Monday, March 25, 2013

New Media - Making Media "New" (Comics into Film)

The reading for this week can be found here. Note that the link in the syllabus is outdated.

Batman Crucified: Religion in comics

Some random notes:

Religious language and imagery - why might it exist in comic books? Religion continues to provide resources for those engaged in quests for meaning or for those caught in struggles of good and evil.

What are comics?
- An art form - an aging readership has caused comics to become collectibles, with speculation driving up worth and price guides guiding prices
- sequential art - pictures in sequence to tell a story
- Stations of the Cross - a sequential retelling of the crucifixion of Christ
- stained glass windows as sequential art for the education of an illiterate people

Why religious images in comics?
Comic books raid iconography from general culture. Battles between good and evil are the basis of comics. There exists the humanizing of comic book superheroes, resulting in a superhero with personal doubts. Another note: a superhero is basically a redeemer figure.

Batman as a “human” figure
Frank Miller’s miniseries in 1986, "The Dark Knight Returns," explores the psyche of an obsessed vigilante; it is an exceptionally dark story (with a female “Robin”). Batman is so dark that he fights, and basically beats, Superman

The superhero as redeemer
The common American (or Western) mythic pattern is a story of redemption. What are some examples of this?

“the American monomyth secularizes the Judeo-Christian redemption dramas that have arisen on American soil, combining elements from the selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others and the zealous crusader who destroys evil.” (Forbes 5)

Batman as a Christ figure
The symbolism of a Christ figure includes both superheroic aspects (“divinity”) as well as humanity (Batman’s shortcomings). To serve as a Christ figure, one has to be vulnerable: “Comic book superheroes, especially when humanized, are redeemer figures.” (Forbes 6)

The Dark Knight film
How does this new movie (or the subsequent sequels) reflect these ideas or does it? What do you think might be lost in the translation of something like this from one medium to another, that is, comics to film?

More about the movie:
“The film feels dangerous, risky, terrifying.” (Todd Hertz in Christianity Today) This is a kind of “new media,” but in a different sense of the word than has been used here thus far. This is a new kind of movie making. Perhaps the new Bond follows this: action not necessarily for pleasure but rather as a violent act . . . against the viewer. This violence is accompanied with thoughtful dialogue, a questioning of allegiances and roles. Care to comment?


Phil Wiebe said...

Religious language and imagery exists in comics for a variety of reasons. At the most basic level, all popular media is populated with allusive signs, and religious allusions are not only long-lived and well known (even if there original sources and contexts are mostly forgotten, or unknown) but typically possessed with a sense of grandeur, mystery, or potence that lends itself to the comics medium, which is know for its exaggerated, larger-than-life features. The narratives of comic books are often concerned with ethical action - good versus evil, right versus wrong, heroes versus villains - a moral metanarrative is typical of comics. In this sense, comics can be seen as picking up the production of cultural mythologies where religion left off, so it makes sense that they'd appropriate some of the elements.

On a side note, if we want to bring Barthes' Mythologies into this, comic books and religious texts also share a similarity with professional wrestling in that they portray "the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice" (17).

It was interesting to read your comments on comics as art form. I laughed at the thought that it really is the aging readership (fans) and their physical and metaphysical progeny that make comics collectible - with some half-decent marketing, things can be sold as 'collectible' but they are only a success in such a capacity if people buy into it: those people will be fans. It's interesting to note that artistic and economic interests are both symbiotic and yet also in tension: as artistry and aesthetic merit increases, so does desirability, which in turn informs monetary value - as the first reaches previously unreached heights, so does the second soar to levels that practially defeat the point of the first. This isn't as much a problem with comics where, like art, they are infinitely reproducible and only 'originals' or copies that are in some other way auspicious (signed by Stan Lee, etc.) command high prices, but if we look at another speculation-fueled market where the entity in question is a limited, 'tangible' good, like fine wine, the symbiotic relationship can become in a certain sense parasitic. As excellence increases, the price increases so high that it is out of the reach of most of those who would enjoy them for what they are, and they are instead bought by speculators on wine futures who will never drink them and instead buy them only to sell them many years later (when they are more valuable) for a large profit. The aesthetic merit was subverted by its own economic value - that was something of a side note as well.

Forbes doesn't explore why comics turned to more human, fallible, and believable heroes, but I imagine it came with the 'cynical turn' (to coin a phrase) in fiction where dissatisfaction at the failure of the modernist project resulted in more down to earth, realist storytelling that evolved into an obsession with the macabre or gritty. Think of how often 'dark' is thrownout as an adjective of praise. It's turned into a kind of paradox almost - the more violent, addicted, and callous a hero becomes (at this point practically an anti-hero), the more the public is disposed to celebrate him, whereas cleancut, flawless, goody-two-shoes heroes are nearly universally derided as unbelievable, boring, smarmy, or preachy.

Nonetheless, the dark, human superhero figure is still a redeemer, a 'personal Jesus' (cue Depeche Mode). Both come from outside the establishment, face temptations, are equally loved and hated by the community they serve, face defeat but ultimately triumph. Like Forbes, I don't think that there has been any demythification; the myths have only been enhanced. No matter how flawed and human, the hero still wins against all odds in the end. Whether an impervious supernatural boyscout like Superman or a triumph-of-the-will Batman, the hero always wins, and when the flawed hero wins, it is an even greater victory, even richer in symbolic mythology.

Phil Wiebe said...

In regards to your comments-
Frank Miller Batman: Haven't read it (I honestly have never read an entire issue of a comic book or graphic novel), but am going to look at it tonight.

American redemption: These are my top picks of characters/stories that are both overtly redemptive and quintessentially American-
Film: Pulp Fiction's Jules
Music: Johnny Cash as The Man in Black/himself
Television: Mad Men's Don Draper
Video Games: Red Dead Redemption's John Marston

The Dark Knight trilogy-
We see the monomyth here in the initiation and struggle of the hero coupled with a move from self-interest (revenge) to selfless protection of Gotham. The redeemer is seen in that Batman is equally loved and hated and unilaterally feared - he shuns society and prefers to operate outside of it. He faces betrayal in each film but always manages to triumph over it. Right now Christopher Nolan's Batman seems to a pet topic for Christian culture commentators - I've seen a disproportionate amount of material analyzing the films in terms of Christ figures, salvation, evil, ethics, etc. And Bruce Wayne and Gotham City will always be American icons in that there is a certain commentary on the nature of American exceptionalism and the American dream in them. I can't say what the difficulties are in transferring works from comic to film since all I have encountered these franchises solely through film - I suspect that one of the problems lies in an incongruence of mythos. The America of comics is truly a kind of alternate universe, but when we watch Batman or the Avengers we want to locate it within the bounds of the real world, even as we accept it as fiction.

I don't know about Batman being dangerous, risky, or terrifying, but I recognize the sentiments behind those adjectives - while Batman Begins was a fairly straightforward monomyth action thrill ride, there is something disturbing and gutwrenching about the Dark Knight and the Dark Knight Rises. They're definitely not the feelgood hits of summer. There is a sense of real loss for the viewer when they watch the films - their humanity too is affected. I got a lot of this feeling in Skyfall as well. I actually wrote a guest column on the movie for James Hilton's blog - you can read it here: