J.C. Maçek III

Gothic American Lit

Dr. T. Du Bose

Gothic in Gotham
5/5/98 4:47:22 PM

 

 

 


 

 


From Dark Nights to Dark Knights

 

The gothic novels of the nineteenth century as well as the grotesque and horrifying works of the early twentieth century have given way to the gothic nineteen eighties and nineties.  With authors such as Stephen King and Anne Rice, not to mention musical artists such as Alice Cooper and J. Ozzy Osbourne we see that the gothic, the grotesque, and the horrific are alive and well at least in the descendants of the original forms.  One clearly strong, yet often overlooked descendant of the gothic and grotesque tradition is the modern comic book.  In today’s graphic literature the horrific is commonly a key element in the success and marketing of a particular title.  Some of the best, and best selling, comic books are direct descendants of the works of Mary Shelley, H.P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allen Poe, and Ambrose Bierce.  Some of the most influential comics of the age are influenced greatly by the works of gothic and grotesque writers, and this influenced has helped to shape what is thought of today as the modern graphic novel.

No look at gothicism in comics could be near complete without a look at Bob Kane’s Batman.  Those who are familiar with the Batman of the sixties television show and its comic counterpart would find themselves in for a culture shock when looking at the origins of the Batman. 

During the golden age of comic books a new form of character arose:  the “superhero.”  With the creation of Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the demand for costumed larger-than-life heroes was on the rise (Daniels DC Comics, 32).  A young cartoonist named Bob Kane heard about the successes of Siegel and Schuster, and decided to abandon comedy fill ins (for forty dollars a week) and create from the top of his head a costumed hero of his own (Daniels DC Comics, 32).  What Kane was looking for was not a building on the angry orphan story that is the driving force in Batman’s psyche (this origin story was not added until months after the character’s creation), but rather an eye-catching hero with “a kind of simplistic, definitive design that was easily recognizable” (Daniels DC Comics, 32) that could indeed be ready over a weekend. 

Kane dipped into his memory for inspiration for the character, and was immediately inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s proposed flying machine “the ornithopter”  (Daniels DC Comics, 32).  Kane attached the wings of the machine to a man’s frame and shot next for the design of the frame itself.  A long time film buff, Kane lifted his character’s design from the innovative, 1926 Roland West film The Bat  (Daniels DC Comics, 32).  The title villain of the film is a dark, menacing bat-suited thief who stalks rooftops, communicates via bat-shaped cards, and scales the walls of buildings.  The opening titles in the film say, “Can you keep a secret?  Don’t reveal the identity of ‘The Bat’.  Future audiences will fully enjoy this mystery play if left to find out for themselves.”  (Bat).  Not only could Kane not keep the secret, he used the many tricks of “The Bat” to create his character, the mood of his pictures, and the edge of menace common to both The Bat, and Batman.  The morality of the Batman was inspired by the acting of Douglas Fairbanks in the role of Zorro.  While the mood, atmosphere and movements of the character were inspired by a still darker character of fiction.

Kane’s “moody lighting and expressionistic angles” (Daniels DC Comics, 32) came from the horrific Dracula films of the thirties.  The interpretation of Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire, as performed by Bela Lugosi, carried his cape in his hand and hid his face from view as often as was necessary to create the ominous effect of the unknown.  Early images of Batman showed the hero with his bat-shaped cape pulled up over his mouth and grimacing against any light source.  It was this vampiric image that marked the Batman from his first appearance in 1939 (Detective Comics #27) to the point when the lonely and sinister hero was matched with a sprite named Robin who humanized the Batman in 1940 (Detective Comics #38). 

Further evidence of the gothic in early Batman stories came with the writing of Gardner Fox.  While Kane and partner Bill Finger provided much darkness in their presentation of Batman, Fox took the stories a step further from the revamped pulp format, and added a European mysticism to the mix.  In one story Fox placed Batman in a Hungarian castle where he discovered that the villains of the story were actually vampires (Daniels DC Comics, 34).  Batman promptly dispatched the vampires with his gun, loaded with silver bullets.  While the gun soon went away, the gothicism was there to stay (Daniels DC Comics, 64). 

The Dracula inspired art was a testament to the Gothic nature of the character as well.  The cover of Detective Comics #31 shows a red-suited man carrying a maiden to a European castle, with a dark caped and cowled figure looming over the entire scene.  “A casual glance would suggest that Batman is the menacing vampire of the castle” (Daniels DC Comics, 35).  In fact the image of a horrific hero in each and every Batman story was not even toned down until 1940, and not eliminated until the mid fifties when the Comics Code controversy forced the issue. 

