Thursday, March 11, 2010

Noir in a Cape

By Kelli

Confession time. I am a comic book geek. No, I mean really. Look at the facts:

I owned a comic book store for almost ten years.
I was an Overstreet Guide advisor (the bible of the industry).
I combined comic book and cultural history and Classics in many an academic presentation, and wrote a very well received scholarly journal article on Wonder Woman (and how her image reflects American society's attitude toward women from the 40s through the 90s) that is actually cited occasionally (validation!)
I own a huge comic book collection--including every issue of Detective Comics from 1959 to 1989.
Our store was actually in an issue of Batman, thus making me part of the DC universe.
And ... here's the clincher. I can name the Legion of Super-Pets.



So I'm not going to go on and on with this post ... for one thing, only fellow geeks would enjoy it, and for another, I'm fighting (and losing to) a cold, and I have to fly tomorrow and be ready to rumble and read at a signing at the legendary Book Soup in Los Angeles tomorrow evening ... so my time and energy is limited. But--now that my geekiness has been confirmed--you know you won't hear the last about superheroes from this corner.

So, who's the favorite? Batman, of course. I grew up with Batman, watched the TV show, and (according to my mom) used to run around with a towel around my neck pretending to be Batgirl. But the Batman that I knew best--the one that "turned" me, so to speak--was the Batman of the '70s, a true dark night detective. Why?

Well, during the "bronze age", as it's known--days of 20 cent comics or 50 cent 100 Page Super Spectaculars--comics were forging ahead into adult themes. The 70s was a generally pessimistic era, but one of social consciousness and a lot of psychic and paranormal emphasis. Batman was returned to his 30s gangster roots during the decade, a figure born of tragedy and personal pain, who decided to get revenge ... and then decided to try to harness the rage and power for the benefit of other innocent victims.

Nowhere is this more clear than in a seminal story (and still my vote for best Batman tale ever) called "The Night of the Stalker." These ten or so pages made me a Batman fan for life, because I understood the sense of fury and loss and frustration and anger and obsession--all the noir underpinnings, in fact--that drove Batman to become Batman. I still clearly remember the day I read it--when I was nine years old.

There have been other heroes and heroines, of course. I am a DC girl, and only flirted with Marvel's darker titles (like Tomb of Dracula). But DC, during this time, was reprinting golden age stories from the 40s to fill out those 100 pages for 50 cents ... so I became acquainted with Dr. Fate and the Spectre, two dark and supernatural Golden Age heroes, and The Black Canary, who was a femme fatale crime fighter, right down to her fishnets and blonde wig.

I also eagerly followed the adventures of psychic Madame Xanadu, created in the 70s, and illustrated by the great Michael Kaluta, and the cool and mysterious Phantom Stranger. And really, I liked 'em all, from Green Arrow to Green Lantern to Superman's extended family.

But Batman ... I understood him. He was a totem, a symbol, a sacred representation of something very dark and very powerful.

And he still is.

Batman is noir in a cape ... and the most vulnerably human of the twentieth century myths we call superheroes.

Plus, let's face it ... who doesn't want a batcave??

I'm heading south tomorrow with some of my fellow Criminal Minds ... and hope to meet any CM readers at Left Coast Crime!


Meredith Cole said...

My small son likes Bathman--but is also freaked out by him. He is incredibly dark, and I try to gloss over the whole parents-killed-by-muggers part of the story whenever possible (to minimize nightmares).

I never wanted a Batcave (I'm with you on cave aversion, Shane), but I'd love a Batmobile. Tired of traffic? Just fly over it!

PK the Bookeemonster said...

Kelli, what are your thoughts about the Watchmen? My husband is an uber-geek about them and tried to convince me to read them when we dating 15-ish years ago. I couldn't get into it then. It took the movie for me to finally understand what he meant. Deep complexity and anti-superheroes. Do you recommend other graphic novels with that kind of complexity (other than Sandman). I'm trying to come up with books (any type) that he'll read.

Sophie Littlefield said...

"noir in a cape" - love it!

see you soon...

Shane Gericke said...

