BOOK REVIEW: Becoming Batman by E. Paul Zehr

Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a SuperheroBecoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero by E. Paul Zehr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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[Note: This book is about sport and exercise science, particularly as they pertain to the martial arts. If you’re a martial artist or are interested in fitness and movement arts at the extremes of human capacity, you’re in the right place. If you’re interested in the comics and an overview of topics including how many billions Bruce Wayne needs and what technologies Batman must master, those aren’t questions addressed in this book. Such readers may find the book delving into depths they aren’t interested in on biological science. There are articles on the web that deal with topics like the “Cost of being Batman.”]

Next summer an eagerly awaited movie entitled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hits theaters. Who knows how much screen time will involve the fight between the titular characters, but the same battle has played out a number of times in the comics, and its appeal is clear. What are the limits of human capability given training, technology, and sufficient smarts? Can a man really defeat an alien that’s faster than a bullet and more powerful than a locomotive? A popular fanboy mantra is, “I like Batman, because I could be Batman. Batman has no superpowers.” So, yes, if you were a billionaire, genius, with the physique of a Greek god, and knew 127 martial arts, you too could be Batman. Or could you? That question is at the heart of Zehr’s book.

Becoming Batman is arranged into sixteen chapters divided among five parts. It begins logically with the question of whether Bruce Wayne needs to begin at any particular point to achieve success in transforming himself into Batman? (At the extreme, one probably can’t imagine Bruce Wayne becoming Batman if he was born with one leg a foot longer than the other and with a Quasimodo hump, but given a Bruce who is starting out “average,” what are his limitations.) In other words, how much does genetics come into play. In the first part, Zehr introduces a character, Bob Wayne, who doesn’t appear in the comics. Bob is Bruce’s twin, and is used throughout the book for comparison purposes, i.e. to convey what Bruce Wayne would look like if he didn’t train fanatically to be Batman. The question of how much of Batman is innate and how much is painstaking built by exercise and training is critical to determining how many of those fanboys really could be Batman.

There a series of chapters explaining the mechanism by which stressors result in a stronger, faster, more powerful, and more resilient Batman. The idea is that Mother Nature doesn’t over-engineer. The only way one gets stronger muscles is by overloading them, which triggers a process of rebuilding them bigger and better than before. Wolff’s Law defines the same concept for bones, i.e. bone density increases in response to increased loading. (Incidentally, the same is true of the mind. A more agile mind is achieved only by working it, and zoning out in front of the television results in a dumbening.)

The next section shifts from generic exercise science to questions of Batman’s martial arts training. What kind of martial arts (or arts) would Batman practice? There is an often quoted statement in the comics to the effect that Batman had mastered 127 martial arts. (This is ridiculous, but it does spur the intriguing question of how many systems does Batman need to learn to have a well-rounded skill-base without being a dabbler? Many will say one art—the right one–is enough, others will say that–given the varied cast of villains he must defeat–Batman needs a broader skill-set than any existing art provides.) More to the point, how many hours does one need to practice a technique to ingrain the movements into one (e.g. neurologically it takes repetition to optimize efficiency.) This is among the questions discussed in this book.

The fourth section deals with the ravages of being Batman, and how much any human could be expected to endure. In this section, one will learn about the cumulative toll of concussions, the likelihood of Batman avoiding broken bones and other injuries that would necessarily sideline his crime fighting, and the effect that working the night shift would have. (The latter might seem trivial in comparison to the former two topics, but—in fact—it’s not. It’s well established that night workers have higher incidence of some cancers and other ailments. Furthermore, as Bruce Wayne has to keep appearances up, it means not only fighting circadian rhythm issues, but also frequent sleep deprivation—the hazards of which are even clearer and occur in short order.)

There are a number of interesting topic that aren’t don’t pertain to the core question per se, but which are interesting for fans of the Batman canon and the character’s mythos. Famously, Batman doesn’t use guns or lethal force. This raises the question of how realistic it is to regularly fight hardened knaves and miscreants without killing them. One can only knock out so many of Gotham’s baddies before one doesn’t get up.

There’s a chapter about what a fight between Batman and Batgirl would be like. While strength would definitely be to Batman’s advantage, there are advantages that an equally skilled female fighter might bring to the fight? How would Batgirl (or Catwoman) need to fight to put those advantages to use? Finally, for those of us who are no longer spring chicks, there are chapters about how Batman could expect to age, and how long he could keep performing at a level at which he could defeat his enemies.

I enjoyed this book and found it both educational and interesting. It should be clear that Batman is just a teaching tool used to explore the limitations of the human body and its ability to endure a life of fighting. That said, references to the Batman comic books and movies makes for a readable text. Perhaps what I like most about this book is that most of the books that address these subjects are textbooks that are sold on the textbook pricing model (i.e. we have a limited but captive audience so let’s make them pay top dollar.) This is one of the few books that takes on these topics at the readability and pricing model of a popular science book.

