Is Batman Batman?: Continuity of Identity for Fictional Characters, Part 1

Something I’ve thought about for years is the “continuity of identity” for fictional characters, especially those that have persisted across long periods of time, have handled by different creators, and/or have moved across media. In the medieval world, for example, legends of King Arthur occur in disparate, often contradictory forms, but we still have a basic idea of who the character is and what the important events in the Camelot story are.

In the 20th century, with the proliferation of printed sources, movies, radio dramas, television, comic books, and mass culture generally, we can watch characters undergo more rapid change, accretion of canon, trying out and jettisoning of variants, etc.

Interestingly, in many cases, some kind of cohesion and continuity of identity persists. Of course, this needn’t be the case, or at least not strongly. For example, the very first, pre-Action Comics “Superman” story by Siegel and Schuster was about a bald telepath, and not an alien with super-strength. They then tried out a several more variants before getting the Action Comics version out. It’s not clear what sort of continuity exists between the bald telepath and the comic book version, other than that Siegel and Schuster had a name they kept playing with.

I want to claim that some of these characters, like King Arthur and  Batman, while perhaps loosely defined at the start, have some kernel that either coheres or fails to cohere with additional elements, and that, in part, what determines which elements become canonical is the extent to which they cohere with the central concept of the character, and with the other elements that, perhaps because they cohered so well with the central concept, had become canonical. (I think this is somewhat comparable to Daniel Dennet’s “center of narrative gravity,” and I’ll tackle that in an upcoming post.)

In Batman’s case, you begin with the origin story: a young boy sees his parent murdered by a criminal, then moves into a cave and begins dressing as a bat and fighting crime. In short, you have a fairly dark story, beginning as it does with a child witnessing the murder of his mother and father.

I think that’s (in part) why the “light-hearted” Batman didn’t stick very well. It wasn’t cohesive with the character (I also think that comic book fans as a group probably weren’t the sort of readers who appreciated goofball comedy).  And I think that that’s why the 1980s reimagining of Batman as even darker, grimmer, etc, stuck so well. If a central element of the character is that he watched his parents die when he was little and he blames this on criminals,  and then he spends the next ten years doing nothing but training to fight crime, it’s going to make the most sense for him to be an obsessive, overly focused, somewhat grim individual.

Ultimately, there’s a narrative for these characters, and narratives are ways of editing from the infinite possibilities inherent in what happened. Narrative writers look for stories that hang together. The Batman narrative hangs together better if we edit out the campy version. We ourselves narrativize our experience; we also edit for cohesion. “That wasn’t me,” “that’s so like me.” Are these judgments sound? Or do we think in terms of a cohesive character for ourselves and exclude “out-of-character” moments (research in “attribution theory,” notably such effects as actor-observer asymmetry and the fundamental attribution error, point to ways in which we edit personal narratives for cohesion.)

It’s important to note that in the case of a fictional character, the success, aesthetic or commercial or in critical reception, probably fuels the keeping of some elements and the jettisoning of others. But we still have to ask why the critics and fans disliked some elements, and I think lack of cohesion with the central character elements is important for the readers as much as it is for the creators. The “but Batman wouldn’t do that!” response comes from this source, I think. There’s an idea that some of the versions of Batman just aren’t Batman.

Now, there’s a lot to be said about the continuity of identity of the character. Is the new Sherlock Holmes on the British “Sherlock” series, or the one on the upcoming American “Elementary” series, continuous with, in some way identical to, the same as, etc., as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes? Are they less or more the same character as the one who appeared in the Basil Rathbone films? Is the movie Batman the same as the comic book Batman? At all? The same questions can be raised with legendary figures: Is Jupiter really Zeus? Are Wotan and Odin the same god? Is the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost the same character as the ha-Satan of the Bible? We can break this down into elements: the name is the same, some characteristic is the different, this story element is the same, etc., but we still need to ask why do we make judgments of sameness here?

Part of the answer, with Batman, involves the fact that this is a character that is owned by Warner Bros; any Batman that is not licensed is not, according to Warner Bros, the same Batman. But obviously this doesn’t work for Sherlock Holmes, Zeus, or Satan, and I’m not sure it really works for Batman. If there was no chance that a consumer wouldn’t identify an illegal Batman product as the real thing, then Warner Bros wouldn’t have a case, so they have to claim that there’s at least a sense in which unofficial Batmans can be identified with the official Batman.

So I think the connection to the character’s defining concepts, attributes, elements, etc., may be more important for identity than something like copyright, since that’s going to be some of the basis for even making a copyright claim. Sometimes, the name is a key defining element, but not always: Jupiter and Zeus may well be “the same god” (in some sense) in spite of the name change. And if I tell a story about a man who’s parents are shot in front of him and who then dresses up like a bat and fights crime, I don’t need to call him “Batman” for the audience to know who I’m talking about.

I’ll pick up on this in a future post, along with some discussion of  theory of descriptions, rigid designators, and the ways in which knock-off, alternate universe, and unofficial versions of characters are and are not identical with the original. Look for special guest appearances by The Midnighter, Owlman, Nighthawk, and all those pictures of Batman and Robin making out that can be found in gay bars, on the internet, and in your mom’s bathroom.

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One response to “Is Batman Batman?: Continuity of Identity for Fictional Characters, Part 1

  1. Pingback: More on Batman « Our Mechanical Brain

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