Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Part I: Madmen of Gotham! Bring Me Batman’s Eyes!

So, still don’t like theory? Too bad, I’m going to show you how it works, and I’m going to do so with an issue of Batman written by a Scottish nutcase by the name of Grant Morrison.

Grant (bald) giving me (in blue) what he called a  “Glaswegian Door Knocker”

Depending on where you’re standing, What’s next is either good or bad news: I’m trying to keep it under two thousand words. This means two things, narrow scope (although with lit-crit, that does not necessarily mean a shorter end product) and I’m going to break some rules.

First, the scope. Grant Morrison has, in one form or another, been the creative voice behind Batman for the past couple years. When he wasn’t writing the eponymous book, he was writing Final Crisis, a DC comic event, or he was writing the book that spun out of the semi-infamous Batman R.I.P., a story in which not only did Batman fail to get any R, very little about his life over those few issues was I.P.

So! There’s a lot of ground that could be covered, especially given the nature of Morrison’s work. It’s convoluted and multi-tiered with a fanatical affection for commentary on storytelling itself, he has a jovial (and mischievous) love for anything everyone has ever put in a comic book about Batman.

“Jeez, Dan, where’d you dig this up?  Wait, I don’t care, just don’t let Grant see it.”

This means he ignores the admittedly ill-defined boundaries of consensual canon—the stories in which fans and DC editorial agree “happened” over the past seventy years or so—and he uses whatever he likes, making its justification part of a larger plot. Pictured below is the result of an attack on Bruce Wayne via psychological terrorism and “weapons grade” narcotics, resulting in an emerging redundant psyche Batman created because Batman is ready for everything.

“What the fuck did I just say to you?”

Because of all that, we’re going to limit ourselves to one issue of his (still going) run on Batman, focusing on a story that at least, in theory, is also self-isolating, based on its narrative tropes- it is an alleged stand-alone issue, placed in an unnamed but specific future. That said, we’re going to have to go a little wide to define Batman, first.

Next, the rules breaking. Usually when you “unpack” a quote, it should be a good four times as long as the quote itself, but the informality of blogging and the relative ubiquity of the Caped Crusader means I’m going to play fast and loose with this. Do you mind?

Okay, let’s do this.

Right, the most important part is the argument we’re trying to make. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to say, using structrualist and Marxist support, that Morrison is using his run to argue that Batman (as a concept), while a product of the existing social order, exists independently of it as an opposing force and will, in fact, come to subsume or even supersede that order for two reasons: First, we’ll use a guy named Althusser to explain that a force that strong cannot exist independently of a governing social order without becoming another social order and second, because the previous system that created him is imperfect, and Batman does not tolerate imperfection.

We’ll also cover some tangents and red herrings via comparitivism (Yeats comes up more than you’d expect in a single issue of a comic book), and intertextuality—the notion that texts interact with and influence each other both before and after they’re written—via commentary from Roland Barthes.

Comment allez-vous ce soir? Je suis comme ci comme ça.

As I mentioned yesterday, this is not to say that Morrison is actually arguing any this. If he read what I have to say, he’d probably laugh it off, and rightly so. I have no idea what was in the man’s head. This is meant to entertain and to educate, albeit in an informal and amateur-ish sort of way. I’m simply demonstrating how the application of literary theory can turn even the most oft-dismissed form of literature into a challenging and stimulating exercise.


First, we’re going to define Batman himself, and we’re going to do so with the intent of plugging that definition into the final argument. There are innumerable ways to frame him for a theoretical paper. We’re going to use a guy named Slajov Žižek today and something he said in his essay Violence.

Behold! Slajov Žižek, the only man on earth who touches his nose more than I touch mine.

Žižek says that, at a certain point, a wrongdoing becomes so difficult to understand on any level, that forgiveness is as absurd as revenge, essentially that:

“When a subject is hurt in such a devastating way that the very idea of revenge according to ius talionis [an eye for an eye] is no less ridiculous than the promise of reconciliation with the perpetrator after the perpetrator’s atonement, the only thing that remains is to persist in the ‘unremitting denunciation of injustice.’

“Oh shit,” says crime.

Okay, that gets us half-way there. At a young age, Batman watched his parents die in front of him at the hands of an anonymous thug and it was, to say the least, traumatic. Žižek continues:

“here, resentment has nothing to do with the slave morality. It stands rather for a refusal to ‘normalise’ the crime, to make it a part of the ordinary/explicable/accountable. . . after all possible explanations, it returns with its question: ‘Yes, I got all this, but nevertheless, how could you have done it? Your story about it doesn’t make sense!’ In other words, the resentment. . . is a Nietzschean heroic resentment, a refusal to compromise, an insistence ‘against all odds.’”

Sound like anyone you know? While the perpetrator has been given different names and faces over the years, for the most part, the gunman that took Thomas and Martha Wayne’s life is a stand-in for violent crime itself, a manifestation of the sort of violent crime that was bringing Gotham City—another anonymous stand-in for any major American metropolitan area (sorry, Marvel apologists, this is just as valid for storytelling)—to its knees, it was at that point that crime itself created its opposite number, an obsessive mega-ego in his own right that could find no closure on what happened because 1. it was still happening every day and 2. again, according to Žižek,

the only way to truly forgive and forget is to enact a revenge (or a just punishment): after the criminal is properly punished, I can move forward and leave the whole affair behind.”

When your job and your hobby overlap, every day is Saturday.

Except the perpetual nature of serialized storytelling that is comic books, coupled with the inherently mythical nature of genre fiction (absurd, unrealistic tropes used to commentate on “real” issues), further amplified by the representational nature of the Wayne’s assailant, means that Batman will never stop. That level of inexhaustibility is inhuman, his obsessive dedication and his great personal wealth are the two things that help him compete in Superman’s world. This transforms him into a concept, like crime itself. He becomes, in a quest for justice outside of justice, anti-crime.

So that’s Batman, a concept, albeit a concept that, while not necessarily condonable, is understandable within the parameters of Žižek’s description of crime and violence.

Okay, that’s going to wrap it up for this entry. Next time, watch me try to explain how Batman morphs into a system via an intrinsic pattern laid down in the bedrock of DC Universe narration, who the pants Damien Wayne is, why he matters, and maybe we’ll see a monkey dressed as a clown wielding an axe.