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Gotham After Dark: Batman Noir

We’re currently blogging as part of the “For the Love of Film Noir” blogathon (hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren) to raise money to help restore the 1950’s film noir The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me). It’s a good cause which’ll help preserve our rich cinematic heritage for the ages, and you can donate by clicking here. Over the course of the event, running from 14th through 21st February, I’m taking a look at the more modern films that have been inspired or shaped by noir. Today’s theme is “comics noir” – noir filtered through comic book panels.

More than any other mainstream superhero, Batman is strongly linked with the film noir tradition. Dating back as early as his first appearances, straight through to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader has always inhabited a world which seems as fragile and broken as any noir protagonist. Just because he trades a trench coat for a cape (which, you’ll note, he makes a point to wear around him rather than just behind him) and a fedora for a cowl, don’t underestimate Bruce Wayne’s flirtation with the darker side of cinema.

The Dark Night?

Sure, the rich string of influences that helped inspire the creation of the Dark Knight included pulp heroes like Doc Savage and Sherlock Holmes, but his stories always had a decidedly pulpy feel to them. The classic Batman stories might seem awkward to read from the perspective of a modern fan, as clunky as the dialogue and plotting are, but there’s a really dark moral ambiguity to them – a rawness which would be lost during the Adam West years.

In his very first adventures, before the character truly crystalised into the form with which we are familiar, Batman carried a gun and had a somewhat “ambiguous” or “indifferent” attitude to the lives of the criminals he pursued. Some fans exaggerate the prominence of these traits (they were phased out fairly quickly) and Batman never murdered anyone (at least not explicitly). However, he didn’t mind if a scumbag or two ended up splatter across the pavement as he waged his war on crime. At one point, after knocking a villain into a vat of acid, the character remarks, “a fitting end for his kind.”

Dark Knight, Dark City...

It’s this aspect of the character that David Goyer was trying to channel at the end of Batman Begins when, in a very un-Batman-like move, Bruce opts to let his enemy die in a huge explosion. “I won’t kill you,” Batman assures him, “but I don’t have to save you.” To many people who grew up with the more consciously heroic Batman of the fifties and onwards, it’s a strange sentiment – and a contradictory one. However, Batman was – to quote The Legend of the Batman published in Detective Comics #33 – a “weird creature of the night.”

Batman is the product of the murder of his parents. Even as originally depicted, the scene calls to mind a classic crime scene from noir cinema. A goon confronts a family in a dark alley. “I’ll take that necklace you’re wearin’, lady!” the crook declares. As the father moves to intervene, the robber shoots him. The wife moves to comfort her husband. “This’ll shut you up!” the thief remarks. We don’t see (nor, through sound effects, “hear”) the shot. The scene of the cold-blooded murder of an innocent woman is handled carefully and through restraint. In the background of the shot, the city looms large.

Pearls of wisdom...

There have been quite a few additions and alterations to this basic myth since it was proposed, but perhaps the most definitive is the one Frank Miller wrote. The scene plays out in The Dark Knight Returns and the scene is even more drenched in the style of film noir. The image is desaturated, and – again – the violence is implied rather than shown. the visual metaphor that Millar used (which would filter through almost every iteration of the story from there on) was the image of Martha Wayne’s pearl’s snapping and breaking. All lost in a single moment.

Reading back over those early Batman stories, there’s a lot more common crime than one might expect. The Joker is introduced in Batman #1 going on a rather banal (by later standards) killing spree. Of course, classic horror would be a major influence (Batman #1 also features Hugo Strange and his Monster Men, and Batman would go to face the vampiric “Mad Monk”) as well as trend toward German Expressionist cinema (the Joker himself inspired by Conrad Veidt’s character in The Man Who Laughs), but those original stories were populated with cynicism and murders and gangsters and violence.

Sifting through the rubble...

Batman didn’t always win and – even when did – there was usually a significant body count behind him. Looking at that early artwork by Bob Kane, it’s striking how dark some of the panels are – much more heavily inked than they would be in later years. Although comic books were a young medium (and there wasn’t much of a trend toward experimentation with panel layouts – with anything that wasn’t a grid pattern numbered so that readers could follow it), some of the shots wouldn’t look out of place amongst some of the pulpier crime films of the time.

However, times change, and so do Batmen. At the end of the Second World War, comic books came under fire. The most notorious academic criticism came in the form of Seduction of the Innocent, a book which claimed that these stories were corrupting our youth. It’s the same argument that we hear about every form of new media, but it had more effect here than in most other forms of entertainment. Particularly damning was the insinuation that there was an “unwholesome” aspect to the living arrangements between reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne and his young ward, Dick Grayson. Comic books buckled under the pressure.

