October 19th, 2011
But like, fifty-two cards when I’m, I’m through dealin
Now fifty-two bars come out, now you feel ‘em
Now, fifty-two cars roll out, remove ceiling
In case fifty-two broads come out, now you chillin…
No chrome on the wheels, I’m a grown-up for real
October 2011. Babies are filmed playing with iPads. The technology has existed for their entire lives; not only are they expert with the swipe, pinch and tap, fluent in a language of digits – a truly digital language – but paper technology proves a disappointment. Take away the tablet and give the kid a magazine, and it pokes for a while at the still, unmoving images before giving up.
September 2011. I have an iPad. I am staying in a hotel, in Birmingham. Next door is a store called Nostalgia and Comics. I swipe glossy issues from the racks, as smoothly as an online move to a digital shopping basket. They slip in your hand, shiny. Each of them is labelled #1. The new 52. I present them at the counter. I can afford comics these days – the problem is finding any I actually want to read.
I’m about to pay when I catch a scent of something. A scent of cellars. Attics. Boxes. Brittle paper. It rises from the back issues like a call home. Suddenly you’re back in the 1970s. The pages are packed with tiny adverts, like a Victorian newspaper promoting wonder remedies and crackpot novelties: X Ray Glasses, Hypnotic Whirling Coin, All Metal JET Submarine. Electric Shocker and GENERATOR. Beat Up Big Bullies. Ugly Blackheads Out in Seconds: Be Good Looking. Each superhero story is interrupted (continued on 3rd page following) for a commercial break, offering the equipment and accessories you’d need to cross over into the fiction: we can all be heroes, or mad scientists.
I take one comic from the boxes, then another. They slide easily against each other, too: less floppy and shiny than the new titles, but they’re all encased in plastic bags. They start to form a new pile. I find the first Action Comics I ever read, and another that I cut up to stick in a 1970s scrapbook. Here it is again, intact. Silver Age covers address me directly, like propaganda posters: ‘WHEN Will the Government Stop Harassing Our Heroes? WHO is the Surprise Super-Villain Hawkeye Battles Alone?’ A grey-haired Superman protests ‘I’m 100,000 Years Old… When Will I Die?’ Batman and the Outsiders, leaning over a pile of Christmas presents, ask ‘Where Are The Children?’ Two kids stare at a Superman poster: ‘Gee, I Wonder Whatever Happened To Him?’
I take my piles to the counter. They slide together like a shuffled deck. Worlds and times collide and merge. Flashpoint #5 of 5 from October 2011, alongside World’s Finest: Superman and the Flash, from December 1970. That red-suited figure, still running in 2011 as he did forty-one years before; still the eternal scarlet blur.
Running from 1956, through 1970, through 1986, through the Crisis on Infinite Earths to the Final Crisis to the New 52.
Speeding through history but never truly changing: sprinting desperately to keep up with the times, running to standstill.
Superman in Action Comics #1, by Grant Morrison and Rags Morales, sits alongside Superman in Action Comics #385 – the author and artist never mentioned – from February 1970. Again, a visual vocabulary, a familiar iconography and costume colours, tie these titles together – the cyan hair and suit of Superman 1970, and the computer-inked Kal-El with black hair, blue jeans and boots of 2011 – but it seems astonishing that this could be the same character.
Fanning the covers, you see superheroes as a constant throughout decades of recent history: fixed but changing, adapting but never-ending. One cover proclaims Superman as ‘For 35 Years… The World’s Greatest Super-Hero!’ It was published in 1973. Morrison’s Action #1, with a neat tribute on its own cover – two police vehicles labelled ‘19’ and ‘38’ – was published 38 years later. That 1973 issue of Action – #428 – isn’t even the halfway point between Superman’s origin and his latest reboot.
When I was born, Batman had been running for just over 30 years. It was thirty years since 1939, the start of World War Two. In 1939, Al Capone was released from Alcatraz. John Wayne was 32, and just getting his big break in Stagecoach. Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office. My own parents weren’t born. My grandparents – my mother’s mum and dad – were seventeen years old; they had met, but weren’t yet married.
Batman has now been around for 72 years; and I’ve been around for more than half his life. I’ve followed comics for most of my life, and they’ve followed me.
