Is that he is such a well defined character, with such specific values, and a particular look and feel to him, that you have to have some sort of reaction no matter if you encounter him in a comic book or a film.
Batman is iconic not just because he is popular and well known, but because he was designed to be iconic from the beginning.
The silhouette, color scheme and chest insignia make him instantly recognisable. Costumes and colours are key features of designing Superheroes.
Scott McCloud has a great section in his book Understanding Comics on color and specifically the colours of Superheroes, take a look at the two pages below.
Great stuff, I never get tired of reading McCloud’s ideas and theories.
Good characters such as Batman have strong values that distinguish them from other characters.
Crap characters that are ill-defined are easily mixed up with similar characters.
Characters such as Spider-Man, Hulk, Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman are easily identifiable by their unique look, costume and colours, and their personalities, villains, world/setting/background in their respective fictions.
The more simple a characters costume, potentially the more iconic it is. The more symbolic it is not only of the character, but the values they embody, the adventures and fantasy they stand for and the genre they appear in.
The repeated use of the same colours for superheroes (particularly from the 1940’s-1960’s) came to symbolise the characters themselves as Scott McCloud discussed in work magnum opus Understanding Comics.
Now, I can’t draw to save my life. But take a look at my scribbles above and see if you can recognize the characters from their colour schemes and iconic symbols. Hint: that one with the Bat symbol is NOT Batman.
You can see from my terrible picture that superhero colour schemes may have come about due to the technology (or lack of) at the time for printing what was basically works of art on glorified toiler paper – but they are still recognisable even when a someone like me scribbles down somewhat abstract interpretations of genre classics.
The colour schemes that were a limit of technology came to be an essential feature in the iconography and design of superheroes. Today we have a far more rich and deep colour palette available for both digital and print productions, not to mention colour separations and special lighting effects comparable to movies that just were not possible in the 1940’s. I am glad that limitation was there, because without it, superhero fiction may not have developed the same iconic tropes that they are known for.
While it’s easy to look at a classic Superhero and notice how ridiculous they look, an important feature of Superheroes is that they are larger than life. Their costumes, colours and chest symbols make them instantly recognisable, and distinguish them from ordinary mortals and other types of generic Heroes from different genres.
One of the reasons it is hard to create an original superhero characters today that are as instantly iconic as Superman or Batman, is that it is very hard to distinguish your character from all the other characters that have already been created.
Like walking into a restaurant where every table is full, many of the great iconic costume designs, colour schemes and basic personalities and superhero archetypes are already taken.
This makes it hard for a creator to distinguish their character from all the similar characters already in print.
Sometimes a creator will do something unorthodox that makes the character stand out in some way, what you would call in video game terms a “modifier”.
A modifier is simply taking something familiar and changing one or two things about it.
For example if you are playing a first person team based shooter – on a tropical island – a generic Mercenaries vs Marines game or whatever. An environment modifier may be to change from day to night. An objective modifier may be playing capture the flag, team death match or whatever, while a thematic modifier may be now one team is all zombies, and the other team are humans with very basic weapons such as knives instead of RPGs.
Taking this modifier example to superhero fiction we get simple, but powerful ideas such as:
“This guy is like Batman… but he kills everybody” (moral/behavior modifier)
“This guy is like Superman… but he’s a Nazi in World War II” (setting modifier)
“Here’s a Wonder Woman character… who is openly gay” (character value modifier)
You can take any basic hero archetype and modify one or two things. You keep the archetype recognition value of costumes, powers, chest symbol etc. But you make something just different enough that people think “hhmmmm… interesting” or “boy that looks like gimmicky crap”.
Until we read the imaginary story from one of the above three examples (or a review) we don’t really know if the elevator pitch is any good or gimmicky crap. There is a fine line being being clever and just making a spectacle for the sake of spectacle. Most of the time we get crap in comics, and sometimes we something unique or actually worth reading.
Some writers, such as Warren Ellis manage to do the gimmicky and bizarre stories, with loads of spectacle to get reactions from people, but he also has substance in his stories (most of the time).
It is easy to churn out gimmicky stories that get attention.
“Superman and Batman as gay lovers” (Apollo and Midnighter from The Authority)
It is harder to do the gimmick, but have a decent story to go along with it
“Superman and Batman as gay lovers… in a morally complex Orwellian world where the JLA has decided to take over the world for the benefit of humanity, who are too useless to look after themselves.”
