From Grendel To Gotham: if you’re so smart, why aren’t you Batman?

 

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to join my friends Rob Daniel and Rob Wallis on the lovely Electric Shadows podcast, to talk about the tenth anniversary of The Dark Knight movie. Rob and Rob do a great movie podcast – you can find it at www.electric-shadows.com and I think I may have bored them into submission with my OCDC Comics. Aheheh. Yes, father, I shall become a Bat Bore.

You see, the cliché is that comics aren’t just for kids. In fact, in the late eighties, it said exactly that on the cover of many comic books, usually alongside a picture of someone wearing implausible clothes hitting someone else in implausible clothes with something along the lines of a car.

My problem with that “just for kids” tagline was that it was both patronising and snooty, as if kids only deserved a certain standard of entertainment and that what these fine purveyors were offering was certainly above merely that… Which is one thing. But also, let’s be honest, nine times out of ten what they may have been offering may not have been just for kids, but you couldn’t say that they were for adults, either. Arrogance is one thing; ignorant failure is quite another.

I think the not just for kids thing is especially stupid because it writes large those pitifully small ambitions. If you have to argue that you aren’t for kids, then you’re really playing a defensive game, aren’t you? Imagine “sculpture – not just for kids” or “dancing – not just for kids”… It’s an artform, for Superman’s sake, it has conventions, tropes and clichés like any other, sure, and those aspects may be “childish”, but obviously any art form has embedded in it sufficient flexibility to work around or flat out avoid any of them in order to do whatever it is artists want or need. You don’t *have* to hit someone with a car. Not every dilemma or moral quandary has to be settled with mega-violence…

You wouldn’t necessarily know that these days, though. These days those superhero motifs are as front and centre as ever before, and suddenly seemingly more lucrative and successful than you could imagine. The other summer Iron Man was up there against the Man of Steel in cinemas, just screaming that limited narrative vocabulary, while the sheer schedule of superhero movies is almost frightening: we’re awaiting a Spider-Man spin-off movie this autumn, the seventh such installment (not counting Avengers spin-offs) and part of the third franchise for this character in sixteen years… meanwhile set reports from coming attractions have immediately undercut the climax of last month’s Infinity War, which had taken -what?- fifteen movies to establish it immediately divested stakes? Not to mention the fact that the story of the battle to create the next Batman film seems more dramatic and subtle and complicated than the plots of his last three movies…

These films all look incredible and are thrilling and well put together by top of their game cast and crews, and they are all beloved by millions, earning billions and billions… But they all still boil down to good men solving the world’s problems with their recourse to cars and other people’s heads. Intelligence isn’t really required of these heroes, and neither are women, let’s be honest. I’m an enormous Batman fan, but seriously – did Bruce Wayne even have a mother, according to Christopher Nolan, or was she just someone for his father to land on in that alley? And Black Widow? Don’t make me laugh, bitterly. Her character development in her last film was a change in hair colour. Avengers Assemble, amazing fun that it is, actually features a scene where the goodies are informed that their girlfriends are safely hidden away. No Gurls Allowed. No wonder the beautiful and hilarious Science Bros has caught on.

Wow. For a fan of comics you certainly sound like a dismissive prick.

Yes yes yes… But bear with me here.

A superhero narrative can be tremendously sophisticated and rewarding: Just as the Marvel films were kicking into gear, around 2006, Grant Morrison began his six-year Batman epic that combined psycho sci-fi grand guignol psychedelia with an extended discourse on responsibility, personal limitations and the will to power. It was a mind-boggling story of massive narrative ambition and thrilling drama and pathos that I still miss… but it was immediately followed by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s wonderful five-year story of a more human and recognisable Bruce Wayne inspiring his friends and his city against a war against incredibly well-conceived, very personal and recognisable fears and then they were both immediately followed by Tom King, who has spent the last year or so literally telling a touching love story in capes and masks.

No, my problem is not with superheroes – superheroes are just a trope of the artform, like narrative with cinema or depth perception in fine art… I don’t even have a problem with megaviolence, come to think of it… My problem is when we mistake expensive bombast for the genuine humanity that spawned the artform in the first place.

