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Back in the '90s I was briefly a moderator for a computer bulletin board for a Comics, Manga and Anime forum.  Most of the moderation I did involved pie fights between the X-MEN fans and fans of DC's Vertigo line.  Both sides wanted their own forum and hated having to share space with the other; (and both largely ignored the dorky Anime/Manga fans).  My job was to tell them that under the board's then administration, that wasn't going to happen.  The Neil Gaiman fans felt -- with some justification -- that their comics were more grown-up and serious than Marvel's multitudious mutant books, and tended to look down on the Marvel Zombies.

Looking at the images and the stories coming out of this years San Diego Comicon, has reminded me of the gripe I have with DC's recent attempts to bring their characters to the Big Screen.  They'd love to imitate Marvel's box office success; but they want to make movies that are Grown-Up and Serious.  They're afraid people will make fun of Superman if they see him with his underwear worn over his tights.

And the more I think about it, the more I realize that the origins of this gripe go back a long, long way.

Back in the '60s, the TV Batman rode the camp craze, largely ignited it, and also beat it to death.  For decades afterwards, comics fans have labored under a public perception of the genre based on "ZAP! POW!"

So in the  '70s, DC made a concerted effort to expunge Adam West from the Bat-Verse.  Batman became grimmer, more serious.  The first BATMAN comic I got as a kid featured a Batman who frowned so hard it looked like his face was going to break off; (it was the concluding chapter of Goodwin and Simonson's Manhunter epic).  One of the back-up stories in the book was a reprint from a Golden Age tale in which Batman actually grinned and traded puns with Robin as they punched out crooks.  The dissimilarity between these two almost gave my brain whiplash.

What perhaps should have been the apex of the Grim 'n' gritty Batman was Frank Miller's DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, originally published in installments, then combined into a single volume.  This book portrayed Gotham City as a corrupt hell-hole, and Batman as a bitter, obsessed psycho.  And the fans loved it.

The thing was, in Miller's story, Gotham had become a hell-hole because Batman had retired, and Bruce was a bitter psycho because he was a cranky old man who has been stewing for the past several years.  But the post-Miller writers took both these elements of Future Batman and grafted them into the Present-Day Batman.  And one of these was Miller himself.  He was commissioned to write a new origin story titled BATMAN: YEAR ONE, which established the seeds of Gotham's corruption much earlier (and established Catwoman as a prostitute, because Frank himself observed, cartoonists write about the things they want to draw).

DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was part of a wave of "Grim 'n' Gritty" comics that started in the mid '80s.  Alan Moore's brilliant deconstruction of the Costumed Superhero, WATCHMEN was a big part of it, (although Moore later lamented that all the people imitating him were missing his point).  Over at Marvel, Wolverine became a superstar in this era, as did the PUNISHER, originally a doofy one-off villain in a SPIDER-MAN comic, given an extra dose of Charles Bronson and Mack Bolan.  Grittiness was the New Realism, they said.

One notable exception was Keith Giffen's JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL.  Giffen realized that in Real Life, stupid stuff happens too; and so he and his scripter J.M DeMatthies infused JLI with a wacky humor that annoyed a lot of the G'n'G fans.  He brought back an old villain named Lobo and re-tooled him into a Wolverine parody who became enormously popular.  Go figure.

Tim Burton's Batman followed the new tradition, (although you can make a good case that he was really going back to the Batman's roots), of making Batman dark, creepy and scary.  And it worked.  And it made a lot of money.

Shortly afterwards, CBS made a TV series based on THE FLASH, and you could tell that it's makers took Tim Burton's lessons to heart.  Whether they learned the right lessons is a matter of opinion.  But for better or worse, they made Flash as Batman-like as possible.  They made his costume, bright red in the comics, a dark, brick-color; and had all his adventures take place at night.  In the TV show, the Flash wasn't an established hero, he was an "urban legend" whose existence the police officially denied, (a tack that the BATMAN comic tried for a time, in the name of greater realism; since Bats was a long-time member of the Justice League, though, the "urban legend" thing was actually less believable).  The TV Flash had some good things in it, but when you get a scene in it's pilot where a bolt of electricity arcs in front of a street lamp, visually echoing the Flash's logo; the way we had the Batplane silhouetted against the moon imitating Batman's logo in Burton's Batman, it's pretty obvious that the show crossing from hommage to the Sincerest Form of Flattery.

The later Batman movies became sillier without managing to be fun and Batman went into an eclipse on film until Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins.  Once again, it was very dark, very grim, and very popular.  For the most part, I liked it and thought it worked.  I have not watched the later Nolan Batman films, though; what I've heard about them do not appeal to me.  Perhaps I'm doing them injustice; perhaps I will watch them one of these days.

