Saturday, March 25, 2017

Batman: Year One  —  Reactions to Space: Gotham is Alive!

Batman is a cocktail of trauma and corruption, dropped in a Gotham City shaped glass. He is defined by this city, just as it is by his presence. They form a circular bond of creation, continually – psychotically – reinforcing one another’s existence. What follows is the first half of an essay I wrote considering Batman: Year One that shows Batman (and to a degree storytelling itself) as reactions to space and time. It was originally one piece but was so long it was doubtful anyone would read it.

Batman: Year One — Written by Frank Miller Art by David Mazzucchelli Colors by Richmond Lewis Letteres by Todd Klein Editor Dennis O’Neil

 In his essay “The Batman’s Gotham City™: Story, Ideology, Performance” William Uricchio argues the way to understand Gotham City is by using a non-representational model of geography. This idea of geography is “the geography of what happens”[1] in spaces, not defining the map by places (streets and building names).

This conception of Gotham is great for Urcchio, who is trying to bring coherence and understanding to a multimedia space that’s never had a strict map. Even in specific mediums and story universes the map shifts. The Gotham City of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” was a composite of Chicago (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) as well as Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and New York (The Dark Knight Rises) all brought together with VFX shots cutting and adding to the skyline. In the world of comic books, barring massive rewrites via Crisis level events, the city and its stories build on top of one another. In the realm of comics, location and understanding was never much of an option.  The limiting space of comic book pages and panels make for settings exist in the barest sense; the place of action, event, and tone all act in service of the story. The city becomes a hodgepodge of stories, not places. 

We know Gotham through the actions of its inhabitants, and thus we know it not as an objective space, but as a highly selective and ever-shifting accretion of parts, of encounters between characters, favorite episodes, rendering styles, even perspectives.[2]

As an ever-transforming space, Gotham City is very much a living, contributing factor to the stories told within it. It contributed to the creation of Batman and reacted to its creation. For Frank Miller “Batman only really works as a character if the world is essentially a malevolent, frightening place.” [3] In Frank Miller’s mind Gotham City is as against the Batman as the criminals are.

Bruce and Gordon are both outsiders; they view the city around them with disdain. The opening page of Year One has the leads traveling to Gotham in mirrored ways. Gordon, from below on a train. The page’s construction allows the reader to read it as if the two are finishing each other’s thoughts. A psychic-physical manifestation of their soon to be consummated partnership. Gordons thoughts trail off to his pregnant wife, Barbra’s view who is coming in via plane. On the page they lead the reader right into Bruce’s own loathsome thoughts on the shiny facade the city masks itself with thousands of feet away. “From here, it looks like an achievement.”

The Gotham City of Year One, as major metropolitan cities often are, is a place of extreme social stratification and calcification. Citizens are born into their role, with upward mobility being limited at best (often requiring some kind of corruptive mark), and the City does not like it when residents do not play their role. Class transgressions will be met with violence as if the city hangs a large “trespassers will be shot” sign on all corners. That’s what the Wayne family was when they left the movie theater. Gotham’s upper crust traversing the seedy lower end of the city, ended by an anonymous that criminal the cities corrupt conditions bred. Nearly two decades later their surviving son ventures forth to trespass once more. Miller provides a metric (twenty blocks) to imagine the distance between the “good” side of town and its eastern portion, or, as Bruce Wayne calls it, “Enemy Territory”. The exact locations, however are left to reader imagination. In order to signal to the reader that this is the “bad side of town”, artist David Mazzucchelli fills a half page panel to the brink with sinful, sexually exploitive, imagery. Colorist Richmond Lewis gives everything a bright yet dank neon glow from the signs advertising their wears ‘topless girls’ and ‘xxx’ everything as pimps and other less then pure individuals roam the dirty sidewalks.

Unlike his parents, Bruce ventures forth in a disguise. Some ratty clothes and a distracting fake scar, to help him blend in with the lower caste. Gotham City sees through this immediately. A pimp trying to pawn off an underage girl, Holly, on him asks “That Vice I smell? That crazy vet bit – thas old, man.” From the very start Gotham sees through his disguise, that he is an outsider.