There has been a lot of talk these days about how film special effects have finally caught up with comic book visuals, as if we used to read old Fantastic Four comics and genuinely believe a Titan in purple was about to eat, literally eat, the earth. That wasn’t what happened – Stan Lee’s breathless narration and Jack Kirby’s clear, everyday surrealism let you buy into the absurdism. Those artists made you a four colour fool in a very wonderful sense, they used their tools to create an immersive environment and they didn’t need millions upon millions of dollars and a degree in photorealism to do it.

What makes comics great as an artform? Simple. Anyone can make one: it’s just your imagination, a pencil and a piece of paper.

Want a simple moral lesson, akin to “with great power comes great responsibility,” “criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot,” or even “you got to be one of the good guys, son, because there are way too many of the bad”? Well, what about “never trust a comic book reader who hasn’t tried creating their own story, somehow, at some point…”

Art that inspires you to create more art: that’s The Spirit.

And that, rather than super do-gooders and billion-dollar turnovers, is what is interesting and what brings me to Matt Wagner’s immortal Grendel comic.

Grendel is the “Demon of Society’s Mediocrity”, an assassin turned mob lord who rules by fear, reinforced by his formidable intellect, unstoppable blades and undeniable will. Although no one knows his true identity, he calls himself Hunter Rose, and makes a fortune almost accidentally as a best-selling novelist while perfecting his stranglehold on New York’s underworld. He is basically Batman as a baddie.

Grendel was created by a teenager looking for an alter-ego: he is a supremely and appropriately confident genius with absolutely no self-doubt and a contempt for the banal, the uncivilized and the compromised. In early stories, released back in 1982, Hunter Rose is depicted almost like a puppy dog, all huge eyes and lolloping paws – he is a childlike avatar, published in cheap comics almost as a throwaway idea. You recognise him as soon as you see him because you invented him too, in your own way…

But Matt Wagner’s genius was that he fell in love with his creation and wouldn’t stop tinkering.

His next incarnation of Grendel was in a short comic series called Devil By The Deed. In it, Wagner tells Hunter Rose’s life story, from his humble origins as a bored child genius stuck in suburban hell, to teenage fencing champion, to mob lord, to God of Crime to, ultimately, a bloody corpse on a rooftop, dead at the claws of a Native American werewolf.

By telling Hunter Rose’s whole story, with stylized artwork part naturalistic, part manga, Wagner created something that felt more significant than simply “Part One of Forever…” he kept an enigma to his villain, maintained a sense of mystery that felt contemporary but also classic. While in the UK and the US we were used to pulp heroes, like Batman and his predecessors The Shadow, Doc Savage, even Sherlock Holmes; over in Europe the idea of the pulp villain was more evocative, and it was this allure that Wagner assumed. Fantômas, that impossible French assassin created in 1911, was so popular than he leapt effortlessly from adolescent pulp to high art – Magritte painted his portrait, with a languid, sophisticated and sociopathic swagger that Grendel has appropriated and homaged time and time again…

Wagner loves his classics – Grendel of course takes his name from the hideous mother-obsessed demon destroyed by the ultimate hero Beowulf; but here Grendel is the urbane and sophisticated focus of our attention, and his nemesis is a misshapen beast who works for the police, named Argent the Wolf. Morality is cheerfully inverted and in spite of the fact that Grendel really does have no redeeming qualities (well, he was in love once, does that count?), we root for the Devil and are appalled by Argent, the bestial and vile “super hero”.

Grendel is also interesting because of his sexual identity. He falls in love as a teenager with a much older woman, Jocasta Rose, who teaches him to rise above the banal mediocrity of his every example, and to never compromise his talent. She is dying, naturally, and when she shuffles off, so the last vestige of Grendel’s humanity goes with her. It’s an awful comics trope that the hero needs to be motivated by a dead woman, as if the impotent comic book reader can only relate to a woman if she is dead and to be avenged. Awesome writer Gail Simone’s felling Women in Refrigerators is a must-read for those who think that graphic violence in comics equals “not just for kids” maturity, so this is dodgy territory for Grendel fans. But the reason I can get behind this little act of sacrifice is that the example she sets Hunter is utterly destructive for everyone. She isn’t a sainted figure to mourn forever, like Spider-Man’s Gwen Stacy or Bruce Wayne’s mum, instead she totally sets in motion events that culminate in mass slaughter and terror. Plus, she’s seducing a child. Well, she’s Jocasta, for Dr Doom’s sake, named for Oedipus’s mother! And in keeping with that predilection for mother figures we find in both Oedipus and the original Grendel, she is the Tiamat anti-mother, the Lilith, the Kali… an empowering but destructive mother/lover who changes everything by stripping back assumptions and building something new: “C’mere, you!” she says, and isn’t it refreshing to have one of these characters be inspired by a mother instead of by yet another father, adopted father, uncle or male friend of your dead father who can tell you all about your father forever?

