Baltimore isn’t Gotham City — keep your jokes to yourselves — but, come next month, it’s going to be one of the best places to learn about the Dark Knight’s publishing history through the decades.
This August, the University of Baltimore will be offering a course called “The Evolution of Batman”, taught by award-winning poet Steven Leyva.
When we spoke on the phone last week, Professor Leyva told me the class will be using Glen Weldon’s excellent book The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture as its core text. Of course, students will be reading comics and watching cartoons and movies, too, all in an effort to unpack the meanings that have accrued around the Dark Knight since his first appearance in 1939.
During my talk with Leyva, he explained the impetus for the course, ran down parts of the syllabus-in-progress, and talked about what he hopes students get from a college class focused on Gotham’s grim guardian.
My first question is why teach this course about Batman, as opposed to Superman, Captain America, or other superheroes who’ve been around for decades?
Steven Levya: Well, this is the question that everybody asks, you know? And perhaps it’s the fan in me, but Batman is just cool. Batman is a cool character.
The class owes a great debt to Glen Weldon and his research in The Caped Crusade, the book he wrote. [What] Glen Weldon puts forward is that Batman is like a Rorschach test. We can easily project onto him multiple anxieties, like what Walt Whitman describes when he says, “I contain multitudes.”
Well, he could have been talking about Batman, because we seem to be able to project almost any version of humanity onto him.
So, for example, right, you can have these cycles of, you know, hyper-masculine, testosterone-filled, almost-fascist versions of Batman like you see in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but you can also have, in the same character, the hyper-pop 1960s Adam West character. You know, dancing in go-go clubs, et cetera.
I would argue there are very few characters that can hold within their space such a spectrum.
Take, for example, Spider-Man. Here’s a character where we’ve got lots of movies, lots of media, you know, cartoons, video games. But he’s always presented in the same way. They share some similarity, in fact they’re both orphans. Obviously, Peter Parker’s not rich, but the way you see Spider-Man is always as a guilt-ridden teenager or young adult.
And yeah, it’s just very different for Batman. He seems to have greater boundaries. So part of the reason of why to teach the class is because here’s a figure who seems to be able to say something and comment on society, but also reflect society in a recursive relationship.
He also has a very broad aesthetic, so we can talk about many [artistic] disciplines and different kinds of social concerns and what media does with them within a single course.
It gives us room to debate, to discuss, and in some ways, mute that sort of thing that fanboys and fan-girls and fan people get into about this obsession with authenticity. What’s the real Batman? Right? What’s the real character? What’re the real roots? And that’s very nebulous, you know? Because of how many different ways Batman can be presented.
And so, I hear something like that, right? And I think of all the times, just to make it personal, that in my youth, someone said to me something like, “Well, the way you’re behaving is acting white.” And I’m like, “But, you know...” Or, “You’re not black enough.” Anything a black person does is black! So how is it someone could lay that charge on you?
I am someone so invested in being obsessed with what is authentic. And so, you know, some of it is wanting to explore some of those things through the lens of the character.
The last thing I’ll say about that is, it’s very important to me — I teach at an urban, small university in Baltimore. Our population reflects the demographics of the city, which is to say we’re about 60 per cent African American. I don’t think that only institutions with much broader funding and endowments should be the only place where this type of class should be taught.
I think students who grew up the way that I grew up — relatively poor, but curious — they should have the space to say, “The things that I am interested in, people might marginalise me and say, ‘Those are just hobbies.'” Those can be areas of deep, academic study and, you know, frankly people can make jobs out of them. Right? I mean, you probably know this writing for Rise of the Black Panther as well. So, that’s some of the thinking there.
Were these kinds of class being taught elsewhere part of the impetus to mount this course in the first place?
Levya: I mean, I would say initially I was initially just curious and interested about the things I was reading in Weldon’s book, the things I was reading in the current issues of Batman written by Tom King.
So you know, we’re about to have this Batman/Catwoman wedding, supposedly. And I think we’ll see to the degree to which a character that is, as you said, approaching 80 years old can continue to be relevant, can continue to be adapted.
Many people have argued about comic book heroes, Superman, Batman, et cetera being a kind of American mythos. You know, they are Greek gods, et cetera. That’s pretty boilerplate at this point.
But it’s also interesting to me to think about what it is about the character that allows for longevity? What keeps us coming back to it? When there have been a host of other characters, you know? And other pop figures that have fallen away.
There’s a great thing that Weldon’s book talks about, saying Batman is basically a rip off of the Shadow, which I find to be very true. We’re not constantly making Shadow movies. So why is that? What are the things that sustain Batman for us?
