Vengeance, the Night, and Feeling Like A Fake Fan

The Origin Story

It’s possible you’ve noticed that I like Batman a lot.

(Also selfies.)

I blame this liking for Batman mostly on my college roommate, Lillian, who introduced me to characters like Harley Quinn and incepted me with the idea that Batman: The Animated Series is the perfect Batman. I also blame Christopher Nolan’s films, particularly The Dark Knight, which was the first time I’d consumed Batman media that got into my head and my heart. (I have fuzzy memories of seeing either Batman Forever orBatman & Robin in theaters with my cousin, but my uncertainty over whether it was Mr. Freeze or Two-Face ought to tell you how much impact that movie had on my psyche.)

When people talk about Doctor Who, they often talk about “my Doctor” and “my first Doctor” — labels that often apply to two completely different actors. My Doctor, for instance, is probably David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, but my first Doctor was Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor. Similarly, I think most Batman fans probably have a “my Batman” and “my first Batman,” whether they acknowledge it or not. For me, my true Batman is Kevin Conroy, but my first Batman is Christian Bale, and so Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman will always have a certain definitive place in my heart. For other people, it’s Adam West, or Michael Keaton, or maybe it’s Frank Miller’s Batman or Grant Morrison’s or another comic writer’s. All equally legit.

I got into Batman because of Christopher Nolan. There it is. The combination of Nolan’s direction, Bale’s Bruce Wayne, and Heath Ledger’s Joker got into my limbic system in a way no Batman had before, and I was hooked. In November 2011 — which was a memorably bad month for me — I watched Batman Begins and The Dark Knight probably three times each to cheer myself up, the way other people watch Pride & Prejudice or Up or Singin’ In the Rain.

I started to hunt down the comics that inspired the movies: Year OneThe Killing JokeThe Long Halloween, and from Long Halloween I tracked down Hush, and in bookstores I flipped through Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. In the grocery store I skimmed through Batgirl stories with Cassandra Cain, and thanks to friends I became deeply invested in Girl-Wonder.org despite never having read a Stephanie brown story. Uncertain of what stories to read and with scant access to complete runs, I read the Wikipedia summaries of Jason Todd and Damian Wayne and Amanda Wallander and Selina Kyle. In more recent years I’ve gotten my hands on more canons, like Batman: The Animated SeriesArkham CityInjustice: Gods Among UsBatman: The Brave and the Bold, and even a brief foray into Batman Beyond.

Still, the only complete canon I feel comfortable with is the Nolan films, and I have watched them until I can quote whole scenes from memory. (Recently I challenged myself to try and come with a Nolanverse quote for every occasion.) I have more opinions about Cillian Murphy’s vocal tics, Katie Holmes’ surprisingly broad emotional range, and Aaron Eckhart’s lantern jaw than you would think possible. I have whole essays half-drafted in my head about Bruce Wayne’s search for a father figure in Batman Begins and Nolan’s (painfully slow) progress in writing women. I am struggling RIGHT NOW not to launch into any of that (although, you know, if you wanted, you could ask me about that kind of thing in the comments, if you were interested, it’s cool if you’re not, I’m just saying, I’d talk about it if you wanted, no pressure or anything).

I really like Batman.

A Superstitious, Cowardly Lot

Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts!

Recently, in the parts of the Internet I frequent, Noelle Stevenson (aka gingerhaze) — author and artist of the webcomic Nimona, who has written and drawn for Adventure Time comics and is co-writing the upcoming Lumberjanes title published by Boom! — caused something of a stir by posting this comic:

do you have any more Lobo #1? / No, we're sold out / haha all the girls want it because he's sexy now / haha Edward Cullen Lobo / [still right here]

“I want to get into this stuff but I don’t even know where to begin,” Stevenson writes.

I’m intimidated by the staff and I don’t want to ask. I don’t go to comic shops anymore. I’m tired of all this. Oh, I know I have it better than a lot of would-be comics buyers, and that’s what worries me. I’ve had it with the self-appointed gatekeepers in comics.

