Capes, Cowls, and Purple:

How Prince Merged the Worlds of Music and Comics with Batman and Beyond

Prince Rogers Nelson (June 7, 1958-April 21, 2016), known throughout most of his career simply as Prince, had been an important part of music since his humble beginnings with the band 94 East in 1975, releasing thirty-nine studio albums and writing and producing songs for such artists as Chaka Khan, George Clinton and Mavis Staples. Prince learned to play various musical instruments at a very young age. The first song he learned to play on the piano was the theme to the 1966 Batman television series starring Adam West. One of his favorite comic book characters growing up was Batman. Many have often compared Prince’s personality to that of the Caped Crusader. Always looking for ways to get his art to the masses, Prince managed to merge the worlds of music and comic books, giving fans of four-color sequential storytelling a chance to look at the medium through song more than two decades later with the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s film featuring the Dark Knight.

1989 was a banner year for a certain Caped Crusader called Batman. The character celebrated his 50th birthday. To coincide with the event, a film directed by Tim Burton starring Michael Keaton in the title role was released on June 23, 1989. Jack Nicholson played his nemesis the Joker, and Kim Basinger was Batman’s love interest Vicki Vale. Prince was asked to work on music for the movie’s soundtrack that hit record stores three days before Batman came to American cinemas. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Batman and the melodies and harmonies Prince brought to Gotham City.

Originally, according to a 2001 Rolling Stone interview with Prince, the Batman soundtrack was to be a collaboration with Michael Jackson. Jackson was to do music for Batman, while Prince would do Joker songs.  That never came to fruition due to Jackson’s schedule with the Bad tour and bureaucratic red tape between Epic Records and Warner Brothers. Now, previously released songs such as “1999” and “Baby I’m A Star” were used in Tim Burton’s rough cut of Batman. Jack Nicholson felt the song worked so well that he urged Burton to get Prince involved in the project.

It should be noted that Prince was originally reluctant to do Batman. However, once His Purple Majesty was convinced to do it, he shelved such projects as Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic and Graffiti Bridge to give fans of his music and of the Dark Knight his 11th or 12th album, depending on where one would place The Black Album. That was planned for a December 1987 release, but it was withdrawn with some copies being leaked before officially coming out in 1994.

Batman consisted of nine tracks from and inspired by the movie. Five of those became singles (four in the United States and one in the United Kingdom and Germany) with B-sides and remixes. Yet, Prince had recorded some of the music before working on Batman. “Electric Chair”, “Scandalous”, and “Vicki Waiting” had been done for other albums that never got released. “Vicki Waiting” was a re-worked version of “Anna Waiting”, a song Prince wrote for Anna Fantastic.

Prince’s Batman soundtrack, like his music from his film Purple Rain five years prior to the Caped Crusader’s blockbuster, told the movie’s story in each song. The album opens with dialogue from the famous “I’m Batman” scene before the intro to “The Future”. The lyrics tell of how Batman sees the future of Gotham City if he doesn’t clean up its streets. “Electric Chair” goes into the Joker’s mind, but it can also be a message about censorship. The song states, “If a man is considered guilty for what goes on in his mind, Then give me the electric chair for all my future crimes.”

“The Arms of Orion” explores Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale’s romance in a beautiful duet between Prince and Sheena Easton. They sing of the characters’ need to be together, but something – Bruce Wayne’s internal conflict and duality – is keep them apart.

A hero needs a villain to balance out a story for the most part. The Joker takes center stage in tracks four, five, and six of Batman. “Partyman” is basically the Joker wreaking havoc in the museum scene. The song starts with Nicholson’s “Gentlemen, let’s broaden our minds! Lawrence?” before going into the funky beats that made Prince famous. “Vicki Waiting” gives listeners a look at the Joker’s obsession with Vicki Vale. “Trust”, which was played in the film during Gotham’s 200th anniversary parade is the Joker’s perception of Gotham City, and trust in general. One might even go as far as to say “Trust” and “The Future” are different yet similar views on the same things.

