F vs the Franchises: Superhero Fatigue (Part 4d - In the Shadow of a Man Dressed As a Bat)

Click here for Part A of my Batman discussion, covering Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy.

Click here for Part B of my Batman discussion, covering The Batman and Batman in the DC Animated Universe.

Click here for Part C of my Batman discussion, covering Tim Burton’s films and the Snyderverse.

My Favorite Batman Stories

For all that film and television have told Batman stories with varying degrees of success, and personal appeal, the stories that stand out to me as my favorite actually come from DC’s Elseworlds line of comics. Freed from the obligation to feed and maintain any kind of continuity and canoncity, these “what if” stories offer focused explorations of wildly diverse ideas, settings, and scenarios for its characters. Among favorites are Brian Augustin and Mike Mignola’s Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, in which a Victorian-era Batman confronts Jack the Ripper in Gotham City, and Jean-Marc Lofficer, Randy Lofficier, and Ted McKeever’s Batman: Nosferatu, the second book (following Superman’s Metropolis and preceding Wonder Woman: The Blue Amazon) in an absolutely thrilling trilogy inspired by German Expressionist cinema. Approaching Batman from opposite yet complementary perspectives – one is noir while the other is modernist – are two books that in their own way encapsulate what is most compelling to me about the Batman concept: Batman: Nine Lives, written by Dean Motter and drawn by Michael Lark, and Batman: Death by Design, written by Chip Kidd and drawn by Dave Taylor. Neither includes child sidekicks, the Bat-family, and villains better suited to horror movies, which to me creates the opportunity to tell more focused stories.

However realistic you might think Reeves and Nolan were in their approach, neither compare to Nine Lives, which strips away the trappings of superhero comics to leave, instead, the type of cinematic noir narrative that came out of Hollywood during the 1940s and writers like Chandler and Hammett. Its hard-boiled noir detective story that sharply distills the concept of “Batman” to its essence as a portrait of crime, justice, and trauma. There are no fantasy elements nor sci fi gadgets to be found in its pages, and villains from Batman’s gallery of rogues are here presented as gangsters and petty criminals, whose familiar monikers are casual nicknames rather than costumed personas. Even Bruce Wayne, however forceful in and out of his Batman costume, is offered to us as a fallible human rather than a mythical figure with near-superhuman abilities. One could argue that Nine Lives isn’t really a superhero comic at all, which would be a fair impression – and I enjoy the book all the more for it. Another reason for me to enjoy it: the relatable, flawed humanity of its characters. Unlike the comics, where villains’ criminal pathologies are amplified to grotesque, lurid extremes, Nine Lives offers a grounded portrait of desperation and the corrupting influence of money and power.

The story revolves around Selina Kyle who, as owner of the Kit Kat club, is privy to the secrets of Gotham’s powerful business and criminal elites she consorts with, often intimately. When she’s found dead in the City’s labyrinthine sewer system, a chain of events is set in motion in which the motive to find her killer is often obscured by the desire to learn her secrets. What’s make the mystery interesting as a Batman story and not just a noir murder mystery and crime drama is Motter’s decision to tell the story not from the point of view of Dick “Wonder Boy” Grayson, a former cop turned private detective. Like the protagonist of a good noir story, he plays a key role in figuring out the mystery. But he also provides an outsider’s view of Batman’s activities, with an attitude that is suitably cynical. Furthermore, he offers a working-class view of wealthy Bruce Wayne that, again, is rooted in suspicion and mistrust. Without the ability to see events from Bruce Wayne/Batman’s point of view, we get to experience how mysterious, and perhaps misunderstood, he is to the people he encounters. And the impression, at least initially, makes Wayne just as much a noir character as anyone else in the story. With Lark’s gorgeous art to complement Motter’s nuanced writing, the overall book is the rare Batman story that, in my mind, checks all the boxes.

Where Nine Lives dwells in the shadows, cynical and suspicious, Batman: Death by Design walks in daylight with the refreshing conviction that Gotham can be made better. Yet for all their opposite perspectives, both reject exaggerated extremes in favor of a grounded approach to their narratives and world-building. For Nine Lives, it comes from focusing on the corrosive psychology of greed and its manifestation in organized crime. For Death by Design, greed and corruption are also the focus, but here viewed through the novel lens of architecture and the understanding that the civic health of a community is tied to the quality of its built environments. While Gotham has always been a character in its own way, Death by Design stands out for paying attention to the design and construction of its buildings – specifically, the Wayne Central Station, envisioned as a grand social landmark and transit hub but ultimately a failed promise due to a compromised design and flawed construction. At the story’s beginning, Bruce is determined to demolish the building commissioned by his father and replace it with something new. But as the new vigilante X-Acto appears targeting people he holds responsible for the building’s failure, such as the corrupt head of Gotham’s leading general construction company, Wayne Central Station becomes the focal point for a story about historic preservation and the inspirational value of civic architecture. As the story involves ordinary citizens such as journalists and social activists, Death by Design understands that the fight for Gotham’s future isn’t limited to the influence of freakish villains and the costumed vigilante who opposes them. Here, then, is an opportunity to address the general critique of Batman stories that views him as essentially ineffective in achieving lasting change to make Gotham a safe place to live. Where Batman is an effective agent in dealing with the immediate danger of crime, like the police is supposed to be, it’s ultimately up to Bruce Wayne as a Gotham citizen to influence the city and address the root causes of crime, corruption, and urban despair. While there’s plenty of Batman in the story, and the Joker is the usual wildcard (although thankfully not as a quasi-supernatural Hannibal Lecter; more like a less campy Cesar Romero), Death by Design stands out for the way it pays attention to Bruce Wayne’s civic-mindedness. By extension, we get a more hopeful version of Bruce Wayne and Batman, one who is clearly motivated by tragedy but not chained to it as we see in the more common brooding interpretations. Also demonstrating how Batman can act without resorting to killing, the book gives us an inventive engineer who, in the same optimistic spirit of modernism, has gadgets like a force field that can protect the people within it. IGN may feel that “People looking for a memorable Batman yarn, however, might want to look elsewhere,” and perhaps that’s true for people with specific expectations of a Batman story. But as far as I’m concerned, Death by Design is not only a fun story but a thoughtful, insightful and in a way surprisingly plausible interpretation of Batman precisely because it foregoes the usual cliches of superhero comics. And it’s gorgeously illustrated too, which adds to the joy of reading it.


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