Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Bat-Brand

Jim Roeg's blog has led me to Plok's A Trout In The Milk. If you like Jim, you'll like Plok. Of special note are his seven-part musings on Fantastic Four and the creation of Marvel continuity (handily accessed from his front page). One of those essays, "Crisis on Infinite Roys," contains this digression:

[A poster on the John Byrne forum] wonders how Batman's origin can possibly make sense as it stands in the fully-unified and rationalized DCU, and he's got a point. If such a rationalized universe had existed at that time, then Bruce Wayne might very well already have known of Superman's existence, and so his decision to put on a cape and tights could not have, unforced, shall we say? In fact as this guy over at JBF pointed out, if you had the example of Superman before you, you would probably not decide to dress like a bat in order to frighten criminals, so much as you might decide to frighten them by dressing to resemble that scary indestructible guy a couple counties over who keeps sending crooks to the chair. And then, you know, throw in some spooky bat-imagery too, just for pizzazz.

Now, I think Plok and this unnamed JBF poster are onto something. Of course Bruce dresses like Superman, because of course he knows about Superman. (Remember Alfred's line in "Year One" about "that fellow in Metropolis?") It still doesn't take anything away from Bruce's motivations. In fact, it arguably makes them more subversive.

As you know, I think one of the great unexplored notions of the Batman milieu is the "Bat-Brand." This is my bit of fanwankery which explains why someone would take the time to make every bit of (unique, expensive) equipment the public sees, from boomerangs to jet aircraft, fit the same bat-winged theme. It's all propaganda, like Zorro slashing his initial, with the biggest instance being the Bat-Signal. That tells the crooks they can't even count on the cops' good graces anymore, because they're on the Batman's side too.

But why a superhero suit? Specifically, why one which so clearly follows the Superman cape/tights/boots/briefs model? After all, in the recent movies the costume has been turned into black-on-black body armor, with no gray portions and certainly no undies on the outside. However, in those movies Batman was not born into a superheroic environment, and I think therein lies the difference.

Plok states, quite reasonably, that Batman dresses like a superhero "just because," and the style of costume has more to do with selling comics to the kids of the '40s than it does with rationality or "realism." Again, to me the "in-continuity" explanation also goes back to marketing, and the subliminal associations a superstitious and cowardly lot would make. Batman's schtick involves not staying still long enough to give people a good look at the costume, but if it ever got to that point, the costume itself would provide a final distraction.

Consider: if "I shall become a bat" means trying to convince criminals he's some kind of bat-human hybrid, then preserving that illusion becomes more important, and any holes in that illusion become more significant. This happens in the first Burton movie, when crooks observe the dazed Batman's body armor and note "he's human after all." Likewise, the notion that Batman depends on body armor carries with it the converse that Batman is weaker without the armor.

However, it seems to me that when a crook gets too close to a Batman who looks, even superficially, like Superman -- with a chest symbol, briefs on the outside, and an obvious set of spandex tights -- it makes him wonder if Batman is similarly superhuman, and that momentary pause gives Bats the edge. It's a choice between physical advantage and psychological advantage, with the awareness that a physical advantage might be taken away more easily. Indeed, the realization that Batman is a normal guy, who's still got the upper hand despite the lack of body armor, may be just as unsettling.

Perhaps more importantly, though, reminding folks of Superman has a wider societal effect. Superman clearly becomes omnipresent in Metropolis very soon after his debut, and Bruce no doubt seeks the same kind of ubiquity for his alter ego. Casting himself as the "Gotham Superman" doesn't just imply that he has Superman's powers, it also implies that he has Superman's reach. In fact, Batman has to go further, first uprooting the corrupt authorities and then co-opting the legitimate ones. Batman becomes omnipresent in Gotham by virtue of these changes, and stays that way through the brand-identification tactics of the Bat-Signal and the various bat-themed doodads.

Even the original Robin outfit may play on some collective societal memories. In hindsight it seems to incorporate elements of Dr. Mid-Nite's costume and Green Lantern's red/green/yellow color scheme, and therefore could remind Gothamites of better days with the JSA. Moreover, Robin and Batgirl can be seen as Batman's "franchisees," officially-sanctioned emissaries of the head office further extending the head office's reach.

