The Dark Knight Rises While Comic Books Sink

Bats, fire, and ice.
The title screens of the three films in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, collectively, offer an Easter egg homage to the comic books that inspired them.

The first in the series, Batman Begins, offers a limned glimpse of the symbol within a flurry of bats across a yellow sky. The sequel, The Dark Knight, shows the same image, except in blue fire. The third, The Dark Knight Rises, shows the image in gray ice. (No ready version of that image was available so I had to do instead with a teaser image for the film, which shows gray buildings crumbling.)

Nolan has said that the images convey, “not in any massively meaningful way,” themes of the respective films. But more interesting than the themes are the colors he chose. Yellow, blue, and gray carry through the films themselves and in their marketing. (check out here, here, and here.) They, of course, are the three colors of the original Batman costume, which you would have seen had you picked up a Batman comic anytime between 1940 and 1995.

As far as I can tell, no one else has noticed this tip of the hat. Maybe that is because, for the vast majority of people who see these movies, the only Batman they will know wears all black.
Do an image search for Batman’s suit and you can see how the cultural impact of 70 years of comics compares to a handful of popular movies. Batman, like Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and Don Corleone, is that rare character born on the page, but ingrained in our souls by celluloid.

The original suit’s colors went unchanged until 1995 when they darkened, inspired by the movie versions.

Since 1989’s “Batman” all movie versions of the character have had a black suit.

This is not exactly the same thing as changing Moby Dick into a black whale or retconning Lolita to be 21, but it does say something about the relationship between movies and their source material. Books that are turned into films tend to hold up well against the Hollywood version, and are often considered superior.  Comics, though, are not regarded as literature. Because of this, the source material for many of our favorite modern myths is at risk of extinction.

Consider this: Of all eight major Batman films made in the past 25 years, the Dark Knight Rises is perhaps the most indebted to a range of comic source material. The overall narrative arc of the film closely mirrors that of The Dark Knight Returns and No Man’s Land while the Bane and League of Shadows elements of the story are a take on the Knightfall and Legacy storylines. And you know what? Nobody cares. Very few people will dig up those old issues (some twenty years old) and the rare ones that get reprinted will gather dust on the back shelves of a failing comic book store. We applaud both the film version and book version of, say, The Help. But you won’t see any of the inspiration for the new Batman movie showcased at the entrance to your local library.

The image of Bane breaking Batman’s back echos in the new film. Though as iconic to readers of the comic as Gatsby’s green light, the image is fading from popular memory.

This is not without some good reason. Super hero comics have plenty of faults, foremost among them the compulsion to be perpetually titillating. The quality of story is often sacrificed due to lack of space and time. Many of the Batman comics that make up the material used in The Dark Knight Rises is bloated, under-edited, and silly.

What a comic is not, though, is trash. As the classics professor protagonist in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain notes, “All of European literature springs from a fight.” Students of Homer know entertainment flush with blood and guts is not a characteristic of the modern age. Hell, what happens in any Batman story pales in comparison to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Violent conflict is the wellspring of all storytelling. And it is not something society is going to outgrow. It boggles my mind that every new generation of hand-wringing parents fret that their children will grow up to be reprobates if they read “dirty books.”

The problem, I suppose, is that comic books (a name as outdated as “cell phone”) have no respected body of critics. Consider this observation from the glowing review of The Dark Knight Rises on the ever-smarmy

Let’s back up for a minute and observe that all this stuff — the French Revolution and the Middle Eastern pit-prison and the vision of America’s greatest city capitulating to the ugliest kind of anarchy and terror — happens in a Batman movie.

Why are we embarrassed of Batman while we celebrate King Arthur and Robin Hood, Achilles and Hercules, Henry V and Troilus? Admittedly, not every great story needs to involve muscular men doing heroic deeds. But I bemoan the literati’s lurch in the other direction. Not every story need be about middle class lethargy either.

I once asked an art professor of mine, “Who decides what is art?” She actually had a great answer for me. It is a three-sided tug of war, she said. There is the artist, who announces he has made art. (Ever since Marcel Duchamp, artists have been allotted pretty broad authority in this area.) Then there is the critic, who must agree with the artist that the work in question is art with merit. Finally, there is the public, which must ultimately concur with critic and artist.

The only graphic novel to reach the distinction of high art on the Master List for Letters Republic is Alan Moore’s Watchmen. It is a great story, but it is a shame that it is all alone. (Maus is a great example of one that gets often mentioned. The graphic version of City of Glass is another.) Graphic novels are not the exclusive domain of superheroes, and the medium deserves our attention. I hope a movie like The Dark Knight Rises shows the public (and the critics) the best of what comics can do.

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