With The Dark Knight Rises dominating the box office and me neck-deep in Arkham City for Xbox 360, I’ve been thinking lately about an idea I’ve had rolling around in my head for some time in half-baked format:
Maybe it’s just because I don’t actually follow Batman beyond the odd one-shot or mini-series. Maybe it’s because my fondest memories of the Adam West Batman show involve Vincent Price. Maybe it’s because that when I do buy a Batman book, it’s because my natural status as a horror fan draws me toward the darker explorations of Batman in a horror context, but it seems to me that every time I look, I find something in the Batman canon that makes me think that even when he’s being written in the most straight-ahead fashion by whatever Schmoe DC has hired, it seems to me that Batman is injected with at least some degree of the horror genre. The medium doesn’t matter, either! Whether it’s Detective Comics, the movies and even that outstanding Batman: The Animated Series. Batman is always spooky.
The very foundation of Batman’s origin is rooted in horror. Superman’s origins not only involve the death of his parents but the death of his entire race but he flies through the space away from this tragedy into the arms of a loving pair of parental units so it renders his argument moot. Others, however, The Green Lantern, The Flash, Wonder Woman, any of the other members of The JLA, none of them feature a tragic back story involving the death of a child’s parents. Comic books have grown up since the golden age but the one thing you have to remember was that back in 1939 when Batman made a splash in the pages of Detective Comics #27, comics were largely a product directed at children. I’m sure there were handfuls of adults consuming comics on the sly but if the average comic book consumer of today were to be seen with boxes upon boxes of lovingly bagged and boarded comic books, they would have been marched off to the funny farm where they would have found an ice pick jammed through their ocular cavity, scrambling up the frontal lobe of their brain. It was fucking unheard of! Kids bought and read comics and their parents hated it! So how strange was it that as a child, Bruce Wayne witnessed the senseless murder of his parents? Disney did this a lot, too, in their feature cartoons using dead parents as a driving force behind a character. Take yourself back to 8 years old and put yourself there. It’s unpleasant to think about it now, even as a rational adult.
Not only did Bruce Wayne use the death of his parents to compel his fight against crime, but he then sat in his study obsessing over how he should go about his battle. It wasn’t enough to hit the streets with an arsenal of gadgets, peak physical conditioning and an expertise in a spectrum of martial arts. He needed a symbol. He needed to strike fear in his enemies and play on the innate superstition of Gotham City’s criminal element. So he chose the bat as his symbol. Fear. Superstition. Cornerstones of horror as we know it. Eventually, Batman would become watered down and would drift on the currents of the industry. As the industry reacted to The Comics Code Authority, the darker themes of Batman were washed away in order to maintain its status as a top seller. The book became ridiculous and it wasn’t until the 1980’s when a new generation of writers took up the banner. Batman became a vehicle for reinterpretation and the best Batman stories came from people freestyling within the confines of DC canon and even in some cases in DC’s Elseworlds framework. The waning influence of the Code made it ok for Batman to go dark again and because of this, some of the greatest comics of the last 30 years hit shelves and reshaped the way we think about Batman.
Batman, himself, is a character steeped in fear but the real horror comes from his villains. In a post-Christopher Nolan Batman world, we’re forced to rethink Batman’s gallery of rogues in a much more contemporary light, through a rational lens and because of this, characters like The Riddler and Poison Ivy become very hard to think of in the harsh light of reality but even from their beginnings, characters like The Riddler, Two Face and The Joker (my vote for greatest comic book villain of all time), even at their most ridiculous, were still absolutely terrifying. As a matter of fact, their comic book presentations, in candy colors among the drab palette of Gotham City, are the most alarming thing about the setting of Batman. The strange phenomenon of Gotham City’s criminal underworld being packed to the rafters with maniacs is also a horrifying prospect. These aren’t the shiny and alien villains of Metropolis or Coast City. Gotham, with its crumbling, gothic architecture is awash in deranged criminals killing for sport and only occasionally doing battle with the perfectly sane criminal element of the Falcone family for a slice of the pie.
These qualities of the Batman setting, for as long as they’ve been around, have almost always been suggested in subtle, nuanced ways. The horror of Batman, his villains and Gotham City were never front and center, they were always the product of perspective. You only saw this when you stepped outside of the comic and considered the bigger picture. Horror would not become a major part of the Batman continuity until Frank Miller stepped up to the plate in 1986 with a four issue limited series called The Dark Knight Returns. Even though Miller would go on to shit all over his own creation with mean-spirited sequels and prequels, The Dark Knight Returns represents the turning point for many fans of Batman and ranks high among the greatest Batman stories ever told. DKR takes place a little way into the future, ten years after the last sighting of Batman. Bruce Wayne has put Batman behind him as the public no longer trusts super heroes and the second Robin, Jason Todd, is dead. When Two Face returns to crime, Batman comes out of retirement to take him down and to begin cleaning up Gotham City, which is even more fucked up than ever.
