Some Notes on the Matter of Batman

Posted: December 12, 2014 in Threat Quality
Tags: , ,

I need a break from thinking about politics and our corrupt social order for a little while, and so I’m going to spend a little while writing about Batman, in a way that is inspired by current events.  In particular, recently I was trying to imagine how some editor at DC might be like, “Oh, we’ve got to tie the Batman comics into what’s going on in Ferguson and around the country right now,” in some misguided attempted to be relevant to modern politics.  I think this is a terrible idea, for reasons relating to my interpretations of Batman, and I may get to those reasons at some point, but first I am going to lay out some of my theories about how to look at a fictional character LIKE Batman.

The Matter of Batman

I’m using “Matter” in this case (as in “The Matter of France”, the cycle of stories around Charlamagne and Roland, for example) to refer to the entire body of creative material regarding Batman.  Comics, cartoons, advertisements, Batman graffiti, Batman Halloween costumes.  Everything that ever references Batman is included in the broad category of the Matter of Batman.  I do this because I’m really interested in the fact that you and I, we have this enormous set of data with which we can compose, in our imaginations, what it means to be Batman — and we do it, despite the fact that the data is often contradictory.  How do we reconcile the Batman and Robin with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, for example?  How do we understand a character like Batman who was jumping off of giant telephones and hitting the Joker with a huge saxophone at one point, who was coping with the fact that the Joker had crippled Barbara Gordon at another, and had OnStar installed in his Batmobile at a third?

Grant Morrison has this crazy idea that it’s possible to imagine all of these things as true at once, but Grant Morrison is a space lunatic, I’m not sure we can trust him.  BUT ALSO, I don’t actually think Grant Morrison really imagines all of these things as TRUE at the same time, I think Grant Morrison imagines all of these things as FALSE at the same time (because actually, no story about Batman is true), and because all of them are equally false, he can pick and choose what he likes when he wants to construct an idea about Batman.

So that’s an interesting thing to me:  truth — that is, “reality,” that is “history,” — is under an obligation to reconcile with itself. If I compose a history of France that ignores key, factual details about the history of France, then I have composed a bad history of France.  Fiction is under no similar obligation:  if I want to compose a fictional history of France, and I want to accept as true that Louis XIV was replaced by his twin brother, I’m not under a similar obligation to accept that D’Artagnan existed and had prevented the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham by Cardinal Richilieu just because Dumas also wrote it.  I haven’t written a bad story of France because I haven’t included every fictional thing that everyone has ever said about it — I haven’t even written a bad story of France because I haven’t included every TRUE thing that has happened in France (for instance:  The Man in the Iron Mask is no worse a story whether or not Louis XIV was really replaced by his twin brother).

This is a weird thing about the way that we talk about fictional figures that I think is also interesting.  If, a thousand years from now, Space Archaeologists recovered some late-20th century Batman Manuscripts, but had lost some key pieces of information — the wikipedia article, for instance that details Batman’s creation by Bob Kane and Bill Finger (and how Bob Kane cynically stole the credit and accolades for it) — had instead only some of the comics and some, say, reviews of the comics, or philosophical essays about whether or not Batman was a Kantian ethicist, those Space Archaeologists would have no way of knowing whether or not we were talking about a real, historical person, or about a fictional character.

English — and I think most human languages — doesn’t have a [fictional] conjugation of verbs.  So, it is grammatically correct to write:

“Batman’s parents were murdered in an alley”

but this is not actually a literally true statement.  Batman is fictional, as were his parents, no murder occurred.  Nevertheless, it wouldn’t make very much sense for me to write:

“Batman’s parents weren’t murdered in an alley”

without supplying the context that the reason that they weren’t murdered in an alley is because they were fictional and they weren’t murdered at all; no murder had occurred.

So, because we don’t write “Batman’s parent’s were!fiction murdered in an alley,” everything that we have about Batman the character is written he actually existed, he actually did the things that we know he didn’t do, his fictional history is written as an actual history.  How would Space Archaeologists, lacking certain key pieces of information, tell the difference between Batman the fictional character, and an actual historical figure that lived in the 1930s?  Even assuming that the cottoned on to the idea that all of these stories might not be true (because they are unrealistic, because they span too much time, &c.), how would Space Archaeologists establish that no actual historical figure ever existed to serve as inspiration for the character?

