Bryan Hitch on Batman

Comicbook characters such as Batman are part of contemporary iconography – a modern mythology on which we project  values, beliefs & ideologies in the forms of hopes & fears. Batman, being one of the earliest comic superheroes ( 75 years ), has his roots in the Pulp Magazine  & Pulp Hero tradition.

He blends the qualities of characters such as The Shadow & The Spider with the master savant detective first crystallized in the character of Sherlock Holmes. Batman’s comicbook universe setting  ranges from  Hard Boiled Noir to Gothic Fantasy, with  stop overs in the cosmic metaphysical realms associated with speculative fiction. This  makes the character both flexible and challenging, whether being portrayed in print or other media, such as movies and television. Bryan Hitch‘s observations, as writer & illustrator of the current JLA comic, provide some insight into this creative balancing act.

— I wasn’t sure about Batman. When I had that abortive attempt to do “Justice League” 15 odd years ago with [Mark] Waid, I couldn’t figure out, visually, how to handle Batman. And I kind of translated that mentally into, “I probably wouldn’t be able to write him, either.” The odd thing, when I started writing the story out, was just how much Batman took care of his own business for you. You just find a situation, drop Batman in it, and he writes his own dialogue. It’s hilarious.

JLA - Bryan Hitch

Batman, at the same time, he’s the guy that has the detective skills, and the analytical skills, to be able to look at all this stuff, and start putting the picture together with the jigsaw pieces, and make that leap that some of the other characters may not be able to — because they’re looking very closely at the individual points, where Batman’s experience is a little wider, I think. I was worried about Batman, but I’m actually having such a nice time writing him in the context of these stories. And he’s such a useful character, because he’s the guy that figures everything out.

Batman - Bryan Hitch &  Paul Neary

I actually find him hilarious to write. He’s got that kind of grim visual, certainly, but I find that he’s the guy with the sarcastic one-liner — not necessarily because he’s trying to be funny, but you have a funny situation, and he nails the line at the end of the scene. And it’s funny because of that, not because he’s trying to be funny. I find that in that group environment, there’s a lot of humor to be had. I’ve been writing him a scene between him and Aquaman, and they’re actually talking about magic crystals, and just these two characters talking about magic crystals, they realize that they’re having an absurd conversation. FULL INTERVIEW at CBR: Bryan Hitch Stays Put at DC with “Justice League of America”

 

 

 

 

 

Superhero Part 2:”It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s A New Medium ! “

Before we start on part two of this topic it is a good idea to re-cap:

  1. Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., a professor, and clinical psychologist, is the author of four books, including the The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do – Sex, Aggression, and their Guilt. She recently gave a presentation at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association on how current superhero figures in the movies are impacting on young boys. She perceives “ a big difference in the movie superhero of today and the comic book superhero of yesterday” .

Today’s superheroes send wrong image to boys, say researchers

2. The comic book superhero can be traced back to classical Greek and Old Testament hero templates. These templates wound their way through English literature till they arrived in fertile publishing markets of the American Dime Novels and Pulp Magazines. These templates were re-imagined by American writers for American Audiences and were used to generate what came to known as the Pulp Hero.

3. The first Pulp Heroes and their settings were used in other forms of media – movies, newspaper comic strips, and radio dramas. This further popularized these characters, but in the process first broadened and then shifted the potential target audience. The narratives were simplified and the characters’ appeal to children, especially boys, could be emphasized. This played into a number of potential marketing areas, including toys.

4. Eventually (1938 -39) the Pulp Hero template would be modified again to create unique heroes whose narratives would be presented directly in a comic book format. The comic book superhero template was inspired by pulp science fiction heroes, weirdly disguised pulp detectives, and in particular Doc Savage and The Shadow.

The Comic book Superhero Template

The superhero template was first presented in Action Comics # 1(1938) with the introduction of Superman. The next most famous and effective example of this template was Batman in Detective Comics # 27 (1939).