The Dark Knight Returns injected Batman with a heavy dose of grit after years of stagnant storytelling that was closer to the Adam West show than Bob Kane’s original vision for the character. Miller had made a name for himself in the comic book industry as a take-no-prisoners answer to the new wave of comic talent coming out of the UK. Recently having revitalized Daredevil for Marvel, a character in similarly dire straits to pre-Miller Batman, he then turned his sites on Batman and came up with one of the darkest stories of The Dark Knight ever told. At its core, it’s a fairly unremarkable caped vigilante comic but the setting and the tone of near-future Gotham City are terrifying. Even as the population of Gotham City criticizes the re-emergence of Batman, they live as hostages in their own homes. The new breed of Gotham City gangs put anything The Joker or The Penguin’s gangs could have come up with prior to shame. A gang called The Mutants run the city, led by a monstrous heap of flesh and jagged teeth. What’s more, Batman’s original philosophy of exploiting the fear and superstition of criminals had to go way out to its most logical extreme. Sure, he still fights a non-lethal war on crime, but this is springboarding to the next level from a period where Batman was still thwarting The Joker with a well timed tethered batarang that tangles up his feet. Now, Batman kicks the fuck out of every living thing with crime on the brain. Horrifying, not exactly, but what really pushes The Dark Knight Returns over the edge is Miller’s wild art. Frank Miller is an artist with more in common with artists of manga (a major influence on his work in Wolverine) and Euro-comics. He’s a very versatile artist. He let loose with The Dark Knight Returns almost as though he is channeling the work of Ralph Steadman, and this lends a wily, scary quality to the book that allows the madness of its criminals and city bleed from the page into our world.
The Dark Knight Returns was a game changer for the entire comic book industry, let alone Batman, and even though it’s not the clearest example of Batman as a horror vehicle, it is the turning point where Batman got real. Miller’s horrific input into the Batman world is a bit on the nose, as he uses extreme violence, an unfamiliar characteristic of mainstream comic books of the time, to illustrate his point, but there’s a much more subtle expression to be found that touches on themes made popular by H.P. Lovecraft, whether Miller knew it or not. Ultimately, being Batman meant doom for Bruce Wayne. Picking up in the pages of The Dark Knight Returns, Wayne has sworn of his alter-ego but not long into the first book, it becomes clear that Batman is an inescapable force of nature. Wayne will never be able to escape his role as The Dark Knight. He will fight crime in the cowl until he is either physically unable to do so anymore, destroyed by years of extreme physical punishment, or until he is killed. One way or the other, Batman means a grim destiny for Bruce Wayne. One that he will never be able to escape.
From here on out, the rules had changed. Frank Miller had revitalized Batman comic book sales and changed the direction of the character forever. Prior to this, DC was considering killing off the character due to poor sales. The momentum had to be maintained. For that to happen, DC tapped the talent of Alan Moore, who breathed life into another one of their hokey characters turned horror-hero, The Swamp Thing. Moore was on a tear at this point and DC couldn’t find enough comic book deconstruction for him to work on in the wake of them finishing the run on V For Vendetta and allowing comics to grow up in Watchmen. Moore was a force to be reckoned with. At the time, he was a one-man army, maturing comics and taking the medium in exciting new directions. Swamp Thing notwithstanding, Moore couldn’t help but hit Batman with his signature off-kilter wit and tendency to inject horror into everything he does. The result was the seminal Batman one-shot, The Killing Joke. The Killing Joke is one of the few comics to ever go deeper into the story behind The Joker. Where The Dark Knight Returns was a non-canonical Batman story, The Killing Joke fits right into the Batman legacy and since this is post-Crisis, everything that happened in it held up until DC hit the reboot button with New 52.
The Killing Joke was the first of the Batman books to go deeper than the idea of costumed crime fighter beats up crazy people. Moore’s idea for Batman explores the notion that Batman may be as crazy as the people as he fights. There’s a draw for all people writing Batman to take on The Joker as the book’s villain. He’s fun. He’s terrifying. You can take The Joker in a lot of directions and the material writes itself but in The Killing Joke, The Joker’s involvement does more than play at fan service. The Joker is the purest example of a Batman villain. He is the opposite side of the Batman coin, a force of nature, like Batman, but if Batman represents the extreme expression of the human drive for order, The Joker is an agent of chaos. He’s the Yang to Batman’s Yin and Moore spends each page playing up the notion that all it takes to drive a person crazy is one bad day, something the two of them have in common.
The premise of The Killing Joke is simple. The Joker invades the home of Barbara Gordon, daughter of Gotham City Police Commissioner, Jim Gordon, and Batgirl on the sly. Barbara is shot and payalyzed by The Joker and as she lays there bleeding, The Joker takes photos of her in various stages of undress. Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon has been kidnapped by The Joker and is held captive in awful conditions until he is strapped naked into an amusement park ride and taken through the ride while the photos of his injured daughter are shown to him while The Joker taunts him. The idea: to drive Gordon, an incorruptible force in Gotham, crazy. Meanwhile, the half of the book not dedicated to the overall plot is dedicated to illustrating the back story of The Joker, something DC had never even bothered to address. In the end, however, it’s possible that The Joker just made it all up as he’s not exactly what you might call a reliable narrator. All the same, this is where Batman starts to come into its own as a horror book.