William M. Gaines formed a company known as Educational Comics at this time (Daniels Comix, 62).  While the company began with kids’ comics and bible adaptations, E.C., as it came to be known, became the pioneer in both horror and humor comics.  The now world-famous Crypt Keeper made his first appearance in the last two issues of Crime Patrol which already featured a Lovecraftian mixture of the mundane and the super-grotesque (i.e.:  police detectives battling zombies)  (Daniels Comix, 62).  The subsequent rise of the Crypt Keeper’s own title Crypt of Terror (later Tales From the Crypt) spawned such partners as The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear (Daniels, Comix, 62).  The fantastic artwork and literary writing style, coupled with the fact that the books (and followers such as Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, and Shock Suspesnstories) adapted works by such authors as Ray Bradbury and Bram Stoker made these titles instant classics (Daniels Comix, 62). 

The E.C. titles (now identified on the covers as “entertaining” comics) made the bold move of opting for suspense rather than a continuous hero sure to win in each issue to keep sales high.  The quality of the story pulled it off, and the creative writers and artists are to be credited (Daniels Comix, 63).  “They owed their success, perhaps, to the theories and practice of Edgar Allan Poe, who had called for short stories planned to achieve a single effect and ceasing when the effect had been achieved.”  (Daniels Comix, 63-64).  In these works resurfaced the Poe-like idea of the object of horror also being the force of justice (which goes back to Elizabethan revenge tragedies as well).  The alliteration and pun-based black comedy that showed up in the works’ jeering dialogue recreated the nineteenth and twentieth century gothic moods that frightened and still made the reader laugh at the same time (Daniels Comix, 64).  “Their tone was reminiscent of that master of sarcasm and satire, Ambrose Bierce”  (Daniels Comix, 64). 

Unfortunately the innovative stories and graphic morality plays were put to a stop during the Comics Code controversy.  1954 marked the grip of Joseph McCarthy-spawned intolerance concerning politics, Hollywood, and literature.  Comics were no exception to the rule.  When the Red-Scare Gestapo was finished with the comics not only was it unlawful to portray crime in any detail, hence Batman’s having to do detective work to find out why the Joker was giving away money and painting people’s houses  (Stacked Deck, 164), but it was also prohibited for a comic magazine to “use the word horror or terror in its title”  (Daniels Comix, 90).  The E.C. revolution was crushed by the government and no amount of quality American literature could save it from good old fashioned moral totalitarianism.  The elimination of Poe, Bierce and Lovecraft inspired stories can be traced back at least in part to greed.  “It is interesting to note that John Goldwater, the spearhead of the Comics Code Authority, was in his spare time the owner and manager of that perennial champion of tasteless conformity, Archie.”  (Daniels, Comix, 85).  While the Code is a mere afterthought now, and is not a necessity for publication, it did end an era of quality horror comics and caused entertainment sterility outside of the underground comics.

The influence of Lovecraft specifically is seen in various places throughout the comic book genre.  This is due in no small part to the fact that H.P. Lovecraft’s actual literary agent, Julius Schwartz went on to become one of the most prolific, best loved and talented comic book editors of all time (Daniels DC Comics, 52).  Schwartz had never read a comic book in his life when he accepted the job at DC Comics, so he had to work with what he knew.  Schwartz plotted stories with writers and was given the power to veto stories he did not like  (Daniels DC Comics, 53). The ones that got through were those that preserved the pulp writing style and innovative literary pictures that Lovecraft had perfected years before.  Gardner Fox, besides being a brilliant proponent for horror in Batman, brought similar supernature to such titles as All Star Comics.  Issue number three of All Star Comics, for example features occult hero Doctor Fate battling a Cthulu-like octopoid monster with his knowledge and sorcery, a “tribute to pulp author H.P. Lovecraft.”  (Daniels DC Comics, 45). 

The ripples and echoes of Lovecraft are still seen in the Batman titles.  For example, Lovecraft sets many of his adventures in a town called “Arkham.”  In the Batman mythos the insane asylum that houses the most menacing of criminals, such as the Joker and Two-Face, is named “Arkham.”  As it is never actually spelled out where Batman’s home town, Gotham City is geographically, it has been suggested that Gotham is the modern name for the old New England town of Arkham.  Further evidence of this exists in Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s gothic graphic novel Arkham Asylum:  A Serious House on Serious Earth.  In this work it is suggested that Arkham Asylum is, and always was on the grounds of insanity, as an ancient evil had permeated the land years before  (Morrison & McKean).  In Lovecraft’s Herbert West – Reanimator The title character and his partner bury their dead in a place called “Potter’s Field.”  In the Batman mythos Potter’s Field is “where the city of Gotham provides simple graves for the destitute, the forgotten, the unknown”  (Moench, Jones, & Jones III, 23).  In the self-contained graphic novel Batman & Dracula: Red Rain the Potter’s Field graves open up to allow the reanimated corpses of vampires to issue forth and conquer Gotham at Dracula’s command.  This echoes the siege of the West residence in Herbert West – Reanimator, as the reanimated dead come to claim their creator (Lovecraft, 232-233).  Also in Batman: Dark Joker-The Wild there appears a bizarre world of sword and sorcery where the “Dark Joker” evokes horrific Lovecraftian demons to reshape the earth (Moench, Jones & Beatty, 16). The mythology of Lovecraft is clearly seen in all its life today in the modern tales of Batman.

