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September 25, 2017

Batman: a Study of Homages


An homage is defined as a special honour or act of respect delivered publicly. In the genre of super hero comic books, the character which is most frequently referenced by other publishers is Batman, a character property owned by DC Comics.

Mainstream superhero comics books since around the turn of the century have seemed like the ourobouros, the snake of mythology which consumes its own tail. Sometimes this has been dubbed “post-modern”, a reference to the school of fine art that questions the form through its limitations. A detached reader with an historical overview of trends in the genre might believe that the industry has instead been engaging for the past decade in a very contemporary concept, ecological recycling: no concept of value is allowed to go to landfill, and instead is put to a new use.

Part of the allure of reinvesting in a well-established concept must be the belief that the concept taps into the zeitgeist, and will have instant appeal to a pre-primed readership. Sometimes it allows a writer to creatively indulge in a character property which is owned by someone else, and to which the writer has no permission to use. Sometimes it is sheer laziness, and sometimes it is parody. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

This essay is a survey of those homages.

1. Midnighter (Wildstorm Comics)

Midnighter

In some ways, Midnighter started life as a pastiche rather than an homage. Together with the character’s same sex-partner Apollo, the two were a mocking commentary on the relationship of Superman and Batman. Indeed, the first appearance of the two characters in 1998 has them shadowed but both apparently nude, holed up in a construction site.

Wildstorm Comics was originally an imprint of Image Comics, until owner/creator Jim Lee sold the business to DC Comics. One of the titles which went with Wildstorm Comics was a title called StormWatch, featuring a team of superheroes of the same name. In a story penned by British writer Warren Ellis (whose name you will see again in this essay), StormWatch were pitted against two characters called Apollo and Midnighter, the remnants of a separate, covert group of superheroes modelled after DC Comics’ Justice League.

Under the title The Authority (1999), Ellis reformulated StormWatch as a ultra-jurisdictional, interventionist superhero team, happy to involve itself in world affairs (something which had been off limits for superheroes since the Justice Society of America fought Nazis and the Japanese in World War Two). Ellis incorporated Midnigter into the team.

The character’s trade mark brutality (he uses a rusted jackhammer to seek vengeance upon a defeated foe by way of quid pro quo rape, and uses a metal staff to decapitate an adversary who has surrendered, noting that the dead man’s children are better off without him) are an extension of the violence of Frank Miller’s seminal Dark Knight Returns (1986). Dark Knight Returns introduced something new into the Batman mythos: a paramilitary orientation to the dispensation of justice. Batman drives a tank mounted with cannon and machine guns which shoot rubber bullets. In his showdown with Superman, he wears heavy armor and throws an incendiary device at him. Batman otherwise uses a machine gun shooting rubber bullets and throws razor-sharp batarangs into opponents’ limbs. Likewise, Midnighter throws shuriken into the groins of his enemies, and is trained in “black ops” interrogation methods involving a cattle prod applied to his victim’s genitals.

Midnighter otherwise is endowed with hard-wired strategy systems which enables the character to anticipate his opponents’ every move. It gives Midnighter an unbeatable edge in any fight so that if he can win, he will win. This follows (or at the very-least, coincides with) Scottish writer Grant Morrison’s treatment of Batman in Justice League of America (1997). Morrison upgraded Batman from world’s greatest detective to strategic and tactical savant, capable of out-smarting and out-thinking even the deadliest of adversaries. Batman is essentially enhanced by Morrison. Midnighter is Ellis’ enhanced version of Batman.

2. Nemesis (Icon Comics, an imprint of Marvel Comics)

Nemesis

The mini-series entitled Nemesis (2010) created by Scottish writer Mark Millar, featured a criminal mastermind who baited and killed police chiefs around the world for sport. The title was originally touted as “What if Batman was the Joker?”. The title character is dressed in a white body suit that is an intentionally negative version of Batman’s black and grey uniform.

Millar eventually pulled the publicity image in order to avoid problems with DC legal (Millar clarified that he did it without compulsion), but it sums up Millar’s design philosophy for Nemesis – a villain who had Joker’s sadistic creativity complemented by Batman’s intelligence, resourcefulness, and fighting prowess.