This brings me to another idea that I think is interesting.

Superheroes as Modern Mythology

There is some debate about how true this is, and I think the idea of superheroes as the modern equivalent of gods is maybe not exactly actually true, though this depends a lot on how you understand what gods are, and what they’re for.  If, for example, you think of gods as fictional creations that are symbolic of human needs to reconcile conflicting narratives regarding our relationship with the world (as I do), then of course superheroes often fulfill many of the same roles that deities fulfilled back in Olde Time Dayes — though, importantly, it’s not just superheroes that do that.  Under this definition, you could argue that basically any fictional character is similarly a kind of god.  Lizzy Bennet is the deity of complicated marriage arrangements; D’Artagnan is the god of leaping before you look.

We can distinguish gods from just fictional characters by things like symbolic representation and ritual behavior, of course — a good way to separate the gods out from the Lizzies Bennet would be to point out that gods can be implored, appeased, that they are presumed to interact with and affect the world in real ways.  Gods have symbolic representation (here we see the distinction, in the superhero “sigil”, between Batman and D’Artagnan — even if I regard D’Artagnan as a god, I can’t wear his sign on a t-shirt), and are also the subject of ritual practice (here the distinction between Hermes and Batman — even if I wear the Sign of Batman, I don’t actually practice ritual obeisance to him).

So, we can argue that in some respects, superheroes are like the gods of Olde Time Dayes, but only in a symbolic sense, since they are not part of a living religious tradition.  Though, this does bring up an important point about how, for example, ancient Greeks viewed their gods.

I don’t think there’s any question that many, if not most, ancient Greeks believed that their gods were, in some respects, real, but I also don’t think there’s any question that many Greeks didn’t.  Socrates didn’t seem to, even if he was cagey about admitting it.  Plato and Aristotle both agreed that “myth” was synonymous with “falsehood”.  Alcibiades was famously convicted of sacrilege for knocking the dicks off a bunch of statues of Hermes (though he was probably framed, SOMEONE clearly thought it was okay to do that).  Xenophanes famously pointed out that if horses had hands and could paint, they’d paint their own gods to look like horses.

This doesn’t mean, I don’t think, that these guys were necessarily atheists, but I think it does help to illustrate some confusion about the idea of what a “god” is in the first place.  The Greeks, like you and me, didn’t have a special conjugation to indicate that something was only fictionally true.  They could say that Zeus is the son of Kronos, but does that mean that he IS is the son of Kronos?  Or is he notionally the son of Kronos?  I don’t know the answer to that, obviously, but I think it’s fair to say that there were at least some Greeks who maybe didn’t consider their gods as real real, so much as they were provisionally or notionally or sort of fictionally real.  They didn’t exist, exactly, so much as they represented a thing that existed.

I think this helps to shed light on another idea, that brings us back to the idea of the Matter of Batman, and that’s the question of “canon.”

Which False Stories are True?

Obviously it’s my inclination to blame Christians for the notion of “canon”, which is something I don’t particularly care for, as it is my inclination to blame Christians for everything terrible and hated in this world.  Nonetheless, I think the fact that nerds have glommed onto the idea of “canon” in the wholly secular context of the Matter of Batman indicates that this desire might be a feature of human nature, rather than an artificially imposed approach to literature.

And, in fact, I don’t actually know enough about assorted denominations of Christianity and Judaism to say what the deal is — do Catholics, for example, consider first the Matter of Jesus (that is, all of the stories and myths and ideas about Jesus), and from that select the stories that are true, or do they select what is most illustrative of a true thing?  Similarly, is the Old Testament the true parts of the Matter of Israel, or is it a set of stories deemed most exemplary of a true thing that is otherwise unavailable to us?  I don’t know, so maybe it’s best to say that it’s Protestants who are at fault, because even though they were not the first to imagine the Bible as being literally accurate, they’re certainly the ones who did the best job of spreading the idea around and, potentially, robbing us of a more nuanced way of approaching bodies of literature.

Though, again, in the wholly-secular world of comic books, the idea of canon is kind of nonsense.  Consider, in the absence of any adjudicating body to decide what “counts” and what doesn’t, and must defend it’s privileged access to truth, how could it possible matter which stories are “true” within a set of stories all of which are verifiably false?  How does it even make sense to say, out of all the false stories, some are less false than others?