If you look at these sample pages of the first Superman and Batman stories you will notice that the style and content owes a fair amount to the pulp magazines and the daily newspaper serials. They are intended for a wider audience than say, some of the Radio shows or Saturday Afternoon Matinees which were aimed at the specific demographic of school age children. In effect, even though the comic books were intended for kids the writing style and content could be rather adult and serious.


The reason for the discrepancy in content and intended audience can be explained. Consider the following factors that played into the creation of this new template. First the publishers of these comic-book magazines were either the same people who produced the pulp magazines or connected to the publishers who owned the rights to newspaper strips. Initially comic-books were early compilations of news-strips. It was with the increased demand the publishers needed to generate new material. Because the source of of the new material came from people who were familiar with producing news-strips / pulps they borrowed those codes and conventions. They did not realize that they were creating for what in many ways was a new medium that would have its own codes and conventions, a different constructed reality, and would be much more accessible to a different target audience, a different demographic with different expectations (values, and beliefs).

To get a better sense of how closely those early comics adhered to the conventions of the pulps take a look at Action # 1 (online). The Superman story quickly establishes the protagonist’s background, skill sets, working environment, and personal relationships. It is a bit episodic because the whole narrative was originally envisioned as serialized news-strip. It ends in a cliff-hanger. While the Superman introductory adventure is on the cover and is the lead story, there are a variety of other adventure/mystery, and humour stories in the magazine. There is also a short prose piece that could easily fit into a regular pulp magazine. The most telling feature is that while the Superman story is in colour, most of the magazine is in black and white.

The Bloody Pulps, as they were sometimes called, were know for there bright lurid covers. The interior were however in black and white.

Colour was of significant importance to the comic-book superhero. It is one of the conventions that came from the Sunday comic-strips. Bright and colourful marks the world of characters like Flash Gordan and Buck Rogers. This would become a significant difference between the Pulp Heroes and Superheroes.

In most cases the Pulp Heroes costumes were not much more than a domino mask combined with variations on the American Detective’s hat & trench-coat or the more urbane dinner dress of the rich dilettante detective/thief.

Some Pulp Heroes borrowed from the horror genre for their appearance, like the stone cold faced Avenger or The Spider , with his hunchback and fangs. Doc Savage, an adventurer and scientist with his perfect physique and bronzed appearance, only needed to  get his shirt ripped up. The Man of Bronze did this regularly in his adventures and covers.

Because the comics looked better in colour and it was possible to do so in the smaller cheaper magazines, the characters and their world could be brighter and bolder. In the comic strips, Little Orphan Annie had her bright red dress and orange hair. The Phantom ended up in purple ( click here for an explanation), while Dick Tracy had his yellow fedora.

It is no wonder that Superman’s costume, influenced by the bright “uniforms” of pulp & news-strip space-men, circus strongmen, and then added the stage magician’s cape, was red, yellow, and blue. Nor is it any surprise that he would be followed by a host of mystery men with colourful names and costumes to match: Green Lantern, Red Tornado, The Flash, Starman, Hawkman, and the Green Arrow.

These bright colourful heroes were naturally more cheerful, positive, and youthful than the dark violent seemingly older Pulp Heroes. It was the end of the Great Depression and young men and women in bright uniforms would soon be needed to fight terrible menaces of science , technology, and an alien/foreign world. But didn’t we say that the other core character was that Dark Knight of Gotham, Batman ? How could this masked detective of the night with his brooding pulp magazine atmosphere fit into this world of colour ? Two crucial elements came into play that would quickly influence the other comic-book heroes.

  1. Create adversaries that were colourful and strange appearance and name.
  2. Provide a youthful partner whose costume and name would be more at ease in the world of the comic-book superheroes.

