Sunday, December 12, 2010

I Believe in Batman - An analysis of The Long Halloween and The Dark Knight

“I believe in Gotham City… I believe in Jim Gordon… I believe in Harvey Dent… I believe in Batman.” These words, repeated throughout Jeph Loeb’s epic graphic novel Batman: The Long Halloween, truly drive home the themes and questions raised by the story. Does Gotham, or the world, need a Batman? What does Batman represent to Gotham and the world he inhabits? What does Harvey Dent represent? What drives Batman to do the things he does? These themes and questions are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when exploring Batman: The Long Halloween.

The Long Halloween was written by Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Tim Sale and originally published as a 13 issue limited series from 1996 to 1997. Each issue was published once a month, coinciding with the month during which each issue takes place. Since then, it has been published as a trade paperback, and is now widely accepted as a graphic novel, much in the same way Alan Moore’s Watchmen was published in multiple issues, but is considered a graphic novel. The story spans over a period of over a year, with each issue covering one month’s time. The way in which the issues were published, each issue coinciding with the month it takes place, and spanning over the course of more than a year, was essential to giving the readers a sense of real time progression as the narrative unfolded. This kind of real-time perception was only broken during the first issue, which, as mentioned earlier, begins in June and ends on Halloween night, and the transition between the 12th and 13th issue, which are separated by mere moments.

What makes this real-time publication strategy important is that it further emphasizes the epic structure and realistic tone of the narrative, and allows the story to make full use of the comic book medium’s potential to truly immerse the readers in the saga. While The Long Halloween may be a Batman story, it places itself amongst the best comic book and graphic novel stories through its dark, epic, violent, and mature narrative style. The series is widely considered to be more of an epic crime saga than a superhero yarn. This is no doubt due in part to the way in which Loeb draws much of his inspiration from film noir, and more specifically, is heavily influenced by The Godfather. The internal monologues, large cast of characters, numerous locations, sprawling narrative, and emphasis on Batman being “the world’s greatest detective,” are all stylistic and aesthetic elements that lend themselves to Loeb’s ultimate argument.

The story itself is widely considered the definitive origin story for Two-Face. In the beginning, we are introduced to Harvey Dent, Gotham’s District Attorney. An alliance is formed between Batman, Harvey Dent, and Jim Gordon to bring down organized crime in Gotham, which means taking on Carmine “The Roman” Falcone, Gotham’s ruling crime lord, and Salvatore Maroni, his rival. This plan becomes complicated when a mysterious killer begins murdering members of the Falcone crime family on holidays. The serial killer becomes known as Holiday, and holds Gotham city in a grip of fear as the murderer works his way up the hierarchy of the crime families. To make matters even more difficult, Batman’s rogue gallery of villains such as The Joker, Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, Poison Ivy, and others become involved in the mystery, which fuels the conflict between the crime families and the “freaks” of Gotham, in a war for control over the city. During the year, loyalties are tested, choices are made, and moralities are questioned.

Philosophical themes and questions are abundant, but not obvious, in The Long Halloween. A recurring theme is the idea of hope and symbology. During the course of the story, several characters use the phrase “I believe in…” This brings up questions about what each character or symbol represents for Gotham, and to the readers. What does Batman represent? Is Batman a hero? Is he something more? What does Batman mean to Gotham and the world he inhabits? Does Gotham, or the world for that matter need a Batman? Is Harvey Dent the symbol of hope for Gotham that Batman cannot be?

Writer Jeph Loeb would argue that Batman himself is representative of the soul of Gotham. Harvey Dent, on the other hand, is shown as something of a hero with a face, the white knight of Gotham city, and the symbol of hope Batman can never be. His stand against organized crime is presented by Loeb to be the first legitimate ray of light in Gotham in decades. However, he also presents a good amount of evidence that Batman is not in fact a hero, but something far more. To Gotham, and the world, Batman is a symbol of justice, a silent guardian, a watchful protector; a dark knight. Naturally, one can gather that Loeb of course believes that Gotham, and the world, needs a Batman. To give these arguments support, Loeb turns to the film medium, specifically to the noir and crime drama genres, for inspiration. Both genres possess a sense of stylized realism, particularly the noir genre. By using techniques such as Batman’s “voiceover” narration, along with stylized lighting, and a detective story feel, Loeb is able to ground his Batman in a universe of reality, which allows the reader to fully believe in the characters and the story that is unfolding before them. Thus, through the believability of the story and the Batman, the audience is able to connect with the dialogue and the phrase “I believe in…” gains much more poignancy.

A great deal of the themes and questions present in The Long Halloween are also explored in Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight, which drew a great deal of inspiration from Loeb’s comic. One thing worth focusing on is not only the parallels between The Long Halloween and The Dark Knight, but also how each utilizes the different mediums to explore the ideas within each, as well as how their differences explore these similar themes.

Ultimately, Loeb uses the comic book medium to argue that Batman represents a symbol of justice, and that there is no duality to him, only a Batman, driven by the will to do what he believes is right, no matter the consequences. 

