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Smart Pop Classics Batman Unauthorized

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Smart Pop Classics: Holy Signifier, Batman!

In the Smart Pop Classics series, we share greatest hits from our throwback essay collections. In “Holy Signifier, Batman!” from Batman Unauthorized, Nick Mamatas argues that Batman only works as Pop art, and that of the many iterations of Batman that exist, the campy TV Batman of the 1960s is the most compelling version of the Caped Crusader of them all.

Batman, as one of the most iconic and enduring of comic book heroes, is ultimately nothing more than a bundle of images that have proven themselves to be far more valuable and compelling than any storyline, movie, or book of essays on the character. Batman is a Pez dispenser; he is a bat-shaped belt buckle. Batman is not a hard-ass vigilante, nor is he a duly deputized crime fighter; he is a stamped silhouette on a box of cereal.

And that is why I am here today with a proposition: of all the decades of Batman stories in a huge variety of media, there is only one that will forever be tied to the character. I am speaking, of course, of the live-action TV show, which aired twice weekly on ABC from January 12, 1966, to March 14, 1968. The show, featuring Adam West as Batman, was explicitly campy and humorous, with a sensibility in design, plotting, and cinematography that was pure Pop art. William Dozier, the producer of the TV show, actually detested comics and felt that the show would only work as Pop art. And he was right. Batman only works as Pop art. Because Batman is nothing but a logo, and because we are all soaking in logos and commercial messages and not-quite-real (or too-real-to-be-real) realities, the campy TV Batman of the 1960s is the most compelling version of the Caped Crusader of them all.

The Dozier-produced Batman is the ultimate in branding. It’s Pop art for the boob tube. Susan Sontag noted in “The Aesthetics of Silence” that Pop is a form of art where authorial perspective essentially disappears. The author hasn’t created anything; rather the author is simply collecting the pop cultural elements we’re all already soaking in, and (re)presenting them as art. Getting some experience out of Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes depends on one having seen Brillo boxes lined up on supermarket shelves. Trademarks get their power in the same way-the consumer’s participation in the culture of consumption is what makes a trademark valuable. We are responsible for giving the trademark meaning. Hello Kitty is worth billions because we look at Hello Kitty and say “Yay! Cute!” and Batman has value because we look at Batman and say “Tough” or “Cool” or “Funny” or “Hero” or “Bad-ass.”

Roy Litchenstein in 1963 explained that Pop art is:

. . . the use of commercial subject matter in painting, I suppose. . . . Everybody has called Pop art “American Painting,” but it’s actually industrial painting. America was hit by industrialism and capitalism harder and sooner. . . . Europe will be the same way, soon, so it won’t be American, it will be universal. (Swenson 42)

Batman was Pop art in reverse; instead of fine art being made out of the brands and images of industrial capitalism (like Warhol’s Brillo boxes), it was the height of industrial capitalism-a TV show-made out of fine art. When Batman was all the rage in ’66, it was said, repeatedly, that “For kids, it’s real. For adults, it’s camp.” Lynn Spigel and Henry Jenkins, in a cultural study of Batman, noted that at the time the show aired:

Batman precipitated a questioning of critical hierarchies because it self-consciously placed itself within the Pop art scene. While shows like Bewitched, Mr. Ed, and My Favorite Martian stretched the limits of TV’s realist aesthetic, Batman laughed in the face of realism, making it difficult for critics to dismiss the program as one more example of TV’s puerile content. Batman presented these critics with the particularly chilling possibility that this childish text was really the ultimate in art circle chic. (Jenkins and Spigel 123)

Childish text as art circle chic. . . . Batman is the sort of thing we used to call a “floating signifier” back in my grad school days. In semiotics, the study of signs, anything that stands for something else is referred to as a sign. Signs themselves are made up of two parts: a signifier (like the outline of a bat on a yellow oval) and a signified (Batman, yay!). The word “open” can signify that a burger joint is open for business, or that you should open an orange juice container on one side but not on the other. Batman, unlike the word “open,” is a “floating signifier” because Batman doesn’t mean any one thing or even a limited set of things-it means nothing, but instead holds open a space for that which cannot be defined. So Batman can be both a kiddie TV show and worthy of kudos from the art set; he can be a vicious vigilante and also a goofy cartoon character; he can sell us sugary cereal while being portrayed with the physique of a champion bodybuilder.

