Building a better Batsignal

September 26th, 2010

  • The phantasmal Bat-Signal of Nolan’s films with it’s spooky overtones works, somewhat counter-intuitively, with a drive towards a more realistic Batman, both in the aesthetic sense in that it marries with new colouring techniques in the comics, capable of rendering more precisely the qualities of light, and in the conceptual sense: it’s more plausible than the erstwhile cone of light, and gestures in the direction of a Batman more constrained by a realistic set of rules. The symbol’s ambiguous presence can also work to stake out an ultra-noir view of the character, less superhero more urban myth. The citizens of Gotham don’t know who or what this Batman stands for, or what he is or even whether he’s actually real, in much the same way as they don’t know whether that light does in fact constitute a signal or whether it’s, in line with the official explanation given in Nolan’s films, just the product of faulty equipment. This Batman is inherently mysterious, a creature of the shadows, someone (something?) to be unsure of. This isn’t a Batman who has much use for the golden chest emblem.

  • The iconic cone of light is rather more certain. It doesn’t haunt Gotham so much as attempt to dominate it. The wholesale adoption of this way of presenting the Bat-Signal right up to the present day has worked to reinforce it as almost a physical thing, an inviolable structure of concrete dimension rather than a ghostly beam. It conjures in my mind thoughts of modernist architecture and sculpture. It is, however you look at it, undeniably present, in much the same way that a Batman who fits into DC’s trinity undoubtedly is. This Bat-Signal – golden, constant, ascendant, made of that purest of essences, light – suggests Batman as paragon.


  • I hope it’s clear to readers that I’m not trying to insist that the Bat-Signal always fits with some intended and faultless system of meaning, I’m just trying to show how different ways of using and presenting the Bat-Signal can colour our reading experience, and/or work narratively. The cone of light doesn’t demand a more superheroic Batman, there is no necessary link, but I tend to think that it works well with that conception of the character. That isn’t to say that other approaches wouldn’t work equally well, or that a similar approach couldn’t produce different effects. Take Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s Bat-Signal, their Bat-Signal represented not only the introduction of the concept to the bat-mythos, but also the birth of the cone of light. However, their Batman has at least as much, if not more, in common with Nolan’s Batman as it does with our contemporary card carrying JLA member.
  • Kane’s Batman was frequently to be found outside the city, in the wilderness. The use of the Bat-Signal in that kind of fictional landscape, while undoubtedly possessing a symbolic and aesthetic dimension, also feels more practical than it often does in the today’s comics. The introduction of the countryside, a second distinct environment beyond the city, lends the idea of calling Batman home with a beacon considerably more weight, as does the brute fact that this Bat-Signal was regularly seen from the distance, and was explicitly tasked with hailing Batman. This more concretised sense of the Bat-Signal as beacon is at odds with the more woolly role of the Signal plays today. Given the sophisticated technology that Batman is seen to deploy in other contexts, our modern Signal barely makes sense as a communication device, which means that it’s use within modern comics often has much more to do with its power as a symbol than any practical function (see all those shots of Batman swooping down out of the beam, or perched on a gargoyle with the signal blasting into the sky in the background, or… you get the picture). The practical dimension helps to establish a kind of symbolic divorce between the physical presence of Batman and the Signal proper – as a beacon it isn’t simply some kind of non-local extension of Batman, some other articulation of the Shadow of the Bat – it’s unequivocally a thing in and of itself. This kind of Bat-Signal carries with it an urgency which today’s lacks. It implies a need for batman, not the presence of Batman. I’d love to see some of that urgency recaptured.
  • What about a lighting of the beacons sequence (ala Return of the King) in Batman Inc? Cities across the world firing up their Bat-Signals to call their scattered Batmen to arms against whatever global threat Grant has lined up for the final arc.


  • The cone of light also brings to mind searchlights, with connotations of air-raids and prison breaks, and, for me at least, the Last Girl Standing waving her torch at the dark. For all its solidity there’s a haunted quality to this way of representing the Bat-Signal after all, but unlike Nolan’s take it’s not the Signal that’s doing the haunting, it’s the shadows beyond. This way of reading the Bat-Signal implies a city under threat as much as it suggests a city under guard, or even at war (The War on Crime, Batfans!), a point which Loeb and Lee, in their run, seemed to understand, hence all the search lights and barrage-balloonesque dirigibles. It’s worth noting that the Bat-Signal proper is absent from the Hush story arc – I think it appears on one cover.

  • Miller’s symbol drops the cone of light and settles upon the ostensibly more plausible mechanism of light reflected on the gigantic facade of the world’s tallest skyscraper, but this device is quickly subsumed within TDKR’s framework of meaning. Two Face’s riddle, “twice as big as you can possibly imagine”, plays an ambiguous role. Within the story it refers to the twin towers of Gotham, but for the reader it could also be referencing Batman, a point somewhat unsubtly underlined by the image above. The Towers double as Batman and Robin, the Bat-Signal Batman’s golden emblem, and the duo loom over the city. Gotham retains its darkness but its threat is reduced by the immensity of the bat-iconography, and the fact that said iconography blends seemlessly with the forms of the buildings far below, thereby conflating Batman with his city in much the same way that kings are conflated with the lands they rule. This strikes as the Bat-Signal as royal seal, nothing in Gotham ultimately lies outside its power. Cue external threats to the kingdom: Superman and nuclear war.

