Wednesday, July 02, 2003

My forays into comics stores have really dropped off lately, but I was in one the other day and picked up issue #168 of Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, written by Bill Willingham. (I'd never heard of him till then, but I gather he's been around a long time and his "Fables" series for Vertigo are highly regarded. You can learn more at his own website.) In its early days (which have been anthologized in various trade paperbacks), LOTDK was excellent -- well-written, thoughtful superhero stories a grownup didn't have to feel embarrassed about reading. That's not the case so much anymore, but I still browse through the current issues when I come across them in my unending search for random images of bondage, sadism, unmasking, and semi-nudity (like the spread in #166, for instance, featuring Batman removing his badly torn cape and tunic to expose his magnificently muscled and hairy upper body--in broad daylight, no less, as Gordon stands next to him and the Batmobile).

It was the cover of #168 that first caught my eye: an ultra-dark, shadowy image of Batman sans cape and belt, with the body of a defeated thug suspended on a hook behind him. The title is "Urban Legend," about which I'll have more to say in a couple of paragraphs. The first page has our beloved costumed crusader falling to the ground from a high building, and he spends the rest of the story suffering from bruises, broken bones, and a bad case of amnesia. The people he encounters all address him as "Batman," which confuses him at first; it's only when he sees his masked face reflected in a fountain that he realizes who he is, and only when he sees a newspaper headline that he realizes what he must do next.

Okay, if you have any interest at all in reading this story, which is very well done AND has a few images I found pretty hot, STOP RIGHT HERE. Go to your local independent comics store and buy the issue. SKIP THE REST OF THIS BLOG ENTRY. SEE YA NEXT TIME.

That probably got rid of at most one person, but the stuff I want to talk about regarding the story hinges on revealing its surprise ending. I really wish I hadn't thumbed through the entire issue in the store and learned the last-minute twist before buying the damn thing, but so be it. I couldn't help myself when I saw the bad guys slice through the bat-logo chest insignia (something they do all the time these days, much to my delight, probably since it's another sign of Batman's defeat and humiliation) and then lift his mask, to reveal … a pot-bellied, balding middle-aged guy. (Which, by coincidence, turns out to be exactly the kind of man I'm attracted to in reality.) The "real" Batman swoops down, rounds up the gang members, and explains to the other guy in the batsuit that the impostor is actually a stock analyst who had put on a rented outfit for a bit of erotic role-play with his wife, then fell off the balcony of their apartment. "Do me a favor," Batman says at the end. "The next time you want to spice up your married life, dress like Superman."

It took me at least 2 days to "get" the title and realize that the "Urban Legend" in question was not just the story of Batman (unlike the TV version, for the last decade or so the comic-book vigilante has become such a creature of the night that many people don't even believe he exists) but an allusion to the widely circulated real-world story, probably apocryphal, about a guy who puts on a batsuit to make love to his wife, only to fall prey to some form of comical accident which embarrasses the hell out of him and amuses the boys down at the precinct.

I'm fascinated by the notion that the folks down at DC, or at least Mr. Willingham, would work a slightly raunchy reference to costume fetishism into the official canon: Wow, they know we're out there! (Reminds me of how exciting it used to be 20 or 30 years ago to find a gay character in a book or movie, even if the portrayal was totally off base.) Granted, we're basically a joke to them, but it's still a sign that Batman has come a long way since the days of Ace the Bat-Hound.

The story also does a nice job of satirizing some central tenets of the bat-saga while simultaneously giving readers a sense of what it might feel like if their innermost fantasies followed them into reality--a realization that nags at me every time I find myself behaving like a complete wimp in daily life. Despite some fairly mediocre reviews from folks who follow comics, I was perfectly happy with "Urban Legend" -- even if I found something a little too close to home in its punchline.

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