Saturday, September 26, 2015

When Comics Believed In Kids (part 2): Happy Batman Day!

Apparently, it's Batman Day.  I'm not sure what that means.  For me, everyday is Batman Day.

When I was a sophomore in high school, my speech and debate coach loaned me his copy of The Dark Knight Returns.  (His first and middle names are Alan Scott, the alias of the Golden Age Green Lantern, who has often been tied to Gotham City, so, kismet, perhaps.)  I read the story twice in a single sitting, and, really, nothing's been the same since.

Last week, I started this essay called "When Comics Believed in Kids," and, without remembering that today is Batman Day, I planned on concluding those thoughts with a heavy emphasis on the Caped Crusader.  See, Batman's story is one heavily mired in the mores of youth, from the young Bruce Wayne's witnessing his parents murder, to the legacy of Robins and Batgirls that have followed in his footsteps.  Arguably, the very core of Batman's character is the unabashed embrace of a child's potential.

Through this lens, you'd think Batman comics could be an endless source of encouragement for kids, yet today's Batman books seem less for a younger audience than ever.  Some would trace the "grown-up Batman" to The Dark Knight Returns, with its heady socio-political subplots and "grim-'n-gritty" violence.  I even read an article this week that blames the mature themes in ABC's new The Muppets on Frank Miller's Batman!  So, did TDKR hastily grow up comics, and all of pop culture?

My answer is simple: yes and no.  I don't think Miller meant to ostracize young readers. Actually, I think his intention was quite the opposite.  He brought comics back to their roots as a reality-mining medium, utilizing culture to tell a story about gods among men, as all good mythology does.  When comics did this at the cusp of World War II, the enemy was easy to identify; superheroes could punch any swastika-wearing villain in the face without criticism of being "too real for kids."  The image's violence was overshadowed by the nation's agreement that it was right.

In the mid-'80s, following the moral ambiguity of Vietnam and in the midst of the Cold War, what was right was less agreeable in America.  That didn't stop Miller's Batman from doing what he thought was right; the cultural context was just much more complicated.  (The swastikas were in different places, for example.)  This complexity has been repeatedly misconstrued as "for mature audiences only."  Again, I don't think that was Miller's intention; that's just how the audience, and Batman's subsequent creative teams, understood it.

Despite its "more realistic" approach, Miller's Batman work (including Year One) doesn't exclude the sidekick concept at all.  In fact, it ups the ante with a young girl as Robin!  In the end, Batman effectively saves Gotham from itself with an army of impressionable youngsters; Miller's Caped Crusader sees even the wayward Mutant Gang as an asset in the midst of chaos.  Kids can be heroes!

So, to answer the question, The Dark Knight Returns didn't grow up comics, but our interpretation of it did.  The mainstream Batman comic book effectively tested the waters with Jason Todd, dismissing Dick Grayson for a snot-nosed rebel, then asking the readership, via telephone poll, "Is this what you want?"  This pre-social media meta-conversation with fans sealed the deal: comics weren't for kids anymore.

Don't misunderstand: I know Miller's Jason Todd died, too. In that context, he was dubbed "a good soldier."  In A Death In the Family, Jason died bound and beaten, an apt allegory for how comics then perceived their young audience.  Think about that -- comics weren't a whimsical parent's purchase, like gum and candy in the drug store check-out line.  Comics had their own shops, and cover prices grew exponentially to sustain this new retail industry. Comics locked kids out, just as Jason was, when the Joker's bomb blew up.

Thankfully, comics-inspired media has kept kids' interest in superheroes, without dumbing down the material.  From Batman: The Animated Series to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, parents and children alike find cape-and-cowl adventures that can be enjoyed on multiple levels, many times over, like my disintegrating copy of The Dark Knight Returns.  It's the comics themselves that have kept kids at arm's length.  Many worthwhile attempts exist to recruit young readers, and today's Batman Day is surely among them, but few efforts are more powerful than simply handing a kid a comic book, even an allegedly mature audiences only comic book, like my mentor did for me in high school.  Just imagine, celebrating Batman Day by handing The Dark Knight Returns to a child today . . .

A child!

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