Heroic hype: the Batcave

August 21st, 2009

As adults we forget how strange things are. Take caves, for example.

On a recent holiday, my wife, son, and I found ourselves on a guided tour through a cave system. The group was large, and the cave as well lit as the intersection between health and safety and the management’s sense of theatricality would allow. The guide’s patter was honed and confident, glinting with comfortable jokes that didn’t require laughter, and just the right blend of folklore and history to keep us interested. The package offered no reason this side of phobia to feel unsafe, or uncertain. No-one was going to get lost, and no-one was going to get hurt, even boredom was unlikely to be much of a problem given that the tour was, quite sensibly, rather short.

But somewhere in the darkness beneath the spotlit consumer experience the real appeal rustled. Awe. It went unspoken of course only ever hinted at or skirted. The guide spoke of a gigantic network of which ours was but a fragment, of divers who had squeezed their way through small spaces in the deep and discovered gigantic caverns, one of which was thus far inexplicable to the geologists and engineers that had pored over the photographs, the mega-tonnage above the vast cave roof apparently unsupportable. The guide also spoke of deeper passages still, of underground lakes and streams, and of tunnels yawning forever into the earth. Even the history of the place hung like a heavy shadow. The caves had been sacred to the Celts, who offered up sacrifices to the dark. Later the Christians came and banished the old religion, a conflict hinted at in the local legend of a witch turned to stone by a priest. The guide showed us the rock where, if the light is right, the witch’s petrified profile can still be seen glaring into the blackness, and claimed, as a good tour guide should, that late at night her mordant laughter can be heard echoing in the depths.

Perhaps from sub-level 7, perhaps deeper

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Walking through the edges of the gigantic cave system I was initially struck by a powerful sense of history and myth, which in turn gave way to mystery, and finally – and yes I know this sounds pretentious, but I really can’t think a better way of describing it – the vast otherness of the aeons. The accompanying feeling of awe comparable to that evoked by the night sky seen through the astronomer’s telescope, and seen through another lens entirely, it was the kind of sensation which one imagines spawned Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones and Elder Gods. Unsurprisingly fictitious caves have long been populated by dark and mysterious forces, hailing from some endless night far below the Earth. Dragons live in the mountain, orcs and goblins chatter in forgotten halls of stone, a three headed dog guards the gates to Hades, a bat-demon hisses into the frozen air.

Oh yeah, we forget very easily, but Frank the Tank, Lynn Varley and Klaus Janson didn’t.

Frank’s Batcave was always more than a cool store house for Batman’s wonderful toys, and it’s a sad fact that the Batcave normally manifests as something even less than that. Treated as merely a set of symbols – the dinosaur, the costumes, the penny, the playing card, the computer, the cave itself – that must necessarily feature, but that are given no life in and of themselves. On one level that’s right and proper, it would be impractical and just plain dumb to suggest that writers and artists should rigorously work some vitality into the Batcave on a regular basis, but flicking through my collection I’m struck by just how redundant the Batcave is, how it’s almost never used as a plot driver, or indeed to do much of anything other than offer the artists a chance to indulge in a little Bruckheimeresque machine porn. That isn’t to say that the machine porn doesn’t have its place, we all enjoy gaping at Jim Lee’s absurd chrome vistas, but when considered in the context of my recent cave experience I’m inclined to read that approach as not only one note and boring, but as a way into a more complex reading. The total control suggested by all that technology as a thrilling edifice that attempts and fails to bridge a very dark and very mysterious chasm. All that gleaming metal just throws the immensity that lurks off panel into sharp relief.

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Miller’s Batcave haunts the narrative, the monstrous bat demon/vision encountered by young Bruce when he falls through the manor’s sweeping lawn (before the death of his parents) speaks of Batman’s inevitability in much the same way that the videotape in Ringu insists on the coming of Sadako. The concept of the cave lends itself well to this sort of mythologizing – just as the myth stands outside time so in some sense does the cave’s ancient form – and by explicitly linking the cave to the batmyth Miller positions it as something far bigger than the life of Bruce Wayne, the logical corollary being that Batman is in some sense bigger than the character also. This mythic Batman is, within Miller’s intended schema, irreducible and inherently mysterious, something which cannot be chained by years and old bones and the bottle, that cannot be encompassed by words like vigilante, or disciplines like psychology, politics and sociology. Ultimately Miller sets up all of these as straw men lacking anything like the explanatory force to unpack the Batman, only in the darkness of the cave can the essence of the Batman be found. Hence the scene early in Book One which finds the retired Bruce Wayne alone and naked in the Cave and unsure how he got there – this isn’t about personal choice, he’s not choosing Batman, Batman is choosing him. Or later when a broken and battered Bruce journeys into the cave’s vast shadows to commune with whatever it is that lurks there. You don’t have to buy what Miller’s selling, you might think that all this talks of legends as opposed to tight wearing lunatics is just plain silly, but there’s no denying what Miller *wants* to achieve in DKR, and the Batcave is a big part of the symbolic system he deploys in his attempt.