Okay, those last bits might be stretching it, but you see where I'm going. Batman can't be Superman, giving personal attention to each and every transgression, but he can be as big as Superman through active brand marketing and other forms of propaganda. "No Man's Land" touched on this a little, with Batgirl offering an initial Bat-presence and spraypainting bat-symbols all over town, but it wouldn't hurt DC to acknowledge it from time to time. It fits perfectly with the rest of Bruce's campaign, and even argues for the return of the yellow oval....


Anonymous said...

Tom, thanks for the link! I've already replied a bit over at my place, but just wanted to drop a couple thoughts off here too. Because I think I like this business-plan Batman of yours: somehow it suggests the measuredly sane and superheroic Batman I grew up with (yes, the one with the yellow oval!), rather than the badass loner with the psychotic vendetta. Someone around here was saying that both Batman and the playboy Bruce Wayne are only masks for the real Bruce Wayne - a nuance I thought Christian Bale captured very well in "Batman Begins" - who is actually much more balanced than either persona he affects in public, and that's a thing I've always liked about Batman that is sorely lacking in him now. Maybe the motive to frighten has been taken too deeply into the character in recent years anyway, so we might benefit from seeing the kind of Batman who could work out a quiet, thoughtful, CALM approach to his goals once in a while -- the kind of Batman who might have intentionally copied Superman's look for strategic reasons, instead of just going for maximum darkness out of a wish to terrify. I don't really like the ineluctable Batman anymore, actually; every time he doesn't kill someone, I find myself thinking "how out of character this is", and then that makes me a little pissed off.

Particularly since the benign Batman of the yellow oval, the police force's secret weapon, would be plenty scary to criminals, too! Imagine getting swooped down on by Robin: "oh no, now Batman's KID is kicking my ass, and he's dressed like Peter Pan while he's doing it! How insane ARE these people?" That would take me back a step, if I was a criminal.

"What, and now Bat-GIRL? What's next, a Bat-DOG? Christ, I gotta get out of this town..."

Good call!

Tom Bondurant said...

A brief pause, if you will, while I look up "ineluctable...."

Really, the Batman I liked the most over the past several years has been the Grant Morrison JLA model, who was just a touch paranoid but more of a constant schemer, and still found room for a sense of humor. In "Rock of Ages," once Bruce figures out Luthor's behind the new Injustice League, he attacks Luthor as another corporate raider would. Thus, I'm pretty stoked about Morrison writing Batman full-time, because he had a good handle on the "Batman always has a plan" paradigm.

Anonymous said...

This is great stuff. It really emphasizes how Bruce Wayne the CEO (ever neglected) applies his business acumen to his real corporate interests.

As a non-metahuman he would always be looking for ways to achieve an ubiquity in Gotham as psychologically effective as physical omnipresence. So that even when he's not personally present the underworld can still never forget his existence, like Coke.

And as much as I love the image of the solitary Batman, franchising a Batsquad of characters is a inevitable way of extending his corpoprate reach. Robin is Sprite to Batman's Coke.

Unknown said...

Excellent analysis. Somebody at DC should read this, as it fits much better with Batman's rep as a master strategist than the paranoid case we've seen for the last few years.

JP said...

'Moreover, Robin and Batgirl can be seen as Batman's "franchisees," officially-sanctioned emissaries of the head office further extending the head office's reach.'

I don't find that a stretch at all. It was, intuitively, how I always perceived the other-Bats. Batman is the only superhero I can think of who is consciously grooming potential succesors, and extending his reach with female counterparts and so on makes perfect sense. He is building an army of BatEnforcers.

Shame that the actual characterisation in recent years does not refelct this, even if the plethora of Bat-family members (extending even to the Pretender, Valley, who chips in now and then)supports this perception of BatCEO.

I'd love to read a whole new Batman reboot with this premise.

Anonymous said...

JP says: "I'd love to read a whole new Batman reboot with this premise."

That would be All Star Batman!

What I liked about about the first issue was that Batman had already been intending to recruit Dick, instead of being the passive agent he usually is, repeated as recently as Dark Victory, where it's an accident that Dick discovers the Batcave, and Robin forces himself on a helpless Batman.

So I thought it was quite revolutionary for All Star #1 to make the first contact Dick has be with Batman, not Bruce. But this was usually ignored in favor of complaining about Vicki Vale.