Birth of the Batman (Batman Canon I)

Batman: Year One (BATMAN #404-407) by Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli/Richmond Lewis

This four-part story is the point of origin for basically all of modern Batman. It deserves praise for that, sure, but I like it for a few reasons that I think many critics tend to gloss over.

Mazzucchelli’s vision of the Wayne murders, imitated often but rarely surpassed. The last frame is brilliant; Bruce is becoming the Batman right before your eyes.

The artist should get first credit on this comic. I don’t think I’ve read anything else illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, but I’d like to on the merits of his Year One artwork alone. Each and every line is rich and stunning, as if he hit “Ctrl+B” in his brain before setting the pencil on the paper. Anything lost in detail is more than made up for in the sheer strength of the images, complimented perfectly by Richmond Lewis’ vivid coloring and judicious use of contrast — especially in the derelict building scenes in Chapter Three. This is one comic where I’d say the artwork far outshines the writing, even to the point where I think some of the text could be left out and the same meanings would come across equally well, perhaps even more powerfully. Mazzucchelli was also apparently the first person in decades to draw Batman as if he’s a real person, with a simple, utilitarian black-and-gray costume that completely lacks the comically conspicuous musculature typical of the superhero genre. And Gotham City is a real place, too, where in this artist’s unique style, no single object in a scene is left as an afterthought, or mere “scenery,” right down to the layer of detritus lining Gotham’s streets and alleys.

Regarding the writing: this is Frank Miller’s most restrained and nuanced work with Batman. Where  in The Dark Knight Returns the character is 100% fatalist, full of merciless conviction and explosive anger, in Year One he defines himself for the coming revitalization of comic books: haunted, obsessive, and self-critical, but also altruistic, self-sacrificial, and utterly determined. He’s got a mean streak, but he channels it well and, more importantly, he keeps it in check. Year One is essentially free of the unabashed sadism that plagues DKR and its sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and mangles the character beyond recognition in All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder.

All of this is to say: Batman: Year One is a great comic, but more so for its style and themes than for its actual plot. The pacing has always been a little off for me — I think it’s tough to tell a year’s worth of story in four monthly comics and still retain the immediacy and locality, two of the traits that make comic books so much fun. But the story is adequate to the task of propping up Miller and Mazzucchelli’s revamp of the Dark Knight, and it introduced the world to a few characters that would show up 20 years later in Batman Begins.

Stylistically and thematically, Year One is as realistic as superhero comics have ever been. The enemies Batman and Jim Gordon make for themselves in this comic all exist in real life. When I reread it recently, I also happened to be finishing up HBO’s The Wire (praised for its persistent and uncompromising realism), and I couldn’t help but notice a resemblance between Year One‘s Police Commissioner Loeb and his counterparts on the show. Barely a mention is made of the rest of DC’s pantheon in Year One; when Alfred pithily suggests to his employer, “Hmf. I suppose you’ll take up flying next– –like that fellow in Metropolis,” Bruce Wayne just grins. And fashions himself a Bat-hang-glider.

Gotham’s Finest.

More than just because it’s a great origin story, Year One appears in my collection of comics because the only thing that separates its gritty crime-noir setting from modern urban reality is its title character; lacking Batman, Year One would still read well as a grim tale of a good cop in a bad city (indeed, Jim Gordon often feels more like the central protagonist of the story than Bruce Wayne). Beyond declaring that Batman can be relevant to real life, this comic declares that we, the readers, are at odds with ourselves. Just by seeing the comic through to its conclusion, by acknowledging that Gordon, for all his hard work and integrity, can’t really go it alone, aren’t we implicitly agreeing that Batman should exist, that he needs to exist in Gotham City? And when Gotham is a fictional city in name only, aren’t we also tacitly approving of a real person donning the cape and cowl, despite whatever beliefs we think we hold regarding rule of law and due process and all the other social mores the Batman violates on a nightly basis?

