Noir meets reality

Why Batman is Noir (Laurie Dix)

Batman comics have undergone many, many different styles and stories, from the original 1940’s comic strips, to the 1970’s ‘Adam West’ TV series, a number of darker graphic novels (Frank Miller’s ‘Year One’, Alan Moore’s ‘The Killing Joke’, etc.) a number of Animated series, computer games and films.

The basic elements always apply: Batman is the superhero guise of orphaned multi-millionaire Bruce Wayne, who supports James Gordon in the Gotham City Police Department and whose enemies include a number of colourful characters including the Joker, the Penguin, Poison Ivy and Catwoman amongst several others.

How ‘Batman’ can be considered ‘Noir’:
(see reference: Raymond Durgnat’s ‘Paint it Black’ for the list of ‘Tropes’ I will be comparing to)

  • Being created in the 1940’s by Bob Kane, this was around the same time that the ‘Noir’ style really became identified. As mentioned in earlier blog posts (Notes on Film Noir and Film Noir Tropes) America was undergoing the depression, and so the mood of the films and stories at the time often reflected this, being downbeat and focusing on ‘Real Characters’, and occasionally needed some hope. This is what Batman represented: hope in a world where there was none.
  • Noir stories are often associated with Detective Fiction or ‘Hardboiled’ fiction, which is precisely what Batman is. Batman is often referred to as ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’, and there is often call for ‘Captions’ in comics, which have a tendency to relay as internal monologue, something Noir is famous for (see Raymond Chandler and his character Philip Marlowe).
  • Noir tends to take place in dark alleyways, places where there is little light but a lot of shadow, which adds to the overall aesthetic. Gotham City is a world where every street is a place with the potential to be a crime scene. Indeed, the Bat Signal only works in a world where the sky is always cloudy, and the world is always dark. Gotham City represents a world where everything is enshrouded in darkness all the time.
  • The protagonist is a maverick, who goes by his own rules. Although he does everything in the spirit of upholding the law, he is not afraid to break the rules in order to maintain justice.
  • The Femme Fatale: This could be a number of people, although most commonly Batman is paired with Selena Kyle (Catwoman) who is a thief. Although not a true femme fatale, the relationship between Batman and Catwoman is a complicated one which could be compared to some of the relationships between the lead Male and Female in several of the Noir films.
  • Gangsters are among some of Gotham City’s villains, mostly the Falcone family and the Maroni family. One of the common themes of Noir stories is the Gangster element.
  • ‘Portraits and Doubles’/The Figure in the Mist; a common theme in Noir, which revolves around dopplegangers and switches. In the Batman universe, there are a few villains whose stories mirror that of Bruce Wayne’s (rich family, orphaned, inherited millions) but that stray where Bruce chose a life of justice and truth, they perhaps followed a different path. The character ‘Hush’ has a story which revolves around him trying to give himself Bruce Wayne’s face in order to make it appear as if Bruce was committing certain crimes, allowing him to walk away free.
  • Sexual Pathology: the relationships between many characters could be drawn against this trope: Joker and Harley Quinn have a variation on The Florence Nightingale effect, wherein Dr. Harleen Quinzel was mesmerised by her patient, The Joker, to the extent that she freed him from Arkham Asylum and became his sidekick. Batman and Catwoman, as mentioned before, have an interesting relationship which could fit here, and it may also be noted that Catwoman’s primary weapon is a whip, which may relate to the idea of the exploration of Sadism in Noir. In terms of homosexuality there have been many theories about the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson (Batman and the original Robin). All of these themes link back to Noir.
  • Psychopaths: See every Batman villain, and even Batman himself.

In short, every trope identified with Noir can be read in the Batman series, and although it will change depending one whose version you are reading, there can be a number of comparisons drawn.

Although Marvel did their own series of ‘Noir’ comics, taking characters who already existed and turning their stories into the ‘Noir’ style, I believe Batman to be, at heart, a noir, and whereas it is occasionally masked, all the elements are there, and it has been obvious to several artists, writers and directors that this is at the heart of Batman.


One response

  1. The original Batman Comics were actually Called Detective comics. They had a more distinctive Noir feel to them.

    May 27, 2013 at 11:07 am

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