(That’s me on my great-grandfather’s lap, circa ’73. Can you see Tiger Tom in the background?)
I took my two piles back to the hotel room and spread them out on the floor. The 2011 reboot mixed with Dark Age, Bronze Age, even Silver Age titles – all the same size. Like cards in a deck.
I count them. There are fifty-two of them. I start reading.
January 1971. ‘You DID it!’ Luthor tells his niece, Nasthaltia. ‘You’ve got Supergirl absolutely terrified of a MOUSE!’
Supergirl is a weird mess of angles and limbs; like parts from various shop mannequins shoved together, or – perhaps more likely – like quick tracings from a snatched-up set of fashion magazines and clothing catalogues. Her costume is more carefully put together: a cyan tunic dress with low-slung, gold disc belt, thigh high boots and matching red gloves. This is a ‘whole new look for the Maid of Might in Adventure comics’, we’re told in a bold promotion, after the main story.
Meanwhile in 2011, Starfire’s poses are cribbed from swimsuit pin-ups and soft porn, and the sixteen year-old Supergirl walks around in a long-sleeved top and an armoured g-string. She’s worried her mom would kill her for wearing this outfit — because she isn’t meant to have it until she’s seventeen, and graduates. Oh, OK.
Meanwhile, in 1971:
‘A New Year brings a New Beginning For Superman, 1971’.
Doubled up, the nostalgia is almost painful: the proud claims of novelty, modernity and technology in this 1971 comic, itself now seeming quaint and dated as it compares itself to the 1938 original.
October 1973. The World Trade Center had opened the previous April, to criticism of its architecture, its dominance of the skyline and its swamping of local, smaller businesses. Within six months, this being comics, there had to be a crisis.
In 2011 — or 2001, for that matter — the scene would be shocking. In 1973, it was simply a delicate situation for Superman.
October 2011. In Justice League International, two punks blow up the Hall of Justice.
In his review of this title, Julian Darius of Sequart rips this scene, and indeed the whole comic, to shreds, having particular fun with its tired cultural stereotypes: ‘Nyet… Da. DA! Now I must give to you the fine cognac!’
Darius identifies the style as ‘very early 1990s’: the early 1970s, unsurprisingly, had its own stereotypes, as we see from this page of Superman testing his abilities ‘worldwide’, from a sketchy Eiffel Tower to an igloo encampment, and finally (presumably) to Africa, where a helpful observer explains ‘The invisible Jungle God has felled the lion! Praise be to UGGA!’.
By comparison, 2011’s Batwing – though his own origins were in ‘The Batman Nobody Knows’, also from 1973, and his remit to fight crime across a massive continent with 1 billion inhabitants is inherently ridiculous – seems rich, complex and respectful of African culture.
January 1969. Thomas and Martha Wayne die again, in the new-fangled, same old way: the recurring nightmare played out in another decade, in contemporary fashions. Bruce is now orphaned some time in the Swinging Sixties, rather than in the gangster era of the 1920s and 30s.
[Illos: Julian Darius, Improving the Foundations, Sequart Books]
Summer 1968. My parents get married.
(In some sense, I believe I am already present in their wedding photograph: a small, pale seed of myself, like -)
(- like a pearl.)
May, 1964. Batman is rebooted and relaunched with a New Look, itself recalling Dior’s ‘New Look’ collection of 1947.
‘In the middle of modern Gotham City,’ reads the opening caption, ‘lies an anachronism, a relic of the past! Some call ancient Gotham Village a festering wound at the heart of the bustling metropolis! Others term it a historical landmark and valuable living area! Who is right?’ Talking heads debate from the left and right-hand sides of the page, twenty-two years before Miller did something very similar in Dark Knight Returns.
‘I like Gotham Village, Bruce!’ declares Dick, as the two fellows walk together in matching fawn-coloured coats, white shirts and black ties, looking for all the world like housemates Brandon and Phillip from Hitchcock’s Rope of 1948.
Once more, it sometimes seems that the gap between the Forties and the late Sixties, in comics and in our real-life Earth, was only a relatively small step in terms of fashion, culture and attitudes: a small step compared to the giant leap that brings us to the openly gay Batwoman, the Batwing of Africa, and Batman himself on iPad in 2011.
