Thursday, July 31, 2008

Cave-ing in

A friend just passed along "When Batman Was Gay," a post/essay about my favorite character's oft-discussed sexuality on The Bilerico Project: Daily Experiments in LGBTQ. Not a whole lot of new stuff there, if you've spent the last few decades reading and thinking about this issue, but author Tyrion Lannister does a fine job bringing together the familiar touchstones (Wertham, the changing role of Alfred, introduction of Batwoman and Batgirl, etc.), and the illustrations are those "Subtext? What subtext?" innuendo-loaded images we all know and love.

When I read that Lannister first climbed on board the batmobile in the Dark Knight Returns era, I suddenly felt old, or saw him as a youngun, or something. But he makes a provocative point: that, while Boomers take the campy Batman of the Silver Age comics and the '66 tv show for granted, readers his age have always known a darker, butcher Knight. I was also intrigued by his assertion that Silver Age Batman's partisans miss the central reason why Batman is a compelling and fascinating figure in the first place. Batman's most important relationships have always been with criminals. What drives him to pursue them? How does he distinguish himself from his queries? How is vigilantism anything but criminal? Indeed, Batman's most provocative implications have centered around the distinction between law and justice - Batman's dedication to the latter, often at the expense of the former.

Indeed, 98% of my bat-fantasies are hero/villain, not hero/sidekick or hero/fellow hero. (Probably because there's just not much narrative tension in two guys on the same side of a conflict going at it.) Still, for me, the most eye-opening part of the Bilerico piece was not Lannister's own remarks but this comment from a reader named Brian:

As a queer kid growing up in the sixties and seventies, before I even knew what queer meant, Batman represented the ultimate in cool. He drove a cool car, wore a cool costume and lived in a cool house with a secret cave underneath it. And my secret was safe as long as his was. It didn't matter if he was gay or not. What mattered was how well he kept his secret identity. Batman helped keep millions of us in the closet (i.e. "Batcave") long after we should have taken off our masks.

Fascinating! And it's true, in my case, that the core of the Batman myth is the high premium it places on disguise, on secrecy, on masking. I'm not sure I would blame the comic for keeping me in the closet/cave, though; coming out was my own responsibility. But damn, Batman made having a double life sexy, and the requisite costuming even sexier.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Nope, I haven't seen the movie yet ...

... and probably won't have time to for at least a week or two, but in the meantime, ya gotta check out Dial B for Blog's "16 Days of the Batman." (The first installment is here.) This series, like the blog itself, is a pop culture treasure trove, full of artifacts both real and fabricated. (One fun fact about the '66 series I did not know: The switch in the Shakespeare bust that Bruce flips to open the secret entrance to the batcave actually turned on a light backstage, signalling the stage hands to open the doors by hand.)

PS. The image above would make a lot more sense in context, but I'm including it here anyway because the artwork in those trading cards is so damn hot.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Comics on the radio

Time for one of my signature posts on a subject about which I have incredibly incomplete knowledge. (I realize now that if I only wrote about things I know well, I would post here even less than I already do. Guess it's better to think of these entries as reminders to myself to follow through on things sometime in the future.)

I caught only random tidbits of this episode of the public radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge last week devoted to "Heroes, Anti-Heroes, and Regular Folks." I have a sneaking suspicion it's a rebroadcast, because I could swear I'd already heard the interview with Austin Grossman, author of the novel Soon I Will Be Invincible, told from the POV of an archetypal comic book villain. I've been wanting to read the book since I first heard about it, probably on some other NPR-ish program in the last year or so. And yet I have not, which further establishes my lack of knowledge!

Other interview subjects during the hour are Douglas Wolk, whose book Reading Comics sounds great, and artists/writers Ulli Lust, Roberta Gregory, and Terry Moore. I'd recommend the whole thing, except of course I haven't actually heard all of it myself. I do know I particularly enjoyed Wolk's remarks on the operatic/mythological dimensions of superhero comics, which helped me realize why, even though I am in my late 40s and therefore a grownup who should prefer grownup things like jazz, classical music, and "graphic novels" about the minutiae of everyday people's lives, I am still way more turned on by books about men in tights than about Average Joes. (Can I just say, for the record, that I have never in my life read a Harvey Pekar story I enjoyed as much, or learned as much from, as The Killing Joke, The Long Halloween, or some of the Batman: Black and White stories?)

Value added: In looking up the link to Wolk's excellent blog, I came across a recent entry on it that directed me to his Salon essay comparing the Batman of the Nolan films (and accompanying anime DVD) to the character in the comic books. Once again, he does a great job of explaining what's missing from the movie incarnation--the very thing (beyond the erotic appeal of a hunky man in a mask and tights) that drew me to the character when I was an intellectual, not-at-all athletic or gadget-crazed teenager in the 70s. He was a detective, dammit!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

While I was out ... summer reading

A while back I picked up used copies of the trade paperback versions of a couple of Bat stories I knew from way back, though when they first appeared in comic book form I'd only read portions of them. I freely admit my initial interest in both was purely prurient, but as is so often the case, when I actually paid attention to the storylines I was intrigued.

Or, in its more recent but equally studly edition:

Batman: Tales of the Demon collects Dennis O'Neil's first 11 stories about R'as al Ghul. RAG is a character that I've generally found more interesting in the classic animated series and the 2005 movie than in the comics, but come on, this is the storyline that includes the images that made me gay and the single hottest comic book cover of my adolescence.

O'Neil, writing in a 1991 afterword, apologizes for the whiz-bang nature of the dialogue and faux-Marvel-isms of the narration, and seems very upset about a certain plot inconsistency, but that's hardly my concern. These stories come from the heyday of late 70s/early 80s bat-beefcake, so the musculature is always gloriously pronounced and our hero is constantly getting bonked on the head so that he can lie prone on the floor for several panels an issue. Hooray! As a side bonus, we get to see the origins of Bats' "Matches Malone" alter ego, and O'Neil rightly notes that these stories marked an important part of the character's evolution out of 60s camp and into 90s gloom. But really now: shirts come off (a lot), cowls get lifted, and it's all good, people. It's allllll goooooood.

Here's a lengthy review by "the Masked Bookwyrm," someone who clearly knows and thinks (and cares) a lot more about this kind of thing than I do.

Before we leave RAG for another late-era supervillain, let's savor the animated incarnation I was just talking about, shall we? (There's a good chance I've already posted this clip, because I've been saving it for this purpose for at least two years, but the initial tunic-removal scene bears repeating.)

Batman: The Cult. I know, I know, we're really not supposed to like this thing, because it's ultracynical and hyperviolent and cryptofascist, and all of that is true, but come on, how could I pass up a cover image like this?

To be honest, I lost interest after the second of four parts when this initially came out, but boy, that first issue was hot: Batman bound, broken, on his damn knees before his captor... Need I go on? Years later, I read an interview with Frank Miller about the thing; Miller hated it for all the reasons cited above plus the fact that the premise and even the panel structure owed so much to Dark Knight Returns, but as a BDSM stroke book, issue one is nearly unparalleled in mainstream comics.

I was amused to read writer Jim Starlin's explanation that ubervillain Deacon Blackfire was loosely inspired by the hypocritical right-wing demagogues of the Culture Wars of the late 80s (including the now freshly deceased Jesse Helms), because that certainly doesn't come through in the text. But no matter: Like the RAG story cycle, this makes an interesting pop culture lens on the issues of its time, both inside and outside the comics universe.

Once again, here's the Bookwyrm's take.

(PS. Between my last post here and this one, I caught a good-sized chunk of Skidoo on late-night TV. I'd heard for years about this legendary Hollywood-hippie-era bad-acid-trip of a movie, but had no idea its eclectic cast reunited Frank Gorshin, Cesar Romero, and Burgess Meredith--all directed by Mr. Freeze himself, Otto Preminger!)

Friday, July 11, 2008

While I was out ... Yaoi edition

Boy, time DOES fly between these posts, doesn't it?

I'll leave most of what I've been up to to your imagination, which may or may not be more exciting than the reality. But here are a few things I've collected since last we spoke:

•Couple of Bat/Joker slash images, courtesy of my British counterpart (and former sidekick):

•Couple more B/J (love that acronym!) Yaoi images, I forget the source (I'm betting it was the Anonymous Donor):

I'm not usually a big fan of the genre--I think it's a generational thing, akin to the way I just don't get manga or anime, or even karaoke--and I don't spend a lot of time fantasizing about Bat on Joker action, but these are pretty damned hot.

More (non-yaoi) updates to come, soon.

(PS. What was on while I was writing this? Why, a 1990 interview with Bob Kane on Fresh Air, conveniently enough.)