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Review of Soul of the Dark Knight: Batman as Mythic Figure in Comics and Film

By Megan Fowler
Wainer, Alex M. Soul of the Dark Knight: Batman as Mythic Figure in Comics and Film. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2014.

Alex M. Wainer’s Soul of the Dark Knight: Batman as Mythic Figure in Comics and Film uses the prolonged popularity of beloved comics superhero Batman as a case study to analyze comics as an ideal medium for capturing the mythic. In addition, Wainer assesses the approach to Batman’s mythic elements in various film and television adaptations. This assessment serves as a means of both illustrating comics’ unique capacity for realizing the mythic and examining how it might be translated from comics to film, a medium Wainer describes as more grounded in realism than the comics medium. Wainer treats Batman as both a unique example of enduring mythic appeal and as representative of the potential for portraying the mythopoeic in comics. Although Wainer at times struggles to synthesize the multiple disciplines he utilizes into a deep analysis, the book provides an extremely useful foundational methodology for future scholarship on the mythic in the medium of comics.

Wainer proves Batman’s mythopoeic status through comparisons with other mythic texts and popular figures that exemplify the mythpoeic, such as Dionysus and Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan, though this comparison achieves little else than demonstrating the ways in which the Batman narrative follows a mythic structure. He also analyzes the prevailing elements of the Batman narrative, including the character’s origin, dualism, animalistic features, and setting in sacred time and space that echo common mythological narratives that follow the classic quest pattern. Wainer’s approach is interdisciplinary; he draws not only on comics studies, but also on film and television studies, adaptation studies, and mythological studies. This close case study of Batman as a mythic figure across mediums culminates in Wainer’s theoretical Scale of Mythic Design. Wainer’s Scale, a synthesis of Scott McCloud’s Scale of Iconic Abstraction from Understanding Comics and Northrop Frye’s Scale of Literary Design from Anatomy of Criticism, serves as a methodology for locating the mythic potential in various popular texts. Wainer effectively combines McCloud and Frye’s line scales into an easily comprehensible chart that allows for simultaneous measurement of iconic abstraction and mythic literary design. This scale proves to be one of the most important contributions of the book, as it provides a means of measuring the mythic in narrative and iconography in future scholarship.

Wainer opens the book with a chapter on “Myth and the Mythic” which elucidates four different methodological approaches to myth: scientific/sociological, psychological, literary/classical, and philosophical. The chapter culminates in a purposeful differentiation between the terms “myth,” “mythical,” and “mythic,” defining a myth proper “as a set of related stories...both imaginative and explanatory, of a civilization’s founding and of its relationship to its gods” (16) and the mythic as the act of “call[ing] on...the vast source of mythic inspiration contained in our cultural legacy” (26). These definitions serve as groundwork for the book’s analysis of the mythic elements of Batman. In the second chapter, Wainer gives a brief history of the development and evolution of Batman’s character in the comics. Although much of the content of this chapter will be familiar to both scholars and well-versed fans, Wainer emphasizes the conception and evolution of Batman’s visual elements, showing how various popular and pulp heroes, including the Shadow and Zorro, had thematic influences on his appearance. This analysis serves as the foundation for the fourth chapter, “Comics Art and Batman,” in which Wainer analyzes Batman’s character based on the formal elements of the comics medium, including closure, color, and iconic abstraction. The third chapter, “Mythic Characteristics in Batman,” details numerous characteristics that contribute to Batman’s mythic status. Among these is the ambiguity of Batman’s motivations, as well as his liminal state as he occupies the space between two identities, the rational detective and the animalistic creature of fear. In addition, Wainer suggests that the infinite middle structure of comics narrative allows Batman to exist in sacred time, a space in which Batman remains untouched by time, never aging.

Chapters four and five, “Comics Art and Batman” and “Adapting Batman and the Mythic into Film” serve as the core of the text. In these chapters, Wainer finally begins his intended case study by applying his unique methodological approach to analyse Batman’s mythic qualities and then performing a comparative analysis of how those mythic qualities translate—and often fail to translate—in various film adaptations of Batman. In chapter four, Wainer applies Scott McCloud’s Scale of Iconic Abstraction to Batman to demonstrate comics’ ability to depict the mythopoeic. Iconic abstraction amplifies a reader’s experience through the simplified figure’s ability to represent a universal figure rather than a single person, an act that mirrors the purpose of the mythic, which “expresses that which transcends the prosaic or materialistic” (81). In addition, Wainer discusses closure in comics (the action the reader’s mind supplies between static panels) as a means of evoking the mythic by rendering the impossible for a reader. The fifth chapter introduces Frye’s Scale of Literary Design to suggest the similarity between romance narratives and mythic structures in contrast to more realistic narrative styles. Wainer explains that because the Batman comics participate in a romantic tradition, they display many more mythic elements than realistic ones. The combination of these two scales provides a framework for analyzing the mythopoeic potential of texts. In Wainer’s methodology, the more abstract and less realistic a text is, the greater its capacity to depict the mythic. Wainer uses this framework to address the natural limitations of film to represent the mythopoeic, arguing that mythic characteristics are counterintuitive to the much more realistic medium. In order to translate the mythopoeic onto the screen in a comics-to-film adaptation, the final adaptation must utilize the filmic equivalents to mythopoeic comics elements, such as expressionist cinematography, atmospheric music, and iconic imagery.