Three examples of commercial superhero fiction that COULD have been gimmicky crap, but turned out to be pretty good that I really enjoy are:
The TV series HEROES – which can be described as “powers without costumes”
Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass (character and story) can be described as “costumes without powers”
Brian Michael Bendis / Michael Avon Oeming’s POWERScan be described as “detectives without powers who investigate the crimes of those who do have superpowers.
These three ideas manage to make themselves easily understood, while distinguishing their intellectual property from all the other similar comics, novels, TV, films etc already out there with subtle modifications to superhero genre tropes
While quality can vary during a project, I feel that Powers, HEROES and Kick-Ass were all really solid ideas. They were entertaining and managed to do something new with something familiar (superhero genre conventions), or at least they felt fresh and new, even if we had encountered some of the same ideas in other stories. They may not maintain the same quality all the way through, but the initial idea and execution is solid.
To do something interesting in the superhero genre, you either have to create something that is very very very good so that it can stand out from other works. Or do something that is so unique and different that you can honestly say it has not been done before.
Or do both.
Be unique and very very good,
and the property is more likely to be noticed amid the noise of other properties,
but quality is no guarantee of success.
Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic book is very very VERY good. I really enjoy reading the book, and also watch the brilliant AMC adaptation of the show. However if The Walking Dead was with a minor publisher that had crap distribution, it likely never would have sold as well, and it never would have been turned into a successful television show on a swanky network like AMC that does “proper television”.
Fortunately The Walking Dead was published by IMAGE comics, a company started by comic books writers and artists that values creator rights and royalties. If The Walking Dead had been published by a smaller publisher, we most likely would have never heard of it, let alone have our friends and relatives telling us how good it is. My mother watches The Walking Dead, and she has never read a comic book in her life, or watched a Zombie film. She has watched all of Joss Whedon’s Angel at least twice though. So she does enjoy some genre material.
If The Walking Dead had been published by a bigger brand publisher like DC or MARVEL then Robert Kirkman would have had no real stake in the intellectual property. The Walking Dead most likely never would have been made into a television show. It probably would never have built much of an audience as DC and Marvels’ bread and butter is superheroes, not zombie fiction.
Because of the success of The Walking Dead as a property, and Robert Kirkman’s success as a writer, we got to read fun projects like Marvel Zombies. Where the entire Marvel Universe is turned into Zombies and they eat the whole planet, before leaving to eat people on new worlds with the powers they absorbed from eating Galactus. The Incredible Hulk eating Silver Surfer’s head in one of my favourite scenes from Kirkman’s Marvel Zombies series. It is as gut-wrenching and disgusting and grim as any issue of The Walking Dead, but it is also laugh out loud hilarious throughout the series. Even Robert Kirkman himself (in the trade collection introduction) could not believe what Marvel let him do with their iconic characters.
Superhero fiction then works best when we know the genre tropes. Writers can surprise us by subverting or modifying these tropes to make something new, or that at least FEELS new, or interesting.
I love post-modern superhero fiction. But I wish more of it was hilarious like Marvel Zombies, and less grim and boring like Allan Moore’s Miracleman.
Yes I just said that. Miracleman is brilliant and important and blah blah blah. But it also DEAD BORING! It doesn’t even have one good zombie in the whole story!
Give me Mark Waid’s Irredeemable any day of the week over Miracleman. It has any evil Superman that tries to kill the whole planet. It’s 30 issues of exciting superhero fiction that manages to be iconic, subvert genre tropes and it is not CRIMINALLY BORING!
I don’t know at what point in life Batman became my favourite fictional character of all time (apologies to Sherlock Holmes who runs a close second, Scrooge McDuck a close third).
I collected Spider-Man comics for years as a teenager and bought the odd Batman trade or cool crossover with the Predator or Judge Dredd.
There was something about Batman that he just felt so at home in the graphic novel and prestige format book format.
I never owned more than a handful of random Batman comics here and there, plus some prestige format oneshots and Elseworlds books. It never occured to me to buy any of the monthly books, which would have cost way too much in addition to buying four to five Spider-Man books a month at a time before I ever had a job.