So for me, it’s the same idea that says it’s important to study certain literature over and over again. Right? Why is it that we still read Zora Neale Hurston? Things from that era? Why does it stay relevant?
Just because superhero comics might have once been a marginalised genre — rising out of the pulp genre and geared towards kids — doesn’t mean that they’re not worth study. They are, because we, as a nation, have grown up with them. All the technological change and social change of the 20th century coincides with Batman growing up.
So he’s a cipher in that way, and perhaps an important cultural touchstone, in much the same way we look at Bas-Relief and other sorts of iconography from the Renaissance. So, initially, I was just interested in it.
I want my students to be able to code-switch in a variety of ways and I tell my students don’t ignore your interests. There’s going to be enough people telling you to get a job, and how are you going to make money with this?
Make space for yourself — particularly when you’re in undergrad or grad school — to explore the things you become deeply curious about. Because it can be sustaining for you. And you can figure out a way to make money with it, or make it relevant.
Yeah, so, it wasn’t an explicit critique of elitist institutions, but I think that’s a benefit. And hey, no one should presume what kind of classes are going to be taught at the University of Baltimore, which is best known for its law school.
Fair enough! Let’s talk about the syllabus and readings.
Levya: Some of those things are a little bit nascent, they’re still being developed. I was talking with the reference librarian here at the university, and we were brainstorming how we could possibly make use of the Library of Congress, which just received a big donation from Steve Geppi and the Geppi Entertainment Museum.
That might be a great opportunity to look at some artefacts, right? There will be things that we wouldn’t normally be able to see outside of digital reproductions, or some panel reproductions in Weldon’s book. Like I said, we’re still figuring this stuff out.
The class is really a media genres class; it’s an English III. The way that class has been taught in other instances has been really flexible class. In the past, it could either be taught through a single director of films, like the Coen Brothers’ films as directors. Sometimes, it’s been through a particular genre like neo-noir, or Western, or environmental horror, like one colleague of mine taught recently.
So I thought, here is a figure in Batman that has several permutations in media and in different mediums. So we have a chance to explore how his presentations evolve and change, et cetera.
As a foundational text, we’re going to use Weldon’s book, we’re going to look at The Dark Knight Returns, but we’re also going to look at Death in the Family and part of the reason — this is when Jason Todd gets it…
In the first issue of that storyline, they’re fighting terrorists...
Levya: Yeah, it’s so crazy! Because the Joker makes a deal with Iran, you know. It’s a bizarre plot point but it reflects the 1980s, you know, and in some ways the beginning of this intense Islamophobia/xenophobia that we’ve been seeing rising like a hydra right now.
I think that’s an interesting point to have this discussion, but one of the real reasons I want to look at Death in the Family is its an example of crowd-sourcing.
Anecdotally, I can’t find another instance where something like this happens. Normally, it doesn’t make sense. It’s counterintuitive. You kill a character. You kill a money-making opportunity. You kill an asset in the company. So why hand over that editorial power to fans?
Even within the tropes of superhero comics — where death is often just a revolving door — it’s still a unique moment because the decision was left in readers’ hands.
Levya: It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure, right? It’s like reading one of those books, except en masse. So there are some really interesting things to talk about with regard to the synthesis of consumer culture and comics.
Also, the margin [of the votes to kill Jason Todd] is really small. Seventy-two votes? Is that in some ways reflective to recent divisions in the country? Or can we frame it as an analogue? It’s a kind of election, right?
But also, it was done via an 900 number. That’s going to be outside some of my students’ experience and I’ll need to explain that means you’re having to pay a little bit.
Paying to make that call introduced a socioeconomic element there. It elevated or validated those folks who have called themselves nerds at a time when that was really not cool at all.
When you think about it in those terms, you have to ask what kind of nerd is being elevated. Right? Because the assumption that it is only middle-class white males, you know, that might have a greater access to deciding whether Robin lives or dies is, you know, kind of wrapped up in part of what Batman is.
So, that reading assignment is both for the social commentary and this kind of unprecedented moment in comic book history and culture.
So, we’re going to look at that in terms of graphic novels. We’re going to look at a selection of episodes I put together from Batman: The Animated Series. And then we’re going to look at a Burton film, the first. And we’re going to look at a Schumacher one — I haven’t decided if we’re going to do Batman Forever or Batman & Robin.
We’re going to look at portions of the Nolan trilogy. My assumption there is that most of the students are going to have already seen that along with the other ones, so we probably won’t view that as a whole. And then we’ll look at Batman in relationship to other heroes, in Batman v. Superman, in Justice League.