More recently Morrison and Daniel went the other way and peered harder at those metal surfaces in an effort to make the point that Batman can be read as a damaged little boy who never grew up, the mountainous piles of bat-tech as a teetering ego pregnant with the possibility of collapsing into a red and black hell. In fact if one were feeling liberal with one’s definitions it could be argued that mysterious dark spaces, not entirely unlike caves, litter Morrison’s run: Dr Hurt’s isolation chamber, the cave at Nanda Parbat, the grave in which Hurt buries Batman. The aforementioned hell is even revisited in the form of an Arkham Asylum into which we can, to quote the Joker, go “down, down…”

The Batcave readily gives itself to story, allegory and subtext, after all anything can come out of the darkness, unsurprisingly the cave as metaphor is a well worn trope both within the Batverse and without. In the 40s the cave served to emphasise both the modernist (crime lab, underground hangar, vehicles) and gothic nature of the character, often in the late 50s and 60s it took on the quality of a boy’s den or fantastical playground, and during the love god 70s it was ditched altogether in favour of a gleaming penthouse bachelor pad. As I’ve noted, with the 80s and 90s came the urge to narrativise and rationalise the Batcave, to embed it in Batman’s history in ways it hadn’t been previously. So, yeah, we get Miller’s take, but we also get an attempt bolt further moral grandeur onto Batman in the form of the assertion that the caves were once used by Bruce Wayne’s ancestors to transport slaves to freedom. What’s particularly enjoyable is that throughout the years the Batcave has frequently denied rock solid continuity and consequently has a kind of in built narrative potential. Despite the dinosaur and the computer and the lab and the cars, no two Batcaves look the same, and creators are, within reason, always free to add or subtract details as they see fit. Attempts to deny this plasticity have come and gone over the years, most notably post the earthquakes of the Cataclysm storyline, but in the very act of bringing a more concrete idea of the Batcave to bear, the Bat-editorial team have inadvertently created a rationale for the Batcave as a literally malleable environment. There’s a sense in which their efforts work to deconstruct themselves – new chambers gape open, old ones buried as it’s shape and and form twist to the whims of a capricious earth.

The 00s obsession with nostalgia also factors heavily into today’s Batcave. But rather perversely I tend to think of the Dinosaur and the Penny not as eternal anchors of the bat-myth, but rather as hyperlinks to different, out of continuity Bat-eras, which strictly speaking they are (the get out clause for DC being that these artifacts could easily be brought into line with modern continuity if it were ever deemed necessary. Just call in Geoff Johns). These small cracks in continuity are fascinating when you consider their centrality to the Bat-mythos, their position, literally, at the dark heart of the Batverse (especially the one imagined by Miller*, perhaps the most influential bat-writer ever), and add substantially to the sense of plasticity and possibility that I’ve been discussing. In fact, given the spooky context of the cave, the Mindless ponce in me can’t me help but view them as the ghosts of damned (in the fortean sense) Batmen haunting the status quo.

*If you, like me, enjoy watching continuity deconstruct itself, it’s worth noting that Miller’s contribution to Batman’s trophy gallery comes in the form of Jason Todd’s costume, and bears the epitaph “A good soldier”. Said artifact, while having laid roots in the current continuity, was originally conceived in a decidedly out of continuity story, and the words “A good soldier” while fitting very comfortably indeed with Miller’s take on the mythos, aren’t entirely congruent with the tone of other contemporary visions of Batman. The ways in which the bat-canon is informed by Miller’s ‘imaginary stories’, the weave of continuity and non-continuity really is very interesting indeed, and, I should imagine rather troublesome for those continuity obsessives who ever happen to dwell on the subject. Particularly amusing to me is the thought that in order to gain gravitas and, I would argue, *authenticity* the Batverse had to more closely align itself to stories that cannot be admitted.

