05 July 2009

What’s So Funny About Batman?

As I discussed in the last weekly Robin installment, starting in the early 1980s DC Comics writers began to treat Dick Grayson's sense of humor as more than a long-established character trait to entertain readers. It was a long-established character trait with meaning. Dick's puns (1940-c. 1970) were presented as a manifestation of his boyishness.

During the 1990s, the character of Batman became more grim, moving closer to the driven character in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Batman became known in the DC Universe for not making jokes--or at least every time he does so, it's cause for comment.

That of course makes a big contrast with Dick Grayson's usually light-hearted attitude. To build on Douglas Wolk's argument in Reading Comics that superheroes symbolize different ideas, Bruce and Dick show us different approaches to life, bound up in how willing each man is to joke.

Does Batman have to be grim? (Well, he wasn't grim from 1940 to 1965 or so, but that's another story.) DC is exploring that question now that Bruce has temporarily died and Dick has taken on the cowl. In the upcoming issue of Batman, characters and preview readers observe that the Caped Crusader is actually smiling.
And that's not all. Over the past twenty years, DC's writers have presented Dick's sense of humor as having important meaning for Bruce Wayne. Despite his dark personality and pessimism, Bruce enjoyed Dick's jokes and happy attitude. Seeing Dick have fun kept Bruce level.

Thus, Robin's puns, which started in 1940 as simple comic relief during fight scenes, have developed into a trait that illuminates not just his character but other characters around him.

This isn't an individual scripter's portrayal, but the collective vision of many writers and editors riffing off what's come before. The two major comic-book universes are the creations of hundreds of people, most of whom grew up visiting earlier versions and trying to figure them out.

Why did the original Batman have a "laughing young daredevil" at his side? Why was Robin always cracking jokes? Those things couldn't be in the magazines just to entertain us--not if the DC Universe were to have internal coherence and logic. By putting together two logic-defying aspects of the Dynamic Duo, DC's creators found their way to portraying a more complex relationship between the two icons.

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