Christopher Nolan would borrow a lot of The Killing Joke when he made the second in his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight. The Killing Joke is all about one of horror’s favorite devices for scaring people: insanity. The Joker is a terrorist that serves no cause. He simply exists for disorder. People fear what they cannot understand, see the recent attack at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, for example. One crazy man (by some accounts claiming to be The Joker) shoots up a room full of people taking in the latest Batman flick for the simple fact that he’s crazy and those of us out here in internet land go nuts trying to rationalize a situation that there can never be a rationalization for. Though the Batman connection here is tragic, it’s also only tangentially related. Once again, the public leaps to conclusions in a mad grasp to make sense of what happened. There’s the initial condemnation of violent media that seems to travel with all cases such as these. Agents of gun control claim that sales of assault rifles are to blame. An asshole congressman from Texas claimed that it happened because we’re moving away from Jesus. Crazy is not only frightening because you can’t understand it, it’s also scary because it’s contagious. Ideas spread like a virus and nonsensical ideas get around just as easily. This is what is horrifying about The Killing Joke. Though, Frank Miller kicked off this wave of mature approaches to Batman, his approach was grim and sober. Alan Moore’s manages to be charming at the same time as it is tragic and scary.
What’s most maddening about The Killing Joke is the exploration that all it takes to drive a person to madness is one bad day and that even though it’s only a comic book, there are real world examples of bad days bringing people to the brink and many of them falling over. I just specified one. Similarly there’s the idea that even though he fights for order, maybe Batman isn’t all that different from The Joker since as a child he had his own one bad day and that there’s maybe nothing sane about a man dressed in a cape and cowl, obsessed with revenge and if that’s still not enough, there’s the insane possibility that everything that happens in that comic is all to facilitate The Joker’s opportunity to tell a joke to Batman.
The Killing Joke supplied Batman with enough fuel to finally move forward as a powerful comic book vehicle and the one book at DC that rivaled Superman as a top seller, not to mention the one place you could find the best talent in the industry taking wild creative liberties with a well-known property. The final book to prove Batman as a horror comic was the team up of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean with their hardcover one-shot, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth. If The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke were flirtations with the horror genre, Morrison and McKean’s approach to the character and his setting is full-blown horror. From the story to the characterizations to the art. There’s also the inescapable connection to the genre by way of it sharing the name of Arkham Asylum from the work of H.P. Lovecraft (again).
Arkham Asylum represented my introduction to Batman and may explain my ongoing fascination with the psychological subtext of Batman and my certainty that he’s actually a horror character in spite of his fairly conventional superhero presentation. In Arkham Asylum, Batman is called in when it is revealed that the inmates of Arkham Asylum have been released inside the prison and are holding the staff hostage. Naturally at the head of this crew is The Joker, who lures Batman in as his hostage and gives him an hour to find a way out as the Asylum houses many of his villains and they’re all looking for him.
As is the case with most of these highly expressionistic Batman one shots, the story is only partially about Batman. The narrative actually serves to further explore Batman’s power over Gotham City, the possibility that he is just as mentally ill as the people he fights, and it explores the background of Arkham Asylum and the man who created it. Among all the Batman stories out there, in spite of its wildly abstract presentation, it is among the best ever told. Grant Morrison is probably the perfect writer to take on Batman when given carte blanche.
There are obvious qualities to Arkham Asylum that makes it such a distinctly horror-oriented book. McKean’s art is extraordinarily dark, Batman often portrayed as a black shape among swirls of muted color. The Joker is represented as a wildly distorted and extremely colorful villain in keeping with his usual self. Two Face, still physically repulsive, has been reduced to a helpless wreck as the Arkham staff weans him off of his coin and introduces dice and tarot cards as an option for judgement. There’s also the idea that maybe Batman is bad for Gotham City because he draws these maniacs to it. Prior to his introduction to the city, the worst thing they had to deal with were the Falcone crime family and petty thieves hiding in every shadow. As bad as they may be, the presence of Batman issued in a new age of criminal that commits mass murder for the sake of committing mass murder. Bruce Wayne’s Lovecraftian fate has now infected Gotham City. His very presence dooms an entire city. What’s more, Arkham Asylum is about insanity, once again. With its themes of inescapable fate and cycle doomed to repeat themselves, Arkham Asylum is the purest example of Batman as a horror character.
Going forward, there would be much more conventional approaches to Batman and the horror genre with a series that sprang from the Elseworlds one shot, Red Rain, a book which pits a vampiric Batman against Dracula. Grant Morrison would go back to Batman once again in another off-beat explporation of Batman in Batman: Gothic which deals with a murderer picking off mobsters who solid his soul to devil. Batman is prime breeding ground for sophisticated horror comics in the traditional super hero mold. More than few I’ve listed here, there is an entire horror legacy to be found in the many, many Batman books out there. I encourage all to read a few and explore.