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Batman Defined - Part I


“Lo! The Bat with leathern wing …”

– William Blake, An Island in the Moon, 1784

Although the majority of blueprints for Batman can be linked to American culture and help to define a more archetypal American hero, it is within other historical references where some of the more interesting facts about the character and the world he inhabits are seeded. Noir undertones, gothic stature and iconography are the bones of what has made Batman so enduring and it is while exploring a more archaeological approach that we begin to understand where the many other aspects of the world he inhabits have been formed. Before Co-Creator, Bob Kane’s more obvious references to DaVinci’s flying machines and the pop/pulp culture of his time, one of the more interesting links to the mythology of Batman can be located in the legendary city of Nottingham, England. Not only can references be made to its Anglo-Saxon namesake, the ‘Place of Caves’ but, more directly, with the original Gotham... at a time when knights and the most infamous outlaw of them all robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

It was during these times in the late 12th and early 13th century that King John requested a Royal Highway to be built through the village. To avoid the build and maintenance of the route, locals feigned madness; an act that, during these times, was believed to be highly contagious. Therefore, when King John’s knights witnessed the villagers’ insanity they withdrew; resulting in the King’s road rerouted to avoid Gotham. According to the story Cityscape in Batman Chronicles issue 6, Gotham City is revealed as having initially been built to house the criminally insane – a journal, written by a villain plotting murder explains, “I even have a name for it. We could call it ‘Gotham’ after a village in England – where, according to common belief, all are bereft of their wits.”

In direct reference to the legend, it is of no coincidence that Batman’s arch nemesis, the Joker, represents this feigned madness of Gotham; an enemy who, in a modern world, develops more anarchic personality disorders. This is made all the more disturbing through the use of his jester / clown-like appearance where, traditionally, a medieval fool would be summoned to entertain the ruler of his kingdom to help di ‘jest’ his food. The comedian – iconic of fun and laughter – is now transformed in to the nightmarish grim reaper dealing the chaotic hand of death and destruction, which is all the more difficult to swallow.

It wasn’t until 1807 that the American author, Washington Irving became aware of the original tales and began to frequently refer to Manhattan as Gotham in his own writing. Irving’s satirical periodical, documented as the Salmagundi papers, were the first to refer to the legendary English village and, in time, eventually evolved into a popular nickname for New York displayed on shop signs and important institutions such as the Gotham Center for New York City History.

American Historians, Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace also explained how the name was adopted by New Yorkers in their book Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, stating: “Manhattanites would not likely have taken up a nickname so laden with pejorative connotations – even one bestowed by New York’s most famous writer – unless it had redeeming qualities, and indeed some of the tales cast Gothamites in a flattering light.” It could be said that the famed stories recounted by the villagers, who later influenced further tales of the ‘Wise Men of Gotham’, went on to represent a group of people who were not quite so mad after all... and that their allusion to the apparent affliction was no more than an elaborate ruse that symbolised a hidden cunning to outwit their ruler and prevent their village from being destroyed by a Royal Highway.

In subsequent tales this concept is built further on these foundations of fools and mad men surrounding the origins of the fictitious psychiatric hospital, Arkham Asylum. A direct nod towards the works of the influential American horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft, the hospital is named after the Sanatorium in the fictional city of Arkham, Massachusetts that frequents a number of the author’s short stories. Having developed its own long and brutal history of insanity, suicide and murder; most of which is directly linked to those who helped build the asylum and treat their patients. Arkham Asylum has gone on to house all of Batman’s Rogues Gallery at some point, only for them to escape or once again let lose on Gotham City all the more broken and insane.

Originally an unnamed ‘teeming metropolis’ in Detective Comics issue 29, by issue 31 Batman’s city was explicitly identified as ‘New York’ before Co-Creator, Bill Finger changed the name after finding the name ‘Gotham Jewellers’ in a phonebook. The resonance of the name stuck and ever since those early issues, the character of Gotham City has continued to inspire readers and forge the perfect environment for a detective to thrive as he forever delves in to the disturbing undercurrents of crime. Ever since, the architecture of this fictitious world has managed to grow from historical references and popular culture, many artists and writers have continued to build on Batman’s original concept of a primordial being that manages to become one with his environment. Without such a strong sense of identity and connection to his city, Batman would become redundant in his actions and insignificant in his message.

It is the inheritance of any identity that can always be seen within the traces of ancestry. Batman is a legend in his own right and one of which has been shaped by many other stories and designs that have come before. Where the medieval period delivers familiar – parallels that help convey a sense of myth – it is within the Gothic movement that we begin to witness the world of more complex characters and worlds truly take shape. Therefore it is unavoidable to delve in to the foundations of the fictitious universe of Batman without exploring the more potent and obvious influence that succeeded the medieval period.

Before these darker times drew to a close with the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and the end of The War of the Roses, a more romanticist style of architecture had begun to flourish throughout Europe. The term ‘Gothic’ did not appear until the late Renaissance with its origins in a specific period known as Opus Francigenum which translates to ‘French Work’. Characteristics include the pointed arches that now rest uneasy among modern architecture; the ribbed vault, flying buttress and looming Gargoyles that have provided familiar company for the Dark Knight as he surveys his city. Most familiar as the fabrication and structure of the great cathedrals, abbeys and churches it can also be seen in castles, town halls, guild halls and universities; the latter of which tend to be more associated with the Gothic revival in mid-18th century to late 19th century England. It was this revival that inspired the great literary works of the time.

Tales of vampires, ghosts, maniacs and dopplegangers ran rampant through the underground passages left over from darker times, playing on the imagination and challenging the reader on what possible truths such fiction could offer. During the Victorian era, English folklore told tales of ghosts roaming the streets of London and inspired the apparent sightings of the entity known as Spring Heeled Jack who was first documented in 1837. The urban legend soon spread all over England and due to his strange appearance and his ability to leap across rooftops, he became the subject of several works of fiction. Illustrations resembled a proto-Batman of diabolical, physical presence that revealed wings, clawed hands and fiery eyes. Further reports referred to helmets and garments that resembled oilskin while others described the tall, slender figure of a gentleman... a variation that perhaps alluded to a potential duel identity.

The relevance of such stories and folktales – especially to the religious audiences of the time – were seen as a negative comment on society where a taste for the Gothic was spurned further by the Enlightenment period. Professor Alison Milbank raises a crucial point in her Guardian article:

“In the 19th century, attention moves to the horrors that lurk in our own psyche. The unconscious comes to be a subject of attention and exploration in stories such as the celebrated Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.” (Milbank. A, 2011)

Before exploring the psychology of Batman in more detail in Part IV, it is important that this area is touched upon from earlier, significant influences. It is in these Gothic works that the existence of the supernatural often confirms the ‘haunting by a second self’ – the anxiety of a double persona later argued by Neurologist, Sigmund Freud to be a repression caused by the irruption of disquiet when separated from our mother’s womb. Yet, despite some of these links to the divided personalities of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his creature along with Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, to name a few, there is a also a significant link to the ‘sense of loss’ in major works of Gothic literature – none so more apparent once it had reached the shores of America through the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe’s own mysterious death had not only left behind speculation and conspiracy surrounding his own demise but a legacy that defined both modern horror, science fiction and the birth of the Detective novel. References to his fiction, whether subliminal or not – have embedded themselves in most of the art forms that embraced such revolutionary times. Poe died at the height of the Industrial Revolution – heralding dramatic change in political, economical and social status where commentaries were circulated at an alarming rate through the rapid growth of newspapers and periodicals. The writers who followed Poe; such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells with their proto sci-fi tales; Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Detective, Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft’s distinctive horror were all a direct product of their time and it wasn’t until during the late 19th and early 20th century that these writers’ own contributions to literature became hugely influential in their own right.

Although there are traces of Poe through the character’s brooding, gothic nature, Bruce Wayne does not wallow away in self-pity as witnessed in Poe’s stories. Instead, as a more modern hero, he channels his negativity in to a zen-like instrument of self-control that is unleashed and executed with necessary force. His choice of symbol is one to strike fear in to the heart of organised crime and the mask he wears allows him to hide behind its potency. All the while the boundaries between the symbol and how much of the mask is truly Bruce Wayne, are blurred in direct reference to Gothic undertones of repression and a second self that delivers a more fearful, demonic image.

Poe’s influence in particular was imbedded in modern literature and his stories had begun to forge part of the modern American myth, yet it would need less personal accounts to take his themes of loss and despair to a whole new level. It would take not just the death of a writer to spark this change and give birth to modern heroes, but the collapse and depression of an entire nation.

This post was first published as part of "75 Years of Batman" on July 15th 2014.

Continued in...


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