Tuesday, September 14, 2010

An old essay and a favorite instructor

I thought the world of Paul Farkas.  I enjoyed studying under him.  He had a gentle way of guiding me through my thoughts.  He loved old literature.  My last class with him at Metro State would have been fall of 1997.  I don't remember when I wrote the following essay.  I do remember how excited he was about it.
Batman and Sampson

"Comic books are born out of the marriage of newspaper comic strips and pulp fiction magazines." (Daniels p 13) Pulp magazines were the craze in the late eighteen century and offered the reader some seedy reading. It is difficult to see how Superman or Batman evolved out of lurid characters like Doctor Strange and Sherlock Holmes, since the evolution came not so much as the actual subject matter as the magazine format. Obviously, the pulp fiction mania when wed to current newspaper comics did lend itself to the beginnings of the comic book heroes who hit the press in 1938. This generation of hero would have to be different, appealing: "They wore colorful tights, with or without mask or cape and this intriguing garb was a kind of trade-mark, like Hercules' lion skin." (Reitberger & Fuchs 100) Superheroes made an instant appeal, filling a popular role previously held by not only pulp fiction characters but mythological heroes alike. Mythological heroes, perhaps seemingly less appealing than superheroes, lacked the fancy costume and fancy toys or super-powers, but both groups are nothing but glory and adventure. "Superheroes do not seek adventure in the same way as the old legendary heroes of mythology and legend did. They do not search for evil to combat: evil positively leaps at them and never lets them rest." (Daniels 100)

Superman, in 1938 had more limitations than he is known to have today. The infallible super-alien of late evolved from a more human-like deity who had weakness much in the same fashion as archaic heroes like Samson, and Hercules. In 1938, Superman appeared to help, and fight for justice and the American way. Also in that year, Batman, a darker and less defined hero was born. Batman was created by Bob Kane, perhaps not as famous a creator of myths as Homer is, but the creator of a popular culture hero who has endure nearly sixty years. Batman, the most believable of superheroes is nothing more than a man, albeit a strange man, perhaps slightly crazed, but a man nonetheless. With a deeper study of Batman and society, it isn't long before interesting aspects of this phenomena are unearthed: A treasure chest of mythological symbols, some age old archetypes within the Batman character which are not new, there are similarities with the Egyptian Amun-re and the Mayan Bat-God Chamalcán and Batman's manifestations in popular culture giving cultural needs for such a hero.

Inside the batcave, Batman hides away in solitude, thinking of strategies to outwit archenemies, reminisce about his murdered parents, and wonders if he will ever be able to tell his girlfriend what he is, the Dark Knight. Inside his cave, which is "a sacred place in myth," the mythological elements can be dismantled and examined in parts: the cave and the bat.

Caves "are places of withdrawal for meditation, which can lead to a second birth." (Leeming 345) This place is the only sanction for Batman, who retreats there often, not only to take out and put away his costume and toys but to unwind and be able to let down the mask. Since caves are associated with the Earth they are inherently feminine. There is something to see, as Batman drives his car, or boat, or jet into a hidden entrance to the cave. It pulls together images of returning to the womb. In an essence every time that Batman emerges from the cave he is born again, and upon his return home to it, is devoured. "The symbolic significance of the cave has to do as much with the realm of death (the dark space as with that of birth, the maternal womb)." (Becker 35)

Caves, and their symbolism seem to have an universal theme of safety, and the batcave fits the model. "Caves were thus often revered as the sites where gods, heroes, spirits, demons and the deceased stayed or were born; they were often seen as the entrance to the realm of the dead." (Mercatante 189) The batcave seems to fulfill several purposes for Batman, beside the obvious, the cave provides Batman with the darkness he desires. The fiber of his being, the bat, loathes the light, needs the dark whether it is the safety of the cave or the night.

Bats seem to carry significance throughout many cultures, and the significance is not nearly as universal as the cave. As Batman "was finally ready to go to war, it took an omen-the sight of a black bat flying in through the open window of his mansion-to finally manifest his Batman identity." (Vaz xi) In Batman folklore, Bruce Wayne, orphaned due to the brutal crime caused murder of his parents, vowed to fight crime. His vengeful insanity caused him to go covert, and the omen of the bat caused him to do what he felt he was destined for, vengeance. Connotations of bats go deep onto the human conscious and ancient folklore, and superstitions lend interesting elements to the Batman character.