Two tracks on Batman could be interpreted as being sung from either Batman’s or the Joker’s point of view. “Lemon Crush” tells of either characters feelings for Vicki Vale and their internal conflict on how to express them. The sexually charged album version of “Scandalous” tells of how hero and villain need to express their basic urges for Vicki Vale.

Perhaps the most well known track on Batman is “Batdance”. At six minutes and thirteen seconds, the album version gives listeners a rundown of Batman’s fight with the Joker with Vicki Vale caught in the middle. Prince explores the conflict and duality of the characters brilliantly in a mixture of music, lyrics from previous songs on the album and dialogue from the movie. This is particularly true in the power and soul section that begins at the four minute and fifty-four second mark. We get Michael Keaton saying, “I’m going to kill you,” before the word “power” and “I’m not going to kill you” preceding “soul”.

Two songs that don’t get much discussion when looking at Prince’s Batman soundtrack are “200 Balloons”, the B-side to “Batdance” and the unreleased, much bootlegged “Dance With The Devil”. “200 Balloons” tells the story of the aforementioned parade scene in a musical style similar to “Batdance” minus film dialogue. It could be viewed as told from the Joker’s point of view, whereas “Batdance” is seen mostly through Batman’s cowled eyes.

“Dance With The Devil” was recorded in February of 1989 when Prince began initial work on Batman. The title obviously comes from Jack Nicholson’s famous line, “Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” In fact, Prince sings, “Dance with the devil in the pale moonlight. Put your arm around him, and hold him tight. Give in to the feeling, and don’t try to fight. He wants your soul, and he wants it tonight.”

The song was on a configuration of Batman with “Batdance”. Yet, Prince removed it at the last minute because he felt that, like The Black Album, its themes were too dark, especially when one considers the tone of the Batman album as a whole. “Dance With The Devil” is definitely bleaker than “Partyman” or even its polar opposite “The Future”. That song offers a hint of hope for Gotham City and its citizens. “Dance With The Devil” throws that hope out the window with lyrics like, “Have no savior. Have no faith. Never look for Heaven’s gate. Devil’s children, no love inside. There is a soul, but it has died,” and “Close your eyes to love and die.”

One could say that Prince was looking deeply into the darkness of Batman’s characters and settings in “Dance With The Devil”. Yet, it’s understandable why the song was removed from the soundtrack. “Dance With The Devil” currently remains in Prince’s famous vault with other unreleased material, and it has been bootlegged with much of that music that has never been put out officially.

One of the wonderful things about Prince’s Batman soundtrack is that it brings together multiple mediums of art. Much like Purple Rain, Under The Cherry Moon, and post-Batman effort Graffiti Bridge, it brought together film and songs as a form of storytelling. Yet, Batman and Three Chains O’ Gold (more on that one later) merged celluloid, music, and comics. They told their tales in different ways, but at the end of the day, they brought together world that often would be considered separated. While there are those (such as myself) who are fans of comics and Prince, he, Michael Jackson, and David Bowie were and still are among my favorites to listen to while reading or writing. Yet, some comic book fans in the late ’80s might not have heard a Prince album before Batman. Conversely, those who listened to Prince may have never followed Batman or comics in general before listening to the Purple One’s music for the movie. One’s curiosity about the other could have led them to seek out issues of Batman and Detective Comics and / or copies of  Sign O’ The Times and 1999. That’s the beauty of when two types of art come together. Two communities perhaps once believed to be totally diverse can find common ground.

The 1990s began perhaps what some fans would consider Prince’s most eclectic period. In addition to introducing his new band the New Power Generation, he was writing, releasing, and performing music that showed he had grown as an artist. Battles with Warner Brothers over ownership of his master recordings and the distribution of new music made it difficult for him to get his art to those who appreciated it. He changed his name to unpronounceable symbol while finding new means of putting out songs. However, Prince’s association with comic books and superheroes continued well beyond what he had created for Batman, no matter what name he used.

