Friday, July 25, 2014

Post Batman Day Manifesto

Now, that Batman Day is over, and we're all cleaning up from opening our Batman Day presents and hoarse from singing Batman Carols, I feel I can talk about Batman Day.  Particularly now that I've seen what was and was not covered about it online.

The blogosphere (such as it is nowadays) mostly ignored it because, as has been observed, in the blogosphere every day is Batman Day. 

January = Meth Lab Month
February = :Flout the FAA Month
March = Play Hard to Get Month
April = Youth Endangerment Month
May = Throwing Dangerous Objects Month
June = Paparazzi Month
July = Young Swingers  Month
August = Flout the DMV Month
September = Modesty Month
October = Always Dress for a Date Month
November = Fat People are Fed Up Month
December = Hanging Out With Successful Older Men Month

In the mainstream media, the gist of Batman Day articles was mostly, 'Hey, Batman's still around and currently cool!".  In the geek media, the gist was mostly, "Hey, look how the normals are observing Batman Day and maybe we can get some swag out of it!"

But I don't think I heard anyone express the sentiment I wanted to hear, mostly because Batman is SO much a part of our current culture and has been for so long.  Specifically...

Batman is most important fictional character created in the 20th century.

I defy you to name a more important one. All your private detectives and starship captains and temporary television characters and cartoon figures--is any one of them better known, better respected, better entrenched culturally across all media? No.

I could sit here and MAKE my case. But, frankly, I think popular culture and the media have made it for me over the last 75 years.  Who are you going to challenge it with?

Superman? I don't think so. Certainly he is popular and well known and as the first (well known) superhero,  he is template for all that follows.  But while Superman is someone we can idolize he is not someone we can truly relate to.  In fact, I have read estimates that Batman is twice as popular as Superman, and he certainly is more consistently so.  There's a reason that sales of Batman comics are the yardstick by which other comic sales are measured.  Movies, comics, television--Batman leads Superman, hands down, in all of them.

Mickey Mouse?  Mickey Mouse hasn't been a 'character' for decades.  With the exception of some one-offs over the last 20 years, almost all Mickey Mouse cartoons were released between 1928 and 1953.  "The Mouse" is now merely an icon, more a corporate logo than anything.  Well known, yes, but he has zero literary impact.  Ask anyone what "Mickey Mouse" stands for and you won't get any answer other than "Disney" or "profit".

I don't think there ARE even any other reasonable candidates to oppose Batman at the most important fictional character created in the 20th century, and I defy anyone to assert otherwise.







25 comments:

Redforce said...

The only contender that I can think of is Dracula, and he was created in the 19th Century. I think Bats beats Drac in literary might anyway.

Given the circumstances and time in which Batman was created, pre-war America, contrasted with today's media-driven, Internet-social-media-connected, everyone's-an-artist-Youtube-posting-fame, I doubt any character in THIS century will challenge Batman.

Scipio said...

That's actually something I thought about while writing this, Redforce. Given the nature of popular culture and media, as you described, attaining the degree of influence of a Batman may simply no longer be possible for a new character.

thegameiam said...

Not Vibe?

More seriously, how about Gandalf? I think he probably loses to Batman (everyone loses to Batman), but would he be a contender?

John said...

It's a sad, sad state of affairs when we only endanger the youth for one month out of the year...

As for characters, the Scarlet Pimpernel strikes me as the most important character that nobody cares about. Without the hero that retreats into his comical secret identity and forms a family around him to do good, you're missing not just one of the two big templates for superheroes (and Zorro came later), but a lot of sitcoms and even detective/cop dramas.

Part of the problem for later characters might be that Hollywood is extremely fickle, whereas comic book publishers are tight-fisted with trademarks. I Love Lucy and Three's Company are implausibly influential and still being produced today, after all, just rebooted and under different names.

Star Wars, as an overall franchise, might come close. It's the summer blockbuster against which everything else is compared. Adults spend endless hours trying to figure out when Lucas sold out, not realizing that even the first movie was extremely "toyetic" and very much for kids and imagining subtlety where none exists (compare with Batman: Year One, a narrative form of the same argument). And it's successful despite offending every union in the industry, with every science-fiction franchise since trying to capture some of that (cash) magic.

Granted, Star Wars isn't a character.

Oh, and there's also maybe Captain Kirk. People may make fun of the series for being campy and ham-fisted, but people remember their Ee'dplebnistas. If the reboot dipped back into social satire instead of generic action and "hey, remember this?" references, I think they'd get a lot more mileage out of the trademark.

Bryan L said...

I'd have to vote against Captain Kirk, simply because he and his crew fell out of the public consciousness in the 90s or so, and hasn't really worked back in. I remember talking to a group of high school kids back then and getting 18 blank stares when I mentioned Star Trek. One finally timidly noted that she thought maybe her dad used to watch that show. The Trek universe got progressively more insular and stagnant (kind of like comics). Abrams' reboot truly rescued it from being utterly forgotten.