I recommend it for those interested in the science of performance, martial arts, and injury.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison

Batman: Arkham Asylum - A Serious House on Serious EarthBatman: Arkham Asylum – A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is the third, and probably last, installment in my “Happy 75th Anniversary, Batman” series of reviews. Batman: Arkham Asylum is an attempt to convey a nightmare on the page, and it succeeds both graphically and narratively. It’s quite different from other Batman comics in style and content. It takes the dark nature of the Dark Knight’s mythology to the extreme.

There are two story-lines woven together in Batman: Arkham Asylum. The main line involves Batman entering an Arkham Asylum being run by the inmates. There he finds himself pitted against his foes: the Joker, Two-Face, Scarecrow, and others. The other is the 19th century tale of Amadeus Arkham’s descent into madness.

As is common in the Batman mythology, psychiatrists are portrayed as walking the razor’s edge between sanity and insanity. For those who don’t read comic books, this is most readily exemplified by the character of Dr. Crane / Scarecrow in the first film of the Nolan trilogy, Batman Begins. I’m not sure whether the point is to create enemies that are so strong they can bend doctors to their will, or if there is a general disdain for psychiatrists—as one might see a dislike of lawyers in other stories.

Among the nightmarish elements of this work is the fact that Batman’s face is never seen clearly. The Dark Knight is always a vaguely and/or surrealistically silhouetted. There’s a mix of sharpness and haziness in the graphics. The Joker gets his own crazy scrawl font. The graphics are as creepy and strange as can be. On my low-end Kindle, the work was in black and white, which worked well. I did look at the sample pages, and the color version uses a lot of sepia and crimson.

Batman: Arkham Asylum asks us to consider whether Bruce Wayne / Batman is sane or just a lunatic with a moral code.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Batman: The Dark Knight ReturnsBatman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A couple of reviews ago, I covered Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, which imagined the first year of the Dark Knight’s venture into crime fighting. The Dark Knight Returns is Miller’s take on the other end of the Caped Crusader’s career. It begins ten years after the last sighting of the Batman. Commissioner Gordon is on the verge of retirement, and there’s a mix of new and old threats rising.

There are four parts to this work. The first, also entitled The Dark Knight Returns shows the rise of a powerful gang of thugs called “The Mutants.” The way this gang’s leader is drawn makes him look like he truly is an altogether different species, but it’s his filed teeth and his bulky physique that account for his appearance. The main battle is with the “rehabilitated” Harvey Dent (a.k.a. “Two-Face,” an inappropriate moniker as his face has been fixed and his flighty psychiatrist ensures the community that Dent’s mind is fixed as well.) We see Bruce Wayne’s concern about the deteriorating state of Gotham and his eventual return to crime fighting, which is instigated by a freakish bat flying through his [closed] window. Wayne takes the bat as a sign from the universe that the Batman is indeed needed. Dent engages in a terroristic plot which the Dark Knight must try to foil.

As was the case in Batman: Year One, the story of Commissioner Gordon plays out in parallel with that of Bruce Wayne / Batman. However, in the third book, Gordon has retired and it’s the new Commissioner, Ellen Yendel, who shares the spotlight. Yendel, unlike Gordon, promptly issues an arrest warrant for Batman.

Book Two is called, The Dark Knight Triumphant, and it’s in this episode that Batman comes up against the leader of the Mutants. As in Batman: Year One, Batman arrives to the fight as an underdog. However, as would be expected, the nature of his underdog status is completely different. In Year One, Batman is a supreme physical specimen, but is green to crime fighting. In The Dark Knight Returns we see a battle-hardened veteran Batman who is a spry geriatric, not up to fighting young, mutant thugs. However, as with the former comic, the Dark Knight does redeem himself. Many of the Mutants, being fair-weather friends to their leader, form a cult of Batman in the wake of the Dark Knight’s victory over their former boss.

Besides broadening the readership demographic to retirement community dwellers, another new demographic is appealed to with Carrie Kelley, the new Robin. There are references early in the book to the profound effect that the death of Jason Todd had on Bruce Wayne. Be that as it may, Batman seems quick to bring this young girl into harm’s way given the lingering wound of Jason Todd.

Book Three, Hunt the Dark Knight, pits Batman against his ultimate nemesis, the Joker—who like Dent—has been sprung in no small part due to his lunatic psychiatrist. Miller continues the popular Batman comic disdain for psychiatrists, who are portrayed as a small nudge away from becoming bat-shit crazy (pun intended.) While the battle against the Joker provides this chapter’s crime fight, Commissioner Yendel’s war on Batman is a major part of the storyline. We also discover that time has not been as kind to Selina Kyle as it was to the men of this series. (i.e. Gordon is old but distinguished, and Batman has pretty much the same preternatural physique that he did as the young batman.)