On September 14, 1993, Earth, Wind & Fire released their 16th studio album Millennium. Track twelve was a song written by Prince titled “Super Hero”. It was also performed by the New Power Generation and the Steeles on the soundtrack to the film Blankman, starring In Living Color’s Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier. The New Power Generation also did a version without the Steeles on a December 1994 configuration of their Exodus album. Prince himself recorded “Super Hero” sometime in 1992. That version remains unreleased.

July 14, 2000 saw Prince release the song “Cybersingle” free online via Real Audio and his NPG Online site. It was released under the symbol name even if he had returned to calling himself Prince. One of the lyrics talks about an iconic Kryptonian. “Superman steps in the phone booth one more time 2 drop another cybersingle life-saving rhyme.” Perhaps comics influenced Prince more than anyone could imagine? I’d like to think so.

Prince has also been the star of comic books. Revolutionary Comics had published Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics from June 1989 until November 1993. The series told unauthorized biographies of various music celebrities in sequential art form. Issue #21  featured Prince and George Clinton. It was written by Todd Loren with art by Stuart Immonen and Lyndal Funkuson. The cover image of Prince from the Graffiti Bridge era was drawn by Scott Jackson. Bluewater Productions followed in Revolutionary’s footsteps many years later with issues of Fame and Tribute telling Prince’s life story. Tribute was released shortly after his death in 2016. Both comics were written by Michael L. Frizell with art by Ernesto Lovera and Vincenzo Sansone.

Batman had a great impact on Prince’s career, so much so that His Royal Funkiness used comic books as means to tell stories and promote his music. DC Comics’  Piranha Music imprint released two one-shots in 1991 and 1994 respectively. Prince worked in conjunction with writer Dwayne McDuffie on Prince: Alter Ego and Prince and the New Power Generation: Three Chains of Gold.

1991′s  Prince: Alter Ego was drawn by Denys Cowan, who co-founded Milestone Media with McDuffie, with a cover by Batman: The Killing Joke artist Brian Bolland. Alter Ego, a comic that seems intended to promote Prince and the New Power Generation’s Diamonds And Pearls album with an ad for it on the outer back cover, shows how music, like any art form, can be a positive and negative force depending on who makes it. Gemini, an evil twin of Prince, battles the Purple One. Under Gemini, the N.P.G.’s music is a force for war, while Prince uses the band for peaceful purposes. Prince wins in the end, showing that violence is not the solution to anything.

Prince and the New Power Generation: Three Chains of Gold, drawn by David Williams, Steve Carr and Deryl Skelton with a Steve Park cover, is a loose adaptation of the film of the same name mixed with an adventure worthy of the Uncharted video games and Indiana Jones movies. Prince is entrusted with a mysterious chain while touring the Middle East. He and the N.P.G. go on a quest for its two counterparts in order for Princess Mayte to claim her country’s throne and avenge her father’s death. When the three necklaces are together, their center piece forms the symbol that served as the title of the 1992 album which contained the Three Chains of Gold music and the name Prince used during his battles with Warner Brothers over distribution and the masters of his music.

After his death on April 21, 2016, three decades after writing the song “Sometimes It Snows In April”, Prince Rogers Nelson left behind a legacy of music, concert footage, and film. Yet, he also brought the worlds of music and comics together in a way that very few, if any, of his peers had done. The Bat Signal will shine brightly in the night sky for him thanks to that, and perhaps the Bat will wear purple to honor him.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Heath Lantz has written a variety of fiction and nonfiction, from tales of space adventure to comic book and pop culture history. His work can be found in his self published TRILOGY OF TALES, PS Artbooks' ROY THOMAS PRESENTS CAPTAIN VIDEO, ROY THOMAS PRESENTS SHEENA QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE VOLUME 3 and PRE-CODE CLASSICS: WEIRD MYSTERIES VOLUMES 1 and 2, the TwoMorrows Publishing magazines ALTER EGO and BACK ISSUE and Sequart's BACK TO THE FUTURE spotlight. James currently lives in Italy with his wife Laura and their family of cats, dogs and humans from Italy, Japan and the United States.

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