Batman is so good at being all these things because he isn’t really anything more than that logo.

Given the noir Batman popularized by Frank Miller, Tim Burton, and Christopher Nolan, though, we have a problem, at least when you buy a birthday cake with a Batman logo on it from the supermarket. Batman, as the logo is presented on birthday cakes and boys’ underwear and cereal boxes, has nothing to do with the dark vision of urban crime and vigilante justice that Batman, the character, has supposedly always represented. Would we put Pacino’s Scarface on a birthday cake? Do kids run around their backyards pretending to be the characters from Double Indemnity?

The problem really came to me a couple of years ago, after I went to the theater to watch Batman Begins. Batman Begins is nearly crypto-fascist: in it young Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed by a gunman despite the family’s bleeding heart philanthropy and love for Gotham City, and Wayne travels the world, looking for . . . something, when he is found by a group of ninjas who train him to fight crime. He goes back to Gotham to reclaim his birthright and his multi-billion dollar corporation, and outfits himself as the protector of the city. As a member of the wealthy elite and a superior physical specimen with unlimited technological resources, he can take on corrupt mob bosses, and the police, but eventually must fight his old ninja mentor Ra’s al Ghul. Al Ghul wants to speed up the decadence and decay of Gotham City, destroying it, in the same way his ninja clan had previously wiped out Rome. (Batman Begins is not very historically accurate, by the way.) But Batman Begins’s übermensch Batman can save the city and then remake it in his own image, as the representative of the melding of state and capital. Happy birthday, Timmy!

While some fans claim that the Miller Batman is a “return” to the original spirit of the character, in fact, the whole noir pose is what they call in the comic business a “retcon.” Retcon is short for retroactive continuity and involves changing the narrative past of a character to match the needs of the corporation’s plans for the property. For example, in the 1989 film Batman, we’re told Batman “created” the Joker when he sends thug Jack Napier, the same criminal that killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, into a vat of chemicals. In the comics, the Joker and the original mugger were unrelated.

Retconning isn’t inherently a bad thing, of course. After all, the character of Robin-the “sensational character find of 1940” according to the cover of Detective Comics #38-would be a shriveled old man by now if the property holders had held the characters to their first origins. But the noir retcon-which insists that Batman was always a dark character until the 1960s show-is essentially a form of reactionary revivalism.

In the earliest Batman adventures, the hero was very quickly adopted by the police force and became duly deputized. He gave lectures, generally to Robin, about the nature of the criminal element-generally criminals are lazy and greedy, and occasionally just nuts. The great distinction between Batman and the villains he faced was that Batman financed himself through legal wealth and had the authority of the police to violate all sorts of police procedure to protect the wealthy of Gotham City and not infrequently the wealth of Wayne Enterprises or the Wayne Foundation itself. But in Batman: Year One-which was supposed to have been not just a re-imagining of Batman, but an attempt to “reclaim” what was originally inherent in the character-there was nothing worth defending. The enemy was Gotham itself, and how the city generated crime at every level of society, from the poor slum areas to the heights of society. And Batman too was a criminal, ultimately fighting federal troops years later in The Dark Knight Returns.

This retcon of Batman’s entire history to create a “dark knight” figure ends up being self-undermining. In 2005’s All Star Batman and Robin – a reference to the juvenile Batman; the cover of the first issue also attempts to capture the spirit of the comics of the 1940s and 1950s – Frank Miller scrapped Batman: Year One’s character origins as well, resetting them via a retroactive continuity. The introduction of Robin was portrayed as a kidnapping, and Batman and Superman met because the superior detective deduced Superman’s identity and blackmailed him.