The two penultimate chapters trace the various adaptations of Batman in television and film, deeming most adaptations failures in terms of translating Batman’s mythic elements onto the screen. Wainer attributes this failure primarily to series such as the 1960s Batman television series and the Tim Burton Batman films’ ironic and even parodic treatment of the character. This ironic distance is a tactic on the part of filmmakers to undercut the more unbelievable elements of the Batman comics in the hyper-realistic format of film. The two series Wainer analyzes as successfully translating the mythopoeic elements of Batman to screen are Batman: The Animated Series and Christopher Nolan’s film trilogy. Wainer determines that this success stems from the serious and respectful treatment each series gives to the titular character. In addition, while the animated series is able to mimic the mythopoeic qualities of comics through the abstraction of its animated figures, the film trilogy’s rendering of Batman’s mythic qualities are a result of Nolan’s ability to translate mythical elements of the comics into their more realistic medium of film. Wainer explains that Nolan successfully achieves this translation through “rationalized mythmaking” by which Batman’s mythic identity is a deliberate construction created by Bruce Wayne and rendered in a serious manner. For instance, Nolan and his crew took specific care to make sure that the Batman suit was frightening rather than campy in order to justify why Bruce Wayne would assume this particular persona as a vigilante. The final chapter of the book suggests avenues for further research in the intersections of comics, film, adaptation, and the mythopoeic, including similar case studies with other comics characters such as Thor, Captain America, and Superman, and more academic analysis of comics-to-film adaptation in general.

Soul of the Dark Knight: Batman as Mythic Figure in Comics and Film is a captivating text for its recognition of the mythic appeal that has contributed to the importance of Batman in the popular cultural imagination. Wainer notes the unique stability of Batman’s character and origin, which has gone largely unchanged in comics since his conception, compared to his superhero comic contemporaries, while still recognizing his character as demonstrative of the unique possibilities for depicting the mythic in comics. The strength of the book lies in its focus on a single figure as a case study to trace a mythic pattern throughout the character’s history. However, one weakness of the book is that Wainer digresses from close analysis. Many chapters are devoted to developing his methodological approach largely in the abstract, which divorces these sections from his central case study of Batman as a figure. In addition, when Wainer does apply his theoretical concepts, too much of the book is spent on analysis of other texts outside the Batman mythos, including Lord of the Rings and several other comics such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. These digressions divert from the book’s core argument and would feel more fitting in a wide-ranging analysis of the mythic in comics rather than a single character. The structure of the book would benefit from applying his theoretical approaches directly to the close analysis of Batman texts as he develops them, rather than devoting separate chapters entirely to setting up his methodology.

In addition, because of the myriad of disciplines the book draws upon, at times the chapters devoted to theory supply a very rudimentary overview of the discipline Wainer is utilizing. Wainer’s struggle to balance multiple disciplines simultaneously seems to limit his ability to delve into more complex and dense theory. For instance, the text relies primarily on George Bluestone’s Novels into Film as the foundational adaptation studies text, meaning that his analysis borrows largely from theoretical approaches to prose rather than comics adaptation. His analysis would have benefitted from supplementing more contemporary texts that deal directly with comics-to-film adaptations, such as collections like Comics as a Nexus of Cultures: Essays on the Interplay of Media, Discipline and International Perspectives or Film and Comics. In addition, beyond Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and a brief mention of Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, little comics criticism is directly referenced in the book, in spite of its focus on a comics character. This absence could have been rectified by even the brief inclusion of a larger variety of texts to supplement his more general primary textual frameworks.

The book’s strengths lie in its function as a transitional work serving as a platform meant to encourage more research. Wainer’s intention for this book is to serve as a new methodological framework, as he notes in the concluding chapter where he suggests possibilities for further research and provides a blueprint of his methodology through an explanation of Wainer’s Scale of Mythic Design. Through his synthesis of McCloud and Frye’s previous scholarship, Wainer creates a framework for analyzing the mythic in comics as well as other popular mediums that future scholars can utilize. The book also draws attention to some of the weak spots in scholarship that have not been given thorough critical attention, such as the process of comics to film adaptation or the individual elements of the comics medium that make it a vehicle for the mythic narrative. Wainer’s interdisciplinary concerns create a unique work that poses a variety of problems that call for further exploration.

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