 1987.

So I wouldn’t treat comic book continuity as too canonical. It changes all the time. I think Nolan did a good job of editing aspects of recent (1970s-2000s) Batman stories into his own vision for the character in Batman Begins, and did a better job in The Dark Knight when he seemed less tied down to the comic book material, and more comfortable with just making a crime thriller about terrorism and the ways we fight it.

Scott Wilson: The Dark Knight contains many tonal and thematic differences to Batman Begins.  Batman Begins adhered strongly to mythic structure and the hero’s journey.  The Dark Knight dialed down the superhero elements and placed the characters in the midst of modern crime story à la Michael Mann.  Does that make Nolan’s overall vision for his trilogy inconsistent, or is he following a natural progression?

Dr. Will Brooker: I think you’re right in that assessment, and I feel it’s because Nolan felt more confident and independent with The Dark Knight, after the success of Batman Begins. When he came to Batman Begins he was a fairly unknown director, with a reputation for intelligent, indie films. I think he was too concerned with doing the right thing, sticking to the source material and giving audiences a ‘faithful’ Batman. The Dark Knight, I believe, is far more resonant as a movie because it strikes out into its own territory, rather than trying to adapt a group of comic books.

I do suspect that Dark Knight Rises will have more in common with The Dark Knight than either of them do with Batman Begins, and personally I feel Batman Begins will clearly look like the weakest installment in the trilogy. I think Nolan found what he wanted to do with the character in the second movie, and is really going to see that journey through in the finale. It will be an interesting situation if the first in the trilogy is the worst – usually it’s the sequel or the third installment.

Scott Wilson: During their recent podcast review of Tim Burton’s original Batman, the commentators over at Now Playing Podcast made an interesting observation.  They feel that Batman 89 is only dark in a superficial sense, and bears many similarities to the campy 60’s television show.  For instance, they claimed that Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker wasn’t that different than Cesar Romero’s.  Would you say that’s accurate?

Jack Nicholson as The Joker in Tim Burton's Batman.

Dr. Will Brooker: I would agree with that, and Julian Darius makes a similar point in his book Improving the Foundations []

I think Burton’s Batman movies are, with hindsight, quite similar to Schumacher’s; over-the-top, quite cartoonish, with the atmosphere of a circus rather than a gritty thriller. The sense of gothic is baroque and playful rather than particularly dark and disturbing.

Personally I love the campy 1960s show and think it is a work of genius – I can watch it repeatedly and still find it incredibly funny. What I don’t care for so much are Batman stories that are neither gripping drama nor hilarious camp, and fall between two stools. Burton and Schumacher’s movies fit largely into that category for me. They’re not good enough to be genuinely good, and not bad enough to be enjoyably bad.

Scott Wilson: From what I’ve seen in the trailers, The Dark Knight Rises bears many similarities to Rocky III, specifically the hero having to regroup after a defeat.  Am I crazy for seeing parallels between these two films?

Dr. Will Brooker: I’m no Rocky expert but I’d suggest that is a classic motif in genre movies (war, sports, Westerns, crime) – the veteran who’s persuaded back to fight one last time.

Scott Wilson: In The Dark Knight, Batman exhibits fascist tendencies.  He invades other countries and invades the privacy of ordinary citizens.  Is this consistent with the version of the character found in The Dark Knight Returns?

Dr. Will Brooker: It’s interesting that you call this behavior fascist, because many reviewers and political commentators saw it as an echo of the Bush administration’s actions during the post-9/11 period: surveillance, extraordinary rendition, the Patriot Act and torture or harsh interrogation methods to obtain information in a ‘ticking bomb’ scenario.

Some applauded this behavior and saw it as a sympathetic portrayal of the difficult decisions Bush and Cheney had to make; others saw it as evidence that those methods were never effective (interrogating Joker fails; the Bat-sonar has to be destroyed by the end of the movie).