The Dark Knight noir!

This effectively meant the end of crime comics and the horror comics. For Batman, it meant a transformation. Inside of fighting mobsters and monsters, Batman instead went on trippy adventures to other planets and foiled silly novelty crimes. It was this era which saw the introduction of goofier villains like the Riddler or Crazy Quilt. It was also this era which gave us the Batman! television show, which was about as far from noir as humanly possible. “Why doesn’t Batman dance anymore?” Adam West would ask during an appearance on The Simpsons, as we all cringe at the thought of the Batusi.

I can’t bring myself to hate this aspect of Batman, if only because it was crazy absurdist fun. It was Andy Warhol’s Batman, a version of the character which not only acknowledged the surreal nature of the premise (man dresses up as bat and fights crime), but actively revelled in it. I don’t think Batman would hold such a prominent place in public memory if not for that live action show. Plus, some of it was so insane that you couldn’t help but love it.

What white teeth you have!

Frank Miller gets a lot of credit for restoring the character back to his film noir roots, but this ignored the contribution of writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams. The two took over the book after the show finished, and moved to give it more of an “old school” feeling. A lot of people recognise this return to form as one based around the earlier film noir inspired elements of the character:

The chief contribution of the O’Neil/Adams tenure on the Batman books was the immediate 180-degree turn from mid-’60s silliness into a world of shadow, realism (such as it was in comics at that time), and not a little soul-searching for the hero. Neal Adams’ art mixed photorealism with noir shadow-play, for the first time in a long time portraying a Batman with the physique necessary to accomplish his heroics, and simultaneously placing him in a world reminiscent of the character’s early days – a world the young Bob Kane might have recognized as kin to his own. O’Neil’s scripts were evocative of the early Kane/Finger pulp-inspired stories, centering on the lone, Robinless figure of the Batman – it was “the” Batman, again, thanks to O’Neil – against whatever inexplicable, ghoulish denizens of the night he had to face in a given month’s melodrama.

In particular, stories like The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge say the hero’s greatest adversary return to his roots, hunting down and killing five former goons who (he felt) had wronged him. As Batman races against time to save the goons, he visits an old run-down gym for a sparring session with one of the former crooks, and the two trade banter and jabs like hardboiled pros. “I can’t force you to cooperate Packy,” Batman remarks in the ring, “However, you might just have a slight accident – a fist-type accident – and it just might put you in the hospital where officers could guard you until the Joker is caught.”

A joy ride...

Rain is constantly beating down on this version of Gotham and (in the introductory – if you’ll pardon the pun – splash page) we see the Joker behind the wheel of a car as the rain hits the windshield. He’s laughing as he comes home – Hell is coming to Gotham. “Thunder racks the earth and lightening scars the sky and wetness streams from clouds like tears of mourning!” the narration advises us. “Death is abroad this morning.”

Gotham itself is the quintessential film noir city. It has alternately been portrayed as a city resembling the real life locations like New York or Chicago, or something more abstract – drawn from the desaturated nightmares of Fritz Lang. The city takes its name from (and was originally inspired by) the city of New York, but a heavily stylised one, one drenched in film noir aesthetic. To quote the great Denny O’Neill, “Gotham is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at 3 a.m., November 28 in a cold year.”

Gotham Gothic...

Some might argue that Gotham is created from the fears which underline big city living in the twentieth century and, across all its many iterations, it’s a nightmare of a place to live:

Since its inception, Gotham City has been presented as the embodiment of the urban fears that helped give rise to the American suburbs, the safe havens from the city that they are. Gotham City has always been a dark place, full of steam and rats and crime. A city of graveyards and gargoyles; alleys and asylums. Gotham is a nightmare, a distorted metropolis that corrupts the souls of good men.

Tim Burton’s Batman films chose to emphasise the grotesque nature of the city with heavily fascist architecture. There was a sense of being “walled inside” Burton’s Gotham, a sense that you could never climb so high that you would ever see the sky (and, even then, grey clouds would wall you in). It was literally oppressive architecture, crushing down on the inhabitants (who wandered around in trench coats and fedoras from a classic noir) and desaturated beyond the ridiculous. In Batman Returns, it snows, to create a stronger contrast of black-on-white.

When Joel Schumacher took over, he offered us a wider glimpse of the metropolis. There was a bay, but it contained a rocky little island designed to recall Alcatraz. Outside the city limits there were just miles of industrial estates, the land stripped dry as the city extended its roots out further and further. To Schumacher, Gotham was a city so dark that it used neon to create the impression of artificial sunlight. The city design was not just aggressive, it was downright hostile, with sewer systems designed as the perfect spot for ambushes or alleyways packed with street gangs ready to flood out like roaches.

