Perhaps the most damning criticism Alan Moore made about superheroes has been overlooked in all the controversy around the ‘Last interview’:
‘the origin of capes and masks as ubiquitous superhero accessories can be deduced from a close viewing of D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation’ [i]
Many Batman fans would find the original poster for The Birth of a Nation oddly familiar:
As it resembles a splash page from The Dark Knight Returns:
Was Frank Miller consciously quoting the movie poster? I don’t know, and I don’t know we could confidently infer what he meant by it if he did. Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie trilogy certainly quotes Frank Miller, and just as significantly, as he promoted The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan told the magazine Empire:
‘It’s all about historical epics in conception. It’s a war film. It’s a revolutionary epic. It’s looking back to the grand-scale epics of the past, really, and for me that goes as far back as silent films. I’ve been watching a lot of silent films with my kids on Blu-ray.’ [ii]
Nolan didn’t mention The Birth of a Nation (1915) by name, but it would qualify as an ‘historical epic’. At three hours long, it was consciously the first blockbuster movie. It is an astonishingly innovative piece of cinema technically, and had a budget of $112,000, nearly ten times what films typically cost at the time. It is visually stunning even today, with epic battle sequences featuring vast armies and extensive use of fast editing and close ups. While it’s notoriously difficult to compare the box office success of movies over decades, there’s no doubt that The Birth of a Nation remained the highest grossing movie in the US for over twenty years, until Snow White and Seven Dwarves in 1937. It earned $10M at the box office in 1915, ten times more than any movie had made before. It had wide re-releases in 1924, 1931, and 1938. By 1950, it had raked in $50M. To put that in perspective, the fourth biggest movie of 1915, The Cheat, made $137,364. The Birth of a Nation was, in terms of the proportion of the population saw it, at least as big as Star Wars.
As critic Joel Bocko noted in 2008, a summary of The Birth of a Nation could just as easily apply to the Dark Knight:
‘Our hero, a masked vigilante, concocts a disguise which will instill a sense of primal fear in the perceived enemies of his community. Opposed by a garishly made-up villain, fueled by anger at the death of a beloved woman, the hero strikes blows in the name of order. But the hero’s crusade for extralegal justice is instigated by outside forces, as they introduce an element of chaos and anarchy into the community, and the hero must break the law in order to uphold it.’ [iii]
There’s an even closer resemblance to the final film in Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises – the second half of The Birth of a Nation sees a mob swarm into a fictional but broadly identifiable city, and once in power they occupy city hall and pass punitive legislation while living lives of debauchery. The justice system is now owned by evil men. When a hero, son of a wealthy murdered man, sees that these people are cowardly and superstitious, he dons a cowl and flowing cloak and by night becomes a vigilante to end the corruption. He inspires the creation of a whole army of upstanding citizens, and they retake the city, free the population, and rescue a beautiful woman who had fallen into the clutches of the arch villain.
The fly in the ointment here being … that the heroes in The Birth of a Nation are the Ku Klux Klan, and the bad guys are freed African American slaves (mostly played by white actors in blackface) intent on confiscating the property of whites and legalising interracial marriage to legitimise their raping of white women. One caption reports that this is a ‘town given over to crazed negroes’, another lionises ‘The Ku Klux Klan, the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule’. A caption at the end of the movie, soon removed after protests from civil rights groups, stated that lasting peace could only be achieved if former slaves and their children were deported to Africa.
There’s little to no historical basis for the events of the second half of the movie (the first half deals with the American Civil War). The original Klan never massed an army of hundreds of thousands; it was never much more than a set of shared tactics that whites used to attack freed slaves and those who supported them. Typically, a handful of masked men would break into someone’s house or place of business at night. It kicked off when six young former officers realised that their pranks involving disguises and riding through town at night were scaring former slaves. (Batman fans may also see echoes of ‘a cowardly and superstitious lot’ in the fact that – in both fact and fiction – the KKK dress as they do because they thought black people were especially scared of ghosts). The movement flared up across the South starting in Tennessee in 1865, and killed possibly around three thousand people, but didn’t last long. The Sherlock Holmes story “The Five Orange Pips” (1891) treats the KKK as an obscure, secret society and Holmes – who has to look them up in a book – notes ‘in the year 1869, the movement rather suddenly collapsed’. A series of local and federal laws led to a crackdown that saw hundreds of arrests, and the loss of all ‘respectable’ support.
