(For the Business Standard, July 22, 2008. I’m slightly exasperated with this column; it was an attempt to pack a lot of stuff into the 800-word space, and it reads like a floppy introduction to a longer but unwritten piece. For a much more detailed and acute take on The Joker, read Joseph Kugelmass’ essay in The Valve.)
See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum and one night… one night they decide they’re going to escape! So like they get up on to the roof, and there, just across the narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in moonlight… stretching away to freedom.’
‘Now the first guy he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daren’t make the leap. Y’see he’s afraid of falling… So then the first guy has an idea. He says “Hey! I have my flash light with me. I will shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk across the beam and join me.” But the second guy just shakes his head. He says… he says, “What do you think I am, crazy? You would turn it off when I was half way across.””
—The Joker, telling Batman a story in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.
At the Osian’s film festival last week, I was riveted by scripwriter (now director) Abbas Tyrewala’s view of the difference between a screenplay and a “literary” work.
Tyrewala, who’s written the screenplay for Hindi films as disparate as Main Hu Na and Maqbool, said that a screenplay was not authored so much as written for a director. The screenplay writer’s function was not to impose his signature, his handwriting on the script, but to produce a story that met the needs of an entire universe of collaborators—the director, the cinematographer, the actors.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the world of comic books makes most literary commentators uncomfortable. Comic books offer easy-to-understand, formulaic myths, created by a profusion of authors and collaborators rather than the solitary figure of the writer.
With Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight in theatres this week, the figure of one of the most influential superheroes of the last 70 years looms large in the collective consciousness. Batman has no superpowers, merely an arsenal of technological toys and fighting skills. As a child, he witnesses the murder of his parents; when he grows up, the millionaire Bruce Wayne leads a secret life warring against criminals, in an attempt to balance the scales of justice. As Nolan (and several of the authors of the comic books) notes astutely in Dark Knight, there is a kinship between the “good” hero and the evil villains he seeks to stamp out—his nemesis, the Joker, claims that kinship when he says that they’re both freaks. Batman never sank into obscurity, unlike now-forgotten “superheroes” like Foolkiller or Moonknight.
Created by Bob Kane in 1938, Batman initially followed the bang-kapow! conventions of the pulp comic book, gradually gaining complexity in the hands of writers as different as Dennis O’ Neill and Frank Miller. But unlike Bill Willingham’s Fables or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman stories, the Batman comic books are not easily claimed as literary works.
Take a popular literary figure like Sherlock Holmes—along with Dracula, often claimed as a source of inspiration for Batman. The Holmes stories follow a linear sequence; the Batman comic books can be read in parallel, where the character follows one path in one set of books, and a completely different path in another. Depending on the imagination of the author of the moment, the Joker might be merely a scary clown gone to the bad, or a psychopath rivaling Hannibal Lecter as a compelling portrait of true evil.
What makes me care about Batman, though, is that ever since 1986 if not before, he began to resemble in both comic books and films the mythic, ancient figure of the flawed hero. He’s an orphan, following the long history of heroes who have lost either one parent or both and the figure of the hero in the old fairy tales who arrives, seemingly unparented, on the scene. He’s slightly grotesque, in his hunched-over bat’s costume, his eyes literally masked and unseeable; nocturnal, on the edge of being inhuman, possessed of an innate feral quality, like Dracula.
Batman has no superpowers, which makes him one of us and more—a Greek hero, very human and trapped by the same qualities that makes him a hero, battling as much with his own persona as with any flesh-and-blood villain. Superman offered a playful fantasy of incredible powers—flight, superstrength, invulnerability. Spiderman offered the fantasy that you could be a weak guy but have skills beyond belief. Batman, instead, offers the premise that we all live in a lunatic asylum; the difference between the villains and the guardians, and the rest of us, is that they know this and we don’t.