So, we’re going to look at a number of texts, graphic novels, cartoons, animation and then live-action films.
Yo, Steven, you can’t just say you’re going to pull animated series episodes and not drop specific episodes.
Levya: [laughter] I really like “The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy”, where this person is tasked with retrieving Batman’s cape and cowl and setting up all these elaborate traps, only to find out that the person who set this all in motion is actually Batman in disguise. That’s a really smart episode.
And I just remember — with all that almost-noir, sort of German Expressionism lighting going on in the animated series — when you see Batman rise and take off the costume of the crime boss, he’s like almost all outline and shadow. He’s not human, in some ways. And the iconography is so interesting and powerful, you know?
I teach another class on literary genres in graphic novels and we use Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics as a foundational text. And the way he talks about how we can move and jump in iconography and how where we are on the scales of iconography communicates different things.
One of the things he talks about is the more that something seems photorealistic, the more we see it as an other. The more than it seems universal or simplified, the more we see it as us.
In Batman: The Animated Series, those moments where Batman is mostly outline and shadow, almost counterintuitively, we can project even more into that darkness. So that episode is really great.
I really love all the Big Bad Harv episodes, those Two-Face origin episodes where he’s flipping the coin. There’s even some small clips where he’s talking to Commissioner Gordon and he’s like, “If you catch him, I’ll put him in gaol for you,” and you just see his shadow, this very intentional half-shadow flipping that coin.
Everyone can tell something’s wrong with Harvey but the world is crazy in Gotham.
Any other specific episodes you’re looking to include?
Levya: I think you have to have episodes with the Joker in them. In particular, we’ll have the first episode with Harley Quinn ["Joker’s Favor"]. Here we have a situation where animation influences comics. A character that Bruce Timm and Paul Dini create then becomes this uber-hit in the comics. It’s crazy.
In the show, she’s a mega-hit. Then she gets introduced in the comic-book adaptation of the show, and [the original printing of] that comic is hella expensive, you know? She later comes into the regular DC Universe and remains popular. There’s these strata to the ways in which she’s being introduced and that episode will allow us to look at them.
You have to talk about Mark Hamill’s Joker and Kevin Conroy’s Batman as these dual figures, because they’re going to be really important as they show up in all the subsequent iterations. In the Justice League/Justice League Unlimited series, but then into the Arkham series of video games.
I think for people in their mid-30s, early 40s, these are the voices of those characters. As far as I’m concerned, Kevin Conroy is Batman. Affleck, Bale, Keaton, Kilmer, Clooney… all those guys are only pale representations of Conroy, someone who gets the gestalt so right. That’s also true for Mark Hamill’s Joker.
So, we might — it’s still up in the air, but definitely Harley Quinn episodes. And I don’t know — probably Robin is my least-favourite character in that whole series. Are you a fan? A big fan of Robin?
Yeah, I am. A while back, I wrote an essay after Batman: Arkham City about why Robin makes Batman better.
Levya: Let me be clear, though — my hate on Robin is not as the character is rendered in the comics. Or how Dick Grayson is. It’s the vocal performance of Loren Lester in the animated series, particularly before they go to the New Batman/Superman Adventures and the art style changes. Nightwing in that show is really effective.
I think the vocal performance for Robin in that show, he feels kind of whiny. Except for the “Robin’s Reckoning” episodes that cover his origin. What’s funny is, in that episode, he seems to synthesise Grayson, Todd and Drake in some ways. He kind of feels like all those characters at once. But the rest of the time, too whiny for me.
But, talking about the character reminds me of an argument with a friend of mine: I said “The reason people love Robin is because Robin gets to be with Batman.” He’s like, “No, it’s because of the bright colours.” That’s too simple! Right?
How cool — and other people have said it before, this is not my original idea — to have your father figure be Batman?! Robin’s life, despite the danger, is the sort of fantasy of all that.
Robin is also a place where we can experience a kind of nostalgia, right? Or a moment of having our cake and eat it, too. You can be with Batman, but not all the baggage. But, yeah, I don’t despise the character, just that particular performance.
To be honest, I probably should throw Mask of the Phantasm in there, too. I was way more excited to go see that than any of the live-action movies. Not until I was older and seeing Batman Begins, which has its problems. But, with an 80-year history, there’s only so much we can cover in 15 weeks.
