Collaboration, Continuity, and the Caped Crusader: Understanding Rhetorical Ecologies through Batman Nathan Elam II

In her piece "Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies," Jenny Edbauer-Rice puts forth the argument: “Rather than primarily speaking of rhetoric through the terministic lens of conglomerated elements, I look towards a framework of affective ecologies that recontextualizes rhetorics in their temporal, historical, and lived fluxes” (9). Arguments, in effect, do not live in a vacuum and are inherently affected by the world in which they were crafted and presented. With this article I hope to use Edbauer-Rice’s argument to aid in examining how the changing social and political mores of the 20th century shaped and reflected through the popular culture icon that is Batman.

The truth is that Batman helped me to understand how discourse has changed over time, as different creatives (rhetors in their own right) have taken the ideas that came before them and re-worked them to better suit their needs. Batman has, after all, been around for very nearly 80 years meaning a multitude of different writers and artists have helped to shape the character. It also means that we can identify the evolving rhetorical ecologies affected by the relationship between the rhetors (in this case being the respective creative teams) and the audience.

Edbauer-Rice makes the claim, “A given rhetoric is not contained by the elements that comprise its rhetorical situation (exigence, rhetor, audience, constraints). Rather, a rhetoric emerges already infected by the viral intensities that are circulating in the social field” (14). Edbauer-Rice's quote reminds me of two very distinct and very different eras of profound change in the history of comics: The mid-century “Silver Age” of comics and the radical change that occurred during the mid-1980s wherein the industry shifted from the so-called “Bronze Age” to the “Modern Age”. Edbauer-Rice's quote works as a point of reference because the entire comics industry shifted tonally and narratively at these points, due in no small part to the ways in which the creators were responding to real-world events and attitudes. Furthermore, being a long-form narrative, the continuity of Batman was becoming more complex and developed, giving writers more character history to reference and pull from.

Batman is a great example to use for Rice’s model because, while most lasting characters are subject to change over time as creative teams and editorial direction change, very few will ever reach eight decades of published history. Literally hundreds of people have helped to craft the story of Batman; building a reflection of (or, sometimes, spiteful answer to) the real world in which they were living. This is further helped by the fact that the publisher that owns Batman, DC Comics, has largely been the epicenter for the aforementioned paradigm shifts in comics.

While the credit for creation has long been mired in debate, when Bill Finger and Bob Kane first published a Batman (then called ‘The Batman’) story in Detective Comics #27, they were mostly going with the industry's flow. Noir, as a literary genre, was rising in popularity throughout the 1930's and 40's. The Shadow was already a popular fictional character, and the comics industry, still in its infancy, had only just introduced the extremely-powerful Superman the year prior. The climate may have been perfect for a hero that bridged the gap between “noir detective” and “costumed adventurer”.

This version of the character largely fought against organized crime and petty thugs; he was, if effect, fighting against a representation of the criminal elements that plagued the cities during that era. He just happened to do so in a costume themed after a bat. Many of the things that, I believe, most people associate with Batman: the Batcave, his trusty side-kick Robin, and even the city of Gotham, were all added over the course of the next several years. Those earliest stories serve as a reflection for what the creators saw the their social-rhetorical situation. As the world in which the comics were being drafted changed, the world within the comics changed as well.

Edbauer-Rice encourages us to consider beyond the situation surrounding a rhetoric’s creation. She says:

Consequently, though rhetorical situation models are undeniably helpful for thinking of rhetoric’s contextual character, they fall somewhat short when accounting for the amalgamations and transformations - the spread - of a given rhetoric within its wider ecology. Rather than replacing the rhetorical situation models that we have found so useful, however, an ecological augmentation adopts a view toward the processes and events that extend beyond the limited boundaries of elements (20).

This can be applied to our present argument as a way of saying that it is not merely enough to know the circumstances directly surrounding the character at a given time, but also how that situation has been caused or effected by, previous iterations. Like the rhetors of ancient Athens, long-form narrative and continuity allow for writers to respond to, build-upon, or tear-down the facets that their predecessors developed. Long-form narrative is unique in that it allows for character development to reach the point of character evolution. Even though many of the tenets of the character remain relatively unchanged, the way in which those tenets are situated is constantly shifting. A useful metaphor might be to think of an heirloom ring, passed from generation to generation. While the gemstone itself may be passed down, the band might be changed to keep up with modern aesthetics.

Take for instance the relationship between the Batman that my parents grew up with versus the Batman that I grew up with. My parents grew up watching the bright and campy Batman television series starring Adam West. This version was deeply influenced by the tropes and trappings common of the “Silver Age” of comics: the quirky humor, the colorful palette, and the very tongue-in-cheek approach to narrative. This was all, in many ways, a response (or perhaps a capitulation) to fears of subversion that were common during the era of McCarthyism and the height of the Cold War. In many ways the noir-detective persona had been traded in for something considered to be more palatable to family audiences.