So what is Batman? Between The Dark Knight and Batman: The Long Halloween, one of the constant things explored is the psychology and philosophy of Batman himself. What is it the drives Bruce Wayne to be Batman? Is Batman the disguise? Is Bruce Wayne the real man? Or is Batman the reality? Could it be that Bruce Wayne is just a persona, and that Batman has always been there, and that the costume and peripherals are just a means of representation of an identity? Loeb’s use of film-noir narration, and rarely having Bruce Wayne himself make an appearance, would help to argue that Batman is the true identity. These questions of symbols, will, and representation are present in the writings of Schopenhauer, a German philosopher form the early 19th century. His teachings are crucial in understanding the character of Batman, especially in works like The Long Halloween.

Schopenhauer was a philosopher who offered teachings that argue essentially in opposition of Kant. Kant argues that there is an essence of us distinct from us as we exist in the universe, which we could perceive with our senses and that is the ultimate cause of our actions and what value we place on them. Schopenhauer, however, argued that there was no reason to separate this function of will from what already existed in the universe. The will itself wasn’t a distinct entity, but rather that its functions were simply an invisible, separate aspect of us: will and representation.

In his essay about Batman and Schopenhauer, Fenzel, one of the writers of the website “Over-thinking It”, argues that when Schopenhauer’s reasoning is applied to Batman, we can come to the conclusion that “Batman is an intuitive, but not simple, symbol of an aspect of Will”. That Batman has no superpowers that give him a responsibility to use them for good, makes him unique and more complex than the likes of Superman or Spider-Man, who, as we all know, are driven by a code that tell them that with great power comes great responsibility. Because Batman has no great power, he has no great responsibility. He doesn’t have to do the things he does. Bruce Wayne didn’t “make” Batman. He is Batman, and even he doesn’t fully understand it. So what is it that Loeb argues that drives Batman?

The Long Halloween offers some insights into the Will of Batman. In issues one, four, ten, and twice in issue fourteen, Batman reiterates that he “made a promise” to his parents that he “would not rest until Gotham City was washed clean of the evil that took their lives”. This would imply that Loeb is arguing that Batman is motivated by a promise to his dead parents, and intends on fulfilling that promise, no matter the cost or however long it takes. However, as Chris Roberson points out in his essay; “Why Doesn’t Bruce Wayne Retire Already?!” Batman’s will to keep fighting the war on crime forever has put him in a self-imposed Catch-22. Because he is a mortal man, Batman will not live forever, and will progressively get older, slower, weaker, and ultimately die. However, there is something that forces him to keep going, despite the knowledge of his own mortality. As Batman sees it, as long as there is crime, Batman is needed, no matter how illogical it is for him to keep up his crusade into old age. So why not train a successor to take up his mantle? By following Roberson’s reasoning, one comes to understand that the Batman of Loeb’s story believes that because he was the one who made the promise to his parents, he himself must be the one fulfill that promise.

Not all of Batman’s desire to achieve his goal is motivated by border-line psychotic obsession. Loeb’s use of the rhetorical device of Bruce’s dead parents not only appeals to the empathy and ethos of the reader, but also helps to open doors to appeals to the reader’s pathos. Robin S. Rosenberg, like Loeb, argues in his essay “What’s Wrong With Bruce Wayne?” that the traumatic event in Bruce Wayne’s life; witnessing his parents’ murder, is what births Batman out of an understanding of the traumatic event on a large scale, and the bigger implications it has on his global social conscience. Rosenberg then finalizes his argument by concluding that it is Batman’s chosen path of social activism. This would support Fenzel and Loeb’s argument that the costume, mask, gadgets, and other aesthetic elements of Batman are merely a means of representation of will. Loeb even makes an allusion to this method of representation in issue eleven, when Batman visits a pub in search of the Riddler, and remarks on the lack of terror shown by the men in the pub, observing that “They may be superstitious… they may be cowards… but my…appearance has more effect… at night…”.

More important, however, is the kind of pathos Loeb appeals to in order to further his argument that the death of Bruce’s parents birthed Batman. Because their deaths shaped Batman’s world views, Batman’s choice to live a life of social activism is something any reader with a strong conviction to do something meaningful can relate to, especially if that Will was birthed from significant events in that person’s life.

So while Loeb is clearly arguing that Batman is being driven by a choice to pursue an endless crusade against crime, and this conviction was birthed out of the death of his parents, he also has an argument to make about what Batman means to the world around him. To Loeb, Batman is a symbol of justice, but he might not be the most approachable figure. This is where Harvey Dent comes in. Harvey, like Batman, also strives to rid the city of organized crime. However, unlike Batman, Harvey shows signs of being somewhat morally gray at times. If Loeb is arguing that Batman is the ultimate force of good in Gotham, and that organized crime is the ultimate evil in Gotham, where does Harvey fall in line with the two ideological extremes? Loeb’s use of noir-like dialogue shows Harvey to be something of an everyman, and lines such as “Two shots to the head. If you ask me, couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy” reveal the kind of moral conflicts within him.