In just four issues in 1986, Year One called for a new kind of comic book reader: one who’s eager to explore the complications of street justice and vigilantism, one who’s willing to confront these inherent contradictions without feeling put off and without retreating to the more traditional, fantastical sorts of comics because they’re “more exciting” or because their heroes have superpowers.

I still see this sort of audience as a work in progress; in recent years, DC continues to publish (and make truckloads of money on) some of its most far-fetched and fantastical adventures yet (see: Final Crisis or even Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne). And The Avengers movie has set the all-time opening weekend record for box office sales at over $207 million, but for films only appearing in 2-D, The Dark Knight Rises now holds that same record, stealing the mantle from its own predecessor The Dark Knight. So cheap thrills and flashy action still trump thematic depth and realism — but only barely, and if we adjust for the 18-25% price hike for 3-D tickets, Avengers and Dark Knight Rises (and Dark Knight, too) are probably on much more even footing than we realize.

Batman: Year One represents the intellectual predecessor to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, a vein of comic book writing that firmly believes the medium can be about far more than some guy in tights who can lift up a car. With a rare exception, these are the sorts of comics I add to my library; these are the sorts of stories that keep me awake at night.

Next up: Batman: The Man Who Laughs.

Building a Better Batman Canon

Holy unnecessary alliteration, Batman!

The author is dead. So why am I talking about “canon,” which is eternally tangled up with the notion of authorship? Because in some media, it can still be a useful way of organizing how we think about the text(s). Put simply, “canon” is those works which a) originate with the creator of a given fiction, and/or b) are considered “official” by a fiction’s fan base. For example, Twilight is a part of Stephanie Meyer’s canon, while Twilight fan fiction is not. Revenge of the Sith is, sadly, official Star Wars canon, while anything that contradicts it is not. Such distinctions are relatively simple when the fiction has only one author from whom all the creative vision of the imagined universe stems.

Crisis on Infinite Earths #1, written by Wolfm...

DC’s heroes meet their most bewildering foe yet: the dreaded Retcon of the Multiverse! See them whirl about in an interplanetary vortex of utter befuddlement!

But what about comics? Between Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in 1939 and the current Bat-family of monthly magazines, literally hundreds of authors and illustrators have contributed to the Bat-mythology – nevermind the films, TV shows, novels, and newspaper strips external to DC’s ongoing continuity. Even the notion of a “creator” is meaningless; Bob Kane was only directly involved in DC’s monthly publications for roughly the first twenty of Batman’s 73 years thus far, and may or may not have actually done the creating anyway. And even after all that, DC has rewritten its own continuity several times, just to simplify (read: complicate) the internal chronology of their characters.

In comic books, then, it seems the only semi-solid conception we have of “canon” is that stamp of publisher’s approval, the indication of copyright: DC. Canon is as much proprietary as it is visionary. DC is owner, operator, and author all in one.

But wait! The author is dead! As dead as, say, Jason Todd on the wrong end of a crowbar!

Aha! So does that mean I don’t think the author is dead? Perhaps the author has  ascended to superhero status; perhaps he is become the Ghostwriter, aka the Worldly Word-Slinger, eternally reanimated by clamoring fanboys and falling comic book sales, whose only weakness is the inability to permanently kill anybody, ever, no matter how completely, totally done in they might at first appear!

Fuck that shit. In my Gotham City, Jason Todd still lies stone dead of Joker-inflicted crowbar whacks, despite trade paperbacks, despite animated movies starring Neil Patrick Harris, despite his ever-increasing prominence in DC’s current publications. Why? Because Jason Todd’s death added a new layer of meaning to Bruce Wayne’s nightly crusade, a new wound reopened by every mention of Jason’s name, every glance at Jason’s Robin uniform enshrined in the Batcave, every single subsequent encounter with the Joker. I am the master of my comic book collection, and I say BATMAN #635-641 and #645-650 never happened.