Those of you who know anything about the Internet, comics culture, and the intersection of the two know what happened next: the post blew up. As of right now the post has nearly 74,000 notes — reblogs, likes, and comments. While many of those comments are variations on “PREACH,” they also include comments like this:

Okey, I can with confidence tell you that the majority of us started this out as a form of escapism. I mean, look at all the tumblr posts about “I love fiction, it’s my way to handle reality” etc etc. It was the same for us. suddenly.. about, idk, 4-5 years ago, feminists started to tell us that we are in the wrong for BUYING things. Instead of going to the writers, we’re the bad guys. Comics I grew up with are being torn to pieces by people who don’t read them anyway. They’re causalized because instead of catering to us, they’re catering to people who don’t really care. […]

secondly, I don’t know why women expect to get help with everything and just give up when they don’t get help. When I started out, do you really think anyone would even care about a fat, acne-cursed kid? I did ask, once, they just looked at me and told me to just read the damn comics. So I did. I got into the middle of a story, If I liked it, I tried to hunt down the first one, or the one after. Rinse and repeat. not hard. But now! NOW! You have google, I’m not even kidding, it will take you 30 secs to find ALL information you want. I don’t know why everyone think that being a nerd is “share and share alike!”, it’s socially outcast people who have been wrecked emotionally and socially by other people. You really think that they’re gonna help you without a reason?

And:

Hey i don’t want to be rude or ignorant but i agree with the nerd guy from your last post. hes talking about how comics were his escape from a world where no one wanted him. He could read a comic and have an adventure that he couldn’t have in real life. I realize there’s often a lot of sexualization in comic but that was always part of it, its not fair to the readers to change that huge part of it now. That’s altering the escapes these kids had/have, and the whole comics universe in general

Stevenson replied with aplomb and rage, which is how I like my replies to transparent nonsense.

At about the same time, Sasha Martinez published a meditation on her own exploration of the Batman comics universe and the difficulty of navigating both the universe on the page and the culture surrounding the comics.

I’ve not had the cut-direct (wait, do these exist beyond the Regency era?) at comic book shops or at bookstores that carry comic books. [Then again, I prefer waiting for the issues to be collected in trades before I do my reading. Still.] But just feeling those barriers. That I had hoped, after the Comic Odyssey Walk of Shame, that they just thought of me as some girl asking for her brother or her boyfriend. That I feel like every purchase, every decision to read something in the genre, has to be justified—or defended, because they’re automatically suspect. Because I am a girl, and because I don’t know what the [f] I am doing, beyond taste and guides from the Internet. I’m saying that a lot of this is all in my head, but something put it there. Yes, there has been gentle chastising, good-natured ribbing, carefully worded advice about why I should return a book to the bookstore at that instant. All of which, I have been assuming, were made in good faith—but they naturally chafe.

A commenter accused her of whining, of jumping on the gingerhaze bandwagon, and of not being a true fan, because “you got into batman because of christopher nolan didn’t you”.

Which is why you’re here with me, now, reading this link roundup/post, because when I read that I felt as though the heavens had opened up and a black-gloved and gauntleted hand had pointed at me and growled, “That dudebro is talking about you.

And when the Feminist Rage Signal lights up the clouds, how can I not respond?

Hurdles and Obstacles

There is a pervasive perception in comics culture that if you can’t quote chapter and verse from the comics themselves, you’re not a real comics nerd. This goes double for girls reading comics. Even if, like Martinez, like me, you’ve never directly experienced someone telling you that you’re doing comics wrong, stories of harassment and teasing and bullying are everywhere.

The elitist idea that you need to prove your geek cred isn’t confined to comics, by the way. It pops up among music lovers who disdain anyone who hasn’t listened to Bob Dylan’s whole discography including the bootleg recordings of his European tour. It rears its head in sports when people scoff about fairweather fans. And it definitely frequents the sci-fi/fantasy subculture, where your fandom is called into question if you can’t name a starship captain that’s not Kirk and where Stephen Colbert is hailed as a god among nerds for naming not two but six of the Valar on TV.

I think this is in part because the kind of people who become geeks — music or sports or literature or comics geeks — have a predisposition for completism. We aren’t satisfied with reading one book; we have to read the whole series. We’re not satisfied with just the movie; we want the tie-ins, the sequels, and the director’s commentary. We want to know everything. And I know that personally, that tendency is exacerbated by my training as a critic: I hate to try and analyze or critique something if I don’t have the full context on it.

And this becomes a problematic, self-reinforcing thing. Geeks become protective of their knowledge. They become superior — and I’ve caught myself doing it, too. “Can you even name any of the original Conan Doyle stories that Stephen Moffat hasn’t adapted?” Ugh, right? Not okay.