So what am I after, some sort of continuity mashing free for all? Well, no. By pointing out how the Batcave has been used over the years and toying with its narrative, figurative, and physical instability, I’m simply trying to get you thinking about the possibilities, but more importantly I’m attempting to bring back the shadows, mystery and strangeness that I experienced on my holiday, and that I recently discovered skittering between the pages of DKR.

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Consider the large, vertical panel on the left hand side of the page above. The frame isn’t dominated by bat-tech, instead the cave is the primary feature. Colossal stalactites dwarf the trappings of the world’s greatest crimefighter. That isn’t to say that Miller rejects the grandeur of those trappings. With his gigantic Bat-tank, bat-power-armour, invisible bat-copters, bat-bikes, batwings, kryptonite arrows, and vast arsenal of gadgets and weaponry you could hardly accuse him of that – quite the opposite, he understood how to make that stuff work in a way that few other writers and artists ever could – but the fact remains that throughout DKR Miller consistently forces Batman’s wonderful toys to share space and lose ground to the cave depths. In doing so Miller cements the relationship between the awesome and mysterious cave and the character, and positions it at his core, creating a gravity that all the gizmos, martial arts, Olympic level athletic abilities, and detective skills in the world couldn’t hope to generate. The effect greatly reinforced by what I can only describe as a kind of minimalist naturalism when it comes to Miller’s rendering of the cave’s contours and the rest of the art team’s approach to colour. Miller’s cave isn’t a set, or a structure tamed by man, it’s not heavily stylized or presented in a representative mode that draws attention to itself, consequently it has a far stronger and stranger verisimilitude that the majority of batcaves you’re likely to come across.

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I think Miller has it right. I want to see creators who tackle the Batcave start to emphasise the cave over the super-base because super-bases, even the very best super-bases, are ten a penny. If you’ve seen Thunderbirds you’ve seen them all. Morrison convincingly argued that mountains of amazing technology, despite their fun factor, can easily lead to readings that depower Batman as a character. Miller’s allegorical, yet convincingly solid cave, on the other hand, lends the character the dark magic of its unfathomable depths, and it’s precisely that magic that I want to see more of. Leaving aside all the conceptual jiggery pokery for a moment, the raw aesthetic force of Miller’s vision is overwhelming, awe inspiring, particularly in those aforementioned moments when he juxtaposes the enormous cave structure with the much smaller scale of Batman’s domain. Additionally, all those giant shadows, black vistas, alien landscapes populated by stalagmites, those, again aforementioned, hidden depths, are more than a little haunting and spooky – and, as DKR assures us, there things down there to be afraid of, and I want to be afraid of them!

Most importantly, this privileging of the cave over the tech opens up all kinds of storytelling possibilities previously shutdown by all that light and hyper-human artifice. The shadows gives themselves willingly to the kinds of conceptual and continuity based uncertainties I dig into above in a way that gleaming chrome, with it’s implied order, simply can’t. Bringing back the cave would open up the possibility of narrative and conceptual exploration and beg us to start asking story related questions: Where, outside of Miller’s vision (see below), is the tale featuring the cave-as-soul analogy? Why Hasn’t Batman taken off on some sort of vision quest in his very own maze beneath the earth? Where are the ghost stories that are begging to be told? The spectre of an evil slaver lurking on some midnight shore? Where is the meeting between a half starved, hallucinating Batman lost in the black and someone who might be the Devil (on his way up from sub-level 666), or might not be there at all? What did Bruce’s evil ancestor get up to in those eldritch caverns, and what is that unspeakable cult doing chanting in the deep? To whom, or should that be what, do they call? Where are the monster stories: why have I yet to see the Dark Knight hunted by the scaly, dragon-like form of Killer Croc through a forest of stalagmites? Why hasn’t a fearsome black dog, who might be Ace the Bathound, been heard howling in some forgotten tunnel?

Where is the bat-demon hissing in the darkness?

But most importantly, who can be heard cackling down on sub-level 7?

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25 Responses to “Heroic hype: the Batcave”

  1. Botswana Beast Says:

    Lovely, yeah, lovely. The word you don’t, I think – yopp, ctrl-f confirms (don’cha read books or the paper sometimes now, and want that functionality?) – use is ‘primal’ and I think it’s interesting to look at the B&Rcave, the Dick-cave, in that context; in that it’s entirely stripped of any historiological – ooh – spookiness, it’s fairly modern, an artifice, couple basements… I think Dick Grayson is in deep shit, basically, off the Elder Gods, for following a pact not his to make…

    Anyway, I love these; there’s something particularly evocative, here, and I just go on fragments, but I think my essential, essential Bat-moment is an early one, recaptured lovingly in BatBegins, where it’s just Bruce in the dripping dark, w/ the torch, and then this horde of bats – I think it explains a lot, that image, but I can’t recall what comic it’s in; I thought it was Year One, but I’m sure it wasn’t there last I looked.