You go, Kel! The cool part of comic books is they were kid-affordable, found in almost any store, and the writing and art was damn good for its cost. I loved comic books when I was a kid. Oddly, I care hardly at all for graphic novels now, even when they're well-done. I love straight prose, and graphics and photography, and wild colors. Just not packaged as comic book.

Can you explain why "comic book" became "graphic novel." Marketing? Or something else?

And Meredith, here's to ya on cave aversion! Claustrophobia is a pain in the ass; sucks the joy out of many things I like to explore, like old castles.

Meredith Cole said...

I'm not claustrophobic about everything--but caves are really creepy... And I don't care for crowded elevators much.

I just realized this morning I wrote "bathman" instead of "batman." Is he a super hero, too? Kelli would definitely know.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Again, not a comic book person, but I do love the Batman movies. Feel better:)

I'm clueless on the "graphic" novel too, Shane. I thought that meant, "trashy" novel, when I first heard it.

Bathman. I can see the possiblities, Meredith. Erotica, perhaps? I'm sure Kelli will advise.

Joshua Corin said...

Kelli, if you love noir comics, you should really check out Will Eisner's old "Spirit" book from the 40s and 50s. The man was brilliant and his tales were the epitome of shadowy morality.

Just don't watch the movie version. Ever.

Kelli Stanley said...

Hi guys! Sorry for this being a week late ... I came down with a cold right before LCC and then got swept up in events and am now trying to catch up ...

Meredith, Batman is, indeed, dark ... but he didn't scar me as a youngster, David Copperfield did. My parents gave me a copy of a Classics Illustrated version when I was about six, and I remember screaming my head off when David's mom dies.

So you never know where the nightmares are going to come from ... Dickens or Bill Finger (co-creator of Batman)! ;)

Kelli Stanley said...

PK, I loved Sandman and Watchman, and I really enjoyed both Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing in the late '80s and his V for Vendetta. I haven't seen the movie of the latter, but the graphic novel is terrific.

I've never cared for Harvey Pekar, and while Maus is potent, I'm not a huge, huge fan of Art Spiegelman. Right now, Brian Azzarello's 100 Bullets is something he might enjoy, if he likes hardboiled fiction.

And as for post-modern superheros, you can't do better than The Golden Age, though he probably already has it. :)

Hope this helps, and sorry to get back to you so late!!

Kelli Stanley said...

Shane, the whole graphic novel thing is an attempt to separate the serialization aspect of the comic book from the medium of story-telling--by making several issues available at once, in a book form, rather than waiting month by month. And, of course, it's marketing. :)

Americans were poisoned by the McCarthy era of comics (the 1950s) and the subsequent rebirth of the silver age (Spider-Man, X-Men) into identifying the format with kid's books. In truth, all ages of people read comic books in the 40s ... they were even sent to soldiers overseas.

Then camp hit in the late '60s with the Batman TV series, and on top of the original juvenile association, that has made it extremely difficult for adults to "admit" they read comics. As the material became more adult in the mid '80s, the graphic novel came to be ... and now, well, they're everywhere. :)

And I want to write one! ;)

BTW, our own Mysti's husband is an awesome graphic novelist and artist! Here's a link to a site:

Kelli Stanley said...

LOL .. Meredith, Bathman isn't a hero (or villain) but maybe he should be. :)

The closest thing I can think of to Bathman may be a comic character from the 40s called The Red Tornado. She was an old lady who hung fought crime with a soup bucket on her head. ;)


Kelli Stanley said...

Terry, girl, I love the way you think. :)

I can definitely see "Bathman" and perhaps "Showergirl" in a limited series ...

Kelli Stanley said...

Josh, darlin', The Spirit has long been a favorite of mine, and I actually had the honor of meeting Will Eisner (he kissed my cheek!) :)

I own a few golden age originals of both comic books and newspaper sections, and a number of signed books by Eisner ... he was not only a genius, but a wonderful, wonderful person. I was so lucky to meet him (and Jack Kirby, and Mart Nodell, and others of the Golden Age). :)

And you're right ... the movie does suck. :) But The Phantom one wasn't too bad! :)