Jocasta also inspires the strangest aspect of the Grendel story. While slicing and dicing his way through New York, Hunter Rose happens across a very young girl named Stacy Palumbo. Hunter has just killed Stacy’s sole surviving relative, and decides to adopt her for reasons even he doesn’t truly understand. She becomes his ward, a surrogate daughter who intrigues and stimulates him in a way that isn’t sexual… but really isn’t sexual just because Hunter isn’t really interested in humans that way anymore. But he obviously chooses to believe that she is a reflection of his dead lover, so there is absolutely an odd fetish there which deepens the character. Again, comics has a long history of the young ward to the hero which would be totally terrifying to see out in the real world, and here Wagner seems to be having tonnes of fun making fun of that cliché…

Stacy is besotted with her Uncle Hunter, until one day she isn’t, and it is this that hastens his doom. Hunter’s final act isn’t a grandiose bout of megalomania; it comes from an affronted little girl with terrifying depths: one more twist of the knife into the back of the superhero of old.

Wagner killed off his hero in this original story, which you would think would limit Grendel’s versatility, but rather set a puzzle that he managed to solve wonderfully.

The ultimate failure of most superhero comics is their endless replaying of the same old narratives. It is always a never-ending battle for truth and justice that the hero faces, a story that has no ending. Occasionally there will be a Death of Superman tale, or something, but these are always reversed, so that the goodie is back punching the baddie next month. Development is to be frowned on, really, ultimately, unfortunately. The good characters try and make a virtue out of their meta-existence as a franchise – Batman is the king of this: his war against crime is neverending because it is impossible to stamp out crime, even if you are Batman. Batman knows this, but his defining characteristic is his ironclad will – he won’t stop, even if he can never truly win. The confines of his existence as a comic book character and evergreen corporate mascot have been metabolised into his psychology and what makes him work, what should be a limitation has become a strength.

But not just anyone can be Batman. That’s the point of Batman.

Grendel goes two other routes. For one, there have been the very occasional flashback mini-series, all framed by the foreknowledge that Hunter Rose is doomed. For the other, in Wagner’s story the Grendel identity has become so potent that it inspires other criminals to take up the mantle, and the identity slowly becomes a virus that first infects the psychotic or grief-stricken and ultimately becomes a pandemic that overtakes the world in fury and grace. In the future, according to Wagner, everyone is either a Grendel or lives in fear of a Grendel… The A-Z of Grendel runs from Assassin to Zenith, and in these mythos this is depicted as a *good* thing.

The ambitious narrative, the constantly changing emphasis, the strange and kinky characters… these are the reasons to read and love Matt Wagner’s Grendel, but they only tell half the story. Comics aren’t just verbal stories, they are graphic stories. I don’t mean that in the pretentious “graphic novel” sense, I mean that at least half their impact comes from the illustrations. There is a grammar and an invention to comic book art that should be the equal to art direction, set dressing, physical performance, lighting and costume in movies. And the art in Grendel is superb. Wagner is a draughtsman, always telling his stories in new ways, from a fight scene depicted in fifty tiny tight panels showing the precise choreography of the battle to elegant art deco frames and splashes that hold you and force you to decode. His faces and bodies look simple, but they all have a pithy characterisation to them, they all look unique. There are grotesques, paunches and chinless freaks among the handsome stereotypes and film noir dames, and above them all Hunter Rose’s handsome perennial sneer shows us what these comic book gods must really think of the likes of us.

All of this from a few doodles and dreams from a teenager with faith in his imagination. “I have no clan, nor any rank. I am unique…” Vivat Grendel!

Okay, so based on all this, how do you tell a Batman movie story?