The success of modifying Batman’s  dark pulp component quickly lead to other brightly coloured mystery-men adding youthful assistants. The comics were now the perfect vehicle for building patriotic values and beliefs and strengthen societal ideology in the face of war – Truth, Justice, and The American Way.  All those young children with fathers, uncles, and siblings overseas could fight along the side of bright colourful heroes in their imagination, never surrendering hope.  Nothing to fear except fear itself.

All was right with the comic-book world of the superheroes, then with the 1950’s arose new fears. The old motto was forgotten and the heroes were now the villains. The comics had become as dangerous as the Bloody Pulps. That is a story for another post.

Some interesting links:  Pulp Sunday

The Robert E. Howard United Press Association

Toonopedia

Superheroes Part 1:”It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s A Target Audience !”

I was planning a post on a recent narrative arc in Spider-man, but that will have to wait for another day. A recent spat of news articles, TV news bites, and even a CBC radio interview will no doubt get the older generation shaking their heads and young anxious parents all worried. You see the news media is recycling that old corrupter of childhood minds,…………. the comic book superhero !

Today’s superheroes send wrong image to boys, say researchers

Of course this is the 21st century and there has been a revision/updating of this serious social problem, so it might be worthwhile to take a media literate view of the superhero, past, present and future.

In the beginning, there was Beowulf, well only if you start with early English literature. Beyond that cultural island there were Homer’s boys from the Iliad and the Odyssey, various Ancient Greek heroes who got top billing in their own stories, and some heroic fellows from the Old Testament. I know this is very Euro-centric and even within that cultural circle it is very small. I’m not ignoring the rest of the world’s cultural heroes. It is just a quirk of cultural history that the comic book superhero is an American media product whose literary genes can be traced back to these sources.

All cultures produce their own heroes. These mythical, legendary, or fictional figures are invested with the values, beliefs, and ideologies of their creators and the target audience for whom they are intended ( hmmm, ….. sounds like a media principle) The narratives featuring these heroes are transmitted through the most effective media technology the society has at the time. The media forms usually follow some variation of this historical developmental: oral literature ( includes poetry, song, dramatic presentation and dance), written compositions, such as poems, songs or plays, that are initially presented/performed for an audience, and finally short and longer prose narratives that are written compositions that are intended to be read by an audience of individuals.

If you were paying attention to where that development of media forms stopped then you noticed an absence of a number of media. You may as well have pegged the approximate date/era – mid late 1880’s and the flowering of the English novel, mass publication magazines, and penny-dreadfuls. This is a crucial time for cultural expression. Just as the industrial age would create mass production of material goods, it would also create mass production of cultural goods ( the symbolic expression of values, beliefs, and ideologies ). Most of the genre categories that we recognize today in popular entertainment began here: Gothic Horror/Thriller, Mystery-Detective, Romance, Adventure (Contemporary, Historical, Fantasy), Westerns, and Science Fiction.

The 20th century brought new media technology that reshaped the content of print and theatre. In America some very significant media forms came into existence. These media forms would take the popular entertainment genres and make them even more accessible as they taught the immigrants the values, beliefs, and ideology of America. In the process they would weave together the strands of literary genes that would eventually produce the comic-book superhero. These media might not be exactly the ones you are expecting: dime novels – pulp magazines, newspaper comic strips, radio and film.

I guess what some people may not be aware of is the dime novel and the pulp magazines. These American variations on the British penny-dreadfuls would distill the American vision of the hero, first as the cowboy and then as the detective. The pulp magazines would take the genres and showcase them in specialized magazines for a specific market/audience :

Adventure, Amazing Stories, Black Mask, Dime Detective, Flying Aces, Horror Stories, Marvel Tales, Oriental Stories, Planet Stories, Spicy Detective, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Unknown and Weird Tales.

