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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A WHIFF OF BAT-IRONY

"And you, you nasty old man!  Have a whiff of Bat-gas!"

Batman speaks these immortal lines in the two-part second-season episode "The Devil's Fingers/Dead Ringers" just before he gasses the evil "Harry," brother to the main villain Chandell (both roles played by Liberace).  Batman's uncharacteristically strong language must be put down to the fact that both Harry and Chandell have put the moves on Bruce Wayne's kinda-but-not-really relation Aunt Harriet:




Having recently meditated somewhat on the nature of Schopenhauer's two modes of the ludicrous in this essay, modes which I subsume as identical to Frye's "comedy" and "irony," I found myself thinking back to my essay ADVENTURE-COMEDY VS. COMEDY-ADVENTURE PART 1.  In that essay I contrasted the use of humor in two works, the 1966-68 BATMAN teleseries and the 1960s superhero comedy THE INFERIOR FIVE.  While I believe that I was basically right in stating that the humorous elements trump the adventure-elements in INFERIOR FIVE while the reverse is true in the BATMAN teleseries, I've come to the conclusion that I misidentified the nature of the dominant humorous elements in the latter work.

It's true that there are many setups in the teleseries that deal with the incognitio of comedy.  I showed this one in the earlier essay:



Here's one that's even more slapsticky in nature, from the 1966 movie:




But BATMAN's stock in trade wasn't built around this sort of baggy-pants comedy.  Thanks in large part to the influence of producer William Dozier, BATMAN was popular thanks to the highly ironic artistic mode called "camp," which defined the show both in its own time and from then on.

On imdb we read that "camp means and has been from the start an ironic attitude," and further, that 'camp takes "something" (normally a social norm, object, phrase, or style), does a very acute analysis of what the "something" is, then takes the "something" and presents it humorously.'  In BATMAN'S case, the 'something" was the superhero genre, but it wasn't being simply inverted, as one might see in spoofs like the Daffy Duck short STUPOR DUCK, but rather subverted.  This distinction aligns with Schopenhauer's insight:

Irony is objective, and so is aimed at another; but humour is subjective, and thus exists primarily for one's own self.

The Chandell episode referenced above is an above-average example of the function of irony in the teleseries.  The bare plot-- the celebrated but criminal pianist Chandell attempting to marry into the Wayne fortune-- borrows strongly from the tropes of melodrama, as does the complicated backstory in which the pianist is blackmailed into a life of crime by his crooked brother Harry.  Liberace plays Chandell with his expected persona of effette elegance, while he portrays Harry as a stereotypical movie tough-guy, even emulating the diction of Edward G. Robinson's gangster-persona in one scene.




Other aspects of Chandell's crookedness don't make a lot of sense-- if he's planning to marry into money, why does he employ a trio of thieves to go around ripping people off with, of all things, a sonic bagpipe that renders its victims unconscious?



But the logic of the plot doesn't really matter.  What matteres is the process by which the tropes of the adventure-oriented comic-book superhero have been turned to the purpose of irony-- all of which is to exalt, in Schopenhaurean terms, the "objective," the audience's knowledge of what is credible, as opposed to the "subjective," the audience's knowledge of what is desireable.  Whereas a comedic treatment of the same tropes would simply take pleasure in their lunacy, the ironic "camp" treatment underplays the absurdity.  By playing the adventure elements in a straightforward fashion, but injecting oddball phrases and comments like Batman's "nasty man" dialogue above, Dozier and his writers were constantly subverting the narrative.

At least, that was their intention.  But though I now consider that the BATMAN teleseries uses ironic devices far more often than comedic ones, I'd still maintain that the adventure-elements predominate, so that it becomes an "adventure-irony" rather than an "irony-adventure" (an example of which might be MARSHAL LAW, examined briefly here.)

It's often been observed that the teleseries-producers pursued a two-tier approach with BATMAN.  They knew that children and some adolescents would take the adventure-elements seriously, while the adults would be entertained by the ironic distancing conveyed by the dialogue and some of the more overtly absurd situations (e.g., Batgirl almost fails to rescue Batman and Robin from a death-trap because she's careful to obey local traffic laws).  Yet, because of the two-tiered approach, Dozier and Co. couldn't avoid validating-- rather than subverting-- the most representative element of the adventure-genre: the *agon*, the fight-scene in which good wins out over evil.

Even giant comedic sound-effects don't dispel the appeal of this basic formula, as I wrote at the end of the ADVENTURE-COMEDY essay:

Because the heroes seem genuinely threatened by bizarre villains and death-traps, both plot and character validate the power of the adventure-mythos even while managing to keep the comic elements in play. This is why, even for later generations of kids not yet jaded enough to laugh at Batman, the series can still excite and fascinate them, precisely because even with the giant OOFS and WHAPS, the invigorating thrill of the agon still predominates.


It would be possible, as I've argued in STATURE REQUIREMENTS, that one might have found a way to have the heroes win their battles and still convey an undiluted ironic vision, as one arguably finds in the Mills/O'Neill comic MARSHAL LAW.  But Dozier-- whose most well-known work prior to BATMAN was the kid-TV series ROD BROWN OF THE ROCKET RANGERS (starring Cliff "Shame" Robertson)-- was probably not interested in such a vision.  And despite a mention in IMDB that he "hated comic books," I find it interesting that following the success of BATMAN, he chose to do, not another irony-laced adventure, but THE GREEN HORNET, in which every effort was made to play another "dynamic duo" as straight as possible.

Perhaps there was a part of Dozier that responded to the thrill of invigoration, the reflection of the sort of subjectivized victories which never come to mere mortals in the "real world..."

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