It is not merely the twentieth century American writers that have influenced the Batman stories of today and yesterday, but also the gothic horror writers of England.  Naturally Batman & Dracula:  Red Rain deals with Bram Stoker’s Character of Dracula being met by his successor the Batman.  (Moench, Jones & Jones III, 88), but it also contains an army of “Dhampire,” the half human, half vampire entities that can detect and hunt vampires, tracking down Dracula and aiming for his extinction with the help of Bruce Wayne(Moench, Jones, & Jones III, 40). 

Batman:  Castle of the Bat is the retelling of the Frankenstein story with the Batman as the monster.  This avenging, patchwork Batmonster stalks the night in 1819 Germany, thwarting thieves, and frightening all but the blind (Harris & Hampton, 3).  The plot thickens with the monster’s degenerating into a horror more bat-like than human, and his absconding with his creator’s bride  (Harris & Hampton, 46).  As the tale ends the monster is burned alive within a building and becomes a subject of legend (Harris & Hampton, 63). 

Just as nineteenth century horror fiction has become integral in the Batman stories, so has nineteenth century horror fact.  In Gotham by Gaslight:  An Alternative History of the Batman, Batman goes up against the famed serial killer Jack the Ripper.  In this case actual events are left intact, while another chapter is added to what is known about Jack.  The tale ends in Gotham with the Ripper’s pan-oceanic killing spree being ceased by the Batman on American soil (Augustyn, Mignola, & Russell).

The gothic and the grotesque in American comics are certainly not limited to tales of the Batman.  Neil Gaiman’s Sandman  brought horror and supernature into the mainstream of comic book successes (Daniels DC Comics, 206).  Sandman’s mixture of irony, horror, and the fantastic, along with Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, paved the way for such innovative works as Grant Morrison’s revamp of Doom Patrol to be added to the list of DC’s Gothic titles, and for the imprint called “Vertigo” to be created for the housing of these titles (Daniels  DC Comics, 244). 

One of the finest examples of the supernatural gothic comic is seen in John Rozum’s Xombi.  Xombi  is the story of David Kim, a man who is reanimated by medical means and as a result cannot be killed by anything (Rozum, 3).  What sets Xombi apart from Frankenstein, or Herbert West – Reanimator is David Kim’s innocence and constant sentience.  While never becoming a Zombie, Xombi readjusts to life, knowing that death is now an impossibility, and step by step he is drawn farther and farther into a strange world where the souls of long-dead knights inhabit bodies made of steak and leather, cathedrals rise from the ground in an instant to trap monsters only to sink again as quickly as they came, and teleportation is marked by the screams of talking frogs.  Such characters as “Nun of the Above,”  “Catholic Girl,”  and “Rabbi Sinnowitz”  add to the darkness the same light that Robin did for Batman, but with a much more cynical (and humorous) edge.  While one of the finest works of supernatural literature of any form, poor sales led to the cancellation of Xombi after only two years.  The true horror of Xombi is that its magnificence could not be appreciated by a closed minded populace.

American and British gothic literature has infused the modern American genre of the Comic Book with horrific and grotesque imagery that is as original to itself as it is a homage to the past creators who graced us with gothic literature in the first place.  The works of John Rozum, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Gardner Fox, and Doug Moench recapture the tones of the creators of the past such as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allen Poe, and H.P. Lovecraft.  While many hardships including the rise of McCarthyism, editorial censors, and poor sales have attempted to put a complete stop to the success of this genre in its graphic form, the truth is that graphic gothic literature is literature that is simply too good to die easily, and in fact, it has only grown and improved.  The influences of the gothic writers are clear in today’s graphic literature, and it is likely that the future will hold an increased observance of the sub-genre that merges the forms.  In time the current writers and artists that preserve this form of literature, originated by Shelley, Lovecraft, and Beirce, and augmented by Schwartz, Kane, and the like, are sure to influence more of those who know that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a graphic novel is literarily invaluable!