But the success of Nolan's Batman gave the producers at Warner Bros. a problem.  They wanted to create a successful film franchise based on DC's stable of superheroes, the way Marvel was starting to do.  But the Marvel heroes all pretty much lived in the same Universe; and at a certain point, the folks making the Marvel movies worked to make sure that each movie could exist in the same universe as the others.

Batman Begins was pretty much a stand-alone.  A good stand-alone, yes; but a lot of its verisimilitude depended on it's atmosphere of darkness.  There is no room in Gotham for the kind of four-color heroics found in other comic books.  They could have added a throw-away reference comparing the Batman to "that guy in Metropolis", or perhaps Lucius Fox asking Bruce about a business deal with Lexcorp; fans like me would have drooled over touches like that, and would have made the films easier to integrate into a greater DC Movieverse; but they would have weakened, in my opinion, the setting Nolan was trying to create.

So what we seem to have now is Warner trying to mold their new super movies to fit in with the Nolan's Batman films, rather than create a DCU setting of its own.  That, I think, is part of why Man of Steel wound up looking the way it did, with Superman's costume dulled down to shades of bluish-grey and reddish-grey; with Jonathan Kent telling young Clark to never use his powers to help people; to have Superman forced to kill his enemy before it's even established that Superman doesn't kill people.  (Granted, I have not seen Man of Steel and am going by clips and second-hand reports; my impressions may be unjustified).

The one clip from the movie I saw that really seemed to say "Superman" to me was one of the more ridiculed one:  in which Superman tells Lois that the symbol on his chest is the Kryptonian symbol for "Hope".  To me, that rang true to the character, but from what I've heard of the movie, everything else in it seemed determined to suck the hope out of the movie.

When DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was first reprinted as a graphic novel, Max Allan Collins was approached to write an introduction to it.  The reasoning was that Collins was not only a comics writer, (he scripted the Dick Tracy comic strip and had a long running comic book titled MS TREE) but was a well-established mystery writer and so his name might draw patrons at the bookstores where the graphic novel would be sold.  Collins later said that his introduction was rejected because in it he said that both Miller's incarnation of the Bat-Man and Adam West's were equally valid interpretations of the character.

There was a time where Batman smiled; a time when he enjoyed his work.  I don't mind it so much that Batman has a stick up his butt these days.  I just wish they'd let the rest of the Universe have some joy.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip-Jar of Grimness (18+ / 0-)

    And yes, "Turn Off the Dark" comes from the Broadway Spider-Man musical and has nothing to do with Batman.  But I thought the phrase fit my theme.

    Read my webcomic, "Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine" at

    by quarkstomper on Tue Jul 29, 2014 at 08:41:53 AM PDT

  •  Ah, where is the Fat Fury when you need him? (5+ / 0-)

    Herbie would never go grim...

    Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

    by JeffW on Tue Jul 29, 2014 at 08:54:19 AM PDT

  •  I agree 100% (5+ / 0-)

    I did think that JLA went too far into the wacky humor (I didn't blame Booster Gold for quitting because he was constantly being made the butt of jokes) but it was a nice counterbalance to all the 'dark and gritty' that was going on. Really, most of the DC characters are not set up for that - they are brightly coloured for a reason. And I think it's why you will see the Marvel based movies continue to do better. Honestly, I think the Marvel universe is more unified and easier to keep together, anyway. Too often, the DC universe seems grafted together.

    I don't know how I'm meant to act with all of you lot. Sometimes I don't try, I just na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na

    by Zornorph on Tue Jul 29, 2014 at 09:20:13 AM PDT

  •  I'll be honest (3+ / 0-)

    camp turns me off.

    I like gritty and realistic in my superhero movies.

    I'm ok with some levity, certainly I think the Avengers gets a great mix of serious and funny just right, as does Iron Man, and to a slightly less extent CPT America movies.

    The Nolan Batman trilogy had snippets of humor, probably could have used a dash more, but I definitely don't want silly or camp.

    Superman wasn't a flawed movie because it was too serious or dark, it was a flawed movie because of logical plot holes (Supe can survive just fine in space where there is no air, but he can't breathe Kryptonian atmosphere? why can't he just hold his breathe? He clearly gets by just fine with no air at all).

    It also suffers from both making Superman kill AND having him wait to do it until likely tens of thousands (if not much more) of people are dead or seriously hurt.

    •  A Foot In Both Camps (3+ / 0-)

      I mostly agree with you.

      Camp can have it's place, if it's done well.  The animated BRAVE AND THE BOLD series from a few years back is a good example.  They took some of the sillier aspects of the DCU, played Batman perfectly straight, and had fun with it.