For one thing, Batman isn’t realistic, and no one in their right mind should want him to be. Yes, he appears realistic, there is a mood or sense that what he does is possible, but it isn’t. The whole point of Batman is that he is exceptional. I can see why Nolan wanted his films to be “realistic”… I watched Batman Begins with a friend who wasn’t particularly interested in Batman, but the sight of the little boy crouched over his dead parents moved her to tears: empathising with the characters engenders sympathy with the film, and the more recognisable Bruce Wayne is as a human, the easier it us to empathise with him. But there’s a balance of verisimilitude here that there is in every single movie ever made, that balances coincidence and strokes of luck with dramatic irony and the illusion of reality.

For instance, in previous films when he relies on gadgets and vehicles that are manufactured for him, bought by him, he is diminished – he becomes a consumer rather than a crusader. It might be more realistic that as a billionaire he can circumvent plausibility by buying incredible things, but this sacrifices invention on the altar of mediocre reality. And not even very convincing reality, really – I mean, every time someone says that this movie’s batmobile prop can actually do what it’s shown doing in the movie, a fairy dies. When Bruce Wayne says in Justice League that his super power is that he’s rich, I think we’re limiting what makes him special. I think it was a line that Val Kilmer originally used in a Batman Forever junket, that it was a particularly American super power to have – disgusting wealth. And that’s witty and true, but it also limits the character’s invention. And the line that Chris Nolan dropped in his interviews, that Wayne was really just a guy who did a lot of pushups, that limits him as well. Both are glib cliches born out of embarrassment of the childlike inspiration that actually fuels the character’s longevity and success, simply idle tropes that really just box him in as a guy who fights really well and can buy all the weapons he wants. Well, that could be any action hero… they all kick ass and have cool stuff – that’s just James Bond, that’s just Indiana Jones. Even Ash has his groovy chainsaw hand and boomstick. Every action hero has a cool weapon and uses it perfectly… I thought this watching Infinity War – when Tony Stark gets his new armour that can just manifest itself through nano technology, a copy of which he immediately gives to Spider-Man, he is basically just using the same power set as Star Lord, with his vanishing mask, or Dr Strange with his teleportation, or Black Panther with his suddenly transforming costume… the heroes lose their individuality, whatever it is that makes them special, and the interactions become fight scenes and the fight scenes become a game of chess where all the pieces are pawns: who wins and who loses isn’t determined by character or ability, but determined by the needs of the story.

And this overlooks what draws people to these stories in the first place: that all the characters are unique and bizarre.

And what is special about Batman? That he dresses like a giant bat and always wins.

So take that weirdness and make that the centre of the story of Bruce Wayne. A man who decides that the best way to fight a never ending war on crime is to dress up like a giant bat. That’s insane, that’s completely surreal – that should be a story that stops you in your tracks. A man who has that idea and commits to it and makes it work for the good of the world – that’s a unique human with a story worth telling, and arguably isn’t a story that has been told on film since 1966. He isn’t just someone who relies on Lucius Fox for his gadgets… he designs and builds impossible thigs himself. And he didn’t just go off and train to be just another ninja with the first father figure who came along… he knows every fighting style and martial art in the world. He’s the world’s greatest detective, he’s the caped crusader, he’s The Batman. You just don’t get it, son.

So tell stories about a man with the bizarre imagination and the relentless will to create this mad image and turn it into a crusade.

Committing to the idea that Bruce Wayne is truly exceptional creates story-telling options that we haven’t seen in movies before. To make this mad dream work, he has to be utterly brilliant, in a way that movie heroes aren’t ever brilliant. To make this plan, the fantasy of a grief-stricken child, work, he has to be in control of his emotions, he has to have impossible focus. When friends fall along the way he doesn’t fall with them, he doesn’t give up, he redoubles his efforts.

But at the same time, he is consciously never perfect. A perfect man would get over the tragedy of his parents’ death. And he must know that. So in his crusade to become Batman he must have deliberately stepped back from perfection. He doesn’t want to be cured, doesn’t want to be healed. Why? Because he can help more people as Batman than he can as Bruce Wayne.

And that’s another important point. So many stories are pleased with themselves for the conclusion that as Bruce Wayne he could do so much more social good. Alfred spends most of his time in Dark Knight Rises saying very little else. But that isn’t the case, is it? This world we live in has billionaires, and they haven’t saved us yet. Batman has to be better than that – and that has to be the spine of the story. That line that gets bandied around from time to time is very true: if he weren’t real we would have to invent him.

