Comics Ate My Brain

February 18, 2006

The Bat-Brand

Filed under: batman — Tom Bondurant @ 9:45 pm
Jim Roeg’s blog has led me to Plok’s A Trout In The Milk. If you like Jim, you’ll like Plok. Of special note are his seven-part musings on Fantastic Four and the creation of Marvel continuity (handily accessed from his front page). One of those essays, “Crisis on Infinite Roys,” contains this digression:

[A poster on the John Byrne forum] wonders how Batman’s origin can possibly make sense as it stands in the fully-unified and rationalized DCU, and he’s got a point. If such a rationalized universe had existed at that time, then Bruce Wayne might very well already have known of Superman’s existence, and so his decision to put on a cape and tights could not have been…um, unforced, shall we say? In fact as this guy over at JBF pointed out, if you had the example of Superman before you, you would probably not decide to dress like a bat in order to frighten criminals, so much as you might decide to frighten them by dressing to resemble that scary indestructible guy a couple counties over who keeps sending crooks to the chair. And then, you know, throw in some spooky bat-imagery too, just for pizzazz.

Now, I think Plok and this unnamed JBF poster are onto something. Of course Bruce dresses like Superman, because of course he knows about Superman. (Remember Alfred’s line in “Year One” about “that fellow in Metropolis?”) It still doesn’t take anything away from Bruce’s motivations. In fact, it arguably makes them more subversive.

As you know, I think one of the great unexplored notions of the Batman milieu is the “Bat-Brand.” This is my bit of fanwankery which explains why someone would take the time to make every bit of (unique, expensive) equipment the public sees, from boomerangs to jet aircraft, fit the same bat-winged theme. It’s all propaganda, like Zorro slashing his initial, with the biggest instance being the Bat-Signal. That tells the crooks they can’t even count on the cops’ good graces anymore, because they’re on the Batman’s side too.

But why a superhero suit? Specifically, why one which so clearly follows the Superman cape/tights/boots/briefs model? After all, in the recent movies the costume has been turned into black-on-black body armor, with no gray portions and certainly no undies on the outside. However, in those movies Batman was not born into a superheroic environment, and I think therein lies the difference.

Plok states, quite reasonably, that Batman dresses like a superhero “just because,” and the style of costume has more to do with selling comics to the kids of the ’40s than it does with rationality or “realism.” Again, to me the “in-continuity” explanation also goes back to marketing, and the subliminal associations a superstitious and cowardly lot would make. Batman’s schtick involves not staying still long enough to give people a good look at the costume, but if it ever got to that point, the costume itself would provide a final distraction.

Consider: if “I shall become a bat” means trying to convince criminals he’s some kind of bat-human hybrid, then preserving that illusion becomes more important, and any holes in that illusion become more significant. This happens in the first Burton movie, when crooks observe the dazed Batman’s body armor and note “he’s human after all.” Likewise, the notion that Batman depends on body armor carries with it the converse that Batman is weaker without the armor.

However, it seems to me that when a crook gets too close to a Batman who looks, even superficially, like Superman — with a chest symbol, briefs on the outside, and an obvious set of spandex tights — it makes him wonder if Batman is similarly superhuman, and that momentary pause gives Bats the edge. It’s a choice between physical advantage and psychological advantage, with the awareness that a physical advantage might be taken away more easily. Indeed, the realization that Batman is a normal guy, who’s still got the upper hand despite the lack of body armor, may be just as unsettling.

Perhaps more importantly, though, reminding folks of Superman has a wider societal effect. Superman clearly becomes omnipresent in Metropolis very soon after his debut, and Bruce no doubt seeks the same kind of ubiquity for his alter ego. Casting himself as the “Gotham Superman” doesn’t just imply that he has Superman’s powers, it also implies that he has Superman’s reach. In fact, Batman has to go further, first uprooting the corrupt authorities and then co-opting the legitimate ones. Batman becomes omnipresent in Gotham by virtue of these changes, and stays that way through the brand-identification tactics of the Bat-Signal and the various bat-themed doodads.

Even the original Robin outfit may play on some collective societal memories. In hindsight it seems to incorporate elements of Dr. Mid-Nite’s costume and Green Lantern’s red/green/yellow color scheme, and therefore could remind Gothamites of better days with the JSA. Moreover, Robin and Batgirl can be seen as Batman’s “franchisees,” officially-sanctioned emissaries of the head office further extending the head office’s reach.

Okay, those last bits might be stretching it, but you see where I’m going. Batman can’t be Superman, giving personal attention to each and every transgression, but he can be as big as Superman through active brand marketing and other forms of propaganda. “No Man’s Land” touched on this a little, with Batgirl offering an initial Bat-presence and spraypainting bat-symbols all over town, but it wouldn’t hurt DC to acknowledge it from time to time. It fits perfectly with the rest of Bruce’s campaign, and even argues for the return of the yellow oval….

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