Integrating the combat-related aspect of both Batman and the Joker is easy to comprehend. Nemesis takes down entire squads of law enforcers, has his own henchmen, and unlike Batman he is not at all averse to the use of guns. The sadistic creativity part is where it gets interesting. One of his sick ploys include artificially inseminating a woman with the sperm of her gay brother, and then rigging her womb to explode if any attempts at abortion is made. All of it, just to get at their father (a Commissioner Gordon analogue).

Nemesis’ origin story reads like an inversion of Bruce Wayne’s as well – a wealthy orphan who traveled the world learning various disciplines – until it is revealed to be a farce. Nemesis is proven to be another aspect of the Batman mythos – the character who is always prepared, here, to the point of being omniscient. Nemesis knows the outcome ten years in advance, suggesting that either he is a supernatural creature playing with select humans in a perverse game, or has predictive analysis well-beyond contemporary technologies. Or is Nemesis Miller himself? The conclusion is not clear.

3. Moon Knight (Marvel Comics)

Moon Knight

Created by Doug Moench and Don Perlin, Moon Knight is a Marvel comics character that first appeared as an antagonist in Werewolf by Night #32 (August 1975.) The character proved popular enough that he was given his own solo stories in Marvel Spotlight #28 and 29, followed by appearances in various Marvel titles, including Spectacular Spider-Man, Marvel Two-in-One, Defenders, until he was given his own backup strip in Hulk! Magazine and Marvel Preview! He was given his own comic book title in November 1980.

Moon Knight is the nom de guerre of Marc Spector, who is a former boxer, US Marine, CIA operative, and mercenary. His past experiences have allowed him to gain expertise in a wide variety of martial arts disciplines as well as familiarity with various weapons. His athletic abilities are at peak human levels, and he is also an excellent combat stategist.

One of the writers who had a hand in reviving the Moon Knight franchise in 2006, Charlie Huston, admitted that comparisons between Moon Knight and Batman are not baseless, because there are admittedly a number of similarities: both are wealthy humans who rely on martial arts, strategy, and various gadgets to fight crime. But he also pointed out that the similarities tend to stop there, as Moon Knight had a number of things that absolve him of any accusations of being an inferior Batman knockoff.

First, Moon Knight has multiple personality disorder, making him mentally unstable and allowing him to do things that Batman is never depicted as doing in mainstream continuity (for example, torture and intentionally kill criminals.)

Second, Moon Knight actually has superhuman abilities; as a result of being visited by the Egyptian moon god Khonshu, Spector can exhibit varying degrees of super strength, endurance, and agility depending on the phase of the moon. Whether his abilities are really mystical in nature or just self-hypnosis due to his psychological instability is subject to interpretation.

During the 2008 run of the Moon Knight comics, Spector has revealed that he has lost his powers, but can still perform superhuman feats due to the use of various high tech weaponry and gear, including a “carbonadium” armor that increases his strength and durability.

4. Nighthawk (Marvel Comics)

Nighthawk-1

From the offset, Marvel Comics has never hidden the fact that Nighthawk was meant to be a Batman parallel. The original version of the character, with the alter ego of Kyle Richmond, debuted as a supervillain in the pages of The Avengers and was a member of the Squadron Sinister, which had members that were loosely based on members of DC Comics’ Justice League of America (Doctor Spectrum is based on Green Lantern, Hyperion on Superman, Whizzer on Flash, and Nighthawk on Batman.)

Aside from his depiction as a criminal, Nighthawk/Kyle Richmond differs from Batman in several ways. First, while born to wealthy parents like Batman, only his mother died during his childhood. His father was alive during his formative years and his biggest loss was his girlfriend Mindy Williams. Mindy was a positive influence on Kyle so it was no surprise that her death as a result of Kyle driving home drunk turned his life upside down. The loss set the character on a downward spiral that resulted in being kicked out of school, a path that was entrenched when the character’s father died in a plane crash. The painful trigger is there, but altered in the details.

Another difference is that Nighthawk had superhuman strength, agility, and durability due to a serum he concocted through alchemy, though only on a level that puts him on par with Captain America. It also has a unique twist: the serum’s effects were strongest at night, which meant that he had a really good reason to conduct his activities at night.

Nighthawk was at best an auxiliary character and one would suspect that Marvel has been using him to criticize DC’s flagship character; Kyle Richmond started out as a villain, reformed, and has bounced between fighting for good and antagonizing heroes throughout the years, at one point even killing Marvel Comics’ mainstay Daredevil after being tricked by Marvel Comics’ Satan analogue, a demon called Mephisto. Nighthawk’s last published exploits were in the context of a plot involving the government registration of superheroes and the training of a successor.

