As we get ready to dive into this week's topic, I'm just going to say something up front, so the internet can come with pitchforks ready: The Lego Batman Movie is better than The Dark Knight. There are a great many reasons to believe this: The movie is honest about presenting us the Joker's motivation and headspace as childish, genuinely makes important commentary about the implications of Batman's vigilantism, and truly grapples with the trauma that losing one's parents might have instilled in Batman when it comes to families of his own. Also, Legos are great. One of the biggest reasons I found to prefer the more recent film over its generally more esteemed predecessor, though, is that it wasn't just funny, it was downright silly at times. This, of course, is not a popular opinion among Batman fans. Batman, after all, is supposed to be the dark and gritty caped crusader of the DC family, the one that adult fans of comics can read and not feel embarrassed by. And, in all fairness, in the past few years of being subscribed to Batman comics I have witnessed some genuinely important commentary come from the franchise, that make me proud to read it even as an adult. However, the idea that this means Batman can't also be steeped in humor is both an absurd misrepresentation of humor as well as a fundamental betrayal of Batman's roots. But to explore this, we're going to dive deep into Batman's history, taking a look at both his roots and some of the most famous moments in his long, long history (80 years of it, come 2019!) to explore the ways in which humor has not only always been present in Batman, but crucially important to his existence.
Batman was created in 1939, and it has to be admitted that the first few issues or so that included the character were typical for the time, dark and pulpy, full of grit and guns and gangsters. However, the introduction of Robin into the comic (something that, by the way, took just one year) marked not just the beginning of Batman as a truly popular character, but also signaled a shift in the tone of the property, introducing a vast amount of fun, colorful characters, and witty banter. The 50s would only bring more and more of this flavor, introducing light sci-fi fare to the publication, and, just in case any of you aren't convinced about the importance of lighthearted, silly humor to the series, introduced both the Bat-hound and Bat-Mite, the latter of which is Batman's version of the bizarre and wildly silly Superman character Mr. Mxyzptlk (I promise you, not only was this character real, he's one of the most beloved and wonderful opponents of Superman around). Looking up the stories from these early years of Batman reveals a plethora of odd, hilarious, and downright fun concepts, from the visually striking "Rainbow Batman" to the absurd "Great Bat-Cape Hunt" to the deep commitment and passion Batman has for Christmas (a characterization that existed for decades). In other words, bright and often ridiculous humor has been an integral part of Batman ever since his earliest publications.
Furthermore, the first time our dark knight left the pages of the comic books in a meaningful way (not counting the serial film adaptations of the 40s), he did so with an abundance of humor. I'm talking, of course, of the Batman TV series that dominated the 1960s. While for a great many decades it had fallen out of favor with the "batman should never laugh!" crowd, it was hewing incredibly close to the spirit of the original comics. Much of the humor was inherent in the very premise of the show: Adam West's straight-man portrayal of Batman, while something that could be taken seriously by children, was also understood by adults as an adroit skewering of the patriarchal, "father knows best" kind of character so popular in the 50s. It also depended heavily on its dialogue for the humor, not just in some of its more outlandish terms of phrase but also in witty back-and-forth that was heavily prevalent in the early years of the comics. In short, the show was very much in the original spirit of batman both by acknowledging, tongue-in-cheek, the humor inherent in its premise, and packing its dialogue with amusing moments. However, the show was important as well as silly; not just sub-textually in terms of representation by casting Cesar Romero, a prominent Latin actor, as the Joker and Eartha Kit, an outspoken black woman activist, as Catwoman, but also straight-up textually, in making subtle arguments for the needs of policing to evolve as criminality evolved, and specifically for the need for those enforcing the law to form firm relationships with and defend all members of society, including members largely being demeaned on other programs. One of the comical aspects of the show, its portrayal of the police as rather dull an unequipped to handle Gotham’s new criminal class, is central to this commentary. The Batman TV show, in other words, was using humor as the indispensable vehicle for one of its central messages: that we shouldn't in fact always look to our established sources of authority for wisdom, and that we can find wisdom and meaning in places we would absolutely never have expected.
Even in some of Batman's darkest stories, humor makes an appearance. One of the grittiest, most pitch-black Batman stories has to be Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, a story that involves, among other things, Joker shooting Barbara Gordon through the spine to paralyze her from the waist down, implicitly sexually assaulting of her in the aftermath of being shot, and the psychological torture of her father, all in an attempt to show Batman. This is, undeniably, just about as dark as a comic story can get, one in which we'd expect humor to be nothing but a distant memory. However, near the end of this horrifying tale Batman actually goes mano a mano with the Joker in a fight which includes this page (shown below in two different colorations):
Note the absurdly humorous way this fight unfolds. Batman gets his cowl pulled over his head like he's some three-stooges bar fight, and when he's hit with the beam he lets out one of the most bizarre sounds in all of comics history. The comic is inviting you to laugh at the silliness of this all, the sheer absurdity of this whole damn thing, because that's the point of this story: it's all absurd. This is all, tragically, horrifyingly, ridiculous, and the inclination we have to laugh only makes the disturbing subject matter all the more disturbing. Finally, at the end of the comic, on the very last two pages, we get this moment.
This is perhaps the most bizarre part of Moore's creative endeavor here, but also one of the most important, because it bears out the thesis of the work: that The Joker and Batman aren't so different, that under different circumstances, on different days, they could have easily been reversed. That Batman can't resist laughing, in release, at the joke delivered by his arch-nemesis, is meant to show us that, for a twist of fate, Bruce Wayne could have been the villain, and the Joker the hero. Once again, in other words, humor is not just an integral part of the story, but the vehicle that most powerfully conveys its message (whether you believe that message is another question entirely and the reason I find this story overrated, but that's neither here nor there).
I think that, perhaps, all of this could be best summed up, by a page from a Batman comic that I received about a year ago:
I think this page speaks so powerfully to the natural place humor has in the spirit of Batman because it gestures at the central question of the franchise: how do people respond to tragedy? That is, after all, the defining question of not just Batman himself, but a great many of the villains he faces. And, of course, as Batman himself relates in the images shown above, many of the answers that characters in the Batman universe give to this question are, to put it lightly, absurd. In response to his wife getting a virulent illness, Victor Fries gathered a bunch of cryogenic technology, froze her in stasis and started robbing banks as Mr. Freeze to pay for experimental procedures to save her. In response to the death of his wife and his own disfigurement, The Joker became, well, the Joker. And Batman himself... well, the image above this paragraph makes it rather clear.
But here’s the thing: these are all ridiculous responses to tragedy... but only to a certain extent. They're ridiculous... but only in the details. When we get down to it, people turn to crime in the hopes of saving people they love all the time. People are driven to incredibly dark mental places by loss every single day. And people swear revenge, even and especially impossible and ridiculous revenge, all the time. This is even more pronounced when the people involved are children, which most comic characters and readers are, emotionally. And children, more than anyone else, need to be told that their emotional responses are valid, no matter what they are, that they are allowed to laugh and cry and love what they want and grieve and feel however the hell they want to. I'm not sure there is any more important message to be sending children than this. The humor in Batman, and the way the comic shows us that there are still meaning and powerful characters behind that does this, is an important reminder for all of us, especially the children who remain comics' most important audience, that however you process grief, to a certain extent (there is, after all, some of these characters are villains and some heroes) are valid. The humor in Batman gives children permission to relate to their own emotions, especially grief, in the way that makes the most sense to them. If only Bruce Wayne had learned this himself.
With excitement and optimism,