Monday, November 28, 2016

Batman's Dark Secret

It is not at all difficult to find books for young children starring Batman at your local library. Picture books, junior readers, starter readers, illustrated chapter books, guide books, collections of bedtime-perfect five-minute stories--you could take the youngest of Batman fans into many libraries and walk out with a pretty decent-sized stack of books of all kinds.

Often times these books are tied to a particular version of the character from a particular media adaptation. There are plenty of Lego Batman works (and likely to be a lot more soon), or books from any of the many cartoons, or the Super Friends toy line, or, most disconcertingly, from the Christopher Nolan 2008 Dark Knight film, featuring a slightly abstracted "kid-friendly" version of the late Heath Ledger's Joker.

Standalone books presenting their own, individualized version of the character and not tied into any other adaptation or line of books, tend to be the exceptions--and the more exceptional. The one that always leaps to my mind first is Ralph Cosentino's book Batman: The Story of The Dark Knight. Here's another: Batman's Dark Secret by artist Jon J. Muth (whose name gets pride of place on the cover) and writer Kelley Puckett, who gets top billing on the title page, but whose name is on neither the cover nor the spine.

Both men's names will be familiar to comics readers. Muth worked with Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman and J.M. DeMatteis for DC's Vertigo imprint during its heyday (and wrote and illustrated a 1998 Swamp Thing graphic novel of his own), and did some older, weirder work for Marvel. He's become a prolific children's book author, writing and painting his own books as well as illustrating books by other authors.

Puckett is a pretty prolific comics writer, who wrote the original Batman Adventures comic in the early 1990s (the one based on Batman: The Animated Series), as well as co-creating Green Arrow II Connor Hawke and Batgirl III Casandra Cain, both particular favorite characters of mine. Puckett went on to write much of Cain's career as Batgirl in her own book; those issues are currently being re-collected into trade paperbacks I would highly recommend.

The Batman on the cover is a very "Year One" looking one; the image could be a new painted cover for a collection of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One. It's definitely a moodier image than one might expect from a Batman picture book, but that's in keeping with the content. The first page features a slightly less moody, but no less realistic image of a dynamic Batman in action, swinging from a rope before a purple, blue and white watercolor sky lit by a big bright moon.

"Nothing scares Batman," is the book's first line (which the pedant in mean answered with "Oh yeah? Not even The Scarecrow's fear gas? Not even the thought of one of his Robin's getting killed in battle and not coming back to life?".)

Then Puckett's prose on the page continues:
Nothing at all, not even the dark. But it's not because he's big and strong.

It's because he knows a secret. A secret he learned long ago, when he was just a little boy named Bruce Wayne...
And a turn of the page takes us to a movie theater, where a woman in pearls and a well-dressed man and young boy are in line to buy tickets. The words "Of Zorro" are visible on the marquee.

The secret is not that Batman lost his parents after seeing a The Mark of Zorro when he was a little boy, because I'm pretty sure at this point that no longer qualifies as a secret. I think everyone knows that. I was a little surprised to read a picture book prominently featuring the death of Bruce Wayne's parents though; that sequence takes up about six pages.
Muth and Puckett handle it quite tastefully and with a great deal of reserve. Bruce leaves the theater full of dreams of the unnamed Zorro ("The hero had a cape and a mask and a sword," Puckett writes. "He fought evil, and he won. Bruce wanted to be just like him."..I should pause and note here that when I read this section, it occurred to me that it seems somewhat unusual that in the dozens and dozens of revisitations to Batman's origin story and early years, no creator tried to insinuate a closer bit of Zorro hero-worship into Batman's adventures; that is, at no point did he wear a more Zorro-like costume or try to fight crime with a sword).

Bruce sees a very, very dark alley and runs through it. In the dark, he hears voices, a bang, a flash and the smell of smoke--twice--and then he comes out of the alley alone. "His parents were gone!" As in deader than door nails. No pearls floating in pools of blood can be seen, though; they die in the dark alley where the reader can't see, and they remain there.

Because of this, young Bruce becomes understandably afraid of the dark--perhaps pathologically so, although all kids are afraid of the dark. We follow him back to his house, where Alfred keeps it well-lit at all times, and we learn that Bruce likes to go for long, sad walks on the grounds. One afternoon, he falls asleep on one such walk, and awakening as the sun goes down, he runs home in a panic.
And he falls into a deep, dark hole, full of bats:
Then the darkness came alive. It screeched, it clawed, it swarmed around him. He ran and tripped and fell to the ground.

Slowly, slowly, his eyes adjusted. The darkness became...bats.

Tiny, little bats. Bruce wasn't afraid of bats.
He then encounters the whatever-it-is; the gigantic monster bat that lives in the caves around the grounds of Wayne Manor. Not only does Muth draw this bat as big as young Bruce, but it has huge, angry-looking red eyes with white pupils and a black mouth that's just a ring of needle-sharp fangs. I thought about giving this book to my four-year-old nephew, a Batman enthusiast who regularly plays "The Death of The Flying Graysons" on his swing-set in the backyard (the Robin origin episode of The Batman being his favorite), but who is nevertheless scared of things, as four-year-olds so often are (skeletons, witches, raccoons, skunks, werewolves...although he did ask him mother, his sisters and I to take him out werewolf-hunting once). I think this image might be too much for him. (Or, at the very least, he would want his mom to remove the book from his bedroom at night time.)

Bruce instinctively felt for a stick, stood up, thrust it in the direction of the monster like a Zorro-sword and shouted "NO!" The monster backed away, which is not something I thought bats could do mid-flight, and Bruce realized that, "It was scared...of him."

And that was the turning point in Bruce's life, when he realized that he felt brave, and that he knew he would grow up and, when he did, that "He would fight evil and win."

And that brings us to the very last page, in which Muth provides only his third image of Batman for the book. Here Batman, in his black and gray costume, with yellow utility belt--his costume from "Year One," from Batman: The Animated Series, from the "No Man's Land" era and the years that followed--standing with his arms crossed over his chest on the corner of a Gotham City rooftop. Behind him is a hazy, murky-looking skyline, and he's framed by a big bright moon and a swarm of bats.

The final words of the book run along the bottom: "And he would never be afraid again."

It's obviously a pretty beautiful-looking book, and a nice, fairly child-friendly condensation of a story about a little boy whose parents are shot to death, mourns them and then encounters a horrifying monster. But re-reading it for the third time, I found myself wondering what the "secret" was.

That darkness is really just bats? (Because it's not). That the monster bat that lives under Wayne Manor is afraid of Bruce Wayne, and/or little boys with sticks?

I suppose it's meant to be a less literal lesson, involving the fact that if you can decide whether or not to be afraid of something, or how you react to that fear, or suchlike, lessons I've seen repeatedly in stories growing up, even though as I struggled with anxiety as an adult I realized that's not quite true, or at least not as simple as, say, that one episode of Duck Tales made it seem.

At any rate, I think another, more literal line explaining the secret might have been more effective, especially given the title of the book and the way it opened. As is, it's evocative, but it would be nice to have something as simply stated as all the other words in the book that a young person could apply to conquering their own fears, since fear of losing one's parents and fear of the dark are universal, but encountering bats of various sizes and reality underground are not.

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