Death in Comics – The Batman is Dead
December 22, 2009, 9:48 pm
Filed under: Media | Tags: , ,

Anyone who’s read comic books for long enough can tell you that dying in the comics is about as serious as getting mono. It’s inconvenient and it’ll definitely keep you out of action for a while – maybe even months. But at some point you’ll be back on your feet, no more the worse for wear.

The death of a major comics character has become something of a cliche, a cheap trick used to sell books and hopefully refresh the character without doing any actual character development. Death in comics is actually beginning to be a boring non-consequence, a plot device whose overuse highlights the inherent unsustainability of trying to maintain an ongoing story and character for, in some cases, 70+ years.

As in all things, though, there is an exception and it is, oddly enough, in one of the oldest characters in comic-dom – the recent death of the Dark Knight himself.

For those of you who don’t know, Batman (well, Bruce Wayne more specifically) recently disappeared from the DC Universe, though the cause of his death seems a little muddled – he’s either been killed in a helicopter explosion after an encounter with the Black Hand or killed by Darkseid’s Omega Sanction at the end of the Final Crisis or sent back in time by said Omega Sanction or turned into a small, furtive newt-like creature. Okay, I made that last one up, but regardless, it’s all very confusing.

The fuzzy details notwithstanding, one thing is clear – Gotham City is now without its Bruce Wayne and, in typical comic-book, publicity-stunt style, there have been a whole host of special issues, cross-overs and new title launches to commemorate the occasion.

What’s not typical about this particular comic book death, though, is that – despite the fact that nobody has any business believing that this is more than a temporary set-back for the Dark Knight – Batman’s death is proving to be fertile source material for the development of one of comics’ most interesting characters: Dick Grayson.

Grayson – the original Robin – is interesting because he’s one of the few characters in comics who has experienced genuine character growth, rather than simply being batted around (hi-oh!) by tangential side-plots meant to sell a few comics before returning neatly to the status quo. After starting his comic life as Robin, Batman’s trusty Boy Wonder side-kick, Grayson eventually left the Batcave and Gotham to pursue his own crime-fighting career as Nightwing, stalwart defender of the city of Bludhaven (Gotham’s neighbour across the river).

Contrary to comic-dom’s SOP, the change has stuck to this day, and many writers of both Batman and Nightwing stories have mined the development for rich source material, as Grayson tries to establish himself as a crime-fighter in his own right, occasionally languishing in the shadow of his mentor, and as Batman attempts to find and train a new protege (with, so far, only marginal success).

With Batman’s recent “Death”, Grayson has put his activities as Nightwing on hold and has taken up the cape and cowl, attempting to fill the shoes of the original caped crusader (and do so seamlessly enough that Gotham’s cadre of supervillainy doesn’t catch on that Batman was ever killed in the first place).

Grayson’s new role has allowed some of DC’s better bat-writers – specifically, Grant Morrison (Batman & Robin) and Judd Winnick (Batman) to do some genuine character exploration into both Grayson and Bruce Wayne, as Dick grieves the loss of his friend, struggles with filling the Batman’s shoes and tries to manage the latest, and possibly most incorrigible incarnation of Robin, Bruce Wayne’s Shadow-League-trained son, Damian.

Unable to master either Batman’s voice or his style – in one particularly astutely constructed scene, he complains to Alfred about having to wear a cape again, one of the first accoutrements he shed upon leaving the Batcave – and is forced to both examine and adapt the Batman identity in order to be comfortable in his own skin, effective as a crime fighter, and worthy to fill the role of his mentor.

Leave it to Grant Morrison (We3, All-Star Superman), who seems to be the man in charge of this whole Bat-evolution (having penned both Final Crisis and the Batman story arc that culminated in Wayne’s death, and who continues the story in Batman & Robin) to pull off this kind of soft-restart of the character in a way that breathes life into the franchise without making a much-overused gimmick too… well, gimmicky. He already did it once with the (New) X-Men in the early ’00s and it looks like he may be on track to do it again with the Dark Knight.

So while it lacks the fanfare and media attention of the death of the Man of Steel in the ’90s or the recent demise of Captain America, the death of Batman may be one instance of a comic writer actually having the skill to do comic death right. If I wasn’t before, this would have made me a huge Grant Morrison fan – and I look forward to seeing how the rest of this story plays out.


Future vs. present in Art. Or something about Batman.
July 24, 2009, 12:38 am
Filed under: Media | Tags: , ,

This past weekend, while watching a rerun of Boston Legal of all things (judge if you must, but William Shatner just keeps getting more entertaining the older he gets), I had a thought about the difference between art and entertainment.

In the scene that inspired the thought, Denny Crane (Shatner) and Alan Shore (James Spader) discuss the difference between the promise of the future and the joy of the moment. Denny and Alan were talking about love, but I think you can apply the same principle to art/entertainment.

“Art” – as in, “serious” Art – is all about the promise of the future. Someone participates in Art in order to improve themselves by gaining valuable insight or wisdom about themselves, the world, whatever.

In a sense, participating in Art is about sacrificing the present. You’ll never get back the two hours you spend watching Citizen Kane, but ideally, you’ll have learned something about life or about film or about something that makes you just a slightly better person. Those two hours are gone, but they were an investment in your future self.

Watching Transformers, on the other hand, is a whole different experience – it’s fun and it’s loud and there are cool transforming robots and explosions and uplifting lines like (Megatron) “Humans don’t deserve to live!” (Optimus) “They deserve to choose for themselves!”

Now, you likely didn’t learn too much from watching Transformers – chances are, you’re precisely the same person you were at the beginning of the movie as you are at the end. You haven’t gotten any farther ahead in terms of your personal development as a result of watching this movie. But there’s a good chance you had a lot of fun watching it. Your future self is none the richer for your Transformers experience, but your present self sure enjoyed the heck out of it.

With that in mind, it’s not really hard to see why Art gets privileged over Entertainment in intellectual circles – intellectualism, of course, is all about self-improvement, all about sacrificing your present self for a better, future one. But it’s something of a shame when someone can’t put that aside and live in the present for a little while – I think you could even argue that one would be better for it.

Either way, the best examples of Art/Entertainment, I think, are the ones that manage to have one foot in both camps, that manage – as Phillip Sidney would put it – to delight, as well as instruct.

My personal favourite example of late is the movie The Dark Knight. The film is emminently watchable as an action flick, with excitement, suspense and the coolest super-villain since Star Wars. And who can get enough of those adolescent power fantasies? Not I.

At the same time, the film deftly poses questions about the nature of the hero, of violence and its justifications, and, of course, the social roles of chaos and order (one of the most brilliant parts of the film is during Batman’s interrogation of Joker at Gotham PD when Joker starts to talk about the insanity of a system of rules – and actually starts to sound like he’s the only one who’s got things at all figured out).

Because it blends the promise of the future (i.e, an investment in the future self) with the joy of the moment, The Dark Knight can be enjoyed on many levels, allowing it to have a deeper and more lasting impact than a film that focuses on just one or the other.

Perhaps Art vs. Entertainment isn’t so much a dichotomy as a spectrum, but either way I think that the most successful examples of culture and media are the ones that manage to land somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.

What about you – what’s your favourite example of art or media that delights as well as enlightens?