- The Many Lives of the Batman
The essays in this collection offer different kinds of assistance to a reader trying to interpret the multiple versions of Batman and the recent (now receding) flurry of Bat-hype. The essays chart the movement of competing “Batmen,” and attempt to give an account of the intertextual and extratextual dimensions of this network of alternatives. Some of the essays have an anthropological focus, as they investigate the behavior of the communities that produce and consume images of Batman. Others focus on the meanings of these images, although the interpretations of specific artifacts never lose sight of the multiple and interconnected nature of the various Bat-phenomena. It is in their accounts of this multiplicity and interconnection that the essays make their most suggestive contributions to the practice of cultural studies.
The best of these essays are extremely sophisticated in their adaptation of critical methodologies to the new multiple and changeable forms of the Batman narrative. The essays by Jim Collins and Eileen Meehan are most striking in this regard, combining detailed information about the phenomena with penetrating analyses of the narrative (Collins) or economic (Meehan) processes at work in contemporary representations of Batmen. The article by Uricchio and Pearson, on the other hand, serves as a kind of introduction to critical issues for contemporary Bat-scholarship by examining the serial nature of the Batman character, and calling attention to the tension between multiplicity and coherence in the production of popular culture. The three articles that deal directly with audience responses—Parsons, Bacon-Smith and Yarborough, Spigel and Jenkins—demonstrate specific models for cultural studies that are interactive, and do not write over the meanings produced by the audiences. However, of the contributions to this collection, Andy Medhurst’s essay is perhaps the most controversial and critical, as it addresses and explores issues of camp and sexuality in ways that challenge “official” interpretations of Batman. Medhurst’s framing of the competing bat-discourses as the struggle to establish “legitimacy” or “deviancy” sharpens and specifies the issues at stake in preferring one version of Batman over another, and suggests that homophobic resistance may account for the insistence, made by both artists and fans, on particular definitions of the Batman character’s masculinity.
The essays that are less self-reflective about their own practices are nonetheless useful in helping familiarize a critical reader with the kinds of information necessary for a study of Batman. For example, Bill Boichel’s brief history of the Batman’s manifestations in comics, film and television provides the pertinent names, dates, and titles to readers unfamiliar with the comics industry. But despite the promise of its title (“Batman: Commodity as Myth”), Boichel’s article fails to do more than describe the changes in the character of Batman since its first appearance. The collection also contains two interviews, one with DC editor Denny O’Neil, and one with writer/artist Frank Miller. These are informative, and give one the sense of being privy to inside information, but they do not exhaustively probe the issues they raise. However, for readers not familiar with the formation of the Batman canon, the articles set up the collection’s more detailed analyses by introducing the history of conflicting interpretations through the personalized “voices” of comics expert (Boichel), professional arbiter and editor (O’Neil), and artist (Miller). Thus, these three essays serve in part to highlight the movement in the other essays away from explanations based on authorial intention, and towards models that examine the effects of larger communities—audiences, populations of fans, and corporations—in the construction of meaning.
One consistent trend in the collection is the rejection of a passive model of cultural consumption. In the words of Patrick Parsons (“Batman and his Audience: The Dialectic of Culture”), study of the audiences for superhero comics reveals that “Contrary to the assumptions of some in both the popular and scholarly community, the impact of readers on content may be greater than the impact of content on readers...