Pulp magazines and their writers would Americanize genres and create new ones. In the process, they would create fictional American cultural heroes. One of the earliest creations was Zorro. In 1919 Zorro, a creation of pulp writer Johnston McCulley, appeared in All-Story Magazine. Still earlier, in 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced the world to John Carter of Mars and the planetary romance (sword and ray-gun), a sub-genre of science fiction. The pulps introduced the term science fiction with the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories. The first famous fictional American space-opera hero, Buck Rogers, debuted in the magazine. Robert E. Howard fashioned the fantasy sub-genre of sword and sorcery and created characters such as Conan the Barbarian, and King Kull of Atlantis in Weird Tales Magazine. Dashiell Hammett created the Hard Boiled Detective in Black Mask Magazine.

As individual characters became popular a magazine would feature the lead character in a novel-length story each issue. In a very competitive market these Pulp Heroes could become powerful brands to sell the magazine. Publishers would encourage the writers to give these leads distinctive names and characteristics. Somewhere in this stew of commercial mass media production and creativity came a blend of mystery, science fiction, and occult/horror that created a new version of a literary hero that could be traced back to the ancient heroes mentioned at the start of this article. The two most significant Pulp Heroes were Doc Savage and The Shadow. They established a template of urban mystery-men that would influence the creation Superman and The Batman.


Many of these genres and characters became content for other media, newspaper comic strips, radio and film. Each medium modifying or influencing the content of the other. An example of this is Zorro. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford chose the story for the start of their new studio, United Artists. The story was adapted as The Mark of Zorro in 1920. McCulley’s story, re-titled to match the film, was re-released as a tie-in. When the writer created more stories of his now popular hero he modified the character to more closely match the Fairbanks interpretation. The costume and mask were an invention of the cinema not the author. In the case of The Shadow, the pulp character was created in the radio audience’s response to the voice used to narrate stories from The Shadow Mystery Magazine.

 

So from the earliest onset of the Pulp Heroes there has been a mixing of media. This is understandable when you consider that this new version of a cultural hero coincided with the arrival of new competing forms of media. A balanced was maintained because each medium offered something a bit different from the other. The shared content could be targeted at different audiences. Using the example of Buck Rogers demonstrates this point .

The basis for the Buck Rogers character is Anthony Rogers, the protagonist of “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” by Philip Francis Nowlan in the August 1928 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. The character was renamed Buck Rogers as a newspaper comic strip, making its first newspaper appearance January 7, 1929. Buck Rogers is considered the first science fiction adventure comic strip. The Rogers strip, and the Tarzan strip that debuted at the same time, borrowed the serialized format used in the pulp magazines and Saturday Matinee Movie Serials. Note that there is a shift in the target audience from prose narratives to comic strips. Many who would not read the magazines because their age/education could obviously follow the strips.

When the character’s adventures are transformed into radio and film serials there is another change in demographic. In 1932, the Buck Rogers radio program began airing four times a week. Intended for school age children, it was broadcast four times a week. The show was designed to sell related Buck Rogers toys. In 1934 the film, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century — An Interplanetary Battle with the Tiger Men of Mars, was presented at the Chicago World’s Fair. The props were the toys that were being sold to the children. When the more sophisticated Hollywood serial was produced in 1939. As a serial it was intended for the Saturday matinee audience of school age children.

The year 1939 marks several significant events. In terms of media, this is the year that Superman and then Batman make their first appearance. Their success spawns many imitations. The template for the comic-book superhero was born. Its target audience was clearly aimed at school age children, specifically boys. This template and target audience would hold until the 1960’s.

Superhero template Files:   superhero template superhero template2

To Be Continued ! Return to see Episode XYZ: The Destruction of Innocent Escapism.

Here’s  more on Pulp Heroes and Pulp Magazines

Read Samples of the Original Pulps

The WOLD NEWTON UNIVERSE The Wold Newton Family is a group of heroic and villainous literary figures that science fiction author Philip José Farmer postulated belonged to the same genetic family. Some of these characters are adventurers, some are detectives, some explorers and scientists, some espionage agents, and some are evil geniuses.

Doc WordPress vs. The Phantom Referrers !