The thing that makes Mask of the Phantasm work better than any of the live-action ones — and I also wrote a piece about this — is the romance is real. It has stakes. It’s not this perfunctory, “We’ve got to give him a girlfriend...” But no, this is before he’s even Batman. Like, the choice he has to make, “Do I actually try to pursue a sort of normal life?” Or... “Do I go be Batman?” is great and distils the commitment the character has to his mission in a very digestible way.
Levya: Even as a child, you can recognise that. You don’t have to have a degree, or be a scholar, or read every series to recognise how those stakes are being played out and that they feel sincere. [The people involved with that were] not afraid of seeming sincere.
I see a lot of that same idea in the way Tom King is writing the relationship between Catwoman and Batman. I know there’s an economic element that DC wants to sell a bunch of comics, but there’s something in the storytelling leading up to why Batman proposes. The slow burn leading up to that is great.
I was just reading the most-recent issue where Joker and Catwoman are on the ground. That is fantastic panel work, fantastic storytelling. It could almost seem too slow, but the writing is too good.
And the relationships have been built upon something where the stakes are real. Here’s a Batman comic where the majority of the pages, Batman is unconscious and it works really well.
Ultimately, one of the reasons I wanted to teach this class is because I was convinced by Weldon saying Batman is not a figure of fear or revenge, but hope. Everything about his storytelling, almost everything resets, right? Like, no matter what the trauma, the mission can help us reset.
He essentially says “never again” in that childlike oath that he makes to himself. It’s an optimistic oath. It’s a child’s oath, for sure. It’s free of the knowing cynicism that creeps in with adulthood. But that one is important.
In a time where, as a black man in America, I feel like every day I’m under assault, how useless, how Sisyphean is it to say “never again”? We just had a shooting down the road [in Annapolis]. And I’m thinking, how many times are we going to say “never again”?
But the oath is important, because what is left if that goes? If it isn’t for the striving? And here’s a character that — even in the broad ways in which he can be presented — embodies that. You know? It is essentially Camus. Camus’ idea is “You have to imagine Sisyphus happy”. That’s the way Batman works.
You talked about reading materials. Are you going to pull out any single issues aside from the collected editions?
Levya: There’s going to be an assignment where I ask them to purchase a single issue of any Batman comic. They can go in the dollar bin, they can go into the new issues, and I’m going to let the students pick a single issue to critique what kinds of Batman are they seeing. What changes are happening as we discuss his movement through history.
We’ll talk about some significant moments, obviously. We’ve got to talk about Batman’s back being broken and those kinds of things. We’ll talk a little about how soon Robin gets introduced. I think it’s not always common knowledge that Batman’s only around for a year, and then he’s got a son, essentially. Or a live-in boyfriend, depending on how you’re interpreting it.
I’m going to allow them to make choices about what kind of single issues they want to engage with. And some of that is just to also see how the iconography changes and how it’s drawn differently.
Are you hoping to get any creators in? I know Tom King lives in the area...
Levya: In the past, when I’ve taught as part of a separate class on the graphic novel White Out by Greg Rucka — it’s a great way of talking about noir, because it’s in Antarctica where all the iconography is flipped — I asked Greg Rucka if he would respond to students’ questions, and two years in a row, he’s done it.
If I do some reaching out, it’ll be mostly like that. We have, at our fingertips, a way of making social media an engine of academic study, in that we can talk to authors. Like, we don’t have to wonder about creator intention — and we can discuss the problems with intention separately — but we can ask Tom King about some of the things in his run.
I think the potential of that is great, because having Batman written by someone who’s a recent veteran is interesting.
Do you have any creator’s takes on the Batman characters that you hate?
Levya: That I hate? It’s all complicated. The first thing that comes to mind is how you can have a single creator, or portions of it, you just adore, and the same creator writing the same character in a different series is terrible.
This is a bit of an obvious one, but Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is wonderful. I love it. I love its commentary on television, Reaganism, the early ‘80s. But Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin is a farce. It’s the whole “The Goddamn Batman” business. That one’s easy to lampoon, and in some ways Frank Miller is kind of an easy target for that.
You know, there’s a lot that I love from the Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams run. I was born in ‘82 and I think it’s really important to read what creators were doing before you existed. Sometimes, they’re hit-or-miss, too, right? So I don’t think there’s a particular artist or writer or combination of the two that is, in a unified way, detested by me.
But, there are curious moments that might end up being worthy of discussion. As far as the different presentations of Batman, I’m here for all of it.
Snyder and the New 52 reboot, as a finite run, is so well done. I can’t say enough about it, from the covers to the introduction of the Court of Owls and everything. Long story short, it’s about the way he deals with family, the way Snyder imagines the Bat family, and what family means in a way that I think I’m genuinely drawn to.
