Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Batman: the hero we deserve... just as long as you've done your homework.

In which I say something outlandish and probably hugely offensive … on the Internet of all places. Sheesh! (Oh and as you can tell I’ve just found out how to take a screenshot on my new phone and went a little bit over the top in regards to my visual aids. For the single person who accidentally comes across this page and decides it’s worth a punt, I hope you can see them.)

A few weeks ago Simon Pegg tweeted in response to his first viewing of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.

Of course this prompted a vast array of replies from the typical Twits craving attention from celebrities and believing that following someone on a social networking site basically means you know them well enough to act like their friend. (But that’s an issue I should probably work on some other time.) The replies included attempts at humour referencing Miller’s infamous rant concerning the Occupy Wall Street protesters; general insulting and idiotic comments about Miller himself; and replies that actually pertained to Pegg’s original point (i.e. the relationship between Miller’s graphic novels and Nolan’s films).

To clarify his point Pegg followed up with this tweet:


It is this statement that started to get me a little riled up. The phrase “too few people will appreciate” is in keeping with the air of smug, superiority that I feel is in the background of Pegg’s writing. Before I go any further I’d like to point out that I, like most people in the world, am a big fan of Simon Pegg. From being a fan of Spaced when it first aired to thoroughly enjoying Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, I have always had a great deal of respect for the work that he is doing. However, there is something about his constant pop-culture references and allusions that give the impression that he‘s out to prove that he‘s better than all of us (I’m under no illusion that Simon Pegg is better than me but I find it off putting that he always has to remind me of that fact). I can’t help but feel that the inclusion of so many in-jokes and references are merely a device used to alienate a large section of the audience. There is no doubt that Simon Pegg is knowledgeable about all things relating to general geekery but his constant need to show us his knowledge has a pretty clear judgemental tone behind it.

Now back to the original point. The phrase “too few people will appreciate” is highlighting the fact that Pegg is obviously a fan of Frank Miller’s graphic novels whilst simultaneously suggesting that those who go to see The Dark Knight Rises without being aware of his material are worthy of criticism. An idea carried on to his next tweet:


The idea that people who go to see a comic book movie without being aware of the original source material is a horrible and incredibly pretentious suggestion. Now I’m aware that this is something of a hypocritical statement for someone who has probably not discussed TDKR without uttering the phrase “in the comics” at least once. However, I wouldn’t dare to group myself in with the Batman fans who have been following the comics for years. As someone who got into the Dark Knight, and comics in general, as a teenager rather than a child, I’m aware that I still have a lot to learn but it is being in this position that allows me to have a certain amount of detachment when it comes to the much-loved work of writers like Miller.

I find it strange that so many of the replies to Pegg’s tweets were angry about the fact that Nolan took inspiration from, and in some cases lifted scenes straight out of, the comics. I doubt any of them would have been happier had Nolan gone off book and written a completely freestyle script. That leads to terrible, Joel Schumacher style abominations after all. There is no getting away from the fact that the film’s are based on a popular comic book character and writers have continued to pen stories about Bruce Wayne and friends since 1939. Of course Nolan and his co-writers were going to look at certain stories (sensibly the most popular and critically acclaimed stories at that) to find inspiration for the films. Complaining about the use of ideas from The Dark Knight Returns or Knightfall is as stupid as watching an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and complaining that the writer references characters from Austen’s text. What we are really dealing with here is the awful hipster-ish quality of wanting it to be known that you liked something before it was cool or popular. I guess that a possible problem for a lot of die-hard Batman fans is that liking superheroes, something that was perhaps considered uncool and geeky, is now becoming something that absolutely anyone can enjoy. If the subculture becomes a normative part of the wider culture what does that mean for the original fans? They can no longer be differentiated from anyone else. Holy hipsterism, Batman! 

