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Through Batman's Mask: A Look At Differing Mediums

dglasser's picture

Before you read this paper, do me a favor. Sit down, relax, and try not to think too much. This paper asks the question, how do you think, and if you are thinking while you are reading about how to think… you can see how the question can become very complicated. Let’s avoid complication for the time being. I want your initial reaction, raw and instinctual. Then, we can debate and complicate the issue until our brains explode. 

Now, look at the three pictures below, and for each, say out loud any words that come to your mind. 


I’m sure the word, Batman, escaped your lips. Let me quickly preface that although these are pictures of Batman, this paper is not about the Dark Knight. Although I love Batman, I am not talking about what I love or even what I know. I am talking about perception, and using an iconic character is a way to relate to all readers. Now, let’s move on. What other words escaped your lips? Fighting? Punch? Comic? Person? Movie? Television? Exclamation? Ridiculous costume? Did you say different words for each picture? The issue here is, that all three pictures above are of exactly the same thing; Batman is punching a bad guy. However, one is a comic, one is screen shot from a television show, and the other is a screen shot from a movie. Does the medium determine how you perceive an image? Do different mediums change how you think? Now, let’s think, debate, and complicate the question at hand.

The first image personally brings to mind the words; Batman, comic, old, punch, exclamation.  This image is from the 10cent, 1941 spring issue of Batman. Scott McCloud, the author of Understanding Comics, would classify this image as one from a stereotypical comic, a “bright colorful magazine filled with bad art, stupid stories and guys in tights” (McCloud 2). By reading the speech bubble alone, you can see that when McCloud says stupid, he really isn’t exaggerating; it would seem that even seventy years ago plastic surgery was still a running joke. I’d like to say that we have progressed since 1941 since today’s plastic surgery jokes revolve around female celebrities instead of fictional superheroes, but that’s neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is, that despite the ridiculous jokes, “picture-stories” have a “great amount of influence at all times, perhaps even more than written literature, [despite the fact that] critics [often] disregard and scholars scarcely notice” the medium (201). Proof of picture-stories having great influence is apparent enough in the fact the two following images even exist. If picture-stories had no great influence, why would there be television shows, movies, and even books devoted to comic creations? It is safe to say that the first image therefore spawned the following, but during revision into new mediums, how has viewer perception changed?

The second image evokes the words; Batman, punch, exclamation,  television, ridiculous, costume. This image is a screen shot from the Batman television series, that ran from 1966-1968 on ABC staring Adam West as Batman. The television show was not animated, but featured actual people in the exact costumes from the comic, with animated exclamations appearing on the screen whenever a fight occurred. The show was essentially the comic come to life. It consisted of the same costumes, corny jokes, villains etc as the original comic. The key here is, that although the comic and television show were based on the same character-arch and consisted of the same vocabulary, this screen shot added two significant words to my list of first impressions, ridiculous and costume. Why is it that transposing a comic onto a television screen makes it ridiculous and stresses the costumes the people wear?   

Perhaps the issue here is color? “Color…tends to overwhelm the [comic’s] purpose”, and adding constant movement, as television does, may only serve to overwhelm further (189). However, if the television show was in black and white would it seem an less ridiculous to see a human being running around in tights, fighting criminals in top hats with clown makeup? I don’t think so, and yet, it may lessen the emphasis on costume if the costumes themselves were in black and white. If so, then the viewer may pay less attention to the colorful costumes and listen more to what’s being said. This would pressure the writers to make the dialogue worth listening to, and since the original comic did not stress brilliant dialogue, that would contort the original comic to such a degree that perhaps it would no longer resemble what people knew as Batman. This calls into question, what happens when the writers are forced to revise a work, and who decides how far you can go before that work become something new entirely? To explore this, let’s take Batman a step future from its original composition in comic form, and analyze the third image.

This screen shot calls to mind the words: Batman, punch, movie, violent, serious, and reality. This screen shot is from the 2008 Batman movie entitled, The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan and staring Christian Bale. Besides making millions, of dollars, this movie changed the face of Batman, shining the fictional superhero in a more “realistic” light. By realistic I mean, that the setting was paralleled to real cities such as New York, and his costume changed to be more realistic, being that “comic” yellow is not a very good color if you want to hide in shadows catching bad guys. Also, the movie focused more on “real” human relations and on issues of political corruption instead of focusing only on catching animal themed villains and escaping seemingly inescapable scenarios, which both the comic and television show stressed as a point of entertainment.