Possible candidates, which I'm sure Scipio considered and rejected:

Sherlock Holmes, 1902. This would be the only serious contender, I think. Sherlock has never really faded from mind, and periodically resurges in popularity (like now).

Tarzan, 1914. I fear the Lord of the Jungle is fading now, much as the jungles are. It's too hard to transplant him into the modern day.

James Bond, 1953. Much like Tarzan, the world in which Bond flourished is disappearing, and Bond with it, I think.

Spider-man, 1962. Spider-man is currently well-known, but he's very strongly linked to his comic-book origins, more so that Batman ever was. (I think the same is true of Superman.) He's always going to be sort of a "kiddie" character.

Harry Potter, 1998. Another strong contender in terms of current popularity and recognition, but I don't see Harry having the sheer longevity that Batman has, and likely will, enjoy. Eventually Harry will end up in the same limbo as The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.

Holmes, I think, would be the only possibility, and I don't think Holmes enjoys the levels of recognition and popularity Batman does.

Anonymous said...

Batman may have stolen his methods from Zorro and the Spirit, but at his core he is something they are not. Batman is Odysseus: the clever man skilled at all things, who can challenge man, monster, and god.

I this up not to argue that Batman isn't original, but rather to say that he speaks to something archetypal in ways that his more immediate forerunners (Zorro / Spirit) did not.

Dalle Robberts said...

Sherlock Holmes was actually created in 1887.

A 20th-Century creation with a lot of influence, that today almost no one outside of fandom remembers, is Doc Savage. He was a real archetype; facets of his story have inspired creations ranging from Superman and Batman to the Fantastic Four and Star Trek.

John said...

Bryan, fair point on Kirk. I was thinking at least partly in terms of influence, in that everybody recognizes the earnestness (I might argue pioneered by Aquaman) of someone from outside the United States lecturing screw-ups on American values. But it's true, that earnestness is considered an embarrassment, today, by a lot of people.

Also, Bond may yet have some juice. The Pierce Brosnan movies almost nuked it by trying to update the franchise with a supporting cast, but I think that the fighting of flamboyant crimes by private actors seemed workable.

It occurs to me that another benefit (in this context) of being a comic book character is the regularity of output. Harry Potter is doomed, because nobody wants to keep writing and marketing book after enormous book, every few years. It's over. But churning out twenty pages of passable story every month...

Murray said...

Well, I do not support your interpretation of Superman being second-banana. Not even a little bit. It's a ridiculous assertion. Of course we can relate to him. Superman has had tonnes more non-comic success and exposure than Bats

I find myself overwhelmed trying to pick and choose from all the examples of Superman's impact in the last 75 years. Rather than make this a rambling pseudo thesis, I'll relate one of my favourite personal anecdotes.

About ten years ago, I was at the zoo. I was wearing a "Superman" logo shirt. Nothing funky. The traditional primary colours.

We took a lunch break in the central green space. A young family sat on the grass nearby, doing likewise. Their little girl, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 3 years old, toddled about. Then she caught sight of me. She came closer, fascinated. The adults all sort of held our breath, waiting to see what the little one was up to, not wanting to spook her. She came right up to me, not quite my height, even with me sitting down. She never even looked me in the eye. Just stared at my shirt

A little pudgy finger poked out and touched the "S" shield. "Soopman", she declared.

Then she realized that mommy was way back there and scampered away to a chorus of happy laughter and smiles.

Andthat's the impact Superman has on the world.

yrzhe said...

You may be right, Scipio.

A few other names I'd throw in as contenders that haven't been raised yet: Conan, Godzilla, Darth Vader, and Mario.

Bryan L said...

You're right, Dalle. My memory is failing me in my advancing years. So I have to withdraw Holmes from consideration.

John, you make an excellent point about serialization. It occurs to me that a lot of the names on my list were published serially, with no real finale (Holmes, Tarzan, Bond). The same applies to Conan and Doc Savage. They were regularly reinforced. I also thought about Trek's decline, and I wondered what would have happened if Roddenberry had simply recast and gone on to tell more stories with the same characters, much like Bond. Would Trek have become more of a cultural icon?

Murray, I was thinking more about Superman too, and like you, I'm not sure he can be discounted. People may prefer Batman, but I think Superman is still his equal in sheer name recognition.

Scipio said...

I'm not trying to deny the relevance of Superman, Murray; but you'll have to do better "because a three year old told me so". Particularly when sales of "Batman" are about three times as high as sales of "Superman". Or when the cultural impact of the Batman television series, even nearly fifty years after the barely three years it was on, clearly eclipses the combine impact of the George Reeves series, Lois & Clark, and Smallville combined. Or when "National Comics" renamed itself "DC" after the name of Batman's flagship title. Or when Batman is being brought in to bolster Superman's movies and not vice versa.

It's possible that Batman has simply been on the upswing for the last, oh, 40 years. it's possible that Batman is an idea is that more adaptable and flexible than Superman is. But it's not possible that the advantage than Superman had over Batman is, say, 1941 is the last word on the subject.