Bruce’s attempt to act the hero go similarly as well. David Mazzucchelli gives Bruce a heroic, macho action movie head shot as he declares “I think you’re finished with her”. And then during the ensuing scuffle Holly stabs him in the leg. He’s arrested soon after, his first battle in the eternal war on crime ending in disaster. The City by its citizenry saw through his disguise, judged him and ruled he did not belong.

As Gotham punishes Bruce for trespassing, it also punishes co-lead James Gordon for his failure to assimilate into the corrupt order fast enough. Gordon’s by the book do-gooder attitude is threatening to GCPD commissioner Leob’s operations. And he is beaten for it, but not into submission. Unlike Wayne, Gordon is an outsider not yet tainted by Gotham. Leaving him with a choice: assimilate or be destroyed. Unable to bring Gordon to heel physically, Gordon is tainted when he begins an extra-marital affair with his partner, Detective Sarah Essen. It is a relationship brought on by his own personal failings in the marriage and conditions of the city. Actions that Leob attempts to use as blackmail for Gordon but fails, when Gordon comes clean to Barbara. Gordon is an outsider stuck on the inside, making him the perfect legitimizing partner for the Batman.

This episode of beatings highlights the necessity for Bruce and Gordon to turn to a vigilante symbol in an attempt to change the order of Gotham City. The core of the vigilante, whose stories often take place at night, is about the realization that the world around the protagonist is corrupt and the only way to make it change is to force it with extra-legal action. In contrast Batman’s daytime counterpart, Superman, is about protecting the pre-existing good order from the corruption and disorder. Unlike Bruce’s previous costuming as a vagrant – or perhaps an homage to Matches Malone – the Batman costume is not explicitly coded in class iconography. This new animalistic persona places Bruce outside of the class order of the city, protecting him from reprisals and allowing him to traverse the strata of class at all levels. This existence outside the order allows him to threaten Gotham’s corrupt elite at a dinner part with not so much as a scratch. Onlookers are rendered blind in this sense and left only with their shock and fear at the cities new Dark Knight. Elaborate animalistic costuming is also employed by Selina Kyle to burgle Gotham’s rich after being inspired by Batman’s dispatching of an entire SWAT team. 

When writing the origin of Edward Nygma aka the Riddler, Neil Gaimon commented on the inseparable bond between vigilante and city “When is a man a city? When it’s Batman or when it’s Gotham.”[4] Batman’s status as highly profitable intellectual property for DC Entertainment – Warner Bros. certainly contributes to the perpetual and insane creation myth rooted in the characters long history. He can never fully win otherwise there wouldn’t be a reason for him to exist and his publishers would no longer make any money. That is a very Sisyphean reading of Batman. What if, he isn’t trying to save himself? Both him and Gordon have already been tainted by Gotham, but Gordon’s child, hasn’t yet. Batman can be an agent of change in so much as the dark mark isn’t passed along to the next generation. This is a very empathetic message to take from a writer and story that helped define Batman’s grim an gritty (before that term became a meaningless buzzword) aesthetic for the next decade, but Year One is not an island. It exists in a sea of Batman stories all influencing and reflecting on one another. As a performer, Gotham City is always in a state of flux and reinvention it can’t be a perpetual hell that would go against the philosophy guiding it.

Works Cited
1 Simpson, Paul. "What Is Non-representational Theory?Paul Simpson Geography.
2 Uricchio, William. "The Batman's Gotham City(tm): Story, Ideology, Preformance." Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture, and Sequence. Ed. Jörn Ahrens and Arno Meteling. New York: Continuum, 2010.

3 Miller, Frank. “Spotlight: Dark Knight.” In: Comic’s Interview 31 (1986).
4 Gaiman, Neil. "When Is a Door: The Secret Origin of The Riddler." Ed. Mark Waid. Secret Origins Special 15 Aug. 1989

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