‘Don’t be so sure’. The February 1963 copy of Batman 153, originally 9d and sold in 2011 for £16.50, fragile and falling apart in my hands as I turn the pages, tells a different story between the panels. As in Rope, its queerness is barely hidden: or rather, its gayness is disguised as a general, unspecified sense of strangeness.
‘Dick Grayson is cute-looking,’ two college girls complain, ‘but he isn’t even going to the dance this afternoon!’ Kathy Kane relaxes alone at the beach, while a couple remarks ‘I’ll never understand why a woman as attractive as Kathy isn’t married yet!’ Meanwhile, Betty Kane rushes off the train, keen to meet her aunt – ‘Exciting things always happen when I visit her!’
The next two frames are a matching pair of same-sex changing rooms, with Robin and Batman, Betty and Kathy caught up in the excitement of pulling on masks and costumes. There’s no sense of dark obsession, or any need for justification – Bruce is getting changed not because of an urgent call, but for casual fun. ‘Okay, Robin – let’s take the Batmobile out for a spin and see if any crimes need busting!’ Betty can hardly contain herself: ‘Hurry, Aunt Kathy! GOSH!’
In some ways, the older comics are less explicit – in other ways, more so. Batwoman #1 shows two women changing over a five-frame double-spread, stripping to underwear in a detailed, storyboarded sequence, rather than implying the undressing in a single, coy panel.
Yet this shift to a cinematic, storyboard style, letting the images work like film frames and flashbacks – our eye making sense of the gaps and the changes to create a sense of time and movement – comes at the loss of the captions, the narrative voice that guided us through decades of superhero stories.
The writer’s voice, the editorial commentary, now come across only subtly, through dialogue, layout, framing and pacing: we now do without the narrator, intoning like William Dozier in the 1960s Batman.
‘Four ordinary people, with ordinary lives! But unknown to the world, each of them has a DOUBLE life!’
The images now stand alone, and the characters do all the talking. We gain a sense of simulated cinema, and perhaps lose a sense of charm, and camp. Traces of that Silver Age style still creep through, in playful pastiche and tribute – mostly thanks to Grant Morrison’s affection for the comics of his own childhood – but these are knowing homages, gently nostalgic nudges of resistance against the dominant 21st century style.
That dominant, current style even shapes Morrison’s flagship of the New 52, Action #1. This is the new-fangled, same-old New Look of 2011, as ‘A New Year brings a New Beginning For Superman’ yet again: lens flare, photoshop blur, special effects, snatches of dialogue, stories opening in medias res.
No narration, no campy sounds or cheesy graphics – no POW and WHAM, no corny rays of heat vision. Now Superman’s eyes glow with a scarlet after-image, and we’re invited to imagine the soundtrack through the visuals, which look like screen-grabs from a Matrix sequel. The New Look of comics in 2011 is a lot like the way movies looked in 1999.
In 1970, Batman had been around for 31 years. In 2011, we’re told – in the new Justice League #1 – that he’s been around for five.
This is a radical reshuffle. Only two years ago, in 2009, Grant Morrison had explained his rationale for Batman (and Batman, Batman and Robin and Batman Incorporated) in terms of fitting all of Batman’s crazy, glorious, mosaic history – from camp crusader to darknight detective, from Thirties crimefighter to space fantasy adventurer, Pop Art hero and 1980s icon – into a single life.
“I imagined a rough timeline that allowed me to compress 70 years’ worth of Batman’s adventures into a frantic 15 years in the life of an extraordinary man…This approach, however, required me to deal with and recuperate some of the more problematic areas of that long history, in particularly the despised ‘sci-fi’ Batman of the 1950s when the Dark Knight Detective was thrust awkwardly into stories involving other dimensions, time machines, space travel and colourful alien worlds. This long-repressed material, most of it erased from Batman’s official history, became for me a rich source of inspiration and allowed me to see the character from a very different angle.”
Or rather, from many angles: from the prismatic perspective proposed by Duncan Falconer in an influential Mindless Ones article from August 2008. Falconer, coining ‘The Prismatic Age’ to distinguish recent comics from the ‘Dark’ aesthetic of previous years, used Morrison’s work as key examples of those contemporary trends.
“The ideology of the Prismatic Age, what it insistently moves toward, is that all parts are active, all of the time. While not necessarily visible monthly, nor are they hidden or overwritten… Summary of all incarnations, a distillate.”
