Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Cosmology of Gotham City

I love comic books, as a medium. Comics operate in two languages: written text and visuals. They're a middle point between the nigh-limitlessness and descriptiveness of literature and the understatement and optional depth of visual media. A drawing can be dense with information and meaning or it can be light and stylish; the reader can decide how much time he spends on the visuals and how much information he tries to gather just from what is drawn. And the text, due to the fact that it is delivered in quick, bite-sized chunks at a time, allows for a faster pace than most books allow.

I love them as a medium, but I just can not seem to really immerse myself in them as they exist in their periodical format. For me, Batman is the reason to read comic books. Watchmen too, but that does not count for the current topic, I am talking about the never-ending periodically published comics. I can not bring myself to immerse myself in them, and that is because their genres and plotlines unravel as new material is needed, and this makes it impossible to get a sense of unity from the books.

For some, unity is not that important. I am not one of them.

What annoys me about periodical comic books is their tendency to become so inconsistent over time. Characters die, but didn't really die. Awesome characters become ridiculous. Demons and ghosts appear in otherwise realistic tasting works. Beloved characters get killed, but there's some kind of reset, so that an identical character exists but you always know that it's technically a different person. There is no sense attempting to change this, really, it would be impossible to deliver the same product to each generation and it would be nigh-impossible to not delve into either insipidness or weirdness when trying to consistently produce interesting and entertaining storylines on a consistent basis.

So, it is left up to the reader to develop his own consistency. Batman being the only one I am really concerned about, it is necessary to develop a cosmology of Gotham City. The persistent and enduring soul of all Batman storylines. For me, this is that system:

In my conception of the Batman mythos, there is no age or decay in the world. The Dark Knight Returns is just a fever dream; Batman never reaches that age. Growth occurs, but not real aging. Gotham City is a giant chaotic battleground full of conflicting wills, but it is one that is also balanced through the very clash of wills that makes it chaotic in the first place. Gotham is one of the few places on earth that has not been brought under a more-or-less united system of values, instead it is place where any sufficiently powerful entity can try to remake the city in his or her image. So you have the Joker trying to make the city into one giant, bloody punchline because the only thing he loves is the anarchy of laughing at everything. Two-Face wants to create a world of duality because his nature is defined by duality and he is powerful enough to impose the peculiarities of his nature on the world around him. Likewise for Poison Ivy and plants, Mr. Freeze and cold, and the Riddler and intellectual masturbation. No matter how idiosyncratic, you can try to make the world in your image in Gotham.

Arkham is the cooling off box. The idiosyncrasies don't die, they just go into remission for a time. The police are a moderating force for a flattened out order that favors letting people live their lives according to their desires, but not imposing their desires on others, but they are too weak to prevail. Gotham is bound to belong to one of the magnificent figures in the city, whichever one proves to be most capable.

And the Batman story is the story of one freak who is great enough to prevail over all others, but then chooses not to force his will on Gotham except insofar as necessary for the citizens to lead their own private lives. Batman is always smart enough, always strong enough to prevail; Batman can only lose temporarily, he will always prevail in the end. And his will is strong, but he has self-mastery and through the use of a handful of strict rules he forces himself to see himself as a servant instead of a master. If he were to ever fail to practice his code of self-discipline, Gotham would fall into anarchy, Batman is the force that keeps Gotham balanced. And it hurts.

Batman is in constant pain. Physically, mentally, emotionally, the guy is writhing in pain. He can't have the satisfaction of cutting loose, he can't retire, he can't lighten his load, he can't go too far, he can't have the things that would bring him private happiness. It hurts him. That is the order of Gotham: as long as Batman is willing to suffer, the world keeps working. He might believe that he has to do this, but we, the audience, know that he does not. We know that he has chosen to lead his life and that he continues to choose it every day. And he will suffer for it.

To me, this is the cosmology of Gotham. From this system, we can experience the tragedy of Bruce Wayne's sacrifice, the thrill of seeing someone as powerful as Batman consistently prevail without any supernatural powers that insure his safety, the hope that Bruce can carve out little slices of happiness for himself, and the fascination of watching the strange and the insane fight to acquire their own little pieces of Gotham.

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