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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...

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Once again, a commentary on the 1966 BATMAN  show by Noah Berlatsky provides me with more grist for my mills, which, as the saying goes, grind exceeding slow. I'm not debating his take on the particular Bat-episode he cites, but I will respond to this passage in terms of the fannish history involved.

In part it seems like Batman comic book fans have been wary of the show precisely because it situates superhero comics not in the relatively sober tradition of gritty pulp noir, but in the (often comic) tradition of serial melodrama. Yet, as this episode is well aware, that melodramatic tradition is in some ways actually more high-brow, or more accepted as high-brow, than those supposedly more validating pulp sources. 

First, I have to take issue with the implied distinction between "gritty pulp noir" and "serial melodrama." Melodrama itself is a capacious category that takes in any work, in any medium, that makes an appeal to sensation rather than Aristotelian *dianoia.* Merriam-Webster's primary definition is relevant even though I don't agree with its comment re: "characterization":

a work (as a movie or play) characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization

One may think of "pulp noir" as connoting the arty detective stories of BLACK MASK, or the highly regarded films noirs of the 1940s and beyond. However, to the extent that they depend on extravagance and the emphasis on plot over character and/or theme, all of them are melodrama.  As far as the Golden Age Batman is concerned, though, his main influence from the pulp magazines stems from the even more outrageously melodramatic pulp-hero tradition.  It's common knowledge in fan-circles today that the very first Batman story in DETECTIVE #27 was a swipe from a SHADOW story.

I'm not sure that I would call even the more respectable forms of pulp melodrama entirely "sober," whether one is talking about the Continental Op or DOUBLE INDEMNITY, but the term can be fairly used in a comparative sense. The most famous pulp melodramas are "serious" rather than "comical;" ergo, they are more "sober" than a work than seeks to spoof those tropes, as the teleseries BATMAN does.

Admittedly, Berlatsky isn't talking about all melodramas, but the sort of "serial melodramas" that BATMAN frequently imitates, particularly in the Riddler episode cited. But if one is speaking of the sort of serials that commenced in the silent years of American filmmaking-- that is, films that purport to tell a story broken up into short chapters-- then it's questionable as to whether the majority of these were comic in nature.

I'll cover the matter of silent serials in a separate post, but for the time being, I'll put forth the generalization that most of them were not comic in tone. Comic send-ups of adventure-stories have a long history, though, and silent film had its share, notably Buster Keaton's SHERLOCK JR. I suggest that when modern fans think of silent melodrama films at all, they're seeing them through the lens of their spoofs. This is understandable but inaccurate; a little like assuming that medieval epics were all funny because Cervantes is better-remembered than the epics he was satirizing in DON QUIXOTE.

If Berlatsky is correct that at some point "highbrow" critics venerated any sort of melodramas, it would only be through this arguably distorting lens, as ironic or comic takes on material that was originally meant to be taken seriously, at least in terms of rousing strong emotional involvement.By this logic, William Dozier's BATMAN might find himself in the same category as Douglas Sirk's witty inversions of women's melodramas.

But what should this mean, if anything, to those readers who wanted emotional involvement from their BATMAN stories?

For the answer, Stay Tuned Till Tomorrow, Same Bat-essay, Same Comics-Blog.

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