This is the hero as mosaic, made up of refracting tiles that throw back light in different colours and shapes depending on the angle; this is the cultural icon who is everything he has ever been, who is multiple and infinite.
Justice League #1 gives us one angle. It’s a low angle. A gritty angle. Batman, teeth clenched, is launching himself across a rooftop, with his fists bunched in his cape, as bullets ‘thip thip thip’ and ‘tink tink tink’ around him. A few pages later, he meets Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern, for the first time. Five years ago. In 2006.
Just to put that in perspective, Justice League #21, from August 1963, was called ‘Crisis on Earth-One’, and opened with Batman leading a discussion ‘in the secret sanctuary of the Justice League of America.’ Sitting to his right are Green Arrow, Martian Manhunter, Aquaman and Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern. That was 1963. The Justice League had officially formed in 1960, in Brave and the Bold #28. The New 52, then, compresses fifty years into five.
If Batman is new on the scene in 2006, then the character’s entire history – The Case of the Chemical Syndicate, Doctor Death, Year One, Dick Grayson, Kathy Kane, Ace the Bat-Hound, Zur-En-Arrh, Jason Todd, Nightwing, The Killing Joke, Tim Drake, Damian Wayne – is now, presumably, assumed to have taken place some time after 9/11. Not only could Batman and Superman never have witnessed the opening of the World Trade Center in 1973; they weren’t even active at the time of its destruction.
This is the opposite of Morrison’s imaginative, brave engagement with the inconsistencies and diversities of comic book continuity. Morrison playfully embraces and adapts, taking the character’s crazy history for a dance and enjoying the ride. His driving concept was ‘building a better Batmobile’: a customised vehicle that, crucially, respected and valued all the loopy and corny ideas of the past, while incorporating them into a streamlined, modern missile for the 21st century.
The New 52, in brutal contrast, encloses, squeezes, compresses and compacts Batman’s inconsistent history into a rigid order. Anything that can’t be contained is crushed or thrown aside. It’s neat. It’s hard-edged and unapologetic. But when you crush something as gloriously absurd as a Batmobile into a tight little cube, you’re left with little more than trash.
In fairness, of course, this wasn’t the first time DC had cleaned up its universe and tossed out the silly, childish, campy stuff that no longer seemed to fit. The August 1963 ‘Crisis on Earth-One’ and its September sequel, ‘Crisis on Earth-Two’ were just precursors for the 1986 ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’, which led in turn to various new beginnings, reboots and Year Ones. Batman has survived multiple attempts to shut down his meanings and reduce him to a single dimension, whether gritty and dark or ludicrous and light, and he always expands again to his many-angled, mosaic complexity; he’s too well-established as a cultural icon, existing outside the constraints of commercial ownership and publishing, to ever be fully contained.
But other, less powerful figures can be compressed, crushed and broken.
Barbara Gordon made her debut as Batgirl in 1967, born in part from the success of the Adam West TV show. She made it through the 1970s as a congresswoman and TV presenter, offering a feeble kind of feminism in the socially-conscious stories of that decade. She survived for two decades as Batgirl.
And one night in 1987, she went to open the door to Colleen from across the road, ready to go to yoga, and her life changed forever. The scene has become iconic: Joker in his Hawaiian shirt, Barbara in her yellow blouse, staring at him before he shoots her in the spine. It’s become shorthand, like the image of two parents and a dark-haired child in a Gotham alleyway, facing a mugger. It’s one of the unchanging landmarks of DC Comics history. Some argue that it should have changed – that if so many male characters, including most of the guys in the Bat-mythos, can come back to life or mend their broken backs, a single woman shouldn’t stay paralysed for so long. But she did: she stayed that way for twenty-four years. She worked through it. The injury to her spine didn’t change, but she did. She retrained, and adapted, and survived. She was Oracle for longer than she’d been Batgirl in the first place.
She went by that name for the last time in Batman Incorporated, dated October 2011 and written by Grant Morrison. Barbara was billed as ‘Oracle’ even though she appeared as a Batgirl computer avatar. It was a nice touch, a tribute in the face of inevitable change: Morrison must have known that Batman Incorporated was about to be shut down after just eight episodes, ready for the reboot. Batgirl #1 was launched immediately afterwards, with a cover date of November 2011.