The hardest cross to bear...

These designs were obviously exaggerated and surreal, but they got the point across. Gotham was a hellhole, one which would bleed the characters dry and suck the life out of them. Only in a city as warped as Gotham could Batman be a hero. It also harked back to the gothic origins of the hero, and many commentators find a strong link between classic gothic stories and the film noir, cementing the lineage, even through these hyper-stylised films.

Christopher Nolan’s Gotham, on the other hand, is more realistic. Inspired by Blade Runner, it’s always raining during Batman Begins. The city looks filthy, it feels almost like the anonymous city from se7en, While we’re on the subject of se7en, it’s interesting to note that Detective Sommerset could not stomach the idea of raising a child in the city. In Frank Miller’s Year One (a strong influence on Batman Begins), Detective James Gordon discovers his wife is pregnant and thinks to himself, “How did I let this happen? How did I screw up so badly.. to bring an innocent child to life… in a city without hope?”

A hard day's Knight...

In Nolan’s film, Gordon is similarly disillusioned. He refuses to take bribes, but won’t turn informant on his fellow officers. “Besides, in a town this bad, who’s there to rat to anyway?” Gotham is a sleazy city. It’s a world where judges and off-duty cops mingle in nightclubs run by “the Roman”, Carmine Falcone. It’s a city so corrupt that The League of Shadows does not believe that it can be saved. As their leader boasts to Bruce, “You’re defending a city so corrupt we have infiltrated every level of its infrastructure.”

Nolan filmed his movie in Chicago, and that has been the more recent counterpoint to the fictional Gotham. One can trace the comparison between the two cities back at least as far as Year One, when Gordon was transferred from Chicago to Gotham (and was completely unprepared). Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween cemented the ties between the Gotham mob and the more famous criminals in Chicago, while drawing clever points of comparison to modern noir classics like The Godfather:

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.

Chicago has a richer history of organised crime than even New York, so as writers attempted to re-establish Batman’s noir credentials, it seemed like a logical shift. This was the town that produced Al Capone, after all.

Ever dance with the devil?

Nolan and Goyer would acknowledge Loeb’s influence on their writing enough that they would write the introduction to the wonderful Absolute edition of The Long Halloween. However, if Loeb’s tale took the crime films of the seventies as its inspiration, Nolan himself would draw on more modern neo-noir. Both in themes and style, The Dark Knight borrow liberally from Michael Mann’s Heat, as it juggles many characters and plots along with jaw-dropping action sequences. The Dark Knight was noticeably streamlined when compared to Nolan’s fuzzier and dirtier Batman Begins, but that doesn’t mean the stylistic influence went away.

In particular, Harvey Dent’s character arc follows that of a tragic noir protagonist. He goes from an idealist advocating a brighter future through the legal system to a bitter and disillusioned monster who renounces concepts like “justice”. “The only justice in an unfair world is chance,” the former District Attorney declares as his world comes crashing down. He was the city’s last hope for peace, and Batman ends up covering up his death with a lie in order to prevent the entire city from falling apart. If your only foundation for hope and faith is something you know to be a lie, the world is already damaged beyond repair.

Bruce is a bloody failure...

Bruce Wayne himself is exactly the sort of morally compromised lead that one might expect from the genre. Although certain portrayals of the character (especially Adam West) tend to portray him as a well-balanced individual, he clearly isn’t. He’s, to quote the superb Justice League cartoon show, “a rich kid with issues – lots of issues.” His pursuit of criminals as a way to assuage the guilt of his parents’ murder is inherently selfish.It’s not going to end well. In fact, because his home medium is comics, we know that Batman will never find peace – he’ll be waging this one-man war on crime for pretty much all eternity. Although, even he did get an ending, I think we all know it wouldn’t be a happy one.

Depending on which version of the story you believe, it’s also possible that Batman’s interventions to bring down crime in Gotham have had the knock-on effect of making the city even worse – “escalation,” as Gordon describes it in Batman Begins, not unfairly. The Dark Knight squarely blames Batman for the rise in what might be termed “novelty crime” in the city, with more colourful rogues replacing traditional gangsters. “There’s no going back,” the Joker assures the assembled mob at one point. As noble as Batman’s crusade may seem, it has made things worse and created a perpetual cycle of violence and destruction that has cost countless lives.

Knight time...

Certain writers go even further. Frank Miller was the first to seriously suggest that Bruce Wayne might have serious mental issues (which is strange, given he dresses as a bat) and might be fighting crime to embrace some deeper, darker issues. This was a version of Batman which straddled the line between “hero” and “anti-hero”, prone to ridiculous acts of violence and hardboiled (almost sociopathic) narration like “This isn’t a mud pit. It’s an operating table, and I’m the surgeon.” When this version of Batman was animated, he was given the voice of Michael Ironside.