What these instances of moral ambiguity represent are the same kinds of base questions the narrative asks the reader to consider. If Holiday is killing criminals, is it still wrong? After all, isn’t it beneficial to the greater good that one less member of the Falcone crime family is walking the streets of Gotham? In that sense, the moral gray that Harvey appears to embody show that Harvey represents the audience’s way of connecting with the story on a more personal level. Here, Loeb seems to be arguing that Harvey represents the human element to the story. It’s not that Batman isn’t human, it’s just that because he stands for absolute justice and refuses to cross the line that Harvey ultimately crosses in the end as Two-Face, make him something of an enigma, seeing as how he is an exceptionally altruistic and compassionate human being with no morality issues.

This sense of contrast between the symbolic figures is also present in director Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight. In the film, which was very much inspired by Loeb’s work, Christopher Nolan presents a similar argument about Batman and Dent representing ideals of good. However, unlike Loeb, Nolan argues that though Dent is the White Knight of Gotham, the true hero and ultimate symbol of hope for the people, he sees justice as something that must be administered within the law. Batman, on the other hand, is somewhat of an anti-hero, and willing to resort to extreme methods to achieve justice, such as wire-tapping, torture, and other things. In that sense, the roles of the two men have been reversed from Loeb’s story, with Batman explaining to Dent that he cannot ever resort to the same things Batman does, exclaiming “You’re the symbol of hope, I can never be. Your stand against organized crime is the first legitimate ray of light in Gotham in decades. If anyone saw this, everything would be undone. All the criminals you pulled off the streets would be released, and Jim Gordon will have died for nothing.”

This kind of role reversal is maintained until the end of the film, where, like in Loeb’s story, Harvey succumbs to madness and murderous vigilantism. In both the film and the graphic novel, Batman maintains his ideological stance of not killing his adversary, regardless of how many people the Joker or Holiday killed, whereas Harvey decides that it is for the greater good that he kills the criminals and corrupt police that he sought to bring down in the first place. The Joker comments on Batman’s refusal to let him die in the film’s climax, snarling “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness, and I won’t kill you, because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” Despite the fact that Batman saves the city from the Joker, he decides to essentially sacrifice himself in order to maintain Harvey’s image as a symbol of hope for Gotham. What this shows is that Batman believes so firmly in the good that he stands for and that Dent symbolized to the people of Gotham, that he is willing to forever tarnish his public image in order to keep that belief in the hope of good alive.

Though the film is obviously not a direct adaptation of Loeb’s work, it certainly touches upon many similar issues that The Long Halloween does. Both end with Batman deciding to press on and endure, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and the loss of a friend and ally. He chooses to continue because he believes in what he stands for. What this means is that while Batman may appear on the surface to be driven by the death of his parents, and the way it shaped him, there is something much more existential at work within him. Loeb’s use of noir motifs, such as Batman’s inner monologue narration allow the reader understand that Loeb is firmly arguing that there is no dual identity to Batman, just the Batman. He endures on because as long as there is crime, the world needs Batman. This will to endure is ultimately the result of what Loeb is arguing all along: that Batman chooses to pursue what he knows is impossible to achieve because the day will never come when Bruce didn’t need Batman because it is what gives his existence meaning and purpose. 


Candice Frederick said...

really interesting analysis here. and, like the movie batman begins, really humanizes him

Kevin K. said...

Indeed. It's an essay I've been sitting on a while, but our Batman conversation earlier inspired me to publish it. Can't wait to see other reactions.

Kevin K. said...

Even as I published it, I hear the soundtrack cue "A Dark Knight" playing in my head. Pure bliss. God I love this movie, comic, and character to an unhealthy degree. One of my Top Ten Favorite Films of all time for sure.

Sales on Film said...

In the sixth paragraph, it probably isn't wise to describe Loeb's intentions with lines of dialogue from Nolan's film. You're performing some retrograde analysis here, creating a false equivalency between Loeb's philosophy of the Batman character with Nolan's a decade later.

Kevin K. said...

You're referring to "His stand against organized crime is presented by Loeb to be the first legitimate ray of light in Gotham in decades. However, he also presents a good amount of evidence that Batman is not in fact a hero, but something far more. To Gotham, and the world, Batman is a symbol of justice, a silent guardian, a watchful protector; a dark knight.", am I corrent? That was done on purpose, not out of laziness or accident. It's a transition into my introduction of the parallels between the film and the book a paragraph later. How would you fix it, though?

Sales on Film said...

If it was done purpose, I think it's a mistake. Number one, you have to quote those lines because they are not yours and come directly from TDK screenplay. Number two, you don't establish a definitive link between Nolan's worldview and Loeb's, either via commiserate dialogue or visual images. The strength of your essay would be stronger overall if you could get away from generalizing and pinpoint either some visual motifs that both film and graphic novel share. Right now, I've only counted the "I believe in Harvey Dent" line which TDK used in advertising and in the film, but the weakness of the essay, to my mind, is that it conflates Loeb's work with Nolan's where it should be more of an examination of how The Long Halloween influenced TDK; not vice versa.

As an adjunct and not actually related, although TDK does incorporate elements of The Long Halloween storyline, there are also elements of other comics present in its structure which are ignored here.

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