In Europe, the "bat is thought to be a symbol of immortality." (Becker 35) So, it isn't difficult to see how other traditions, such as vampires, evolved from or included bats. "The bat, which like the vampire, does not wake up until night, is also associated with sexual symbolism, in Europe, demons and ghosts who supposedly slept with women at night were sometimes thought of as bats." (Becker 35) The sexual connotations of bats are somewhat ironic in light of sexual connotations of comic book superheroes. While these superheroes are endowed with ultra-male bodies, presumably the model of sexuality, the artists leave out the logically superhuman genitals. Although superheroes possess powers that entice readers, they lack the most basic power of normal human beings, the power of sex. The comic book hero, while at times may attempt to enter the sexual realm is often thwarted. Batman has had many problems over the years, perhaps it is his identity he has always wanted to keep a secret. Whatever the reason is, superheroes are for the most part hermaphrodites, and although they are the muscular model of the ideal male, they lack genitals. This may have cultural implications, and the reasoning behind the apparent lack of sexuality probably comes from Comics Code Authority (see attached), that provides comic book story writers from portraying many sexual acts in comics. This lack of sexual prowess helps to keep the superhero's mind on target, and keeps him less human. Although, superheroes like Batman, may have many privileges that many people don't have, whether it is the right to fight crime outside of the law or possess superhuman powers or forbidden knowledge, they are denied sexual ability, bringing them to a level which is easier to deal with for the reader.

Without the preoccupation of sex, Batman continues with his intellectual realm, and crime stopping activities at night. "As a nocturnal animal, the bat is also as emblem of melancholia, and in Germany the symbol of envy, which flies under darkness and not in the open." (Becker 36) This envy medieval Germans possessed made the bat a creature not worthy of trust, hence furthering the animal as evil. These people of Europe often "represented the devil as having bat's wings." (Miranda 64) Europe held to the evilness in bat symbolism, which probably goes back to a biblical tradition where: "In that day a man will cast away his idols of silver and his idols of gold, which they made each for himself to worship, to the moles and bats, to go to the clefts of the rocks and the crags of the rugged rocks." (Isaiah 2:20) Before the prophet Isaiah, Moses deemed the bat an unclean animal, but the bat is not an universally malevolent.

"Its sure orientation in darkness made the bat a symbol of intelligence (among the black African peoples, for instance); in a different context, though, the bat was an enemy of LIGHT." (Becker 35) Although Africans viewed the bat as an enemy of LIGHT, it is not an embodiment of evil or a representation of the devil. Vastly different is the Chinese view of bats. The Chinese would not be offended by the African views, but they would be infinitely appalled by that of the European's. "The bat in China is good luck, the name 'Fu' is a homonym for bat and luck." (Becker 33) If the Batman comic book legend was as commonplace in China as it is in the western world, their view of him would be different.

Bruce Wayne, in Batman #1, Spring issue 1940, contemplates a disguise: "Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible." From the European tradition a bat, or a Batman would indeed "strike terror" into hearts of criminals. In China, it is nearly impossible a bat would strike fear into the hearts of those who view the bat as luck. Behold the Dark Knight... FUman, it just doesn't have the same affect. Batman would be foreign for the Chinese, as well as other cultures, yet he shares elements with other deities in other cultures.

"Man's consciousness was created to the end that it may (1) recognize its descent from a higher unity; (2) pay due and careful regard to this source; (3) execute its commands intelligently and responsibility; (4) thereby afford the psyche as a whole optimum of life and development." (Edinger xv) The proceeding is a paraphrase of C.G. Jungs's statement of ego and archetype. Jung theorized that the ego is a part of the self and throughout the life of a person, he is in a constant state of flux between ego-Self separation and ego-Self union. During a period of ego-Self separation the person is not whole and must make the transgression to a reunionazation of ego-self. This characterizes the individual as an archetype. According to Jung the Self is the center of the total psyche. "Through his researches, we now know that the individual psyche is not just a product of personal experience." (Edinger 3) Jung's findings seem to be the exact opposite to Batman, who is always ego-Self separated and his entire motivation is from his personal experience. Indeed the experience of the murder of his parents caused Bruce Wayne to fight crime, and it was the decision that caused the double identity of Bruce Wayne and Batman. His double identity, by design, will cause the ego and the Self of Batman to be constantly separate. The double identity serves a purpose, Batman can allows himself as a character to live a normal life as Bruce Wayne when he wants some down time from fighting crime, but the two are never separate and never alone. "But it was still his Batman identity, and the call of the night, that would rule his being." (Vaz 132) After all Batman is nothing more than a man and "given his mortality, a secret identity was not a luxury, but a necessity." (Vaz xi) Even if Batman was immortal, he may still have to keep his double identity. Such is the case with the Egyptian God Amun-Re.