      I suppose that's what I'm looking for:  Fun.  Not as in "Making Fun Of", but simply "Having Fun".  I'm looking for a sense of Joy.

      (I hadn't heard about the "Kryptonian atmosphere" bit; yes that does sound stupid.  But then, so did the plot device in Batman Begins of the nerve gas in Gotham's water supply which is only dangerous when it's vaporized by a sonic weapon but not if somebody boils it in a teakettle).  There are some points, sadly, where you just have to turn your brain off.

      Read my webcomic, "Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine" at

      by quarkstomper on Tue Jul 29, 2014 at 09:55:56 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Just because the writers have turned their brains (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        off does not mean the audience is required to do the same.

        Folks get paid a lot of money to write these scripts. Maybe making them logical and consistent interferes with the flow of the action. As a result, you have an okay meal followed by weeks of indigestion.

        I think it's just laziness. They probably start with a series of scenes they want to include and then can't figure out how to make them fit together.

      •  eh (0+ / 0-)

        the latter is at least plausible, the former was just, excuse the pun, batcrap crazy.

  •  I remember the old World's Finest (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    quarkstomper, RiveroftheWest

    series where Superman & Batman were good friends.  I loved that series back in the day.  Even re-reading a few of them recently, I enjoyed the good fun of the stories.   I hope that the new film ends up with them as actual friends instead of just colleagues.

    •  Theres a lot of distrust in public discourse these (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      milkbone, Hannibal, quarkstomper

      days and in some ways the comic reflects this.

      Of course, this distrust is spurred on by (primarily) the right-wing media who appear willing to split the country in two to make a buck.

      But the main reason it is happening in the comics world is because of Frank Miller.

      Miller is an angry, unhappy, right-wing misanthrope who has called the Occupy Wall Street movement

      ...nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness.

      What a sweetheart. To borrow a phrase from The Atlantic, he has helped extremism go mainstream in comics.

      TDK and TDKR were decent comics that sold extremely well, and so comic publishers fell over one another trying to cash in. But their interest lay in the fact that they were extreme, alternate views of beloved characters. The comics world still hasn't recovered from that infection, and now there's a entire generation of readers who don't know any other way.

      And BTW, there is no way Batman could beat Superman. Kryptonite? Superman flies out of range and then uses his super-breath to blow Batman right into the sun. Batman can win only when the writer wants Superman to lose.

      •  And Where Did Bruce Get the Kryptonite? (0+ / 0-)

        In Miller's DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, the kryptonite is a surprise, and explained with a caption in which Batman comments that the stuff cost a fortune to synthesize, but it was worth it.

        But the explanation I like better comes from the John Byrne era SUPERMAN.  I didn't care a whole lot for Byrne's Supes, but this was a bit I liked.  In it, Superman gives a piece of kryptonite that he's recovered from Lex Luthor to Batman.  He says that he wants it to be in the hands of someone he can trust.  Not just to keep it safe, but to use it in the case that Superman might turn evil or lose control get mind-controlled by Mxyzptlk or otherwise become a menace.

        Mind you, this was written during the period where it was cool for Bruce and Clark to not like each other, but it wasn't the all-out venom Old Bruce has for Old Clark in DKR.  They had mutual respect for each other.

        More recently there's been a SUPERMAN/BATMAN team-up book that tries to walk that "Odd Couple" balance of differing personalities and world-views with similar overall goals and mutual respect.

        Read my webcomic, "Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine" at

        by quarkstomper on Wed Jul 30, 2014 at 06:28:04 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  You haven't seen (3+ / 0-)

    The Dark Knight?  You are doing yourself a serious disservice.

  •  I had no problems with Man of Steel (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    quarkstomper, RiveroftheWest

    Except for Jonathan Kent telling Clark to never ever use his powers, even to the extent of letting people die. Other than that, it was really good, I thought.

    With the DC vs Marvel movies thing, DC's late to the party, and their characters, by and large, aren't as interesting. Their TV stuff is a lot better though, specifically with Arrow, and hopefully the upcoming Flash. Those two characters are great though, as they have a lot more depth to them.

    My biggest beef though, is with the upcoming Superman vs Batman: Namely with regards to Wonder Woman. They gave her costume freaking high heels. She's a total badass amazon warrior, and they gave her heels. What the fuck?

    First they came for the farm workers, and I said nothing.

    by Hannibal on Tue Jul 29, 2014 at 10:01:48 AM PDT

    •  She's always had heels. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      quarkstomper, RiveroftheWest

      Hell, Widow's costume has heels. Why? She's a ninja assassin in that outfit, not a femme fatale.