It is worth noting, however, that the existence of the "Silver Age" was itself, at least in part, a reaction to the real world events that were happening at the time. Mid-century America was gripped by the ongoing space race and even Batman found himself exploring the depths of space. Themes and motifs shifted from the noir and mysticism that was popular in the pulp of the 1940’s toward science fiction as the real world began to look toward the stars. Around this same time America was deeply entrenched in McCarthyism and the deep-seeded fear of “the other”. Fredrick Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent, first published in 1954, made the claim that Batman and his ward, Robin, were influencing young boys to pursue homosexual relationships. As a response to this, the still-popular character of Batgirl was conceived. These shifts, I would argue, are further evidence of Edbauer-Rice’s claim that rhetoric is more than the combination of individual elements, but that the historical context, the world in which the argument is being made, is deeply tied to how the argument is both constructed and interpreted. It is important, when studying any sort of literature, to examine the details of the world in which the work was being written. Comics are no different.

Approximately 20 years after the prime of the "Silver Age" we see a distinct shift away from the tropes of the 1960’s as the comics industry made a violent shift into the “Modern Age”. Batman, in particular, was greatly effected by these radical changes. As stated by Edbauer-Rice, “Rhetorical situations involve the amalgamation and mixture of many different events and happenings that are not properly segmented into audience, text, or rhetorician” (20). Here we see Edbauer-Rice making the argument that our traditional 'rhetorical triangle' is inadequate for properly explaining all the possible variables, many external, that can effect the way an argument is present or received. The industry experienced a paradigm shift in the mid-80s as those lines between rhetor and audience were blurred. Those who had been audience members during the era wherein Batman was made to be more family-friendly were now given the opportunity to change the status quo.

It was during this time, now toward the end of the Cold War, that writers decided to take Batman in a decidedly darker direction. A great deal of credit for this can be directly ascribed to creator Frank Miller. It was Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Batman: Year One” that gave the character a firm push back through noir and directly into neo-noir territory. “Neo-Noir”, a term more commonly associated with filmmaking, is what we might call movies like ‘Seven’, ‘L.A. Confidential’, or ‘Drive.’ It is a genre that harkens back to the hardboiled detective stories of the 1940’s, but infused with more modern sensibilities. Miller’s interpretation was no swinging bachelor, or even friendly; he was an emotionally-broken and dangerous vigilante. Like how the Batman of the 1940’s fought mobsters, the Batman of the 1980’s fought pushers and addicts. The character became a dark and foreboding contrast to what he had been. Comics, as a genre, were distinctly no longer “just for children."

This shift in the mid-1980’s presented the Joker, Batman’s arch-nemesis, brutally beating Robin with a crowbar before murdering him, and paralyzing Batgirl with a bullet to the spine, before subjecting her father to pictures of her writhing in pain. Writers and audiences alike were ready for a darker take on the character so long defined by prime-time television. Long gone were the days of Bat-sui and Batman’s patented shark repellent, made famous by the television show. Much of the optimism of the mid-century had faded as the Cold War dragged on and many comics were distinctly grim and gritty, reflecting how the creatives were feeling about the world at the time. There was far less room for colorful camp in the Batman mythos. As Edbauer-Rice puts it: “The rhetorical situation is part of what we might call, borrowing from [Louise Weatherbee] Phelps, an ongoing social flux. Situation bleeds into concatenation of public interaction. Public interactions bleed into wider social processes. The elements of rhetorical situation simply bleed” (9). While the rhetorical triangle works well as a basis on which we can understand the ways in which an argument/discourse flows, it fails to account for the complex ways in which individual audience members might interpret the message based upon their own personal experiences, which are very likely different from those of the author. The experiences and concerns of those living in Reagan-era America were inherently different from those experiences and concerns of the people who had developed the Adam West version of the character some twenty years earlier.

In turn, Miller’s take on the character continues to influence the way modern writers like Scott Snyder and Tom King have approached their tenures decades later. Though the world has dramatically changed in the 31 years since ‘Year One’, and the context in which the character of Batman exists is different, the writers of today are still building on the arguments that were posed years ago. While not as “grim-dark” as the 80’s, today's Batman is still a character defined by darkness and tragedy. Today’s interpretation, however, places a greater emphasis on better understood emotional maladies: Batman is clearly a sufferer of severe PTSD and survivor’s guilt (something that was subsequently expounded upon after the death of Robin, as mentioned earlier). While not the kid-friendly pun-wielding character of the 60’s, Batman has certainly softened from Miller’s interpretation. The conversation has continued to evolve. This idea is perhaps best summed up by Edbauer-Rice herself: we are made up of our experiences, thoughts, biases - which are products of our outside interactions - and those myriad factors shape the way in which we interpret any given argument. In another 20 years, I expect we will see more changes as new writers come in and develop responses to the Batman of today as well as the world in which they find themselves. This is way, the conversation continues.

Works Cited

Edbauer-Rice, Jenny. "Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies." Rhetorical Society Quarterly, 35.4 (Fall 2005).

The title card from Batman: The Animated Series, created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm.

Cover of Detective Comics #241 (March 1957), art by Sheldon Moldoff and Ira Schnapp.

Cover of Detective Comics #27 (May 1939), art by Bob Kane.

A screenshot from Batman (1966), starring Adam West and Burt Ward.

Cover of The Dark Knight Returns (1986), by Frank Miller.

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