DC’s decisions begin and end with their bottom line. No surprise there – it’s why they killed Jason Todd, aka Robin II, in the first place. He had become unpopular with readers, and DC’s editors felt it was time for him to shuffle off his (im)mortal comic book coil. Further, DC even let the readers decide via 1-900 number whether A Death in the Family would really end in Jason’s death. Comic book fans rarely have such direct influence on the course of their favorite characters’ storylines, but this underscores a truth about popular media: the relationship between consumers, writers, and copyright holders occurs in a triangular rather than top-down fashion.

A page of “reader response” to the Dark Knight from BATMAN #250.

But why not ignore the authorial stamp of approval altogether? In a story printed in BATMAN #250 in 1973 (adapted twice into animated form, in The New Batman Adventures in 1998 and again in Gotham Knight in 2008), a trio of boys narrate to each other their impressions of the Batman, all of which differ so wildly that they are mutually exclusive. In the original 1973 story, the youngsters are supervised on a weekend retreat by none other than Bruce Wayne, who is understandably shocked by their wildly inaccurate claims (one wonders at his indignation here, given that he generally cultivates this sort of mysterious aura). According to Will Brooker in his book Batman Unmasked, “Bruce Wayne, of course, is in a position of authority here… because of his ‘authorship’ of the Batman – and is therefore viewed within this story as a ‘dominant’ source of official meaning” (18). But the kids don’t care; even when Bruce dons the real Bat-costume and jumps out of the darkness as the real Batman, “the authorial meaning is derided, mocked, exposed as just another ‘reading’ and a pretty feeble one at that” (Brooker 21). Brooker’s point is clear: in this story, Bruce is a stand-in for DC Comics, the owner/operator/author, and their interpretation of the Batman is just that  – an interpretation, no more valued by readers than they value their own readings of the character.

So in that spirit, I’ll merrily dance on the grave of Jason Todd as I present to you the vital chapters in my own “reading,” my own “canon” of the Batman, including what I find meaningful within each story and how I think it fits into a larger arc, the overall Legend of the Dark Knight.

BATMAN #655-658: Batman and Son (Grant Morrison: “I loved Angel Season 4!”)

Once upon a time there was a dark, avenging creature of the night who banged one of his erstwhile lady-foes in a (few?) moment(s?) of implausibly poor judgment. In a startlingly predictable turn of absolutely no dramatic significance, lady-foe-turned-S.O. has a baby. Since babies generally have a damping effect on tales of derring-do and, incidentally, demand a measure of responsibility and maturity utterly beyond the medium’s target audience, the youngster is hastily squirreled away in the writers’ undoubtedly overflowing and smelly communal footlocker labeled “shit to pull out later when we run out of cool ideas.” Somehow our hero, ostensibly a talented detective, seems to have no fucking clue that any of this is happening.

Well, eventually (some twenty years later in real-world time, about half that in DC Universe time) the youngster comes of age and turns up in our dark avenger’s stronghold, trendy medieval weapons in hand, and begins to fulfill his inevitable destiny of Being an Unbearable Teenage Nuisance, Lacking Character Depth, Attempting to Murder Our Hero’s Sidekicks, and just generally Fucking Our Hero’s Shit Up.

Cover of "Batman and Son"Somewhere amidst Hero Jr.’s insufferable douche-baggery and his attempts to spill everybody’s jugulars, I had to stop reading and just consider the facts that a) I had already watched the fourth season of Angel, and b) it sucked balls the first time. Sadly, this was not Angel. It was Batman and Son, a four-comic storyline by Grant Morrison appearing in BATMAN #655-658. After nearly twenty years of waiting for the other Bat-boot to drop, Batfans have finally started to suffer Batman’s (ahem) conception of an appallingly trite and totally unlikeable character.