For some reason, those few Batman books were enough. I didn’t know a whole lot about the character, I had seen Batman and Batman Returns and enjoyed them, but I was not in love with them. I knew the comic book Batman was way cooler than any cinematic version ever could be.
I used to thumb through all the various Batman trades at the comic shop but didn’t have enough money to buy any of them because of my monthly pull list. Batman the Animated Series helped fill out the world of Batman in my mind, and seeing classic stories for free on television was a lot cheaper than buying all the trades to read the original stories they were based on.
It was not until years later that I started reading all the comics I could get my hands on in public libraries. Then I started to develop a deeper appreciation for comic books and graphic novels of all types. I used to have membership for six different public libraries around Perth, and I would go to all of them just to read their comics, (other books too) and then move on to another one. I would usually have about thirty different trades lying around my bedroom, once I had read a few I would to a library, return then and borrow something different.
In six to twelve months I read more comics than I had previously read in my entire life. To buy those same books would have cost several thousand dollars. Many of the comics trades at the libraries I borrowed from I was grateful to read and have access to, but had no wish to own, or have lying around the house taking up valuable living space.
Would you want to buy every movie you watch?
No, of course not.
You can rent movies, but you can not rent comics, which is why I am so grateful to public libraries.
While I bought single issues of various comics for the better part of a decade or so, at some point I had enough, cancelled all my monthly pull list permanently (except Savage Dragon) and decided to only ever buy trades from now on.
If a book didn’t get a trade, then it wasn’t worth my time. American comics from the major publishing companies can be quite fickle at times for not finishing stories. If you buy European and Japanese comics, there is typically a beginning, middle and end. If you buy a novel anywhere in the world, it has chapter and an ending.
But due to the nature of monthly periodicals, American superhero comics typically go on forever with no end at all. Things have improved since the nineties where now most comics get tighter story arcs with a consistent creative team. But how many comic book stories have I read that were never finished? The artist/writer got too busy with other projects, or was just too flaky to actually finish something they started.
If a writer, artist or editor can’t commit to finishing a project, don’t expect me to commit to buying or reading it
Giving up the monthly pull list was one of the best (reading) decisions I ever made. I remember one day looking at around a thousand single issues of flimsy stapled comics, and estimating how many graphic novels and trades I could have bought with the same amount of money. After doing the shonky math I realised I would much prefer to have durable bound editions of comics on the bookshelf than ten miles of ugly white boxes in a garage or spare room.
I don’t care about first issues, second issues, special editions, limited editions, fancy pants signed editions, holo-foil 3D pop up books with fries or anything like that. All that crap is a big ego trip! It means NOTHING. I read comics because I fucking LOVE reading comics, I don’t care what you call it, where it came from, who made it or why, if the story is fun, I will read it. Everything else is just noise.
I don’t “collect” anything for value, prestige or whatever. Giving up monthlies meant I could start tackling some of the classic series that had been around forever in trade that I had never read like Transmetropolitan, Sandman, Bone, Uncle Scrooge Comics, or Concrete. Some comics are just far more satisfying and meaningful to read then the monthly junk food of superheroes.
I am not knocking superheroes, or junkfood, I love both. But we need real sustenance in life. We need not just food, but soul food. I still read vanilla superhero comics, not just the pretentious (and well written) stuff like Kingdom Come, but the truly fun stuff like Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe, or Marvel Zombies by Robert Kirkman (the first two volumes are great, the rest fun but forgettable).
I just love reading comics, in any format, on any topic. Mainly I read superheroes, but I love all types of comics such as American Splendor or Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse, Carl Bark’s Uncle Scrooge Comics, Paul Chadwick’s Concrete, or other all time greats like Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Kurt Busiek’s Marvels and Astro City.
I’ve tried reading Love and Rockets, Strangers in Paradise and Elfquest, but they are too feminine for my tastes, however I am really glad those books are out there. I respect the creators of those titles, all of which are unique and brilliant in their own way. I’m not really the intended audience for those books anyhow. I’m more a guy who loves square jawed action heroes, zombies, westerns, kung-fu movies, evil robots, dinosaurs and brilliant cartoons like Donald Duck and Spirited Away.
