Thursday, July 3, 2008

COMICS- Batman Unauthorized

Before my internet access debacle I had premised a number of reviews of the BenBella SmartPop series. Here is the first.

BenBella books puts out a series of trade paperbacks (those are the ones the size of hardcover books but with laminated card covers rather than covered cardboard) on pop culture topics. Called the SmartPop series, each of these books features a series of essays on a subject by a bullpen of writers from areas as diverse as psychology to physics. (With a liberal dose of writers, mostly from the science fiction genre.) The books cover such topics as comic book heroes (Superman, Batman, the X-Men), popular television (NYPD Blue, Alias, House), genre television (Farscape, Star Trek, Buffy and Angel), genre movies (Star Wars), and other various related subjects (such as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books).

There are few things I love more than spirited discussions by very smart people on completely irrelevant topics. So when I found the BenBella books I bought a half dozen and tore through them. They are highly recommended but vary according to the depth of the subject material. I don’t want to give away too much but thought I’d bring up a few of the topics discussed and add my own thoughts.

BATMAN UNAUTHORIZED was the first I read and remains one of the better ones. The book is edited by Denny O’Neal, writer and editor of various Batman titles since the 1970s. There isn’t much about the character that isn’t covered. Topics include psychological speculation about Bruce Wayne, an excellent exploration of Bill Finger’s involvement in Batman’s creation (often credited to Bob Kane solely for reasons discussed in the essay), why Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is a rather grotesque fascist take on the character (Duh- see my Picasa mock up of a poster for Dark Knight returns staring Clint Eastwood), and would Superman and Batman really be friends. Arkham Asylum is targeted as being the real reason there are so many cuckoo supervillans in Gotham. Robin’s place in the mythos is considered in depth (far more so than Robin- The Boy Target as Miller once postulated or even the current Miller rationalization in All Star Batman). Seemingly nothing is left unexamined, even how much it costs to be Batman to be Batman, or even how the orphan Bruce Wayne learned the facts of life.

Let’s back up there for a minute. Alex Bledsoe writes a short essay imagining how just such a thing might happen using the characters of Batman and Alfred from each of the main movie franchises. The idea is that since Bruce is entering puberty and the only male figure around is his faithful family retainer, well, who’s going to explain the facts of life to him. I was afraid that his essay, TO THE BATPOLE, was going to be tasteless but it turned out to be one of my favorite chapters. Episode one uses the Batman mythos from the 1960s television series (with Alfred played by the Shakespearean actor Alan Napier) and episode three details Bruce having “the talk” by imagining the characters as defined by Michael Caine and Christian Bale. All three are inspired but the gem of the bunch is his parody of the Bruce and Alfred from the first Tim Burton Batman movie. Personally I think the Batman\Bruce Wayne split personality has never been done better than Michael Keaton did it and Bledsoe gets the vocal cadences of the characters perfect. Let me share a bit with you.

“Michael Gough, in serving the needs of Michael Keaton in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) (we will completely ignore his stints with Val Kilmer and George Clooney under the aegis of Joel “Man-Goat” Schumacher), gave us an Alfred whose main task seems to be compensat-ing for his employer’s frequent absentmindedness. In fact, he is so in tune with Bruce that he can anticipate even where his master might set down a champagne glass during a crowded party This Bruce Wayne is so preoccupied with thoughts of his alter ego that when left entirely to his own devices, he simply sits around in the dark waiting to be summoned by the bat-signal. Only in costume does he become focused, certain, and relent-less; in his civvies (or skivvies), his mind is always a million miles away
It seems unlikely that this Bruce Wayne would consciously seek out Alfred at the onset of puberty Instead, the loyal manservant might enter the main sitting room, where young master Bruce would be sprawled on the couch, legs askew, watching TV, and absently exploring his new pri-orities. After all, this Wayne Manor was a dark, grim edifice filled with shadows into which a vengeful young man would later vanish, only to emerge, Mr. Hyde-like, as a walking shadow himself. Why wouldn’t the adolescent Bruce forget which room he was in, and presume privacy?
Suitably appalled, yet ever the loyal servant, Alfred would most cer-tainly avert his eyes and say, “Master Bruce.” Pause. “Master... Bruce.”

“Huh? Oh... hey, Alfred. What. . . .h....” Young Bruce might be a bit surprised himself to be so flagrantly improper.

“Hey, wow… where did that... wow.

“Master Bruce, I believe it’s time we had a talk.”

“A talk. You mean about . . . oh! Yeah, I guess . . . sure.” Bruce would sit up, hands clasped, elbows on his knees, ready to listen.

Another pause. “Your trousers, sir?”

“What? Oh. Sorry” Zipping sound.

Alfred would stand beside the couch, hands properly folded behind him. His eyes would focus on some point in the middle distance. “Wayne Manor is your home, sir. You may conduct yourself as you like. But I fear your pen-chant for distraction may one day do you a disservice.”

“My ... oh! Yes, you . . . yes. I see.”

Alfred would choose his next words carefully “Master Bruce, do you understand the concept of puberty?”

“Puberty, ah ... yeah, I mean . . in class we ... so . . . sure.

Alfred would at last meet Bruce’s gaze. “And do you realize you are experiencing it right now?”

Bruce might look down at his lap. “Huh. That explains it.”

“Indeed. Do you wish to discuss it?”

“Talk about it? I don’t ... could . . . talk about it?”

“Yes. It can be a confusing time, and with your father gone, I thought you might need a sympathetic ear.”

“An ear? Oh ... you mean to listen with. Well, I guess . . . sure, if... sure.

Along pause might fill the room.

“You have to begin, Master Bruce,” Alfred might point out.

“Oh! Okay, uhm... how long does it get? I mean last. How long does it last?”

“It is a permanent change, I’m afraid. Eventually you should be able to control it, but for awhile it may be quite a distraction.” Pause. “Master Bruce?”

“What? Oh—distraction. Yeah.”

“I’m certain we can find some medical texts to explain the exact bio-logical mechanisms involved. It brings with it a set of responsibilities of which you should be aware.

“That might be good.”

“And if you would like to discuss it further. . .

“No, that’s all right, Alfred, I ... thanks.”

“At any time, sir.”

This Bruce Wayne would compensate for his physical slightness by designing body armor and an array of gadgets that made him appear larger and more intimidating. Was this also a compensation for some-thing else? Only Vicki Vale and Selina Kyle know for sure. ...”

What is there left to say? This is a must-own for any Batman afficianado and an interesting read for anyone who loves comics. Buy this book!

Tomorrow we tackle the SmartPop book on Batman’s counterpart, Superman.

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