I’m often kind of drawn to the interpretations that get at that. Some people want to argue that Batman’s a loner at heart. And I just don’t think that’s true.
I’ve loved the recent Detective Comics run by James Tynion because I thought it was a perfect exploration of Batman as the centre of this unlikely, weird, damaged, dysfunctional family. And it was also a complete Tim Drake love fest, which I wasn’t mad at.
Levya: And he deserves it, right? Tim Drake was my Robin, the Robin that I knew, when Azrael took over. In Identity Crisis, there’s that great moment where they talk about Tim Drake losing his father and his father being killed and how now he’s an orphan, also…
Part of the reason I love Tim Drake, too, is the way in which he was different from the other Robins. He wasn’t a natural athlete and he had to work really hard at it. But he was a detective; that was his schtick. He had this other life, too, that he was sort of returning to. And I think that made for some complications.
He’s almost an Odysseus-type figure. In that he’s going for a time on all these adventures, these islands with all these different villains, but he’s returning home. Then it becomes about what you leave behind and how you can’t come back whole, you know? It’s impossible.
Gail Simone’s run on Batgirl is also just really excellent. I don’t know. Maybe I don’t ride for Ace, the Bat-Hound too much… he might be among the things I have to mention with regard to the glut of Bat-Family characters.
Or Harold, the hunchback who was a tech savant from the 1990s comics...
Levya: There’s just so much material to explore. And the cast of characters is large, so it can get away from you really fast.
Which can be a challenge when you’re teaching a roomful of students. Some are going to know this stuff...
Levya: When I was discussing what to do about the Library of Congress, one of the reference librarians said, “We’ve all had these conversations where the comic book shop turns into a scene from High Fidelity. How do you tell the difference between that kind of discourse and more serious, insightful and critical discourse?”
I thought about it for a second and told her, for me, it has to be the way they insist or not insist on one version of Batman. That’s the telling thing about whether or not you’re entering into a fandom discourse, right? Like, either you’re trying to protect your fiefdom or you’re interested in critical examination.
I want to encourage students who come in with a vast amount of background knowledge, but in some ways, that can be the enemy. That can lead you down the pathway to say that Batman is X. One thing. And if we’re not careful, we adopt some of the reductive discourse of white supremacy. Of taking something and kind of pulling it all down in one thing.
One monolithic understanding or dogma...
Levya: One dogma that I would say comes down to a sort of wish fulfillment. Weldon has a hilarious opening when he’s talking about the relatability of Batman and fans saying, “Anybody could be Batman.” He’s like, “No, they can’t. How many of you were billionaires? You think you can do a few crunches and then you’ll be flipping off a rooftop.”
No! If Batman was a real person, it’d be like W.E.B. DuBois’ Talented Tenth, right? There are very few people who have the confluence of things needed to become Batman. That’s not why he’s relatable.
He’s relatable because of this oath that he makes. We relate to the childlike desire for justice. I want to talk to students and say, “Hey, here is a good pop culture icon where we can practise critical thinking in discourse.”
That doesn’t have to adopt the dense language of postmodernism or other kinds of things. Not trying to pooh-pooh those things, they’re great and they give us those lenses with which to look. But here’s something that we can absorb in multiple ways, still grasp that critical thinking we can take out into the world, and try to see people and situations with nuance.
If there’s one thing that I think Batman allows us to do, it’s practise nuance. Which is why I think so many different writers and artists can put a different take on him. There’s something about his DNA that does that.
How do you want this course to impact your students’ understanding of comics, Batman or critique?
Levya: I want them to be able to have an opportunity to understand themselves better, because Batman can be read as a mirror for the self, the subconscious, the way our minds work. I want them to understand society and history a little bit better, by examining the way in which Batman reflects the changes in our anxieties and our socio-political stances.
I mentioned this in another interview, but Batman begins his whole mission dropping people off of rooftops and using guns. Then, there’s a kind of non-lethal thing that comes into the comics. He abandons those things in his presentation. Is there a way in which that parallels some of the discussion we’re having about gun control, gun violence and police brutality in our country?
So, I want them to understand the world better and, recognise that pop culture artefacts can be just as viable ways of understanding the world as other sorts of artefacts.
And I want them to have fun. The whole spectrum of Batman runs from serious to light-hearted. There’s a portion of Batman that just allows us to think about the nature of joy, because you have this vampire-dressed figure who’s a whole hell of a lot of fun.