Bewilderingly large supporting casts? Absurdly convoluted and complicated plots? A disturbingly detailed familiarity with the Joker’s most private thoughts? All these are things I’ve come to expect from Grant Morrison. But an astonishingly annoying genre trope? The only shocking thing about Batman and Son is that such an utterly cliched storyline would come from one of DC’s most acclaimed writers of recent years, a writer who is typically (for better or worse) pushing the boundaries of what’s believable and, sometimes, what’s even comprehensible in a comic book.

Further, has Grant Morrison ever, you know, read any Batman comics? Bruce Wayne already has sons. Three of them, in fact. Their names are Dick Grayson, Jason Todd* and Tim Drake.  Bruce has legally adopted all three of them. Along with Alfred, they are the three people he cares for most. He positively LOSES his SHIT every single time one of them may or may not be seriously injured or dead. Did we really need yet another ascendant Boy Wonder, this time bearing all the burdens and complications of heredity?

My initial response, obviously, is an emphatic no. Six years on, Damian Wayne still offers nothing significant to the ongoing Bat-stories, he’s still a spoiled little shit, and he still thinks it’s cool to kill people even though the goddamn Batman has repeatedly told him “Don’t fucking do that.” Maybe some new blood in the DC writing staff will come along someday and make a name for themselves by molding Damian into a 3-dimensional, likeable character; it’s happened before with characters less prominent in the Batman mythology (see: Mister Freeze in the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Heart of Ice”). Until then, I’ll do my damnedest to completely ignore his existence.

And on that note, our next post will discuss comic books as a unique medium in which each and every fan can have complete control over his or her own canon, allowing us to jettison garbage like little Damian without a shred of remorse.

*Yes, Jason Todd was dead for a while, but now he’s not. Deal with it, and please address all complaints to one “Superboy-Prime,” who apparently spun the world backwards or altered history or some such fucking nonsense and somehow incidentally resurrected him right out of his grave.

Jaws of Unquenchable Thirst — A Tidbit of Tolkien Ecocriticism

On a recent road trip back to the Twin Cities from somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin, the lady and I listened to an episode of This American Life about why General Motors has continually lost revenue to foreign competitors (namely Toyota) for the last 30 years. The show centered around the joint-venture plant called “NUMMI,” that is, New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., a cooperative endeavor between GM and Toyota that could have shown the United States’ biggest auto manufacturer how to increase both efficiency and sustainability while still maintaining profits.

In any case, you know the end of the story, at least generally speaking — GM didn’t learn nothin’, and went bankrupt because of it. This episode details the repeated opportunities the NUMMI plant afforded GM, and the repeated, persistent, idiotic refusal of GM’s top executives to change their company in ways that could have saved them from, well, its near-death experience last year. In every instance, they were more concerned with the immediate profits of CEOs and shareholders than long-term interests such as sustainable-energy vehicles, better working conditions for laborers, avoidance of Chapter 11 proceedings, etc. The episode is exceedingly interesting, featuring interviews with several high-level managers and executives who were involved with the NUMMI project.

On another car ride recently, this one likely from work to home or vice versa, I was listening to a story on MPR about the coal mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 people. Specifically, the radio host interviewed a Mine Safety Expert regarding investigations into Massey Energy Company’s safety policies. Once again, the corporation was more interested in its own profit margin than the lives of its workers, even to the point of implying in several memos (but of course not exactly stating outright) that worker safety concerns are always secondary. After all, the money comes from the coal, not from the miners making it out of the tunnels in one piece at the end of the day.

And, of course, there’s the catastrophic event of BP unleashing a Balrog* — er, millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Shockingly, they cut corners and greased up government officials (under the Bush administration, wouldn’t you know) in order to swell their coffers. And 11 people died, not to mention the as-yet untold damages to multiple ecosystems upon which thousands depend for their livelihoods. And, you know, the Earth is way prettier when not slicked with the decomposed remains of prehistoric lifeforms, but hell, if they don’t care about their sentient employees, who can expect them to give a fuck about a few pelicans?

