I’ve almost never written Batman, but he’s what drew me into comics. I was six years old and my father mentioned that, in America, there was a Batman TV series. I asked what this was, and was told it was a series about a man who fought crime while dressed as a bat. My only experience of bats at this point was cricket bats, and I wondered how someone could convincingly dress as one of those. A year later the series began to be shown on English TV, and I was caught, as firmly and as effectively as if someone had put a hook through my cheek.
I bought—with my own pocket money—the paperback reprints of old Batman comics: two black and white panels to a page drawn by Lew Sayre Schwartz and Dick Sprang, Batman fighting the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin and Catwoman (who had to share a book). I made my father buy me Smash!, a weekly British comic that reprinted what I now suspect must have been an American Batman daily newspaper strip as its cover feature. I was once thrown out of our local newsagents—literally picked up by the proprietor and deposited on the sidewalk—for spending too much time examining each and every one of the pile of fifty American comics, in order to decide which Batman product would receive the benison of my shilling. (“No, wait!” I said, as they dragged me out. “I’ve decided!” But it was already too late.)
What got me every time was the covers. DC’s editors were masters of the art of creating covers which proposed questions about mysteries that appeared to be insoluble. Why was Batman imprisoned in a giant red metal bat, from which not even Green Lantern could save him? Would Robin die at dawn? Was Superman really faster than the Flash? The stories tended to be disappointments, in their way—the question’s sizzle was always tastier than the answer’s steak.
You never forget your first time. In my case, the first Batman cover artist was Carmine Infantino, whose graceful lines, filled with a sly wit and ease, were a comfortable stepping-off point for a child besotted by the TV series. Text-heavy covers, all about relationships—Batman being tugged between two people: look at the first appearance of Poison Ivy (will she ruin Batman and Robin’s exclusive friendship? Of course not. Why did I even worry about such trifles?), looking here as if she’s just escaped from the label of a tin of sweetcorn. Batman thinks she’s cute. Robin’s not impressed. That was what I needed as a kid from a Batman cover. Bright colors. Reassurance.
While humans tend to be conservative, sticking with what they like, children are utterly conservative: they want things as they were last week, which is the way the world has always been. The first time I saw Neal Adams’s art was in The Brave and the Bold (I think it was a story called “. . . But Bork Can Hurt You”). I read it, but was unsure of whether or not I liked it: panels at odd angles, nighttime colors in strange shades of blue, and a Batman who wasn’t quite the Batman I knew. He was thinner and odder and wrong.
Still, when I saw Adams’s cover for “The Demon of Gothos Mansion” (Batman 227), I knew that this was something special, and something right, and that the world had changed forever. Gothic literature tends to feature heroines, often in their nightdresses, running away from big old houses which always have, for reasons never adequately explained, one solitary light on in a top-floor room. Often the ladies run while holding candelabras. Here we have instead a dodgy-looking evil squire running after our heroine, between what look suspiciously like two wolves. The spectral, Robin-less, Batman is not swinging from anything. Instead he is a gray presence, hovering over the image: this tale is indeed a gothic, it tells us, and Batman is a gothic hero, or at least a gothic creature. I may only have been ten, but I could tell gothic at a glance. (Although I wouldn’t have known that the cover that Adams was intentionally echoing, Detective Comics 31, was also part of the gothic tradition—an evil villain called the Monk reminds the reader of Matthew “Monk” Lewis’s novel The Monk, and, as I learned a couple of years later, when the story was reprinted in a 100 Page Super Spectacular, the Monk from this story was a vampiric master of werewolves. Or possibly vice versa, it’s been a long time since I read it. I do remember that Batman opened the Monk’s coffin at the end, and, using his gun—the only time I remember Batman using a gun—shot the becoffined Monk with a silver bullet, thus permanently confusing me as to the Monk’s werewolfish or vampiric nature.)
By the time I was twelve Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing was my favorite comic; it was, I think, the comic that made me want to write comics when I grew up. Swamp Thing 7, “Night of the Bat,” was the comic that sealed Batman in my mind as a gothic figure. The cover only implies what’s inside, as Batman, his cloak enormous behind him, swings towards the muck-encrusted swamp monster, inexplicably hanging from the side of a skyscraper. The feeling that this was something happening at night, artificially lit, in the city, was there, almost tangible. But the things that made me remember this cover fondly are really inside—Bernie drew Batman with no pretense of realism. It was as far as one could get from Adam West: behind Batman an unwearably long cloak blew out: was it fifteen feet long? Twenty feet long? Fifty? And the ears, stabbing upward like devil horns, were even longer than Bob Kane’s Batman ears on the cover of Detective 31. Wrightson’s Batman was not a man—obviously: a man would have tripped over that cloak when he walked, the ears would have poked holes in ceilings— he was part of the night. An abstract concept. Gothic.
One of the greatest joys to the concept of Batman is that he isn’t one thing, that he contains all the Batmans that have walked the streets of Gotham City in the last sixty-five years, Infantino’s elegant Batman, Sprang and Schwartz’s big gray Boy Scout, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. None of them more real, more valid, more true than any other. But in my heart, he is a spectral presence, a creature straight out of the gothic romances, and that, for me, is how he will always remain.
From The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman. Copyright © 2016 by Neil Gaiman. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Neil Gaiman is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, Anansi Boys, The Graveyard Book, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett), The Ocean at the End of the Lane and The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains; the Sandman series of graphic novels; and the story collections Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things, and Trigger Warning. He is the winner of numerous literary honors, including the Hugo, Bram Stoker, and World Fantasy awards, and the Newbery and Carnegie Medals. Originally from England, he now lives in the United States. He is Professor in the Arts at Bard College.
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