Murray said...

Well, to my mind, that very perceptive three year old demonstrates that Batman has not "clearly eclipsed" Superman's cultural impact.

However, let's just talk about Batman's "adaptability". At the risk of sounding like Mr. E. Nigma, "When is Batman not Batman?" Right now, you're obviously trumpeting the modern sales figures surrounding Batman as a tall drink of dark misery. Can you really stand there and claim that the brooding, humourless Dark Knight is one and the same with Adam West's Caped Crusader? Or the chap in a rainbow costume who defended Gotham from aliens that looked like Spongebob?

I'm pretty sure some of these other contenders for Fictional Champ of the Century would have a better chance if their writers hadn't made the egregious error of a keeping to a consistent character concept.

I'd sure like to test the "enduring" popularity of Batman. I'd love to see the first screening of the next Batman movie. Fans lining up over night to see the film, all dressed like Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. A film that has kept its details top secret, despite the best efforts of the internet to ferret out advance news. I'd love to see their faces as Batman, a deputized lawman fully respected by the police and loved by populace, joins forces with Robin, Batgirl, Batwoman, and Ace the Bat Hound. Together, they try to corral the antics of Bat-Mite before someone gets hurt.

I'm sure you're right. The reactions the next day will all be favourable across the board. Oh, there will be a few whiners, but the overall acclaim will be joyous. As long as it has the bat symbol on it, it's valid. Nobody will say "That's not Batman!"

Scipio said...

Can you really stand there and claim that the brooding, humourless Dark Knight is one and the same with Adam West's Caped Crusader? Or the chap in a rainbow costume who defended Gotham from aliens that looked like Spongebob? "

Let's see. Parents murdered; cave; butler; Gotham City; bat costume and gadgets, doesn't use guns.

Yes. Yes, I can.

Anonymous said...

I've heard that "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" is the show you only thought you were watching when you were a kid watching Adam West. I know i sure didn't perceive the campiness; to me it was just Batman fighting villains with bizarre schemes.

"Batman: The Brave and the Bold" is the missing link between Adam West and BTAS, if you would like there to be one.

Dalle Robberts said...

I found that B:TB&TB got campier as the series progressed, much like the Adam West show did. One of the final episodes featured a pie-fight between the JLA and JSA. Of course, I'd rather see that than the Joker having his face carved off or Batman & Catwoman doing the horizontal mambo on a rooftop...

Andrew said...

Well observed as always. I racked my brain on this one and can't come up with anyone that fits. My first thought, like that of other Absorbacommandos, was Sherlock Holmes, but he's a product of the nineteenth century and is thus disqualified.

The closest I can come as a competitor - and I freely admit he's not in Batman's league, but the best that I can do - is Sam Spade. An iconic character who appeared in movies, TV, and radio? Check. A character that is still being rediscovered and revived, like in Joe Gores' SPADE AND ARCHER a few years back? Check. A prototype for all sorts of other models to follow - your Marlowes, Archers, Spensers, and more? Check. He's not in Batman or Superman's territory, but I'd put him in the top ten of 20th Century Icons, anyway.

SallyP said...

Dagnabit, as much as I want Green Lanterns(AND their behinds) to be an iconic cultural touchstone, I must bow to your superior logic on this one.

Damn.

Redforce said...

SallyP, for that to happen, everybody else BUT Hal would have to hit their heads...

SallyP said...

Haw!

Anonymous said...

I think this is too recent to decide. We're in a reasonably sound position - *maybe* - to comment on the most fifteenth century character. I'm less sure about a *twentieth* century character. Only a tad over a decade has passed, and Batman might prove to be a flash in the pan.

That said, I think Scipio has suggested the best candidate, under these circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Also (yes, is the same "anonymous" person): Sorry for dropping a word.

I'm actually more concerned about the fact that Scipio has gone silent again for several days.

No matter how excellent the Batman day posting is, I do hope that Scipio will be sharing his wisdom with us once again... soon.

Dalle Robberts said...

Don't worry. Scipio's occasional silent periods are due to his side career as an international jewel thief. He'll be back shortly.

Jeff R. said...

I'm going to add Reginald Jeeves to the list of potential contenders here, a character so iconic that Batman had to co-opt him.

But I think that, all told, Charlie Brown beats out both him and Batman. (And C'Thulhu, who has to be near the top of any list of 20th century iconic creations.)

Anonymous said...

A rebuttal to that "Soopman" story. I know a kid growing up in a Ukrainian-American household, where they celebrate holidays the traditional ways. One of those traditions is Christmas midnight mass, and in the course of the Ukrainian Orthodox proceedings, you've got a traditional procession: Saint Nicholas of Myra in his bishop's garments; a demon he has bound (something like the Krampus?) with horns and red glowing eyes; priests, bells, incense, and so on. One time, when watching this procession at the age of three, the aforementioned kid turned to his uncle and said: "Batman has pretty eyes".