Personally I think people may use the term ‘fascist’ too loosely. I’m not a historian or political scholar so I’d be hesitant to call the Batman of Dark Knight Returns a fascist without examining what that term specifically means. He is often brutal, he takes the law into his own hands, he’s hunted by the police and by Superman, who in that story is a tool of the President of the United States. Does that make him a fascist? I wouldn’t be able to say. I do think the methods adopted by Christian Bale’s Batman are largely similar to those of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight – a pragmatic ‘break legs first, ask questions later’ attitude – but Miller’s character is older, wiser, more cynical and wittier, so they are not at the same point in their careers and not directly comparable.

Scott Wilson: Batman’s original locale was New York City.  His locale was later changed to the fictional city of Gotham, which is largely modeled after New York.  New York has the highest number of African Americans of any major city in the U.S, yet African Americans are rarely seen in Batman comics, cartoons, and films.  Isn’t that inconsistent with the gritty “urban” aesthetic often pushed in modern portrayals of Batman?  If so, why haven’t comic creators and filmmakers rectified it yet?

Dr. Will Brooker: I don’t think it would necessarily be an improvement if African American characters featured in Batman comics as a gritty, ‘urban’ element. I feel Black culture is too often used as a shorthand synonymous with street crime and ghetto characters, and seeing Batman take down African American thugs would not really improve the representation of minority groups in mainstream comics.

Batman villain Killer Croc was portrayed as African American in the 2008 graphic novel Joker.

Rather, I do think Batman comics should show minorities at all levels of society – so, if Bruce Wayne is meeting a fellow businessman, why not make him Black? If Leslie Thompkins has a new doctor on her team, make him Black. When I carried out my research at DC Comics in the 1990s, I went into their headquarters on Broadway every day, and the two guys on reception were young African American men, friends and comic fans. Why not represent people like that in Batman’s world?
I wouldn’t want to see Black characters just as bringing an ‘urban’ aspect to the stories. Grant Morrison’s run on Mister Miracle attempted to make him a hip-hop artist, and I think that came across pretty awkwardly (on the other hand, his Manhattan Guardian, with an African American cop as the main character, was much more successful).
I should note that when you use the word ‘urban’, it might mean something different to you in the US. In the UK, the word has become a way of suggesting lower-income Black culture, with associations of grittiness, authenticity and street attitude, rather than simply ‘city culture’.

Scott Wilson: Tell me a bit about your upcoming web comic.  It’s centered on an African American female protagonist, correct?

Dr. Will Brooker: The main protagonist is actually an Irish-American young woman, but yes, there is a strong central African American female character, Connie Carmichael. If this was the Batman universe, she would be in the Catwoman role; she’s a successful performer and dancer in shows a little like Cats and The Lion King, but in an economic recession her work dries up and she obviously has bills to pay.

Connie Carmichael in civilian clothes.  Art by Jen Vaiano.
Connie Carmichael in costume.  Art by Susan Shore.

Unable to even get a job punching tickets at the Broadway shows she previously starred in, she adapts the stage costumes she used to wear and becomes not a thief or super-villain, but a public performer, styling herself through Egyptian and African influences as ‘Sekhmet’, a larger-than-life figure something like Grace Jones.

This story’s set in the mid-1990s, in a city called Gloria, and it’s the start of a series we are calling My So-Called Secret Identity. I have three incredible artists – Susan Shore, Sarah Zaidan and Clay Rodery – working on it, with character sketches and designs from some great names like Hanie Mohd and Lea Hernandez. The first episode should be ready by Fall 2012, but we’re doing a lot of online preview events and interviews over the Summer.

Essentially, it’s a superhero comic that we hope will also appeal to people who don’t usually read superhero comics, and don’t see people like themselves represented in superhero comics. It’s not about showy, billionaire vigilantes like Batman, but the normal people at street and community level who get drawn into that costumed lifestyle.

Scott Wilson: Tell me a bit about your upcoming book, Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman.  How will it differ from Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon?

The coverart for Hunting The Dark Knight: Twenty First Century Batman.

Dr. Will Brooker: For a start, Batman Unmasked ended in 1999. There’s a whole lot of Batman that isn’t covered in that first book, from Nolan to Morrison to the Arkham video games; so Batman Unmasked is more a broad history, and Hunting the Dark Knight more of a focused case study of a single decade.