5. Hawk-Owl (Marvel Comics)

hawkowl

Hawk-Owl is a Batman pastiche that starred in the Ultimate Adventures Mini-Series, which ran from September 2002 to January 2004. Hawk-Owl’s stories are set in a parallel universe called Earth-1610 (known to readers as the Ultimate universe) and has had run-ins with that continuity’s Captain America.

The character, Jack Danner, avoids being a straight copy of Batman due to a difference in his origin. His crime fighting career is not fueled by criminal tragedy, but the family death is still present: the character was orphaned because of his father’s drunken driving. The character initially started out as a rowdy teenager with way too much time and money on his hands, until his beleaguered aunt gave the groundskeeper permission to train him and his childhood friend Daniel Tolliver (who would eventually become his butler) martial arts and discipline. Instead of being inspired by the appearance of a giant bat perched on a bust of his father, as Batman was, this character instead got the idea for his alter ego after defending an owl from an attacking hawk.

Beyond the slightly different backstory, Hawk-Owl is very similar to Batman. He operates mostly at night, keeping with the Owl theme, and he has no super powers save for extensive martial arts training, detective skills, and access to gadgets due to his wealth. The character has a secret lair (“The Nest”, as opposed to the Batcave) and his miniseries is centered around the recruitment of another young orphaned boy as his sidekick.

6. The Shroud (Marvel Comics)

the-shroud

Created by Steve Englehart and Herb Trimpe, The Shroud first appeared in Marvel’s Super Villain Team-Up #5 (April 1976), and Englehart himself admitted in a statement to Industry publication ComicBookResources that the character is designed to be a mashup of Batman and The Shadow. The character’s backstory underscores that: the 10 year old Maximillian Quincy Coleridge saw his parents gunned down right before his eyes and as a consequence decided to dedicate his life to fighting crime. After graduating from college, he joined the “Cult of Kali” and learned various martial arts disciplines. After years of training, the character was branded with the “kiss of Kali,” and was consequentially blinded during the branding process (which, brutally, involved a red hot iron.) The character’s eyesight was replaced by a mystic extrasensory perception, which he used to great effect when he went back to the U.S. and started fighting crime as “The Shroud.” The character acquired interdimensional powers as his adventures unfolded.

7. The Confessor (Wildstorm Comics / Homage Comics / Vertigo Comics)

The-Confessor

Created by the trio of Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross, The Confessor is another Batman homage which first appeared in the acclaimed comic book series Astro City. Set in the 19th century, The Confessor is a Roman Catholic priest named Jeremiah Parrish, who was seduced by a mysterious beautiful woman who, unfortunately, turned out to be a vampire. When he was bitten and turned into a vampire himself, the character spent several decades hiding in the forgotten halls and vaults of the Grandenetti Cathedral, eventually coming out of hiding in the early 1950s in order to fight crime in Astro City.

The Confessor’s status as a vampire serves as the perfect excuse to keep the setting confined to nighttime. The character cannot be exposed to daylight, and the all black costume with a large black cape definitely fits the vampire lore. What breaks the character out of the mould and into the Batman mythos is the use of a mask and a boy sidekick. The character however features a shining cross emblem in his chest – the emblem actually has a purpose beyond visuals, the cross causes him pain due to vampires being averse to religious symbols, and the pain is enough to help him curtail his thirst for blood, reminding him of his mission to defend justice. It is a noteworthy variation of the theme: guilt for a lapse in vows of chastity rather than guilt over the loss of parents drives the character.

The Confessor was eventually defeated in combat, but not before passing on his mission to his sidekick, Altar Boy (an obvious analogue for Robin). This successor continued the Confessor’s tactics but with the disadvantage of not possessing vampire powers. Being a normal human makes the character closer to Batman than his predecessor. On the other hand, being human also gives him an advantage, as the character is not vulnerable to the weaknesses that his mentor had, to the detriment of enemies who believe a vampire still wears the mask.

8. Professor Night (Image Comics)

PROFESSOR-NIGHT

This character was created by acclaimed writer Alan Moore as a side character in the Supreme comic book. This comic features many characters and obvious parallels of iconic DC characters. At first glance, readers would assume that Professor Night is a counterpart to the 1940s crimefighter Doctor Mid-Nite due to the name and the design of his costume, but the use of the character as Supreme’s regular partner and a founding member of the Allied Supermen of America make it clear that the character is a Batman analogue.