The Birth of a Nation had a vastly larger appeal and legacy than the original Klan itself, and even inspired the creation of a new KKK. The person behind that was William J Simmons, who was very taken by the idealised view of a force for what he called ‘comprehensive Americanism’. His initial recruitment drive kicked off with an advertisement next to the cinema listing for The Birth of a Nation in an Atlanta newspaper. It was a group with roots in the South, its membership was exclusively white, Protestant and male. It was undoubtedly racist by the standards of the day, let alone those a hundred years on. It wasn’t, though, formed as a secret gang of vigilantes, it was a conventional fraternal organisation, albeit one with an anti-immigrant agenda. Much of its energy (at least publicly) was spent on anti-Catholic activities and in favour of Prohibition. It peaked ten years later with five million members – more than one in ten Americans eligible to join did so. This KKK fizzled out in the early thirties as membership dwindled following a series of scandals involving the leadership. The Ku Klux Klan that operates today is a third organisation, one with dim memories of Simmons’ group that emerged to oppose the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
Many in the audience for The Birth of a Nation would have had no hesitation to call the KKK ‘masked heroes’. It’s stretching it to say that makes the movie a direct spiritual ancestor of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but the movie did have an effect on American cinema. Just as Hollywood saw the wisdom of embracing Joseph Campbell’s spiritual message when Star Wars made a billion at the box office, American cinema learned the lessons of The Birth of a Nation. While French silent cinema, say, made epic movies about the Great War like Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919), filmed on its actual battlefields and ending with a haunting scene of the dead rising en masse to judge those who survived, American war epics would be much more straightforward stories of heroism and coming together to fight a common, clearly wicked enemy. One of the few films that came close to The Birth of a Nation’s box office success was 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a crowd-pleasing Great War movie that made Valentino a star and added a tango dancing subplot that wasn’t in the original novel.
The original superhero comics were hugely influenced by the movies – it’s not a coincidence Superman comes from Metropolis. The influence of silent cinema has been particularly obvious with Batman, and scholars have frequently noted that, say, the Joker owes his look to Conrad Veidt’s appearance in The Man Who Laughs. Every screen version of Batman, including the Adam West TV series, has been influenced by silent cinema, with Tim Burton’s debt even more obvious than Nolan’s (and just as openly acknowledged).
So, Alan Moore may be onto something: there’s something of the Klan in Batman’s ancestry. It’s present because the KKK offer one of the few real-world examples of vigilantes dressing up in masks to scare people; it’s present because The Birth of a Nation was a seminal piece of blockbuster cinema.
But if it turns out a person’s great-grandfather was in the KKK, it doesn’t follow that that person is a racist. I don’t mean to suggest that the Dark Knight comics or movies or their creators are advocating the mass deportation of African Americans or railing against interracial marriage. Batman’s mission has never been motivated by race or an anti-immigration stance (his best friend, to coin a phrase, is a first-generation immigrant). I don’t think it’s terribly productive to attempt to mind read Batman creators – there are many of them, and I suspect there are those at pretty much every point on the political spectrum – but I think what we can say is that there are factors common to all long-running fictional series which, in the case of Batman, currently have come to converge in one direction. And that leaves the stories supporting political positions that are typically identified with groups and factions on the right, often the extremist right (I will explore that in Part Three of this essay). We live at a time when we are, often for very sensible reasons, suspicious of systems that promise a one-size-fits-all moral code. Many of us are wary about terms like ‘good’ and ‘evil’, so we should be wary of fictional worlds that divide characters neatly into ‘superheroes’ and ‘supervillains’. In Part Two, I’ll explore the implications for that on the biggest, brightest superhero of them all, Superman.