Nolan’s take on the character is really the key factor that prompted me to return to Batman in a second volume; the way he drew on the Batman mythos, in The Dark Knight, to engage with very contemporary, topical political questions about terrorism.

But Hunting the Dark Knight isn’t so much a study of what Batman’s been doing over the last ten years – although that’s in there too. The book uses Batman as a case study for exploring what authorship means in our contemporary culture of multi-media, cross-platform texts. Who is the author of a movie that adapts a 70 year-old character from thousands of comics – is it Nolan, Miller, Bob Kane? How does the adaptation of a comic book mythos differ from the movie of a single literary text like Pride and Prejudice or Hamlet? How do you retain a coherent brand of ‘Batman’, and a sense of what the character stands for, when he appears in so many different forms, in different media, for different audiences (from the video games to the kids’ cartoons, and even Gotham City pizza).
One of the other key issues it explores is the relationship between the ‘dark’ version of Batman and the ‘camp’ interpretation. It shows that they are always interlinked, and that the campier side always emerges, however hard producers, authors and fans try to insist that Batman is just a gritty, macho bad-ass; he’s inherently theatrical and subversive, and the appeal of the character – the reason he’s lasted so long, in my opinion – is that he struggles with these tensions between seriousness and play, order and anarchy.

The chapters on Morrison’s Batman comics and Nolan’s Dark Knight discuss this tension in relation to Batman and Joker, suggesting that Batman can never – and would never want to  - defeat Joker permanently, because his enemy represents key aspects of himself.

Scott Wilson: Do you feel that either The Batman or Batman: The Brave and the Bold could compare to Batman: The Animated Series?

Dr. Will Brooker: I think they could be compared, but I don’t personally like them as much. I haven’t watched a lot of either, but my impression is that they are both pitched at a younger audience, and so they’re not really meant for me. I think the 1990s Animated Series is a high point in TV and movie representations of Batman, and to my mind, the recent versions don’t approach that standard.

Scott Wilson: Are you looking forward to the DCAU adaptation of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns?  Do you feel that story is still relevant in today’s world, or have its sentiments and themes become antiquated?

Dr. Will Brooker: As noted above, I like The Dark Knight Returns very much, but I feel a lot of stories work best in their original comic book format, and that there’s nothing to be gained from adapting them to movies or animation. (Watchmen and Year One are cases in point for me). Comics work in a specific, unique and wonderful way, and I think we should sometimes be content to just let them stay as comic books, doing their own great thing, rather than feeling obliged to put them on the big screen.

I do feel that Dark Knight Returns now reads like an alternate future that never happened; a future extrapolated from the 1980s, a way the 1990s and 2000s could have turned out with a few tweaks to history. So it has acquired a certain nostalgic appeal, with all those wraparound shades, cyberpunk slang and neon-colored shirts.

On the other hand, the Mutant gang keeps cropping up in current-continuity Batman, so maybe it’s still going to happen at some point in the Dark Knight’s future.

Scott Wilson: Watchmen came out at around the same time as Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and had a similar impact on superhero comics.  Both were deconstructionist superhero stories, yet Watchmen always seems to get the lions share of critical acclaim upon comparison.  Do you feel that TDKR gets short changed by critics and "intellectuals" when compared to Watchmen?

Dr. Will Brooker: I think there's some truth in that, but to an extent I think they deserve their different reputations. Dark Knight Returns is a great story, dynamically told, but Watchmen is more intricate and ambitious. Dark Knight challenges our understanding of Batman, but Watchmen takes on the whole concept and history of the superhero since the 1930s. Watchmen's narrative and characterisation are more complex.

On the other hand, I think you could reasonably say that Watchmen is less satisfying, in its final chapters, as a story -- I have always felt a bit let down by the conclusion, in many ways. But while I think Dark Knight deserves close analysis and attention (and has got it -- see for instance the work of Geoff Klock), Watchmen does have more layers and levels.

Dr. Will Brooker in front of a graffiti mural.  Photo by Theo Botha.

*'Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman' is published by I.B. International Publishing and will be released on July 3rd.  It will be available through their website (which you can find by clicking here) as well as and other retail outlets.


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