  • The Bat-Signal, cast in shadow, towers over Bruce and Jim. While again an ostensibly semi-realistic depiction of the Signal, on closer analysis it’s hard to read the gold disc as anything other than pure symbolism – some sort of Bat-logos set in the heavens, it’s agents below. In TDKR Miller constantly uses scale, elevation and juxtaposition in an attempt to illustrate a distinction between Batman as myth and Batman as man. Miller wants to say that Batman is bigger than one man’s flesh and bones, that he dwarfs politics and psychology. Whether he achieves the latter goal is open to more than a little debate, but it’s difficult to deny the power of his imagery and the gravitas it lends his story.

  • The iconic status of the Bat-Signal/symbol repurposed as the brand image that it was always a short hop, skip and a jump from being. The bat-brand permeating the comics feels like an inevitablity, almost a necessity. As a way into the iconography it certainly can’t be ignored in today’s world – someone at some point was going to have to grapple with it. Is that Batman Inc I see on the horizon?
  • While the batsymbol and the batbrand share a lot in common there is something radical about such a repurposing. Brands bring with them all sorts of connotations and associations and uses that don’t sit easily with the concept of the superhero, although the idea is laden with potential (I can’t get Penguin Corp and street gangs in Harvey Twoface sportswear out of my mind). The Bat-Signal beam as part of a suite of bat-brand iconography compels me to view the signal quite differently. It opens up the possibility of other dramatic reinterpretations of what the signal could be, the role it could play, and ultimately how Batman and the bat-mythos could be interpreted. Which segues nicely into…

  • Say what you like about Frank Miller, he’s the go-to guy for Bat-symbolism. I’m not sure whether that’s a compliment or not, but as we’re all massive geeks around here we’ll get some mileage out of it. This is the Bat-Signal deconstructed, taking the modernist echoes I mentioned earlier in association with the cone of light and funnelling them through an art deco/cubist amplifier. The Signal is divorced from the shattered beam creating an effect that is explicitly decorative and self conscious. The cubist overtones also push for a reading that does away with a specific point of view (I appreciate that Miller doesn’t go the whole way, Batman’s body still possesses something approaching a naturalistic integrity, as does the symbol itself), after all dissolution of a singular perspective is what cubism is all about. This is the Bat-Signal as broken down, yielding to a multiplicity of viewpoints and therefore inclusive. Hence….

  • The decorative aspect and the deconstructed beam are harnessed to serve a diagetic purpose. The signal beam is transformed into something akin to concert or nightclub lighting, serving a communal purpose. Is this a rave or a rally? Whatever it is it’s about coming together around the idea of the Bat. The inclusiveness hinted at in the last paragraph is actualised here. It would be going a bit far to say Miller’s use of the Bat-Signal makes this possible, but it certainly serves to augment the scene. It’s also an interesting inversion of the function of the monolithic cone of light, and Miller’s use of the signal in TDKR: instead of marking Gotham as Batman’s domain, or identifying the Signal with Batman alone, it opens up the concept of Batman for everyone (well, the kids at least).


  • The Foe-Signal is another interesting way of inverting the Signal’s usual set of uses and meanings. I’ve discussed how the Bat-Signal can be used to reinforce a sense of insecurity, threat or fearfulness, but it doesn’t get more insecure in Batland than the Joker looming over Gotham. Miller makes good if brief use of the ambient light of the Signal in TDKR, bathing the city in it’s warm reassuring glow for a few panels before getting back to smashed mutant teeth. Now imagine substituting that golden reassurance for waves of sickly green and purple, and the gigantic face of the Joker leering down at you, watching. Instead of summoning a saviour, the Signal has summoned a demon. In fact it’s worse than that, because as I’ve noted above in modern Batman comics the Signal primarily serves to reinforce the iconographic and symbolic weight of the character. By that logic using the Signal to reinforce the Joker’s iconic and symbolic weight amounts to a fundamental attack on the core of Batman. It’s worse than the Batmobile blowing up, or the Batcave being infiltrated, it’s Batworld turned upside down. Would’ve worked brilliantly in the last issue of Batman and Robin.


  • Taking the use of ambient light further, what about the sky that lies beyond the signal’s beam (the two merge in the image above)? Typically the Signal is set against a dark background, anything else would force it to vie for attention and potentially undermine its impact. I don’t think it would be going too far to suggest that there’s a sense in which the Signal contributes, albeit to a small degree, to the adoption of a specific and rather unimaginative approach to light in Gotham, one that routinely values darkness over illumination.
  • But in Batman and Robin Alex Sinclair’s weird etheric swirls ensured that the Signal was less unusual than the environment onto which it was pinned. A lighter Gotham, particularly a Gotham that uses light in unsettling or deliberately atmospheric ways, poses a challenge to the Signal that could result in some interesting effects, in particular different ways of reading the presence of Batman. I don’t remember Sinclair’s signal providing much succor from the strange threat of his glo-fi Gotham night. If anything it felt, to me at least, as if his Bat-Signal was at risk of becoming infected by the sky’s barely repressed madness. Michael Mann’s neon-noir also comes to mind as a way of forward. I think Morrison might have been gunning for something like that in Batman and Robin, but with a dedicated art team it could have been pushed harder.
  • I leave you with Kelly Jones. He fucks shit up

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