Miller tried to drown out the camp by amping up the volume. When Robin was hungry, Batman told him he could only eat whatever bats or rats he could catch in the Batcave. When the butler, Alfred, served Robin a cheeseburger, Batman flew into a rage and manhandled Alfred. But the Pop aspects of Batman cannot be drowned out, no matter how much black ink is spilled by Miller to depict these bombastic scenes. Batman is nothing in particular and thus nothing at all, and one cannot build something out of nothing. Pop is winking, knowing, and a celebration of the image. We are surrounded by images (bombarded by them, really); we spend much of our time in virtual environments, and spend much of our lives pursuing media-sanctioned fantasies. The Batman of Year One and after is as much a four-color fantasy as the Batman TV series-most of us, thankfully, do not live in crime-ridden urban blights, and even those blights that do exist in the U.S. are not nearly so violent as noir Gotham. It is simply a less successful one as it doesn’t embrace Batman’s true essence as just another bundle of corporate-owned images and sounds. In the same way that satire cannot destroy its target because the mere existence of satire affirms the importance of the target, Miller cannot help but acknowledge Batman’s Pop art incarnation: in February 2006, Frank Miller announced another Batman project, in which Batman would track down Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The proposed name of the graphic novel, Holy Terror, Batman!, is itself a Pop art wink at Robin’s fill-in-the-blank catch phrase.

The famed jazzy theme song from the 1966 TV show is still a perennial, just as the unique Batwipe-in which the scene was spun optically and the Batman logo zoomed in and out quickly-is still seen on other TV shows and even referenced in comics. Today, Adam West lends his voice talents to the primetime animated series Family Guy, in which he plays “Mayor West,” the mayor of Quahog, Rhode Island. The cartoon image is a stylized version of West, and the character has referred to his past as a crime fighter and his experience with supervillains. And he’s performing this Batmanesque element for an audience that may never have actually seen the ’60s show, which hasn’t been on the air in syndication since the early 1990s, and is not available on home video. But the young audience for Family Guy still gets it, because West’s voice is part of our common environment. Michael Keaton’s nearly asthmatic declaration “I’m Batman!” isn’t. Nor are any of the images from Year One, or Christian Bale’s attempt to smolder sexily under a rubber cowl. We ultimately cannot relate to that Batman; we can, however relate to the Batman of camp and Pop.

The endless recitations and re-imaginings of Batman in the comics themselves (which are again just a loss leader for the logo-the comics must stay in print, no matter how small the profits, or DC loses their rights to license the character) always must tangle with the Pop art Batman as well. Recently, in Planetary/Batman by Warren Ellis, the characters in the group Planetary, who do not normally exist in the same narrative universe of any version of Batman, were shown interacting with the Miller Batmans of Year One and The Dark Knight Returns-they were very similar except the latter, older Batman had more thought bubbles as he narrated his own actions, Frank Miller-style-and, of course, Pop art Batman.

You can’t sell soap with crime, but you can sell soap with crime mixed in with wacky hijinks, crazy colors, and guest cameos by Don Ho. Pop art Batman can embrace the noir. Many of the episodes of Batman, especially those of the first season of the show, were actually fairly suspenseful, and there was a glance at the darkness, with a few minor characters being killed. The show’s Pop art qualities took on a role similar to that of Hitchcock’s often humorous trailers for his dark suspense films, or his cameos in the films themselves-they served to relieve tension through nervous laughter, and to explore the connection between suspense and comic timing. In the season one episodes “The Penguin Goes Straight” and “Not Yet, He Ain’t,” viewers see such nods toward noir such as extended takes-there was a sixty-nine-second shot with Batman, Robin, and Penguin in close up, negotiating the idea that Penguin had become a hero, and a thirty-five-second traveling camera shot that started with Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara and ended with Batman and Robin stuck in the death trap of the week.

The noir Batman, Miller’s Batman, cannot, however, embrace Pop art-at least not without undermining its own sense of seriousness, purpose, and claims of “adult content.” But more importantly, it cannot by itself sell cereal or beach towels or even, ultimately, the yellow and black logo itself-which many versions of the noir Batman do not even use. The Pop art conception of Batman, on the other hand, can-it is the perfect vehicle for the nothingness that is Batman, the floating signifier designed to make its owners richer than Bruce Wayne.

Nick Mamatas is the author of the Lovecraftian Beat road novel Move Under Ground, which was nominated for both the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild awards, and which was released free to the Internet via Creative Commons in 2007. His most recent novel, Under My Roof, is a book for teens about building one’s own nuclear device and declaring independence from the United States. In 2008, his short fiction will be collected by Prime Books under the title You May Sleep. . . . Nick lives near, but not in, Boston, Massachusetts.

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