Of course, this is just one facet to the character, who has been so many things to so many people over the years. He’s been a camp icon, a paragon of virtue, “hairy-chest love god”, detective, superhero and so much more. It’s almost impossible to cram that down into one single iteration of the character (which was, I’d suggest, part of the problem with Grant Morrison’s recent Batman run). However, I have a soft spot for the noir inspired portrayal of a slightly unbalanced (yet brilliant) detective fighting against the odds in a city that just won’t let him win.

Author Neil Gaiman was tasked with writing Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? a few years ago, a nostalgic look back at the icon, in which various characters from all his iterations attended the character’s wake. I have to concede, it’s grown on me slightly each time I’ve read it. Anyway, at Batman’s wake, the audience was beguiled by stories of his courage and heroism, some camp, some action, some thriller, some comedy, some drama. The noir iteration of Batman, heavily influenced on those original stories of the forties, gives us a particularly harrowing version of the death of Batman. I think I’ll close with it.

A good Knight's rest...

Batman and Catwoman meet and flirt through their nighttime activities. She’s a sultry femme fatale. “I enjoy being a criminal just as much as you do,” she remarks, pointing out why he’s so excited be her – Bruce Wayne, the doctor’s son, running around rooftops in a pulp fantasy, breaking the law to enforce the law. She tries to talk him into retiring with her. “We could be normal together.” Batman’s tragedy is that he can’t ever “be normal.” He can’t stop what he is compelled to do.

So Catwoman cleans up Gotham, trying to create a situation where Batman doesn’t need to prowl the rooftops at night. However, she argues (using a wonderful phrase that draws to mind a quote from Casablanca), “the fact that I care for you isn’t worth a hill of beans in your world, is it?” Years later, when she’s living as Selina Kyle, a wounded Batman (losing lots of blood) stumbles in, asking for help. Her “help” is to tie him to the couch and let him bleed to death, perhaps granting him the closest thing he can ever have to peace.

His last words are telling. With his dying breath, he mutters, “so much to do…”

Batman can never win, nor can he ever rest. The rules of the game keep changing to ensure that he always loses. It’s hard not to see a shade of the old film noir in that aspect of the character.

If you enjoyed this post, please make a donation to the blogathon if you can. All funds go to help restore the classic The Sound of Fury, a very worthwhile cause and a wonderful contribution to make to the arts. Click the image below to donate.

8 Responses

  1. What a wonderful write-up!

    As you note, although Batman (and especially Gotham City itself) are amenable to almost any literary/filmic genre, the noir version dominates. The “noir” Batman works just as well in elseworlds (Batman: Nine Lives) as he does in continuity (if not in the character himself, than at least in creating the rainy back alleys of Gotham City). I think part of the prevalence is through transference and the attraction of the noir ethos to a certain kind of person. Those certain kinds of people (Neal Adams, Frank Miller, Paul Dini/Bruce Timm, Ed Brubaker, Christopher Nolan) have a natural affinity for noir in all its forms and adapt Batman to fit that worldview. Since “noir” is probably most usefully thought of as an attitude, style/mood, or worldview, naturally creators with a penchant for that style would gravitate towards that much adaptable of cultural characters, Batman.

    Speaking of Batman’s influences–no mention of The Shadow or The Spirit? It’s interesting that post-Eisner, The Spirit has been resurrected (haha) as a more noir-ish, less light-hearted character. Darwyn Cooke hewed a little closer to Eisner’s S(s)pirit, but the current character’s run is a much grittier, pulpier incarnation, due in large part to the Frank Miller-ization of a certain type of hero, post-Year One/Dark Knight Returns.

    • Thank you very much. You’re right, I missed a lot of the influences, but I wrote it in abit of a rush on a deadline. Might go back and update it. I also didn’t get to tackle Timm as well as I might have (or at all, really).

      • Timm is an interesting one in terms of noir influence. Look no further than the opening credits for B:TAS to find the defining aesthetic of ’90s Batman.

  2. Thanks for this, a great post.

  3. Great post on a subject close to my heart! Glad I wasn’t the only person in the blogathon writing about comics!

    I really liked your observation that Batman’s cape often resembles a trenchcoat! I agree with you that a lot of the noir aspects of the character were there in Kane and Finger’s original conception, carried over from German Expressionism. One of the reasons I love Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series so much is the way it creates a neo-noir world in which Batman can operate, a place where men still wear fedoras and spivvy moustaches!

    Really enjoyed this, and you’ve made me want to write something Batman-related now, so thanks!

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