If you’ve followed Alan Moore’s public comments over the years, there’s plenty that’s familiar in what he’s saying now. The first time Moore complained that it does the medium no favours to collect half a dozen run-of-the-mill issues of a superhero comic and call the result a ‘graphic novel’ was 1989. Those who feel it’s a bit rich for the writer of Watchmen to rail against superhero comics for adults have missed the fact that Watchmen is not meant as a celebration of superheroes or to provide a template for future superhero series; it was meant to test the concept to destruction. Before it had started publication, Moore was describing it as ‘the last word on superheroes’.
What has changed thanks to the movie and television adaptations of graphic novels is that this:
can appear in a television discussion of US government surveillance in the expectation people will catch the – multilayered – reference. It has upped the ante. A discussion of superheroes is no longer one about the peculiar notions of a self-selecting subculture, it’s one about American culture in general.
In the ‘Last Interview’ Moore stated,
‘It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite “universes” presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.’
There are at least two distinct issues there, which we could characterise as (1) the dangers of escapism and (2) the ‘legacy issues’ that emerge when escapist characters created in a different decade are used now.
What is wrong with slipping away for a couple of hours into a simpler, more colourful world like Middle Earth, the United Federation of Planets or the Marvel Universe, particularly now, when we feel threatened by terrorism or economic uncertainty? Escapism has always been a two-headed coin. We escape from something, but we also escape to something. Superheroes first emerged in the Depression, they had their first heyday in the Second World War, and it seems easy enough to draw a straight line and say that the children who read them, at some level, did it because the real world could be horrible. We can probably draw exactly the same conclusion about today’s young adults and the popularity of the rich fantasy environments of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones in our post 9-11, austerity-economy world.
The problem is that superhero comics don’t provide us with a fantasyland any more. In no small part thanks to Alan Moore himself, most superhero comics now are consciously ‘realistic’. Colour schemes of comics are more drab. Batman stories now are meant to be fit for adults and about crime, justice, and the nature of madness. If you’re making a live action movie, you’re showing a real human being in a Bat-outfit. Even if it’s Adam West in his tights, you’ve had to render it in concrete form. A human being says the line and swings the punches, not a drawing. The modern Batman movies have gone out of their way to make Batman look more credible: Michael Keaton’s wearing a bulletproof chest plate, and Christian Bale is shown assembling the latest technology, all based on something in a real-world military R&D department. Superheroes look like real human beings.
Many superhero costumes have been redesigned to at least look more functional – Batman is typically portrayed as wearing military / riot police equipment that just happens to have a couple of pointy ears on his helmet. If you wanted to ‘dress as Batman’ now you wouldn’t go to a fancy dress shop, you’d look for somewhere that sold MOLLE gear. A large number of grown-ups who read or watch Batman are specifically not looking for something silly, they’re looking for something they can engage with meaningfully as adults that scratches some itch or emotional need about the real world.
While comics scholars who celebrate the early Superman strips make great play from the fact that there was one time when Superman stood up for guys in a union, in actuality his earliest opponents were little more than stock bullies and petty thieves. When superheroes started out, only kids read them and superheroes fought the sort of threats that their readers did in the playground – Superman’s villains basically steal lunch money or are just mean. Superhero fans are now a lot older, and the threats are now what scare their adult readership. The Red Skull still fights Captain America, but now instead of building a giant robot or death ray, in one recent arc (‘The Man Who Bought America’), he and his allies enact a complex plot – this isn’t a joke, and it’s rather a good story – to collapse the American economy by selling subprime mortgages.
To spell this out: in modern superhero stories, ‘escapism’ most often takes the form of a fictional world designed to look almost exactly the same as ours, although with far higher levels of violent crime, conspiracy, and terrorism, in which a self-selecting elite group solve every problem by dressing up and beating their enemies to death.
That last part is rather important. In every superhero movie – the trend started with Tim Burton’s Batman – heroes have lost their traditional reluctance to kill. This can probably be glossed as a convention of the medium: in most action cinema the heroes kill ‘the bad guys’. It’s a trend that’s not quite carried through into comics. When we’ve seen, say, Superman kill in Kingdom Come, or Wonder Woman kill in Infinite Crisis, it’s always been presented as a momentous breach of the natural order. The recent kerfuffle over the ending of Man of Steel shows that there’s at least a section of the audience who still finds it beyond the pale.
To be continued…
[ii] Empire. May 31 2012.