In the Egyptian pantheon Amun-Re is the combination of two separate gods. Amun is the Lord of shadows, or the invisible one. His identity is wed with Re, the Sun god. This is a paradoxical combination, a god in the form of both the sun and the invisible one. This is not unlike the Batman character who, after all, is a paradox as well. Bruce Wayne is a wealthy "Playboy" type and is inextricably bound with the darkness of Batman. The duality here may lead the readers of Batman or the worshippers of Amun-Re some piece of mind, and it helps them to understand the duality of life. In this sense the two characters may be like the Yin and Yang, two separate, opposites that together comprise the whole.

Batman, although part of popular culture in the US today, doesn't carry the same religious significance as a God like Amun-re or the Mayan Chamalcán, perhaps some avid Batman collectors would heartily disagree.
In the Mayan Popol-Vuh, Chamalcán is part of their pantheon. The interesting aspect of the Chamalcán character in light of other traditions discussed here, is that he is a "Bat God." The idea of a Bat God in the Mayan belief system is an acceptable deity. The same God represented here in an European context would be the devil, in the African: intelligence of the night, in the Chinese: a God of good luck, and in the United States: Batman. Chamalcán in the Mayan tradition represents a trickster character, who "frequently engages in socially unacceptable acts to call attention to the arbitrary and tentative nature of established cultural patterns." (Lauter 26) In the story about Chamalcán, who appears to be on the outside of the established society, he infects a girl, only to come back later in the form of a healer to heal the girl who he made sick. He does this to gain favors, both of power and of sex. Perhaps this is a cultural parody of the significance and the corruption of the healer. Chamalcán and Batman share no overt characteristics in common, Batman is not a trickster in his comics, and he is certainly not filling a function to point out the corruption of society in a comical way. The only true connection between the Mayan Chamalcán and Batman is the fact that they are both related to, or contain elements of the bat. Although, the importance of bats may be accented here, their cultural significance varies. Although the significance of the bat may very the importance of a superhuman pantheon of deities and outlandish characters seem to strike a chord very close to home.

Batman has been part of our society actively since 1938, and there is no evidence that he will disappear any time soon. The comic books started his life, but other forms of media have progressed the name of Batman into a household name. Batman made a debut on radio in the 1940s, television in the 1960s, and starting in 1989 on the big screen. With such a wide spread appeal over all sorts of mediums there must be a cultural need for such a character and the pseudo mythology around him. It is completely conceivable that Batman has become a household name, much like Amun-Re was in Egypt and Chamalcán in Mayan society.

Batman, besides the interesting character he is himself, is a indication of our culture. In his early days of fighting crime, Gotham City was a dirty, apocalyptic place where crime ran rampant. In 1938, the crime of Gotham City was unbelievable and perhaps impossible for the time. As time has gone by however, the portrayal of Gotham has gotten worse, conceivably since all the streets in our home towns have gotten worse. Today, "the streets are grid-locked with automobiles, and the sidewalks are choked with pedestrians walking in a jittery daze." (Vaz 174) It is the urban setting, which is were most people in this country live, who Batman appeals to satisfy. The surreality of the Batman tales entice readers to look again into their own worlds to analyze, are our streets as bad as Gotham City's, or does the violence there relax us and desensitize us to our own violence? "It's a harsh landscape that included the psychodramas engineered by insane criminals." (Vaz xii) A valuable question is: Are the settings of Batman's turf as bad as we think our city streets really have become? No. As all deities and mythological characters, Batman is born from and is a result of the culture he was born to. The world of 1938 must have been a scary place, technology rushing along, which Batman seems to capitalize on, and a world struck by depression and heading toward war. The pseudo heroes, superhuman and amazing, make sense coming onto the scene when they did, and lasting as long as they have. They have captured the hearts of generations, and helped ease their minds through World War II, the Cold War and technology that is threatening in itself. Bob Kane's Batman of 1938, didn't realize the responsibility he would have for his first sixty years, nor can he realize the responsibility to come.

Becker, Udo. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols. The Continuum Publishing Company, New York. 1994.

Bruce-Mitford, Miranda. The Illustrated Book of Signs and Symbols. DK Publishing, New York. 1994.

Daniels, Lee. Marvel. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York. 1991.

Edinger, Edward F. Ego and Archetype. C.P. Putnam's Sons, New
York. 1972.

Leeming, David Adams. The World of Myth. Oxford University Press, New York. 1990.

Mercatante, Anthony S. World Mythology & Legend. Facts on File, New York. 1988.

Reitberger, Reinhold & Fuchs, Wolfgang. Comics. Little, Brown and Company, Boston. 1970.

Vaz, Mark Cotta. Tales of the Dark Knight. Ballantine Books, New York. 1989.

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