After giving up the monthlies (which was like giving up an addiction of sorts, I felt like I NEEDED those books, and that is not a healthy place to be my friend) I have never looked back since then. I have never and will never buy a single issue of anything ever again, no matter how good it is. They fall apart, they don’t stand up on a bookshelf, long boxes are are ugly as shit and single issues of a 12-24 issues run of a story are frankly tedious to read.
Give me a trade or three to enjoy a story at my leisure. Imagine every time you read a novel you had to read an individual book per chapter. Why would you do that? You would get fed up pretty quick with the interruption to the flow of the story and pack it in before you ever got to the end. Give me a story with a beginning, middle and end, or otherwise don’t ask me to even consider reading something, it is a waste of my time.
I used to have a lot of comics in boxes that just took up space, so one day I started giving a lot of it away. I gave away a seven year collection of Spider-Man comics. I kept less than perhaps twenty books out of around five hundred or so, mostly the ones with really unique or brilliant covers that I liked. I moved again recently and gave away a stack of hardcover trades, some great comics – but stuff I had no interest in reading again.
My friend’s teenaged kid was pretty excited, although not as excited as I was at his age for comics. I hope he enjoys those free trades, I mean they were fucking hard covers man, I used to sweat blood to even touch something like that, let alone own it.
I used to deliver newspapers (something I never read, *ugh*, I feel dirty just looking at them) once a week on Sundays, it took me around five hours and often it was cold and raining heavily. Good old New Zealand weather. For this I was paid the princely sum of $15 a week. Which of course I spent every cent on comics when I would ride my push bike into the city, back when I lived in New Zealand as a kid.
When I bought trades, I looked for stories that were already complete that I could read from start to finish. I looked for the great books that I loved to read over and over like Bone, Tintin, Astro Boy, Maus, Dark Knight Returns, Calvin and Hobbes, Uncle Scrooge Comics by Carl Barks and other timeless greats. I still read superheroes of course, but I only ever bought trades of the stuff that I really treasure and wanted to be able to read today, and ten years from today. Anything that didn’t qualify I would not bother with.
I still read books from public libraries, and kept several books about comics on the shelf that gave summaries of over one thousand different graphic novels and great comics to potentially read. I will read anything that appeals to me at least one time, but I only buy comics I consider to be truly exceptional, and worth reading multiple times. Plus crazy fun disposable stuff like Marvel Zombies vs Ash / Army of Darkness. Sadly, most comics as fun as they are, are absolute fluff.
Disposable entertainment. That is what comics were always intended to be, but somewhere along the way the kids who used to read comics grew up and started making comics themselves, and slowly comics came to be written by people who actually give a damn adout telling a good story, and not just collecting a pay check.
Originally comic books were cheap reprints of old newspaper strips cut folded and stapled to make a quick buck, and later comics evolved into cheap and shoddy original stories to make a quick buck. But the overall quality of writing and art in modern comics today is light years ahead of where it was even two decades ago. The overall standard has risen, even the worst crap on the shelf each month is still produced to a high technical standard, probably considerably better than most comics that came out 30-50* years ago in overall quality. (*Jack Kirby being the exception)
The same can be said for video games and films. The technical standards have risen so high, and become so standardised than even crap looks relatively good. Comic books, films and video games have become such over crowded markets that vie for attention along with social media, cable TV, video games, home PCs, tablets and smart phones that to be noticed in such a market, you need to make something really really good. Personally I think this is a good thing.
Having so many time wasting activities competing for our attention means that any art form that makes it way to us whether as a physical product or digital product, it needs to be something good for us to even bother with it when there are so many viable easily accessible alternatives. I believe that digital media has helped to democratise both the creation and distribution of old media in new forms.
Getting back to comics, digital colouring have been the biggest innovation in comics in recent decades in my opinion. Neal Adams and his daughter we have to thank for finally encouraging comic book publishers to stop printing their stories on toilet paper and finally moving to a higher quality of paper stock. Small innovations like better paper stock and amazing digital colouring and separations, less censorship by publishers and editors in modern comics mean that comics have evolved into some truly beautiful and engrossing experiences.
Creators have more freedom than ever to actually tell the stories they want to tell. With the full integration of digital comics (which took nearly a decade too long in my view, but at least tablets got cheaper in the mean time) onto just about any screen you get a hold of, I feel that comics are as relevant as ever. Comic books are basically a niche, we will never see the sorts of sales numbers that comic book publishers had during World War II.