Indeed if we go back to our friends the ancient Greeks, the idea that stories about the Trojan War (for instance) didn’t always agree with each other didn’t seem to bother anyone.  Euripedes’ Helen argues that Helen was never in Troy at all, but had been whisked away to Egypt and replaced by a phantom made of clouds (interestingly, based on an argument made by Herodotus, the first and worst historian of the Greeks) — is this REALLY what happened?  Well, who knows, but also who cares?  It’s all stories anyway.

What we can say, though, if we’re being charitable to the notion of “canon”, is that within a set of entirely fictional stories, we might be able to extract a subset that is internally reconcilable — i.e., that does not contradict itself.  (This is not the case in the actual literal Christian canon, but there’s also disagreement about whether or not it should be regarded as literally ACTUALLY true, and not just figuratively true; among those people who do believe it is literally actually true, the solution to contradictions appears to be “those are illusory” OR “don’t think about that”, so.)  Nerds who like superheroes, unlike modern Christians, are privileged in the sense that their canon is still being resolved and that it does not enjoy any serious adjudicating body (technically, of course, DC-Time Warner can say what “counts” and what doesn’t, but they also contradict themselves, and no one’s salvation hinges on their adherence to DC’s idea of canon, so who cares what they have to say?  Interestingly, only people who want to use the borrowed authority of the publisher to win arguments).

Anyway, anyway, what I’m trying to say is, when we look at how we assemble canonical ideas about Batman from the Matter of Batman, I think that potentially gives us insight into how other historical cultures crafted narratives regarding their own culture heroes out of the messy hodgepodge of contributions that these stories must have originally consisted of.  These canons accrete over time, in a way that is reciprocal between audience and author:  the audience hears a set of stories, which creates a pattern from which the audience thereafter determines what future stories they want to hear.

The Iliad I guess is probably the best example, as it’s now widely accepted that it’s the apex of a sort of bardic tradition, rather than being specifically the work of one author.  It’s an internally-reconcilable text within a larger subject matter, a “canon” though only within its own context, that sort of emerged by consensus rather than by individual authorship.

(In my opinion, there are some places where the seams still show.  For instance the Catalog of Ships in Book II  [caveat — this is all speculation; my undergraduate degree was in religion and literature with a focus on bronze-age epic poetry, but I didn’t do a very good job at it; I am a lazy student and a fickle researcher, please take this all with a grain of salt], well, first let me say that I don’t really believe that there were many times when someone sat down and said the WHOLE Iliad from beginning to end — I think it’s more likely that people did parts at a time.  And if you accept that people do some parts at some times, then you can also accept the idea that they might have customized it.  So, consider the Catalog of Ships, a long list of all the Greeks who showed up for the war, and SURE, it could be that it’s there to emphasize how huge an undertaking this was.  But also imagine what would happen if you were tasked with compiling, say, one single epic book out of a comedian’s hundreds of performances around the country.  Well, at every individual performance there’s going to be some part in the beginning where she talks about the city she’s in [the Hello Cleveland! part] — if you created a super-epic of her performances, there’d be a twenty-minute section, right near the beginning, that had a hundred different jokes about different cities, all in a row.  Is this particularly different from the way we might compile a story from a tradition of travelling bards?)

This art-by-accretion method, this creation of both the Matter of Batman in general and the subtraction of the extraneous matter to create a sort of Canon of Batman, I think suffers peculiarly in the era of industrialization, which I will now consider as well.

The Business of Batman

So, here’s a thing that I’m not sure we always thinking about, but the idea of “mass appeal” — of a book or a movie or what have you appealing to an audience of millions and millions — is actually kind of fairly new, isn’t it?  Yeah, I mean, the Athenians had their City Dionysia festival, for plays that appealed to all of the free men in a city of maybe about 300,000 people.  And they invented the printing press in the 15th century to start printing out books for a population that had had basically zero need to be literate up to that point.  Even into the 18th century, when the West first sees the novel as we know it (I’m excluding the history of our friends in Asia and Africa not because I don’t think they count, but because I frankly don’t know much about the history of art and literature there — be it said, then, that this could very well apply to them, or it could very well not), a person could make a living selling novels sure, though still a small fraction of the population was literate, and it’s not really until the 19th century that a person is making a fortune writing books.