This is an idea that I have long associated with graphic novels as a whole. I find the term ‘graphic novels’ to be flawed and intentionally conceited. The definition of the term taken from the OED is “a novel in comic-strip format” which is fair enough. Graphic novels, as I see it, are basically longer comic books or, in some cases, collections of shorter stories that fall under one theme/idea. However, the term has become a way to make comics appear more socially acceptable and upmarket. It is a term that has come to have more importance for the readers than for the creators of  the graphic novels themselves. If I may quote Daniel Raeburn:
I snicker at the neologism first for its insecure pretension — the literary equivalent of calling a garbage man a 'sanitation engineer' — and second because a 'graphic novel' is in fact the very thing it is ashamed to admit: a comic book, rather than a comic pamphlet or comic magazine.
Sticking a hardback cover on a story told primarily through artwork does not magically make it better than a comic book. It is something that sellers picked up on to make works appealing to a wider audience. In an interview in 2000, Alan Moore also turned his back on the term.
 It's a marketing term. I mean, it was one that I never had any sympathy with. The term "comic" does just as well for me. The term "graphic novel" was something that was thought up in the '80s by marketing people… But no, the term "graphic novel" is not one that I'm over-fond of. It's nothing that I might carry a big crusade against, it doesn't really matter much what they're called but it's not a term that I'm very comfortable with.
Similarly, when Neil Gaiman was described as being the writer of graphic novels rather than comic books he suggested that he “felt like someone who'd been informed that she wasn't actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.”

The term has never really sat well with me and there is a part of me that agrees with the idea that the difference between the comic book and the graphic novel is the binding. Yes a graphic novel may present more of a complete narrative but there is no need to remove the idea from the simpler format. Sticking the term graphic novel onto a collection of comics is a basic way of jacking up the price and allows self-conscious readers to feel better about their reading habits. I agree that there are some fantastic graphic novels out there but the inclusion of the word “novel” does make the work comparable to the likes of Ulysses. I’m all for keeping people happy but we need to keep a bit of perspective here. I’m sorry to say that you’re reading comics and having read them does not make you better than those who have not.
I went to see this film with a group of friends who had no real knowledge of the Batman universe and only had the last two films as a basis. I don’t see how it is possible to say that they would have missed out on a major aspect of the film because they weren’t sat there thinking “ooh that scene is lifted straight out of The Dark Knight Returns” and “this film has taken a lot of ideas from No Man’s Land”. As it  happened, the first time I saw this film I was trying to second guess Nolan and trying to look for plot twists where there were no plot twists. “Oh well if this is like such and such a comic then this will definitely happen” was constantly at the forefront of my mind and I wasn’t able to appreciate the finer points of the film itself.

Of course, I do admit that I found a small amount of pleasure whilst watching the likes of the “you're in for a show tonight, son” scene taken straight from Miller’s story. Even though the inclusion of the famous ‘breaking the Bat’ scene from Knightfall was a necessity once Bane was chosen to be the villain I still rejoiced when it happened. Also, the allusions to No Man's Land made for an interesting setting for Bane's plan. Without a doubt I would recommend these titles and many others to those who enjoyed Nolan’s films but I fail to see how it aids your viewing to know who came up with the original ideas referenced in the final script. I was certainly less offended by people who hadn’t read the comics watching DKR than I was by the people who hadn’t seen Batman Begins. The first installment to the trilogy was vital when it came to the ideas being explored in the third. The people who had picked up on Nolan’s Batman thanks to the hype surrounding Heath Ledger would have been missing vital information that the director expected (nay needed) his audience to know. At least have the decency to watch the whole trilogy before you claim to be a fan.

As a final thought, if we’re saying that only comic book fans can watch and appreciate comic book movies what do we say of filmmakers unaware of the original material making superhero films? I’d like to ask those who are offended by an audience member watching DKR without having read The Dark Knight Returns whether the fact that Bryan Singer did not like the X-Men comics when he made the first film meant it was worthless and terrible. Cinema is a mass culture. As a secondary example, was it necessary for people to have read all of Tolkein's books regarding Middle Earth before indulging in Peter Jackson's outstanding films. Is it vital that people have read the ridiculous Tom Bombadil scene before they watch Elijah Wood and the guy out of the Goonies set off on their long walk? Of course it fucking isn't! What about the Lion King? Not only does the story take ideas and themes from Hamlet but basically copied scenes directly from Kimba the White Lion, an anime series from the 60s. The Lion King is still one of the most popular Disney films of all time and many people consider it to be their favourite Disney film, if not all round film. Do we have to track these people down and tell them they can't have it because they aren't aware of the either of these sources? Yeah that sounds stupid doesn't it.

Surely the point of film adaptations is to open up material to new people whilst still containing enough in-jokes and ideas that fans will appreciate? It's barbaric. Cinematic apartheid is not a road we want to go down people. It should be enjoyed by all whether or not they spent their childhood devouring comics or not. To quote my favourite reply to Simon Pegg’s tweet: “Oh. And I rather enjoyed it too, I didn’t realise there was homework we had to do beforehand”. Kudos, my friend. Kudos.

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