Even if we have World War III tomorrow, the internet, video games and HBO are not going to go away so that comics can make that comeback that some “experts” have been predicting “might” happen. Comic books ever having astronomical sales numbers again is like the Y2K and all those 2012 doom and gloom prophesies. Just a bunch of theoretical nonsense with little to zero basis in reality.
WARNING! A Tangent has appeared…
It is really hard to read some older comics from the seventies that appear on newsprint with ink bleeding everywhere and dialogue not so much smudged during printing as rendered indecipherable. Was that guy bleeding to death on panel three? No, those were words spilling out of his guts, not blood.
Thankfully with the rise of digital colouring and separations, a lot of old comics have been reprinted in trades that now show the art closer to how it first appeared, before it turned to shit by being printed on what was basically toilet paper.
The modern equivalent in film terms is owning the home Blu-Ray with its superior visual fidelity. The theatrical film full of scratches, lines, blurry images and other tell tale signs of wear looks even more ugly in comparison. How many of us can say we have ever watched the first pristine print of a film? I never have.
Only the people who made the film have ever seen that first print. But with Blu-Ray you are getting the same flawless image every time, it does not degrade with use like film on a projector at the multiplex. That is what I love about digital colouring/separations and digital comics, the image does not degrade.
I love holding an actual book in my hand, I still buy cheap non-fiction black and white text paperbacks by the truck load. But digital comics actually look remarkably better than their print equivalent. I never thought I would prefer a digital comic over a printed book. I still love the FEEL of an actual book in my hands, but I read nearly equal amounts of digital comics and print trades these days. And I tend to read things in digital that I never would have bought as print, plus they take up a LOT less room, and I can take my tablet with me anywhere. On the train, in the toilet, in the shower. Well, perhaps not in the shower, that is a bit extreme. I’ve never that, as far as you know. But I have eaten a hamburger or two in the shower after working all day and not eating, and that ain’t a pretty sight I tell you.
What I like about digital comics is that there are no more pages printed out of order, no more creased spines that make whatever appears in the center of a page unreadable as it disappears into that annoying cheap glue in the spine that inevitably falls apart the more you read the book. No more stupid ad inserts messing up your enjoyment of the book, that you have to pull the staples apart carefully, remove the annoying glossy advertorial, then fold the staples back down, permanently damaging the condition of the book in the process.
I still love a good trade for the bookshelf, but I am far more discriminating in what edition I buy these days. Amazon reviews are often helpful as people often mention print defects. At some point I felt a need to read all the great Batman stories, and started buying more trades and graphic novels, which I find deeply rewarding to read.
Batman: A Celebration of 75 Years is a great trade book collection with fantastic binding, great paper stock, an iconic Jim Lee cover and just screams “love me, put me on your bookshelf and never look back”. In contrast the recent Batman 75th Anniversary Box Set that contains The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Hush and Batman: The Court of Owls in a nice slip cover is a piece of crap.
I was all set to buy that 75th anniversary box set with its awesome alternate covers, only to read reader reviews of what a waste of money it was on Amazon. I will still pick up the “A Celebration of 75 Years” which is a fantastic book, high quality and a great companion volume to the Superman 75 Years and Joker 75 Years books.
The Batman 75th Anniversary Box Set is the perfect example of a hastily cobbled together book set that is printed on inferior materials.
A book that is literally falling apart at the seams when it is brand new is not a quality book in my opinion
I would like this set to be re-issued at some point, but it seems unlikely, and even it it was reprinted on better materials, I would still be waiting for some reviews before buying it.
Another example is Two Morrows Publishing, who put out some excellent comic book magazines, books and prestige format collections of old material as well as one off new material, generally on grades of paper that are just fine for their intended purpose.
Two Morrows Publishing have published a great series of retrospective books that cover the medium of comics by decade, but they are printed on inferior materials that again fall apart when actually read. I am grateful to find this out before I wasted any money on the books. I was previously looking forward to collecting the entire series of books, as I love the quality of writing of all the Two Morrows publications, but now it is unlikely I will ever read those books.