I personally find that I internalize these ideas. I still almost never call myself a real Batman fan. I’ve never seen Tim Burton’s two Batman movies all the way through. I haven’t read No Man’s Land or The Dark Knight Returns or A Death In the Family. Five and a half years after I saw The Dark Knight, I still feel like a fraud.

This Weird Figure of the Dark

Batman: The Animated Series

And yet — why shouldn’t I call myself a Batfan?

I can tell you about why I like Knightfall better than The Dark Knight Rises. I’ve examined the minutiae of The Long Halloween. I use Batman as an example when I talk about narrative tropes and issues of adaptation all the time, and I’ll happily talk your ear off with feminist reimaginings of Nolan’s films.

And I just really like Batman. He’s an absolute jerk who’s dedicated to justice and cuts himself off from others, yet he’s capable of incredible compassion and he’s defined as much by the family he builds as his isolationism. He’s brutal, terrifying, but absolutely dedicated to the ideal of not killing.

In a world full of superhumans, Amazons and aliens and magicians and scientific experiments gone wrong, Batman is nothing but a guy in a bat costume. I’ll be the first in line to say that Batman’s real superpower is wealth — he has the money both to afford all those gadgets and to live a life of leisure dedicated to keeping himself in physical shape — but actually, Batman’s superpower is will. Take away his batarangs and his batsuit and his bat-shark-repellent and he will still come out on top, because he refuses to give up. In The Return of Bruce Wayne arc he uses his knowledge of forensics sans technology to exonerate people from charges of witchcraft, and in The Dark Knight Rises he gets his back fixed by magic trains and climbs out of the pit powered by nothing but his stubbornness and his need to get back to Gotham. Batman is fiercely loyal to his city, his family and friends — it’s just that his version of loyalty includes the cynical idea that he might have to neutralize his friends for their own sake.

The other night I was woken in the middle of the night by the sound of people yelling somewhere nearby — too far away for me to know exactly where, but probably within a few blocks. This is a pretty common occurrence in Capitol Hill on weekends; a night or two before I had been woken up by a resounding explosion that could have been a gunshot but was probably a firework or something. Lying there listening to people yell, maybe in anger and maybe just in enthusiasm, I thought muzzily, What would Batman do?

He’d get out of bed and go investigate. And if someone needed help, he’d help. Probably by punching things — but maybe just by telling the partiers how to get home.

I like Batman a lot. I liked Batman from the first time I watched The Dark Knight (and I haven’t even begun to touch on why I like Bruce Wayne as a character separate from Batman). My liking for Batman has increased from reading comics and learning the character’s history, sure, but my liking is not predicated on that. I like what I like, and I don’t have to justify it to anyone.

And anyone who wants to say I’m not a true fan just because I got into it via Christopher Nolan is welcome to argue with me. They just won’t win.

Further Reading:

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6 thoughts on “Vengeance, the Night, and Feeling Like A Fake Fan

    1. WELL SINCE YOU JUST HAPPENED TO ASK.

      Working primarily off of Inception and the Dark Knight Saga, here, because while I’ve seen Memento, I ironically don’t remember much of it except the twist at the end and the scene where Carrie Ann Moss slams her head into a steering wheel. What I remember about the female characters in Memento is that they are either dead or manipulative.

      “Batman Begins” sticks out to me as particularly bad in the female character department, because the only woman with any significant dialogue is Rachel. I mean, literally, she is the only woman with significant dialogue. Martha Wayne, one of the most important people in Bruce Wayne’s life, has TWO LINES, and one of them is a scream. (The other is a forgettable line asking Thomas why they left the opera.) What other women are in the movie with lines? Earle’s secretary (whom Bruce hits on), Bruce’s dates (who are generically foreign and hot), the woman at the hotel who thinks “the Batman deserves a medal,” and the random socialite at the party who introduces Bruce to Ra’s (who I am still convinced is actually the matriarch of the League of Shadows because NOTHING ELSE MAKES SENSE).

      And while I absolutely love the character of Rachel Dawes, honestly her impact on the plot is pretty minimal after the scene where she chews Bruce out for thinking about murdering Joe Chill. Batman gives her the evidence she needs to go after Judge Faden; Batman saves her from Crane; although she picks up a gun and appears ready to use it to defend Joffrey from the mob in the Narrows, Batman saves her before she has to. Some people have suggested that in addition to the Bechdel Test (which BB fails), we should judge movies by the Sexy Lamp Test: if a female character could be replaced by a sexy lamp, she’s not well written. Unfortunately, in acts 2 and 3 of BB, Rachel Dawes could probably be replaced by a sexy lamp with little trouble. The most significant thing she does to impact the plot is bring the antidote to the fear toxin to Gordon — so that Gordon can do things like drive the Tumbler and bring down the monorail.

