Which of the following characters do you think is closest to your own sense of Gothic?
- Mr Hyde, Dr Jekyll, Dracula, Dorian Gray, Batman
Actually, your answer may not be on the list I’ve included. These were just the names that sprang most immediately to mind. For me, one name sprung higher and quicker than the others, and it belongs to a character that has made a staggering contribution to crime fiction. I give you Bruce Wayne, The Dark Knight, The Caped Crusader…I give you Batman.
Like many fictional juggernauts Batman started life in comic book form. From the vastly powerful DC Comics stable the character reached the ripe young age of 75 last summer and I am genuinely serious when I say that it is difficult to overestimate his literary importance. He acts rather like a barometer for the crime fiction genre. Initially portrayed in the popular pulp fiction style of the 1930s he has tackled crime against a series of mortal enemies, used and eschewed sidekicks and worked through reboots, offshoots, turkeys and golden eggs. Along the way he has featured in just about every medium it is possible to imagine, including postage stamps. The Batman of today may operate at the blockbuster end of filmmaking, but his comic book roots remain firmly intact. He is stronger than ever, and he is big big business.
As a character, he maybe 75, but the inspiration for Batman is much older. It dates back to 1830s London and a shadowy urban legend by the name of Spring Heeled Jack. The legend started life as a ghost story and early sightings of the terrifying figure were quickly reported across the whole country. Seizing on the voracious literary appetite of Victorian England, Spring Heeled Jack was brought to literary life by Penny Dreadful writer and noted ghost story specialist Alfred Burrage. Burrage helped Jack transform from an urban myth in the form of a horrific apparition into a wealthy aristocrat who fought crime through the medium of a bat costume and an underground lair. The parallels to what would become known as Batman are striking, but in fact, the presence of a society figure using a secret identity to fight crime, or to conduct criminal activities, were par for the course well before DC Comics created their own incarnation in 1939. Johnston McCulley’s Don Diego de la Vega (Zorro), Baroness Orczy’s Sir Percy Blakeney (Scarlet Pimpernel) and Russell Thorndike’s Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn (Scarecrow) were all firmly established by the time Bruce Wayne became Batman. Instead of creating a genre, DC Comics simply added to one that already existed. Surely though they couldn’t have imagined the impact the character would have.
Which brings me to the point of this post, which is why I associate Batman so clearly with all things Gothic. The main reason for this is a facility which exists on the outskirts of Gotham City (although to be honest Gotham City is Gothic enough). That facility is Arkham Asylum and its presence floods through The Caped Crusader’s history. It is referenced across the franchise and it lends considerable Gothic depth to the overall tone. It takes its inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories and the asylum has been home to pretty much all of Batman’s enemies. As a home to the criminally insane, it has had its fair share of psychosis and has also seen a number of its famous inmates, not least The Joker, escape. The work that goes on inside the asylum is genuinely scary and involves painful experiments on inmates using venom and fear gas. It is this darker side of Batman that has always made me think that the stories are more for adults than children. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is a graphic novel penned by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean which was released in 1989. It is arguably the finest Batman story ever produced. It was referenced in the recent Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination exhibition at the British Library. The story pits Batman and The Joker against each other and it is far from being the sort of thing you would be comfortable seeing a child read.
The illustrations from the Batman comics and graphic novels show Gotham City as being primarily influenced by Gothic architecture, particularly Arkham Asylum. Indeed a number of Batman stories feature architectural themes. This, from The Dark Knight himself,
I read somewhere that the term “Gothic” might possibly be derived from the word “Goetic”, goes in the Greek, meaning “magical.” I’m beginning to believe that. If architecture could be used to focus and direct spiritual power, then… then… could it also be used for evil?
What fascinates me are the Gothic tropes that run through the Batman franchise. When I read that quote all I can hear is the voice of Adam West who played Batman until Michael Keaton donned the batsuit in the same year Morrison’s graphic novel hit the shelves. West’s portrayal was as camp as it gets, and for years the franchise featured Robin, a sidekick so unpopular with die-hard fans that the character was eventually killed off, at their request. The Batman of that generation was brightly coloured and camp, not dark and scary. Both fit perfectly into the Gothic mould because when I think of Gothic novels two main things come to mind. First that they have a fascination with the perverse, and second that they are stuffed full of decadence. Watching old clips of West’s Batman I am struck by the campness, but also by the Gotham City that he seeks to protect. To me, Gotham City is an excellent example of a society which is luxuriating in its own decadence. This theme was taken to extremes by Tim Burton when Batman received a full Hollywood makeover with the Michael Keaton reboot. Burton’s work is stacked full of Gothic intent and none more so perhaps than his Batman films.
The scene where Jack Nicholson, as The Joker, speaks the line that is the title of this post has him holding a gun, Bruce Wayne holding a fire poker, and Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale screaming in horror.
It is camp, decadent and Gothic. Pure Batman.