So start your story by showing us how a grief-stricken child becomes that impossible figure. A young man who realises that to be as good as he needs to be, he will have to know how to fight everyone, who will have to be a fantastic detective, an amazing acrobat, a genius engineer, an inspired forensic scientist, a daredevil driver, an innately sensitive and empathic student of human nature and aberrant psychology… He realises that to be that man he will have to learn how to learn – he’ll develop a photographic memory, he’ll be a speed reader, he’ll learn how to convince people to help him learn even more, he’ll learn how to make both leaps of inspired intuition and rigorously applied methodical logic. He’ll have to travel the world, incognito, learning from the most fascinating men and women in the world, all so that he can do what they do better than they can do it. He won’t make do with the first father figures that come along, he’ll invent a father figure and keep him inviolate in his head, to hold him to the fire.

And that’s your first story – Bruce Wayne from eight to twenty-five… solving his first case as Batman while looking over the last seventeen years of training. Call it Sunset – the start of a long, dark night…

George Clooney said that Batman was basically the Johnny Carson of his films – he was there to give a stage to the villains. Well, Batman has the greatest rogue’s gallery of any superhero, but I would say that he has to be the most fascinating character in his story or you could just as well make the story about the other guy.

Given we know that there will always be Batman films, why not go hog wild and tell as long a Batman story as it is possible to tell, grounded on the sympathy and empathy that comes with the familiarity of an old friend, from Bruce Wayne in his early twenties, just starting out, to Bruce Wayne in his fifties, physically wrecked but never wiser, working out how he will continue his crusade? A life story, told over -what?- ten films with the same actor over fifteen years? The Harry Potter series arguably did what had never been done before and spent a decade telling the story of three friends growing up and becoming magical… given our investment in long form story telling on TV, isn’t that the perfect blueprint for telling these stories in films. Are you telling me that the perfect Bruce Wayne isn’t out there now, an actor in his early twenties ready to commit to telling this story for a decade or so? Look at what Kevin Conroy has done, playing Batman from young man to nonagenarian in the Bruce Timm Batman cartoons… that’s a rich story with a single changing wonderful man at its core, played perfectly by someone who knows that every story is a Batman story.

Each film could tell a huge and self-contained story that enriches the character and moves him forward through a growing and developing world. I think Robert Downey Jnr is as good a Tony Stark as we’re ever likely to see, but he doesn’t really change, does he? It’s been ten years and he’s still the same self-confident snarky alpha male with a heart of gold, he just resets to douchebag mansplainer for at least one act in every story so that he reclaim his nobility in the final moments… Wouldn’t a story that treats the character as a journey be something quite special, combined with the madness of the stories and the wonderful invention of the style?

How is Batman at twenty-five different from Batman when he turns forty? When he falls in love? When he falls out of love? When he fails? When the enemies that face him become unrecognisably bizarre and a million miles from the criminals he became Batman to fight in the first place? When he adopts a child? When the child outgrows him? When he falls, when he rises, when he is betrayed or when he lets down the ones who love him? What will a thirty-year war do to our exceptional man?

But make the films out of hope. It’s easy to see why filmmakers have traditionally liked the idea of a grim and gritty Batman story – they don’t like how Batman can be silly, they mistake solemnity for importance, they think an unhappy ending is a meaningful ending. But if the idea of Batman is a good idea it has to be because it works, which means that the city has to be better for Batman’s existence. So he has to win. Weirdly enough, one of the times that it is said really well is in the Lego Batman movie, where the Phantom Zone guard reminds us that if you wanna make the world a better place you gotta take a look at yourself and make the change. It might get darkest just before the dawn, and loved ones might leave you, but you have to keep moving and you have to trust that it gets better. Batman is a guilty, frightened child’s dream of redemption, and of helping others, and the story has no merit if that dream doesn’t come true.

I know that this victory doesn’t come true in the real world. That’s why we have the fantasy figure – not to taunt us, but to inspire us. Arguably it is easier to inspire a child than an adult – adults have to believe in what they can touch, what they can buy or what can hurt them, but that’s why we absorb the Batman story as children. Batman is a story to help keep us warm and feel safe at night. And it is always night. There’s a reason why more than fifty years later, Los Angeles literally lit the Bat Signal when Adam West died.

So make something truly inspiring, a genuine Batman Forever.

 

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