Professor Night’s real identity is a nod to Batman. The character’s real name is Taylor Kendall, who lives in Kendall Manor with his Sikh butler Pratrap and an adopted daughter, Linda Kendall. This character works as his sidekick under the name Twilight, the Girl Marvel, a parallel to Batman’s sidekick, Robin. The character’s secret base is directly under the Kendall Manor, where he keeps all of his advanced computer network, high tech gadgets, trophies of past cases, and his car, the Night Wagon (an homage to the Batmobile).

Well, Why Batman?

One of the most enduring questions is that why, of all the superheroes available, is Batman the one that’s copied so frequently?

No doubt this is rooted in the character’s prevailing popularity. This extends well past comic books. In the journal Psychology Today, Dr Travis Langley, a professor of psychology at Henderson State University, notes:

“Psychiatrists (e.g., Bender, Kambam, & Pozios, 2011; Wertham, 1954) and psychologists (e.g., Daniels, 2008; Dreyer, 2009; Killian, 2007; Langley & Rosenberg, 2011; plus others interviewed in the History Channel documentary Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of the Dark Knight) analyze Batman more than any other superhero — the character himself, that is. ”

Dr Langley goes on to note:

“Why don’t children fear this hero who dresses like a monster? Because he’s their monster. He’s ours. Even when children learn that magic will not save them nor will a hero in blue fly out of the sky, so they develop more realistic hopes, they can still hope that when they can’t find the strength to stand up to life’s bullies, someone who is strong and capable might do the right thing and help. In Batman, they see the wounded boy who makes himself big and strong enough to turn fear against the fearsome. With both brain and brawn, he’s the part of us that wants to scare life’s bullies away.”

The sheer number of different takes on Batman and the number of pastiches suggests that, not withstanding DC Comics’ registered trade marks and copyright in the character, there is a sense of common ownership over this resonate archetype. Different writers have portrayed Batman in vastly different ways (for instance, The Brave and the Bold Batman is a vastly different character from Frank Miller’s Batman in the seminal Dark Knight Returns) and the different Batman parallels were done with equally different motivations. As noted in The Washington Post:

“The character endures by having as many entry points to his story as he has incarnations.”

But there are a few other drivers to copying the character worth pointing out.

First is that the Batman character is so well defined by his origin that you can take out the Bat gimmick and you can still draw parallels; if you create a super strong man who can stick to walls and shoot webs but take out everything that connects him to a spider, the gimmick stops making sense. But as most of the examples above point out, you can have a wealthy orphan who has no powers and fights crime at night, give him a theme that has nothing to do with bats or animals, and people will still think of Batman. The origin is compelling. As Dr Langley says:

When this character’s creators decided what must drive this man to dress like a bat and make his city’s criminals cower at the sight of him, Bob Kane and Bill Finger tapped into our most primal childhood fears…. “Bill and I discussed it,” Kane recalled (Daniels, 1999, p. 31), “and we figured there’s nothing more traumatic than having your parents murdered before your eyes.” Losing one’s parent or parents when old enough to know about it ranks as the single most stressful common life event children can experience (e.g., Monaghan, Robinson, & Dodge, 1979). ”

The homages listed above either mimic or mock the horrific circumstances describing Batman’s reason for existence, but either way, it is repeatedly referenced.

Another reason is that Batman is an easy target. He’s just an incredibly intelligent and fit guy with lots of money, who fights street level criminals and gods alike. As noted in an article in Scientific American:

“Batman is the most down-to-earth of all the superheroes. He has no special powers from being born on a distant world or bitten by a radioactive spider. All that protects him from the Joker and other Gotham City villains are his wits and a physique shaped by years of training—combined with the vast fortune to reach his maximum potential and augment himself with Batmobiles, Batcables and other Bat-goodies, of course.”

(The article goes on to note that it would likely take a person 15 to 18 years to acquire Batman’s level of skill, but that injuries and aging means that the person would only be at the top of their game for 3 years.)

The premise seems silly but it works in the hands of the right scribe. It’s something that other writers want to try their hand in and see how they can twist and mold the concept into something different yet still recognizable, an archetype to indulge in outside of the parameters of its legal owner.

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