March 6, 2009
The Many Lives of The Batman (Revisited): Multiplicity, Anime, and Manga

This is a post Henry wrote for his blog in early February that touches on a number of key issues the Consortium engages with. I thought it might be worth revisiting "The Many Lives of The Batman (Revisited)"

The Many Lives of The Batman (Revisited): Multiplicity, Anime, and Manga
by Henry Jenkins

Writing in 1991, Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio (the co-Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program) used the Batman as an example of the kinds of pressures being exerted on the superhero genre at a moment when older texts were continuing to circulate (and in fact, were recirculated in response to renewed interests in the characters), newer versions operated according to very different ideological and narratalogical principles, a range of auteur creators were being allowed to experiment with the character, and the character was assuming new shapes and forms to reflect the demands of different entertainment sectors and their consumers:

Whereas broad shifts in emphasis had occurred since 1939, these changes had been, for the most part, consecutive and consensual. Now, newly created Batmen, existing simultaneously with the older Batmen of the television series and comic reprints and back issues, all struggled for recognition and a share of the market. But the contradictions amongst them may threaten both the integrity of the commodity form and the coherence of the fans' lived experience of the character necessary to the Batman's continued success.

(See The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media)

The superhero comic, they suggest, may not be able to withstand "the tension between, on the one hand, the essential maintenance of a recognizable set of key character components and, on the other hand, the increasingly necessary centrifugal dispersion of those components."

Retrospectively, we can see Pearson and Uricchio as describing a moment of transition from continuity to multiplicity as the governing logic of the superhero comics realm. Rather than fragmenting or confusing the audience, this multiplicity of Batmen helped fans learn to live in a universe where there were diverse, competing images of their favorite characters and indeed, to appreciate the pleasures of seeing familiar fictions transformed in unpredicted ways.

In an article which I previewed in draft form on the blog and which recently was published in Angela Ndalianis's The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero, I describe the multiplicity paradigm at play in contemporary comics:

Under this new system, readers may consume multiple versions of the same franchise, each with different conceptions of the character, different understandings of their relationships with the secondary figures, different moral perspectives, exploring different moments in their lives, and so forth. So that in some storylines, Aunt May knows Spider-man's secret identity while in others she doesn't; in some Peter Parker is still a teen and in others, he is an adult science teacher; in some, he is married to Mary Jane and in others, they have broken up, and so forth. These different versions may be organized around their respective authors or demarked through other designations - Marvel's Ultimate or DC's All Star lines which represented attempts to reboot the continuity to allow points of entry for new readers for example.

We can see this principle of multiplicity at play in Batman: Gotham Knight, an anthology of animated short stories about the Caped Crusader, which was released last summer as a bridge between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. I had a chance to watch the film during my Christmas break and given this blog's ongoing interest in transmedia storytelling, I thought I would share a few reflections.

There are clear connections between Gotham Knight and The Animatrix, which I discuss in Convergence Culture. These new animated shorts were released direct to dvd as the third in the line of DC Universe Original Animated Movies released by Warner Premiere and Warner Bros. Animation. Warner was also the distributor of the Animatrix, which was similarly released between The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded as part of the Wachowski Brothers' larger transmedia strategy. The studio seems to have learned a few lessons since The Animatrix, which are suggested by two key differences between the two productions.

First, the information communicated about the franchise through The Animatrix was crucial to our understanding of the Matrix films, helping to introduce new characters (The Kid) and motivate major plot shifts (the relations between the humans and the machines). The Wachowski Brothers took transmedia principles much further than their audience was ready to go and the result was confusion and disappointment in those who had paid to see the films at the box office but hadn't engaged with the anime, comics, or games extensions.

Gotham Knight is far more conservative in the ways that it seeks to integrate these shorts into the over-all flow of the revamped Batman film franchise -- too much so in my opinion because it's hard to understand in what sense these stories fit into the narrative structure of the film series and they certainly don't add any concrete information that helps us make sense of the plot of Dark Knight. They do include an encounter with the Scarecrow, who was a featured baddie in Batman Begins, as well as with villains, such as King Croc and Deadshot, who have so far not appeared in the film series. They do give us some additional insights into Batman's psyche (through flashbacks to events which occur within the timeline of his early life introduced in Batman Begins) and glimpses into his dealings with the secondary characters (Commissioner Gordon, Lucius Fox) who figure in the Batman film franchise.

Given the way Gotham Knight was marketed, there were no doubt fan expectations that these shorts might foreshadow developments in Dark Knight or even better, give us some inside dope which might add to our experience of the feature film. I am certain this video might have frustrated anyone who bought it with those hopes. Don't get me wrong -- each of these shorts is well made, engaging, and thoughtful. A lot depends on whether we think of transmedia storytelling as a structure of information (offering bits of data which add up to constitute a larger story world) or a structure of feeling (shaping how we feel about the characters and our appreciation of what makes them tick).