Batgirl #1 doesn’t write the iconic moment out of continuity. It repeats it, in a replay of Brian Bolland’s 1987 artwork. Joker turns up at the door in his Hawaiian shirt, and shoots Barbara Gordon, and blood bursts through the back of her yellow blouse. The event still happened; but now it happened three years ago.
Again, we may need to step back, to gain some perspective. Barbara Gordon was shot in 1987. In 1988 I left sixth form and started my first degree, in East Anglia. In 1991 I moved back to London and studied filmmaking for a year. From 1993-5 I took a part-time MA. At the time, the Vertigo comics Doom Patrol, Enigma, Sandman and Shade, and bands like Suede, were speaking to me and shaping me.
In 1996 I started a PhD in the cultural history of Batman from 1939 to 1999. I published my thesis as a book in 2000.
I got a job and kept it for six years. I got another job, and kept that job for six years. In between jobs, I got married.
(No, we’re not actually twins.) The girl I married was 24. When The Killing Joke was first published, she was six years old. She’s now thirty.
I know. It looks like 1973 all over again. That’s just Hipstamatic.
This Batgirl was born in 1990, three years after The Killing Joke. I took her photograph in 2011. I know, it looks like 1963 all over again. That’s just Picnik. There’s more than one app for faking the past and creating false memories.
The long and the short of it is that a lot can happen in twenty-four years. For many of the people reading the New 52, twenty-four years is a lifetime, or longer. It was Barbara Gordon’s second life. And now it happened in three years. ‘For three years, I couldn’t move or feel my legs. Then a miracle happened. I can’t believe it even now.’ And now she’s soaring across the city again, calling perps ‘rotten monsters’ and cutely confessing that crimefighting makes her need the bathroom. Twenty-four years become three, for this. Just for this. Was it worth it?
‘I survived,’ Barbara tells us in Batgirl #1. ‘The Joker never beat me. The bullet never beat me.’ No, continuity beat her. Continuity crushed her. This brutal, stupid time compression, as relentless in its streamlining and steamrollering the destruction as infinite earths in 1986, has trashed a character’s second life – not just as a survivor with a disability, but as a success and a new kind of superheroine. No doubt, writer Gail Simone’s intentions are good: she wanted to save Batgirl, or maybe, like Morrison, she saw that the reboot was bigger and more powerful than any individual creator’s ability to resist, and instead she adapted, accepted the controls and tried to steer Barbara through the transition as best she could.
But twenty-four years with a disability is a long time. Three years and then a miracle makes a mockery of that. Batgirl, who never got the best deal – always underwritten and underrated – has come out worst from this rewriting: sure, she’s relaunching herself, resuited and rebooted, but at the cost of her past.
Maybe the issues yet to come, will restore and resolve, and put things right, though issue #2 doesn’t bode well: Barbara, dolled up for lunch, claims she’s ‘never worn a dress like this in my life’, when we saw her in a little pink number just recently. Maybe this new Batgirl will bomb after twelve issues, and this aspect of her history will be relegated to limbo, that narrative closet for repressed episodes. Maybe if we leave it be, it will all come good.
But maybe not.
I’ve spent most of my life in superhero comics. I have a PhD in the Batman mythos and a second book on the Dark Knight coming out in 2012. I know artists, writers and designers around the world.
That’s why I’m trying something entirely new. I’m putting together a pitch for a new version of Batgirl – an attempt to make something different and interesting from this neglected character, complete with sketches, scripts, prototype covers and logos – and I’m hoping to publish it here, on Mindless Ones. It’s not intended to make money. It’s intended to make meanings. It’s an experiment, in keeping with my genuine belief that superheroes are our folk culture, and that in a very real sense they belong to us and live in our memories, in all their contradictory, inconsistent, mosaic, prismatic and gloriously crazy complexity, as much as they belong to the rigid structures of industry, of canon and Crisis, of reboots and new 52s.
It’s an attempt to imagine a version of Batgirl that never was, but maybe should have been; and a shot at giving her a new, different life, in a new continuity. Because if you believe that superheroes belong in part to us, the fans and readers, and that they are what we make of them, then when the industry fails to make the most of them, you have the power – perhaps you even have the responsibility – to make new meanings, and do something different.