      Rachel’s character gets somewhat better in The Dark Knight, and she’s not the only female character with stuff to do this time: we have Ramirez too, who is decently sympathetic even while being disappointingly not Renee Montoya, and Barbara Gordon Sr. Rachel is shown interrogating Lau and working at MCU with Gordon’s men after the attempt on the Mayor’s life; the implication is that she’s well-respected as ADA, even though Harvey pulls his dick move with the coin in the courtroom to keep her from running the case. But she still ultimately ends up as a woman in the fridge, killed to motivate both Harvey and Bruce. Ramirez ends up being a giant plot hole, and Barbara is another damsel, mostly.

      In Inception, though, Nolan improves dramatically in his handling of women. Ariadne and Mal are fairly fully drawn characters, and they even have a scene together so they get two out of three Bechdel points! (An argument can even be made for 3/3.) They kind of fall into archetypes, Innocent Student and Femme Fatale, but a) in a movie about dreams, archetypes are appropriate, b) EVERYONE in Inception is an archetype liek woah, and c) they have enough going on to complicate the archetypes that they stay interesting. Ariadne is shockingly ruthless, given how adorable she looks, and Mal’s sexy dangerous schtick comes partly from Cobb’s subconscious, and his fear and guilt over his part in her death. Really interesting stuff! I think Mal doesn’t get drawn out quite as much as I’d like, and Ariadne has no backstory at all, but again — neither does anyone else. And in “Inception,” Nolan has put two women very much at the center of the story, as driving, vital parts of the story. (My main gripe is that Mal, being a projection, has nothing to her except Cobb. Her whole character is wrapped in him. But again — projection, so at least there’s an in-universe explanation.)

      Which brings us to “The Dark Knight Rises,” where Selina shines as the best woman Nolan has written yet and Talia/Miranda keeps the plot driving along. We even have Jen-who-is-totally-not-Holly-Robinson! With just the addition of a couple more female characters with multiple scenes, Nolan frees himself from the one-character-to-represent-them-all trap and gives us four distinct versions of femininity (Talia counts twice). There’s passionate, optimistic, generous Miranda; ice-cold and cruel Talia; cynical, sexy, selfless-in-spite-of-herself Selina; and flaky-seeming but sweet Jen. FINALLY Nolan has a movie that passes the Bechdel test. FINALLY Nolan has a female character who’s a love interest who still manages to have a distinctive life and character arc outside the male protagonist. ‘Course, Talia’s whole arc is apparently wrapped up in Bruce and Ra’s — but we can’t have it all, I guess.

      Did TDKR have its problems? OH GOD did it, and its INTENSE MASCULINITY is arguably one of them. (MEN DOING THINGS. MEN PUNCH THINGS. MENLY MEN. FOOTBALL. BE A MAN AND MARCH DOWN THE STREET IN YOUR DRESS BLUES. PUNCH THINGS!!!) But it’s such a contrast gainer as far as its women go compared to BB, I want to pat Nolan on the back and say “Yes! Yes, keep doing this!”

      I’m not holding my breath for a Nolan-headed film with a female protagonist, though.

  1. Geek Law #1: It’s okay to like what you like.
    Geek Law #2: It’s okay to like what you like for your own reasons.
    Geek Law #3: It’s okay to get into what you like as much or as little as you like/are able.
    In geekdom, there are the people who tell you about a story or lost album or some such in your fandom that you’re not aware of because they love it and want you to love it, and there are those who do it as a perverse way of ‘one-upping’ or counting coup.
    I always appreciate the former; that kind of effusive love is what geekery is about. As for the latter, if you want to reduce the thing you love to a sporting event, I guess that’s fine if you keep it to people who feel the same way. I just have a hard time seeing how it can be as much fun if you objectify it to that extent.
    All that said, also fond of Batman. In addition to his will, I’d say that he’s distinguished by the same hubris that distinguishes the Doctor. He believes that someone has to draw the line in the sand, so he’s decided to be the one to do it. They both tend to execute their plans with total commitment, even when it involves deceiving or even betraying their friends/allies.

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