  2. Zom Says:

    It’s definitely not in Year One, the Batcave barely features.

    Primal, for sure

  3. Bucky Sinister Says:

    Very, very nice work, Zom. I’ve always wanted the Batcave to seem more… cave-y, and you’ve encapsulated why. Plus, I’m particularly taken with your collection of potential Batcave stories at the end. Where the hell’s my “Tales of the Batcave” mini-series, dammit?!

  4. Lanmao, the blue cat Says:

    Great article. I demand (DEMAND!) to see Batman vs. a Cthulu cult in the deepest bowels of the Batcave.

    I’m really glad that you used the above page from DKR, with the big vertical panel of the cave. I also like the way that the Batcave super-stuff seems more like a camp on the cave floor than a cavern-filling technological wonderland. As a kid, it gave me a thrill to think of Batman working down there alone in the endless dark like that. Miller’s Batman inhabits the darkness*, he doesn’t abolish it through the power of knowledge and technology. (*I’m fond of the perhaps slightly silly vignette in DKR in which Batman causes “something wet” to happen to the would-be rapist, because it shows the way in which Batman might seem some monster leaping out of the shadows.)

    @BB: There’s a scene at the beginning of DKR very much like the one that you describe. It’s just before he meets the chthonic bat-demon.

  5. Sean Witzke Says:

    And of course, at the end of DKR the cave eats the house and Batman becomes whole.

  6. Zom Says:

    Indeed. I could have said a lot more about that

  7. bobsy Says:

    Interesting also to see the cave and the dark having a different psychic dynamic for Miller’s youthful ASSBats – there, with typical young man’s brio, he is trying to take on the darkness (or deny that it’s there at all, with all the fears it holds for him) by literally jamming it with as many batmobiles and batboats and weird tech he can find, an eight-page gatefold spread of it.

    Something you didn’t mention with those DKR panels (chapter 2, beaten by the mutant leader, before he goes off for that bit of communion) – the cave is a huge, devouring mouth (or other orifice), and the shapes echo the close-up Batface that we get on the following page.

    Morrison, surprise, had a great take on all this – something like ‘it used to just be me and Alfred huddling round a PC covered in Batshit’.

  8. Zom Says:

    Doesn’t Miller have Batman leave Robin to fend for himself in some dark corner of the cave, though? The implication being that the cave of DKR hasn’t been entirely forgotten

  9. Danicus Says:

    This was, hand down, the best Batman related article i have read in AGES. thank you so much for sharing your clear love of the character, the cave, and the mythos itself.

  10. Zom Says:

    That’s alright, Dan. TBH it pretty much wrote itself

  11. Justin Zyduck Says:

    I will second (or third or etc.) the request for Tales from the Batcave, although there was a time when that actually happened. I was reading a collection of Batman stories at the library (can’t remember which one) (which collection, that is, not which library), and there was a story about a mystery happening INSIDE IT. Superman, too, used to have stories driven by happenings at the Fortress of Solitude (and I would LOVE to read a companion post about that place, and the wildly varying versions thereof).

    I loves me some Marvel Comics, but I think an unfortunate side-effect of their fight-heavy approach becoming the dominant one is that fans (and creators) are becoming trained to think “Bad guy does bad things, hero reacts” is the only impetus for a story.

    But the whole reason Batman has that dinosaur is because in the 40s or 50s, some dude invited him to his Dinsoaur Island full of robodinos (which turned out, of course, to be a trap). Can you imagine many writers today who would think to begin a story with “I’ll have someone extend an invitation to Batman, and Batman’ll actually show up!” Or, of course, “I’ll have Batman volunteer for a space program experiment, and…”

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  14. Claire Says:

    Simply amazing. I really enjoy your views on the cave; it really does symbolize so much more. Nice work.

  15. Zom Says:

    Wow, thanks, Claire!

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  17. amypoodle Says:

    morrison, you’ve been nicking our ideas.

    the cheek.

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  25. Strip News 8-28-9 | Strip News | ArtPatient Says:

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