I should say that there is no issue at all with any of the wonderful Two Morrows publishing magazines and other book specials they have put out over the years, all of which are high quality in the printed stock, put together properly and are full of great content. In short, BUY their excellent magazines and products!
A damn shame about those “American Comic Book Chronicles” retrospective books though. I REALLY wanted to read them for fun, and use them for research as well. I will not be buying any of them sadly. there other book titles are fine as far as I know, and I plan to buy several of those. Overall they are a fantastic company making high quality products (as is DC), the American Comic Book Chronicles books seem to be the exception, so don’t think I am bashing the company, I love the company and their work and read they magazines frequently.
But it shows that you have to pay attention to EVERY aspect of production from advertising, sales and marketing to typography, graphical layout, colour corrections, printing, binding, shipping and storage.
Mess up ANY of those aspects for any reasons and a book or comic book may fail to reach its intended audience or be taken seriously, or fall apart in a readers hands.
Nobody wants to buy an inferior product!
There was a time I never cared about any of this, when I used to actually go to comic shops instead of ordering books online. If there was a problem with a book I could take it back the same day and exchange it or get a refund. With buying print comics online, you don’t know what you are getting until it arrives, and if it is from overseas, I may be waiting up to four weeks to receive the book.
So if it is an expensive book that falls apart the moment you open it, well it pays to find that out before you buy it, because sending it back means waiting another four weeks for it to ship, and will likely cost me more to post it back for a refund that I paid for the book in the first place. Publishers and direct marketers often have discounts for bulk mailing, but you and I, Joe and Jane Public, do not get those discounts when returning defective items.
Some sellers are considerate and will refund online purchases if you can show that the item is clearly defective, and it would too much to return it.
I would prefer to buy books here in Australia, buy given they cost two to three times the price of what I can buy them online for from the US and UK, it makes no sense to buy comics, trades, graphic novels or paperback books in Australia.
But despite any of this nonsense, I still love to read comics of all types and the majority of the time books are in perfect or near perfect condition when I get them in the mail. This nit-picking is saying hey, these are the exceptions, these are GREAT BOOKS that I want to buy, but nobody wants to spend their hard earned money on things that are broken.
So if these issues are ever addressed, and we get to see better quality editions of the books I mentioned above, I will be first in line to buy them.
I am even a little angry that my favourite dude Batman got such shoddy treatment on his birthday! How would you feel if somebody gave you broken presents on your Birthday or Anniversary? I doubt you would be happy, you might even feel that the person responsible didn’t really care about you at all.
So I guess that is the impression I get from DC Comics, that the Anniversary year was a chance to rake in a few extra bucks, and if some of the products are crap, well what does it matter.
Perhaps DC never knew about the printed Defective Comics, and so was powerless to do anything. But I would like to think that a company like DC that when it DID find out about the Defective Comics would make amends by stopping sale of the broken books, and having them fixed if possible, otherwise pulped and overseeing that the next print run actually is done right before returning to the market.
No doubt all of this would be costly, and maybe it is not possible, I don’t know. I don’t work in accounts, I don’t know jack about printing presses, binding, inventory and shipping or that sort of stuff. I am just some jerk on the internet.
Bit I do know what I like. And I feel that somebody ought to at least TRY to remedy the issue. Perhaps they have already, I have no idea, the blog at the official DC comics site would be the perfect place to say
“Hey we’re sorry, it sucks when comics are falling apart brand new, and HERE’s what we are doing about it, because WE love Batman and YOU love Batman, let’s short this shit out people”.
Or at least stop selling the Defective Comics and post a public blog to apologise to the people who expected a wonderful gift set for themselves or a loved one and instead got something that was broken. I think DC can do better, and I feel that a character with the history of Batman DESERVES better treatment on his birthday / anniversary.
All I can day is vote with your wallet, because if you buy crappily put together books, then you only the encourage more of the same, and have only yourself to blame. Pretty negative ending for this usually cheerful blog, so here’s a cool pic of Marvel Zombies vs Army of Darkness to put a smile on your dial.
A book that should have been awful, but was all kinds of awesome. Look at that eyeball hanging out of Wolverine’s mouth, that is just nasty, I love it!
The pages in the books and trades conveniently don’t fall apart while you are reading, the zombies however do fall apart, often in a comical grotesque fashion. I encourage you to read it, it is tremendous fun.