DC Comics has declared July 23rd Batman Day (I would have gone with “Bat Day”) and scheduled many events through the month in support of that. This is in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the character’s first appearance, which is undoubtedly a pretty big deal.
I’ve been pretty non-plussed by the plotlines in Batman after the New 52, but being very fair about it, I wasn’t that keen on the books after Grant Morrison left. It was hard to codify what I thought was missing. Initially, I simply ascribed it to Batman being presented of more of a ninja than a detective, of aligning more closely with the action movie aesthetic that the recent films have given us. That touched on the truth, but really didn’t strike the mark.
I didn’t give it much more thought until about a week ago.
i was thinking about why the current Joker, who cut of his own face and wears it as a mask, is not very interesting. He’s Hannibal Lecter, he’s John Wayne Gacy or Jreffrey Dahmer…he’s a character that is mired in the reality of ugly, demented, mentally ill crime. What he isn’t anymore is a Batman villain. He’s disturbing, sure, but the kind of disturbing that real, regular cops can bring in. There’s no reason to bring in Batman, to shine a @#$%ing searchlight into the sky and take the glass cover off the red phone to handle a guy who isn’t rational enough to avoid cutting off his own face.
But what DOES make a good Batman story? What’s the secret recipe?
I started thinking about it, and having lengthy discussions about it in terms of comparative story analysis and plot structure, and came up with the following triumverate:
1. You need a Crime. Not just a crime, a Crime. You need to hear the capital letters. It might be an absurd white collar antiquities theft, or a five way revenge scheme, or a plan to bankrupt the accounts of everyone whose SSN ends in the number 2. It doesn’t matter too much what the crime actually IS, it matters that it has depth and complexity beyond normal crime. It needs to have a dash of the extraordinary.
If we were to graph crimes one two sides of one line, where the left side is “possible” and the right side “impossible”…Bat-Crimes need to be just over the line, possibly still touching it. They have to be impossible, the need to be SuperCrime, while still having the look and feel of realism, to have the idea of possibility attached.
If Catwoman and her KittyCats are going to steal the Cat’s Eye Diamond from Gotham Museum, it cannot be a smash and grab. It has to be a locked room, at least as secure as where the Mona Lisa is stolen, with guards, and with everyone knowing in advance she plans to steal it. Then…she has to manage to actually DO it. The crime has to be impossible, but grounded in the real. It has to need Batman.
2. The Mystery needs to be FAIR. Sherlock Holmes works out his problems based upon logic. Good mystery novels are based on a deduction that is present in the foreshadowing that we, the viewer or reader, overlooked…because we are not the Master Detective. However, we need the Reveal at the end, and it has to feel fair.
However…this is Batman, not a police procedural. Not CSI, or Law and Order: Gotham. It cannot be a dry recitation of obscure science facts and lab results that you recite at the end in a litany of things the reader doesn’t grasp. Like Sherlock Holmes, where we see every minute of the adventure, we need to see the clues collected, watch Batman run around, fighting henchmen and avoiding traps, to get there in the nick of time, recover the goods, save the person…etcetera. Afterwards, in the Commissioner’s office or the Batcave, he will explain it to Gordon, or Robin, or both…and thusly enlighten us the reader. The logic is consistent to the story, and part of the adventure, not divorced from it.
3. The Villain needs a Theme. Batman is like a bar mitzvah reception of crime. There has to be a theme on the crook’s part, to match the theme of Batman’s approach. He has a personalized car, costume, plane, headquarters, and equipment. There’s a symbol with his logo on it. He’s about BRANDING.
And so, the villain. The Riddler HAS to send you the stupid riddle, it’s his schtick, even though it undoes him. Catwoman has to dress up her goons as cats, prefers cat crimes and so forth. Old school Joker had a virtual army of clowns that beat you up, and deathtraps based on jokes inside his circus themed “Ha Ha-cienda.” Even the really lame guys like Kite Man had a schtick. Seriously, there was a Kite Man.
Later villains, from the 90’s like Zsasz and Bane, bring less to the table. The former is a serial murderer…that’s it, and Bane is a luchador born in jail who injects steroids into his brain. No schtick. Nothing that you couldn’t have really competent actual police deal with.
So there it is: Slightly impossible crime, fair but very old school mystery, and themed villains. Not so hard, really. Usually two part stories.
The art is about that. We see the Joker and the Riddler, Catwoman and Mr. Freeze are suggested by their weapons of choice…by the themes they bring to the table. our hero isn’t too troubled, because really, the more I thought about it, the basic Batman villain is a “paint by numbers” exercise to defeat. Bruce must be a little bored of it already.
Really…when the Riddler gets out of prison, there’s like one tailor that can make his suit. Go around town with his measurements to various tailors, you’ll nail him. Or just Google his damn riddle. The Joker has to immediately hi a bank, and then Party City to deck out his goons his hideout. Mr. Freeze has to buy a ridiculous amount of out of season gear for his henchmen, and the power drain to keep his HQ that cold, as well as support his cryogenically frozen wife…not hard to find on the grid.
Because, in the real world, that’s how you would handle these guys. A Batman story suggests that they are extraordinary criminals, that need extraordinary methods. Batman, to a large extent, plays the game with them.
Next Issue: No. 800! Be There!