My favorite of the shorts, "Have I Got A Story For You," might be read as a paean to the new era of multiplicity as a series of skater punks describe, in very different terms, each of their encounters with the Batman as he does battle with the "man in black." Each pulls the Batman into a different genre -- in one, he is a shadowy figure who appears and disappears as though by magic; in another, he is a flying monster; and in another, he is a robot or cyborg. As they try to top each other's stories, we gradually realize that each has glimpsed a single moment in a much more extended conflict which culminates in a final showdown right before their astonished eyes, in which a fourth kid sees Batman as a very human figure who requires his help to overcome the bad guy. We can read this piece as a hint of the very different ways that the Batman will be depicted -- not only stylistically but also thematically -- across the rest of the shorts, each produced by a different creative team.

In terms of franchise building, the strongest of the shorts may be "Working Through Pain," which shows us a young Bruce Wayne as he seeks a better way to cope with the traumatic aftermath of the murder of his parents. Batman Begins had shown us one part of a trip around the world as the young man sought mentors who might further his training; this one shows two other stops in that personal journey -- one to a hospital in what looks like Africa as he tries to help a medical relief effort which lacks adequate supplies for the problems it is confronting; the other, told more extensively, takes us to India where a young woman teaches him how to "work through pain" and how to operate on the fringes of the social order.

Second, as with Animatrix, Gotham Knight hired artists from the Japanese anime tradition to work with a western media property in hopes of bringing a fresh look and perspective to the material. The Wachowski brothers chose artists who already were auteurs in Japan and gave them a relatively free hand to do with his characters what he chose. DC Comics went with younger animators, many of whom had worked on cult franchises (including Giant Robo, .Hack, Tekkonkinkreet) but who had yet to create their own feature films or television series, and he paired them with distinguished talent already associated with DC either through work on Batman comics or animated series.

The result is a blending of western style character development (contemporary American comics at their very best) with the visual style we associate with anime. As a fan of American comics, I was delighted, for example, to see the "Crossfire" segment, where Greg Rucka (one of my faves) returns to characters he helped to flesh out in the Gotham Central comics he co-authored with Ed Brubaker. Crispus Allen and Anna Ramirez are two beat cops debating the relationship of the Gotham police force to the caped crusader.

The making of video suggests that DC was drawn to the anime directors because of their skills at world building and indeed, the most spectacular elements of these films have to do with fleshing out Gotham City. Each short has a slightly different perspective on the city -- which emerges as a complex, fully realized urban environment, especially when we put all of these glimpses together. The various shorts take us to Arkham Asylum, through the sewers, along the skyline, along the water front, and through the nightclubs of the rich and powerful. There is also a recurring fascination with the technology associated with the hero and his challengers -- including "Field Test" which, as the title suggests, involves the protagonist trying out a high tech gadget which he concludes provides too much protection against the forces of evil. Perhaps most pervasively, the cartoons give us a sense of Batman's vulnerability and humanity: I am pretty sure we get to see Batman and/or Bruce Wayne bleeding in pretty much every segment here and thematically, many of them struggle with how he deals with the pain or human loss he confronts as he takes on the mask to battle crime.

As with The Animatrix, the Batman shorts allow a broad array of different experiments in visual expression: The Batman looks radically different from short to short as each artist is allowed to tell his story through their own stylistic lens. It is on the visual level, far more than on the narrative level, that the film satisfies the pop cosmopolitan's search for a Japanese perspective on the characters. What comes through here, then, is a complex melding of Eastern and Western modes of storytelling, which in turn does push and pull the Batman in some new directions I hadn't seen on the screen before.

It's interesting that we get this anime-inflected version of the Dark Knight at about the same time as designer Chip Kidd has published Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan, which consists primarily of reprints from low budget and long forgotten manga produced by Jiro Kuwata for Shonen King following the success of the 1960s television series. Kidd reprints what he has been able to relocate of this original manga -- lots of interesting fragments -- alongside a collection of advertisements for Batman related toys released in Japan during this same giddy period. Kuwata confesses to having a very limited knowledge of the character and very little time to work.

The result is a series of stories which draw on the iconography of Batman, at least of the television series, with very few of the genre conventions. So, for example, the first story has Batman and Robin doing battle with Clayface (False Face on the television series) whose remarkable ability to transform his identity doesn't stop at the human form but allows him to magically transform himself into a terradactyl and a range of other giant monsters. Another story centers around a character with a near endless capacity to return from the dead. However fanciful the villains were on the Batman TV series, and however many times they seemed to survive what at the time looked like fatal accidents, they were still understood as having the limitations of any other mortal being. But here, Batman exists in a magical realm where anything can and will happen. This narrative flux goes alongside the stylistic transformation which occurs when Batman and Robin are being depicted through Manga conventions. Bat-Manga is a fascinating read for anyone interested in understanding globalization.