I guess the solution is: Jesus H. Christ, you oblivious persons and wildlife, stop putting yourself in the path of these few dozen ass-wipes trying to make a buck. Or you know, a few billion that they don’t even know what the fuck to do with (Exxon-Mobil continues to be the United States’ most profitable company).

In the wide realm of Tolkien criticism (you saw this coming, didn’t you?), exploitation of resources in order to consolidate power (i.e., money) is frequently likened to the recklessly destructive actions of Saruman and his minions at Isengard. Indeed, Peter Jackson’s film version of The Two Towers goes so far as to have ol’ Sharkey saying “the forests will burn in the fires of industry,” which to me is about as clear a finger you can point at ecologically irresponsible organizations.

But as we drove home from WI that day (I was in the passenger seat, and thus probably waxing more philosophical than otherwise), looking at some pretty sun rays coming down through dark rain clouds, the concept of these corporations as individual entities (which, according to the Supreme Court, they are) struck me as something else entirely. They don’t even seem to be as rational or as deliberate as Saruman was in his machinations to conquer Middle-earth and destroy the natural world in doing so; they seem to me more akin to Carcharoth (also called Anfauglir, the Jaws of Thirst), the watch-wolf at the gate of Angband who, after biting off the hand of Beren that holds a Silmaril, is driven utterly mad by the jewel’s power. He rampages all across Middle-earth attempting to slake his now unquenchable thirst, inconsolable and unreachable to logic or reason of any kind, rending apart all who come in his path. The only choice left to Elves and Men is to either slay him or continue to suffer the swath of death and destruction he cuts through the green, living lands of the world.

To quote Théoden, “What can men do against such reckless hate?” The whole thing would be a lot simpler if “ride out and meet them” was the appropriate response, swords a-swinging and a-cleaving. But really, the day at Helm’s Deep is saved by the arrival of Gandalf and Théoden’s allies — the key word being “allies,” in that unity is required to defeat the hosts of the enemy. Holding true to the comparison, though, the Rohirrim didn’t really fight back until all was nearly lost. Such seems the likely outcome in our lives, as well.

Really the answer, I think, is to just wake up the Ents. Or, in the event we can’t find any, build some robotic ones, maybe. I think laser beams in their eyes would also expedite the whole process.

*Excuse the slip-up. Crude oil and Balrogs are just so similar. I mean, both are readily flammable, hide in deep underground caverns, and are, according to all evidence, impossible to stop once unleashed. Incidentally, crude oil and Balrogs tend not to cause problems if you just leave them the fuck alone. Just sayin’.

Some brilliant Tolkien passages

Blunt as Morgoth’s mace, that title. If you’re not into Tolkien, you will be both bewildered and bored to tears by the extent of this post.

Thus begins what will likely be a very long series of entries in which I’ll highlight and comment on a selection from the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien that I find especially insightful, moving, funny, etc.
As some of you may know from the succinct, conveniently-placed “Currently Enjoying” list to the right side of this text, I’m reading through The History of Middle-earth. What you wouldn’t know from that conveniently-placed list is that it’s the first time I’ve done so with the express intent of getting through them cover to cover. Retain your gasps, please; it’s extremely dense reading at times, particularly if you look at all the endnotes Christopher Tolkien sticks in there. But it’s also very rewarding for a Tolkien enthusiast to understand the truly lifelong creative process that went into Middle-earth.

Case in point: this entry’s selection, which comes from The Lay of Leithian, the poetic version of the tale of Beren and Lúthien, written in octosyllabic couplets and found in The Lays of Beleriand. In this excerpt from the poem (which, only about three quarters finished, extends over 4000 lines), we are treated to what is perhaps the very first textual appearance and description of Sauron, here called Thû. Beren and (Finrod) Felagund, disguised as Orcs, attempt to sneak past Tol Sirion, an Elvish watchtower now inhabited by Morgoth’s servants and called Tol-in-Gaurhoth (Isle of Werewolves). Enjoy!