The Dark Knight Falls is the last section, and it’s the most famous for the battle between Batman and Superman. Earlier in the book there’s a foreshadowing call from Clark Kent to let Batman know that the Superman will be out-of-town for a while. Appropriate to the 1986 issue date of this comic, a Cold War crisis is the event consuming Superman’s time. These Cold War tensions result in a nuclear missile launch that Superman diverts, but the Man of Steel hasn’t read up on the Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) effect. [Incidentally, Miller didn’t read up on the use of nuclear weapons as an EMP either, or—at least—he gets it completely wrong. Perhaps, he just figured that his readers wouldn’t know the difference–and he’s probably right. At any rate, I’m not deducting stars for bad science.] The power outage caused by the EMP results in looting and societal chaos. Batman quells this with the help of the cult of Batman mentioned previously. However, this doesn’t go over smoothly with some, which results in Superman’s invasion of Batman’s Gotham turf, and the ultimate battle.

I enjoyed this work more than Batman: Year One in part owing to the serious enemies that the Dark Knight must vanquish. I’d agree with the common view that this is a must-read for those interested in the canon of the Caped Crusader.

Also, if you aren’t a comics fan but are wondering how Batman and Superman could end up fighting–as per the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie–this might give you some insight. [Though I wouldn’t expect that movie to follow this work in any of the vaguest ways.] Also, there are other Caped Crusader versus Man of Steel interpretations out there, though this is probably the most famous.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: Year One by Frank Miller, et. al.

Batman: Year OneBatman: Year One by Frank Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Amazon recently had a sale on classic Batman collections in celebration of the Caped Crusader’s 75th anniversary. I bought a few titles, including this one.

Batman: Year One is Frank Miller’s vision of the hero’s first year of crime fighting. Unlike the first movie in the Nolan trilogy, Batman Begins, there’s no backstory about Bruce Wayne’s training. The comic begins with Bruce Wayne beginning to go on the equivalent of self-sanctioned “neighborhood watch” rounds in Gotham’s seedy underbelly. He’s in his planning and research phase, and only quasi-reluctantly gets into brawls with street thugs. His goal is, ostensibly, intelligence gathering.

Miller’s work isn’t aimed at a boyish market. From the intimation of underage prostitution to themes of marital infidelity to the unsubtle homage to Edward Hopper’s famous painting Nighthawks, this book is directed at a more mature reader. It’s grittier, but Batman hasn’t yet become so sophisticated as to abandon wearing his underwear outside his pants.

The four chapters that make up this graphic novel parallel and twist together the stories of Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne as they each begin their Gotham crime fighting careers. In many versions of the Batman mythology, Gordon is a young cop who helps boyhood Bruce Wayne on the night his parents are killed. This is one of the ways in which the Miller version differs. In Batman: Year One Gordon is a detective who moves to Gotham from Chicago at about the same time Bruce Wayne is sticking his toe in the waters of Gotham crime. This comes in handy for Miller later in works like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in which he is able to have a geriatric Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon coexisting.

The interests of Gordon and Batman only align at the very end of the last chapter. Until then, Gordon is trying to find and apprehend Batman like all the other cops. In fact, Gordon is leading the crusade against the Dark Knight when his bosses still have little interest in it—until Batman crashes their ball.

There are no supervillains yet—only corrupt cops and organized crime. Bruce Wayne, who adopts the guise of Batman only after a bat flies through his window (never heard of that happening), gets off to a rough start. He isn’t yet the phantom nightmare that he will later become, and is still learning his lessons. In his early encounters with criminals, he prevails mostly by being able to take a punch.

Besides Bruce Wayne’s inner monologue being a bit ham-handed, I enjoyed this work. The ham-handed inner monologue is—no doubt–intended to convey that Wayne is a man of thought as well as a man of action, but it’s hard to believe that someone who could transform himself into the Batman would be that riddled with doubt. That said, the dialogue is better written than the typical comic. There’s not a lot of the “As-you-know-Bob” dialogue that often plagues this genre.

If you’re a fan of the Dark Knight, this is worth reading.

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Will “Man of Steel” Turn the Tide on Superman Movies?

I hold contrary views to the character Bill, played by the late David Carradine, in the Kill Bill movies. Bill said that Superman was his absolute favorite superhero. The Man of Steel is among my least favorite superheroes. From a writer’s point of view, it’s hard to write an edge-of-the-seat Superman tale because readers have to feel the protagonist is in peril at every turn. That’s a tough sell if your hero is all-powerful and invulnerable. Superman writers learned this quickly, and they responded by creating a rock that could weaken or kill their character by its mere presence. In books and movies, the bad guy should be stronger and smarter than the hero. Lex Luthor is a devious fiend, but he’s no match for Superman in any domain but wickedness.

There’s a lot of talk about this year’s Superman movie, entitled Man of Steel, being darker and grittier with the implication that it’ll be more interesting than past Superman movies. The involvement of Christopher Nolan, who is most famous for the outstanding Dark Knight movie trilogy, makes many optimistic. It may be that they can tap into some of the Dark Knight narrative power. However, it’s easier to have gripping Batman tale. Batman is only human, with no superpowers, and he is inherently a loner (or in some cases a dynamic duo.) Batman may be smart, but he’s not the smartest. He may be strong, but he’s not the strongest. This makes it relatively easy to write him into perilous situations in which he is outmatched.

I have high hopes for Man of Steel, but I’m skeptical.