Now, why is it that this screen shot calls to mind the words, violent, serious, and reality? This image is the same punching action as the other two images. This image shows a real human being just as the second image does. This image has a masked man just like all three images do. Why is this image more realistic and violent? Perhaps it is merely an issue of “finding the balance between too much and too little”; taking enough aspects of the comic and television show so that viewers recognize the character of Batman, but balancing those aspects with modern day notions that allow viewers to look beyond corny plastic surgery jokes and relate the plot to their own lives (102). Perhaps that is why I say the word reality when I look at the picture. Perhaps my mind is using what I already know of Batman as a starting point, but then relating it to my modern perspective of what fighting actually looks like and requires of those involved. Colorful costumes and gadgets are not in your everyday fight, so removing those elements altering the costume makes the image more realistic, and therefore I can now see this punching action as violent and serious, instead of just satirical and comedic. Removing the exclamations also aids to the realism of the third image.

It would now seem that balance is the key to how we think. How the creators balance the aspects of a work enables us to see an image in one way or another. Despite the fact that all three of these images are of Batman punching a bad guy, they are in a sense different “Batmen”; the original Batman; the Batman who relies heavily on the original; and the Batman who relies on the original to a lesser degree. This then becomes an issue of percentage. If an adaptation of the original Batman, only references the original in the fact that the main character is called Batman, but doesn’t wear a similar costume and doesn’t have a similar story line, can that Batman really be defined as Batman? Who draws the line that states when an adaptation is no longer an adaptation but becomes in itself a new creation? Is a new creation an alteration of an original concept beyond the tweaking that is an adaptation? What is the difference between tweaking and altering, and does this conversation become solely a question of semantics?

These are questions that cannot be easily answered, and we are now in a place very far from where we started this conversation of differing media and the interpretations they produce. In my mind, this distance means we have made progress. We are moving. We are debating and complicating the issue, and complication often leads to new insights; always a good result. Therefore let us end with an example unrelated to Batman, taking these questions even future, and end with a hypothetical question: If you had a clone, a biological copy made of yourself at birth, but you and your clone grew up in completely different circumstances apart from each other, are you really the same person? How different are you? Completely? Somewhat? Who’s to draw the line? Who’s to decide when your clone became an original? Can that question even be decided? Is there even a point in asking?

Works Cited: 

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. Tundra Publishing. 1993. Print.




Anne Dalke's picture

"How we think"


we've got a technical problem, for starters: the images you inserted aren't showing (so I can't engage in your thought-experiment). Check on the instructions @ How to Add an Image in Your Post and see if you can manage this--let me know if you need another hand up.

Before I even got to those (non-appearing!) images, though, you had gotten me thinking, by your opening instructions "not to think too much." As you must know by now, I am very much interested in the kinds ['genres'!] of thinking we do. I'm interested in the recent work Katherine Hayles has done on "how we think"; I'm interested in long-standing work on the differences between unconscious and conscious "cerebration"; I'm interested in the ways that college classrooms privilege conscious over unconscious processing....and I've actually done a lot, over the years, to use images in courses as a way of accessing the unconscious, "getting @ what students think" more immediately than working through words might do...

so I am very much interested in what you have to say here, very much engaged by your questions, "Does the medium determine how you perceive an image? Do different mediums change how you think?"

What strikes (and saddens!) me, though, as you go on thinking, is that you move away from these very compelling questions. Most of your event is about how these three images appear, and how they differ from one another. The questions you move toward are really about the comparative qualities of each medium--"when an adaptation is no longer an adaptation but becomes in itself a new creation? .. an alteration of an original concept beyond the tweaking that is an adaptation? What is the difference between tweaking and altering, and does this conversation become solely a question of semantics?"

These questions are of less interest to me than those w/ which you began: what different sorts of thinking does each new image--whether tweaked, adapted, or created--evoke? You call this movement "progress," because it represents a complexification; to me, it's a turn to less interesting queries, to what you call "semantics." Curiously, you then open the ending of this project to questions of biological copies--what happens if "you and your clone grew up in completely different circumstances"? This is what all the infamous "twin studies" study, but their focus is on disentangling the effects of genetics and environment --which, following the observation of Evelyn Fox Keller, I always have found a funny boundary:

"why there should be so much enthusiasm for the idea" that people are born, not made... there is "nothing special" about birth as a line of demarcation in development, since even in the womb environment affects how genes are expressed. 'When we talk about innate and acquired it is rarely clear where to draw the line...and where to draw the line is rarely stable'" (Cornelia Dean, "Evelyn Fox Keller: Scientist at Work. Theorist Draw Into Debate 'That Will Not Go Away.'" The New York Times April 12, 2005. F2).

This seems to me curiously akin to the observation Ayla made, in her response to your earlier web event, exploring the edge of the analogy between SLEUTH and collaborative writing: do you agree that there is here "a certain base code" that cannot be altered? --

Anyhow, back to your opening questions: what does any of this have to do with "how we think," and how different media prod us to think differently? Now, THOSE seem to me questions worth pursuing!