      "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

      by zenbassoon on Tue Jul 29, 2014 at 10:42:41 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Heels (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest, Hannibal, kurt

      My first published pro sale in comics was the script for a three-issue limited series titled CELESTIAL MECHANICS which was published by a company called INNOVATION.  It was a space opera who's heroine was a tomboyish spaceship mechanic, but the editor insisted that she be drawn wearing stiletto heels and frilly socks.  The artist, I'm glad to say, agreed with me that high heels were impractical for a wrench jockey on a space ship, but the cover of each issue featured the heels and the socks prominently.

      The editor said, probably with some justification, that cheesecake sells.  Then there was also the fact that he had his girlfriend dress up as my character to appear at comics conventions the summer the series came out.

      Read my webcomic, "Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine" at

      by quarkstomper on Tue Jul 29, 2014 at 11:01:21 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I used to collect (5+ / 0-)

    Supergirl, Bomba the Jungle Boy, and Tarzan comics.

    None of those, IIRC, were "dark," or "grim" in the name of "gritty reality." The point used to be that if you tried you could help, and if everybody tried a little together things'd get better for us all.


    LBJ, Van Cliburn, Ike, Wendy Davis, Lady Bird, Ann Richards, Barbara Jordan, Molly Ivins, Sully Sullenburger, Drew Brees: Texas is NO Bush League!

    by BlackSheep1 on Tue Jul 29, 2014 at 10:18:10 AM PDT

  •  Although in the same comic universe... (4+ / 0-)

    different studios own different Marvel characters. See this.

  •  This is why I cancelled all my DC comics (4+ / 0-)

    It got especially bad when they did a universe reboot with the horrible 'New 52' - every single issue of every single title had nothing but extremely vicious hyper-violence, with dozens if not hundreds of innocent people being slaughtered in horrible ways. All the heros hated each other, nobody had friends or good times - it was just constantly bleak, hopeless and violent. I read comics to ESCAPE real life!


    Oh and then they wrecked my favorite character, the Phantom Stranger, by actually giving him an origin story instead of keeping him a mystery like he's been for 50 years. Turns out he's Judas. Just dumb. I can't wait until they reboot the universe again and all this New 52 crap is wiped out.

    "What's it all about? You know what I mean." - Alfie

    by Fordmandalay on Tue Jul 29, 2014 at 10:36:16 AM PDT

  •  DKR was a bit disturbing at first. (3+ / 0-)

    Especially the scene where Joker kills himself. Batman eventually becomes in that comic what the League of Shadows wanted him to be in Batman Begins.

    "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Tue Jul 29, 2014 at 10:44:22 AM PDT

  •  This is also why the animated series were (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    quarkstomper, Hannibal

    SO much better. If you watched the animated Superman, Batman, and Justice League cartoons from the 90s and 00s, they had great characters, plots, fun and humor - and are still revered today. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are STILL doing their Batman and Joker voiceovers today because they were so perfect! All the characters were friends, joked around - and Batman even flirted around with Wonder Woma, and broke into song a couple of times! A very successful production record that never had to drop into an abyss of angst. Why can cartoons be more 'real' than live action?

    "What's it all about? You know what I mean." - Alfie

    by Fordmandalay on Tue Jul 29, 2014 at 12:03:40 PM PDT

    •  The animated series did some pretty odd stuff (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Fordmandalay, quarkstomper

      None of it bad mind you, just odd, if they were trying to reach as wide an audience as possible. Making Hawkgirl such an important character for example. Ramping up the importance of Green Arrow and Captain Atom. Even raised the profile of Star Girl. About the only characters I couldn't stand from that were Hawk & Dove. Those two really needed to just go away and not come back, ever.

      First they came for the farm workers, and I said nothing.

      by Hannibal on Tue Jul 29, 2014 at 02:14:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Is the Miller/Nolan Batman "dark," or (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Hannibal, quarkstomper

    is he just a tiresome mope?

    •  I think Nolan's was good (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      And while based on Miller's take, never delved into bullshit Miller seems to drown himself in. The guy turned Catwoman into nothing more than a prostitute, for example. I'm just glad Miller never got his hands on characters like Captain America or Iron Man.

      First they came for the farm workers, and I said nothing.

      by Hannibal on Tue Jul 29, 2014 at 02:21:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Miller's Cap (0+ / 0-)

        Frank Miller did have Captain America do a guest appearance in the "Born Again" storyline during his run on DAREDEVIL, and it was very good.  Of course, this was before he slid into the teacup.  There were hints of the misogyny and Tea-hadist stuff to come, but I only really noticed it in hindsight.

        These days, I'm happy if Frank stays in SIN CITY where he's happy.  And I wish to High Hasenpfeffer that he had never been allowed to touch THE SPIRIT.

        Read my webcomic, "Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine" at

        by quarkstomper on Tue Jul 29, 2014 at 09:41:16 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

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