Batman rides a horse and Joker gets away

It sucks to only have Internet access at the library, it sucks more to have to drive around a lot, and it sucks most when those two factors together prevent me from blogging for a week. So, to make up for the suckiness, I am finally here blogging again. So, where to start with what’s happened lately? I saw It Happened One Night and Bride of Frankenstein at the Edina Theater’s 75th birthday celebration, and won a $10 iTunes gift card for correctly identifying Ernest Thesiger as the actor who plays the ghoulishly immoral Dr. Pretorious in Bride. Of course, that gift card is next to worthless, since what am I going to buy through iTunes that I couldn’t just illegally download with the press of a button? Oh well.

Also, several days ago, my portable DVD player stopped working. I bid farewell to my ol’ Nextplay 7″ after 1 1/2 years of good service, and have since ordered a $92 Audiovox 9″ portable DVD player. Will it work better? Will it work at all? For the answer, I must wait till it arrives in the next 2-10 days. I really, really like using portable DVD players. They’re intimate, cozy, personal, and generally functional. I’ve watched several hundred movies on them since I received one, miraculously, in a raffle at our high school graduation party. I just wish they had longer life spans. Hopefully Audiovox (a somewhat more reputable electronics purveyor than “Nextplay,” whoever the fuck that is) can go some length toward restoring my faith in portable DVD players’ longevities. If not, maybe I’ll just buy a cheap, non-portable player and start using a TV for the screen. Either way.

Also in the past week, I read two Batman graphic novels: Frank Miller’s landmark The Dark Knight Returns and Grant Morrison’s phantasmagorical, best-selling Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. Both were interesting in their own ways. With Dark Knight Returns, well, I liked the boldly noncontinuity stance of the book: none of this really happened, but it could; the Joker really dies (and has a laugh doing it); nuclear war shuts down non-Batman law and order in the USA (?!?); oh, and Superman fights Batman, for real. Superman kind of wins.

A beautifully iconic cover for an icon-shattering graphic novel

I guess it kind of reminds me of another “what if?”-type story I read years ago: 1963’s totally ridiculous Superman Red/Superman Blue, where some weird Kryptonite experiment leads Superman to split into two people, who then, um, erase all evil or disease anywhere on earth, restore Krypton, marry both Lois Lane and Lana Lang, and live happily ever after. The word “absurd” doesn’t quite cover it. And so, even though Dark Knight Returns may make a lot more sense, it still shares a little of that “continuity be damned, we’re plowing forward” spirit; this is one of many possible futures. And it’s a dark, gloomy future, too, which helped, with Watchmen, to create this new conception of superheroes as often unhappy, deeply imperfect people. We find Bruce Wayne, 10 years after retiring his cowl, watching a Gotham City on the brink, or even the verge. Jim Gordon’s retiring, a gang called the Mutants are raping and mutilating civilians, and Harvey Dent’s supposedly been “cured.” Naturally, the situation has only one answer: the despondent Bruce, increasingly alcoholic, must return to the streets as an old man and remind everyone that crime doesn’t pay.

It’s a damn well-told story; constant news coverage is superimposed over battle sequences where Batman often remarks that he’s not as young as he used to be. Questions of vigilantism, terrorism, and constitutional rights are brought up; we get a new Robin and a new police commissioner, both female; and politics messes up everything – Superman alludes to events preceding the novel akin to Watchmen‘s Keene Act, and an unnamed, folksy, Reagan-like president plays an important role in negotiating with the Soviets and refusing to comment on the Batman situation. Ultimately, the book says, this is a new, hypothetical world that doesn’t really have room for superheroes. It’s harder to manage with a cape in the middle of the Cold War. I don’t think it works as well as Watchmen when it comes to being a self-contained work of art, but its greatest accomplishment is as one more reworking of a big, dark, winged myth. Also: the indubitable Crowning Moment of Awesome in a book that even has Oliver Queen shooting a Kryptonite arrow at Superman’s heart? Batman rides a horse.

Batman rides a horse.

On the less-awesome side, I didn’t really see the need for the younger characters’ Nadsat-like, unexplained slang – shiv, billy, etc. All it really did for me was make half of girl Robin’s dialogue incoherent. But who am I to talk? I’m not Frank Miller.

On a radically different side of Batman, we have Arkham Asylum, which I found even better than Dark Knight Returns. It’s illustrated by Dave McKean, which means it’s pretty much unlike any comic book you’ve ever read (unless you’ve read something illustrated by Dave McKean). It fluctuates between photorealistic faces and hands and maddening meshes of prose and picture, and Batman’s costume becomes an impressionistic blur in this most serious of houses. McKean’s labyrinthine art works works well with Morrison’s arcane writing, drawing on Jung, Crowley (both of whom are met by Amadeus Arkham in the book), tarot, mythology, and more. Like Miller’s Batman, Morrison’s is flawed and vulnerable, but whereas Miller concentrates on the long-term effects of crimefighting, Morrison zooms in on Batman’s perceived psychosexual hang-ups: he’s terrified of physical and sexual contact (he reacts violently to Joker’s playful gay-baiting and fears Clayface’s infection); he’s emotionally frozen and unable to sustain a relationship. He’s also petrified by the idea that, like the homicidal maniacs he’s put away in Arkham, he might also be crazy.

A phobic, paralyzed Batman rejects the Joker's suggestion to "loosen up, tight ass!"

This is the basic premise of Arkham Asylum, and it’s carried out more like visual poetry than a straightforward superhero comic book. While Dark Knight Returns sees Batman flying, driving, and riding all over the place, becoming a force of law and order in the face of Armageddon, Arkham Asylum involves more battle with inner demons like the loss of his parents than with the reconceived rogues gallery that surrounds him. It’s impressive how effectively Morrison’s psychoanalytic approach to Batman, Two-Face, Killer Croc, and others fits with McKean’s abstract, oneiric, mixed-media artwork: we get a demonic, wide-eyed Joker celebrating April Fools’ Day for all its worth, a burnt-out pedophilic Mad Hatter, and the father of the serious house, Amadeus Arkham, who succumbs to its mentally degenerative atmosphere after the death of his wife and daughter. It’s a multifaceted exploration of madness in its many incarnations, and the tale of one (Bat)man’s arguably successful battle with a world gone mad.

Two-Face lets fate make his decisions in Arkham Asylum

Overall, it’s a somewhat difficult book – much understanding of the plot and themes has to come from intuitive impressions, since between McKean’s vague style and Morrison’s grounding in esoteric mysteries, every panel has a number of meanings. Perhaps ironically, it’s also the best-selling graphic novel of all time, a fact which Morrison attributes to the success of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie. It’s a very interesting book which you can certainly read over and over, seeking new clues and new signs of madness.

That’s all the Batman graphic novel reviewing I have for the moment, but I hope to return to the library to blog maybe tomorrow or the day after. Potential topics: outsider art and music, more Jack Chick, another favorite movie. We shall see.

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Filed under art, Media, Personal

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