That’s about the time that theater started making a lot of money, too, and just before the time when they invented movies, which were like theater except you could pack them up and ship them over to the next town at minimal expense (compared to what it cost to pack up, like, seven actors and a chorus, along with sets and props I mean).  We’re really looking at business of art — the kind of thing where there’s so much money in it that it starts to make sense to run it according to the basic principles of business management as we know it — as dating to maybe the early 19th century, that’s two hundred years, less than ten percent of the time that we’ve had stories at all.

Now, we did have travelling theater companies since forever, and travelling bards, and skjalds and what have you, troubadours, that kind of thing.  But actually that’s a pretty interesting point, isn’t it?

See, a key difference between a travelling storyteller and, say, a comic book is that often travelling storytellers told the same stories over and over again — I mean, if you’re singing the Song of Roland throughout the French countryside, it’s not like people are getting the thing on vinyl before you get there; in the early days, if you told it, this could very well be the first time that anyone heard it.  Similarly, it’s not like people had the opportunity to go back and re-read their stories — if a bard shows up in town, I think we can say there’s a good chance that a lot of his time is going to be spent not making up new stories, but telling stories that everyone already knows.

We know this is how travelling theater companies worked for a long time, companies travelling around mixing up new pieces with old standards that everyone wanted to see.

We can see that this is the opposite not just of comic books, which have to print a new story often every month, but of a lot of our media in general, which is constantly required to be producing new things in order to, you know, continue making money, and the interesting thing about that is that there’s no real indication that this is especially how human beings want to consume that media.

(I’m not arguing here that the previous twenty-five hundred years of media interaction was more “natural” than the modern era, necessarily; I’m sure that it was driven as much by circumstance, society, politics, culture, and technology as our own current relationship with media.  What I am saying is that there’s no reason to think that the way that we do it now is any more or less natural than the many ways that we’ve done it before.)

What this means from the standpoint of the Matter of Batman, though, is this:  if we accept that the way that we treat superheroes is part of a sort of tradition of…I don’t want to say folk art exactly, but let’s say “folk interaction” with art — this process whereby different authors take on characters that are both given to the audience and in part defined by the audience; where the character fulfills a need in the audience’s imagination such that we might say a writer has a responsibility to the character; where we treat that character has having a kind of existence independent of the stories in which he appears, and, indeed, independent of any one person who has ever written him or who happens to own the copyright on him — if we imagine that, then we can see how the elements of business start to become problematic with what our needs for that character are.

The Matter, for example, rather than being made up of some number of stories, the best of which are told and re-told so that we develop a clear notion of what that character is like, instead we have a kind of adjudicating body that controls access to the character and solidifies it through editorial dictates.  Instead of a body of sort of spontaneous creation of stories around the character, we’ve got a push to constantly fill the medium with new stories, to market them, to simultaneously push them out but also control access to them.

Be it Concluded

It’s just a very weird thing, I think, but the crux of all of this is that:  the Business of Batman is orthogonal to the Matter of Batman, if not diametrically opposed to it.  Therefore, it makes the most sense that when we consider Batman as a character, we consider both the Matter of Batman in its entirety, and a Canon, the reconcilable interior subset of Batman that leads us each to an individual understand of what this character is like and what need he fulfills, and that we further disregard the Canon of Batman, which is produced by a company, for the purpose of making money, and is independent of and largely irrelevant to the character as a figure of art.

Oh, dang, I didn’t even get to what my idea was.  Okay, well, later I guess.

  1. John Jackson says:

    You realise that the traditional storytelling aspect of this pretty much defends the Studios’ habit of “rebooting” and remaking the same story every ten or fifteen years, right?

    There was a point where we were supposed to dislike the “unoriginality” of that, but then, well, it’s not like John McClane isn’t an obvious reimagination of the Lone Ranger, John Wayne and Roy Rogers.

  2. braak says:

    Yeah, I don’t care about them “rebooting” the story every ten or fifteen years, I care about them rebooting it in a boring way. Like, when the drive to “reboot” the story has to do with retaining copyright, or replacing actors with hipper, younger actors, or just extracting more money from the brand, rather than being driven by the desire to reimagine the idea as something relevant in a modern cultural context, THAT’s the thing that I think is wrong.

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