Monday, April 10, 2017
MYTHCOMICS: [THE ORIGIN OF BATMAN], DETECTIVE COMICS #33 (1939)
I remarked in THE LONG AND SHORT OF MYTH PT. 1 that the shortest comics-story in which I've found mythic content was this 1962 BLONDIE comic-book story. For one reason or another, though, it occurred to me that there were a couple of much better examples of two-page wonders. And here's the first of them.
I noted in LONG AND SHORT that most features this short are more in the nature of "vignettes" than of developed stories, saying that "even when [such narratives] do possess super-functionality, it's used for very restricted purposes." However, whereas the Blondie two-pager is the essence of what I've called an "unpopular myth," this two-pager-- which leads into a Gardner Fox story but which has been sometimes been credited to Bill Finger-- has become a very popular myth in many iterations, in many media-- and this despite the vignette's probable indebtedness to Lee Falk's PHANTOM comic strip.
Clearly the Batman origin satisfies my demand that even in two pages the author must create enough elements of Aristotelian complication to make possible a mythic discourse. I'm not quite sure from the PHANTOM excerpt that it does so, since I haven't seen the sequence in context. The maybe-Finger narrative, however, presents the (originally juvenile) reader with a more dynamic opening that Falk's Phantom origin. Young Bruce Wayne actually witnesses the deaths of his parents, whereas the current Phantom only knows from hearsay how his ancestor suffered and thus bequeathed the role of the "Ghost Who Walks" to his descendants. Young Bruce's torment then becomes the fulcrum, the "middle" of the narrative, in which Bruce struggles to make sense of his parents' deaths by dedicating himself to crimefighting. The climax, in which a grown-up Wayne muses on the alleged "superstitious" nature of criminals, may be the primary element that the author derived from Falk, for the Phantom's undying nature is clearly an appeal to the superstitions of tribal peoples in the hero's jungle domain.
In theory, this vignette could have functioned as part of a superior myth-tale, much as Frank Miller's re-interpretation of the Bat-origin functioned within the greater scope of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS narrative. However, this was not the case with the greater story that is preceded by the origin-vignette. I've established that Fox wrote some strong mythopoeic Bat-tales during this period, one of which, "Peril in Paris," appeared one month after Batman's origin. But the lead story of DETECTIVE #33-- the hero's seventh appearance, titled "The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom"-- is not one of the character's more notable outings. To the best of my knowledge no one has ever bothered to revive the villains behind the deadly dirigible-- Doctor Carl Kruger and his "Scarlet Horde"-- and Kruger's main schtick was to imitate the conquering ways of Napoleon Bonaparte with 20th century technology.
Happily, the Batman origin stands on its own, even if it has been subjected to endless ideological readings like those of Christopher Nolan, more or less along the lines of "Batman is a fascist because he's a rich guy who wants to keep down disenfranchised poor people, who wouldn't be holding people up for their belongings in a non-capitalist world." To such ideologues, it would be irrelevant that few of Batman's early rogues were common crooks. Even before the introduction of the Joker and the Catwoman in 1940, and the many other villains to come, the first year of Batman's feature was devoted to other exotic figures like Kruger, with names like Doctor Death and the Monk. None of these figures make good stand-ins for the oppressed proletariat. One might argue that over the years Batman encountered far more ordinary thugs than he did super-crooks, but one would still have to demonstrate some sense that these malefactors are opposed to some absolute vision of a law informed by rich (implicitly white) privilege. In contrast, many Bat-adventures focus on the ways in which crime victimizes ordinary citizens-- which I suppose an ardent Marxist would choose to view as mere "protective cover" for the "real" meaning.
Perhaps the one element of the origin-vignette that has remained irreducible to simple politics is the conclusion, in which Batman is inspired by the ominous appearance of a bat. In later years some writers would try to impute greater complications to the Bat-origin, but the simplicity of the original story foils all of these overly labored efforts. The original writer, be it Fox or Finger, intuited that the bat's main importance was to reflect the tormented darkness in the young hero's soul, not where the bat came from or what might have brought it through that window at the most propitious moment.
ADDENDUM 1-30-2018: Within the last few months I've read the first PHANTOM stories, and find that the vignette dealing with the original Phantom's origin does not have the "elements of Aristotelian complication" that I found in the "Batman origin" vignette.