An isléd hill there stood alone
amid the valley, like a stone
rolled from the distant mountains vast
when giants in tumult hurtled past.
Around its feet the river looped
a stream divided, that had scooped
the hanging edges into caves.
There briefly shuddered Sirion’s waves
and ran to other shores more clean.
An elven watchtower had it been,
and strong it was, and still was fair;
but now did grim with menace stare
one way to pale Beleriand,
the other to that mournful land
beyond the valley’s northern mouth.
Thence could be glimpsed the fields of drouth,
the dusty dunes, the desert wide;
and further far could be descried
the brooding cloud that hangs and lowers
on Thangorodrim’s thunderous towers.

Now in that hill was the abode
of one most evil; and the road
that from Beleriand thither came
he watched with sleepless eyes of flame.

….

Men called him Thû, and as a god
in after days beneath his rod
bewildered bowed to him, and made
his ghastly temples in the shade.
Not yet by Men enthralled adored,
now was he Morgoth’s mightiest lord,
Master of Wolves, whose shivering howl
for ever echoed in the hills, and foul
enchantments and dark sigaldry
did weave and wield. In glamoury
that necromancer held his hosts
of phantoms and of wandering ghosts,
of misbegotten or spell-wronged
monsters that about him thronged,
working his bidding dark and vile:
the werewolves of the Wizard’s Isle.

From Thû their coming was not hid;
and though beneath the eaves they slid
of the forest’s gloomy hanging boughs,
he saw them afar, and wolves did rouse:
‘Go! Fetch me those sneaking Orcs,’ he said,
‘that fare thus strangely, as if in dread,
and do not come, as all Orcs use
and are commanded, to bring me news
of all their deeds, to me, to Thû.’

From his tower he gazed, and in him grew
suspicion and a brooding thought,
waiting, leering, till they were brought.

[Beren, Felagund and Co. appear before Thû, he questions them, and grows still more suspicious.]

Thû laughed: ‘Patience! Not very long
shall ye abide. But first a song
I will sing to you, to ears intent.’
Then his flaming eyes he on them bent,
and darkness black fell round them all.
Only they saw as through a pall
of eddying smoke those eyes profound
in which their senses choked and drowned.
He chanted a song of wizardry,
of piercing, opening, of treachery,
revealing, uncovering, betraying.

As noted in a previous post, Sauron (or at least, the figure who occupied Sauron’s place in the narrative) was originally a great predatory feline called Tevildo, Prince of Cats. Tevildo was, to be quite honest, comically vain and not terribly bright, and therefore difficult to take seriously — more like to a crabby house cat than the eventual Dark Lord of Mordor. And though in Leithian his persona has almost completely morphed into the cunning, cruel, and hateful form we recognize, in common with the feline portrayal we still find a curious emphasis on eyes and watching, making it quite apparent that Sauron’s primary character element is one that survived almost thirty years of further revision and development, from the writing of The Lay of Leithian in the late 1920s to the publication of The Lord of the Rings in 1954 and 1955. The last three lines, with the repeated use of active participles, especially evoke a relentless gaze from which one cannot hide.

The feline origin of the Tevildo/Sauron character was, of course, not destined to completely die out, as we see in this passage from The Lord of the Rings:

“The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing.”

I always find those last four words particularly chilling. And, again, the sorcerous power to uncover all that is hidden:

“The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, and to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable.”

I read once that Tolkien’s editors/publishers were wary of a novel in which, after hundreds of pages leading up to a decisive moment with monumental implications (i.e., All Lands Covered in Darkness or… Not), there is no direct confrontation with the Enemy. But it is precisely this aspect of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings that allows him to function as such a terrible force: he cannot be faced directly, and thus he remains a mystery beyond all our power and our knowledge — literally a shadow.

And lastly, an image of Sauron painted by Tolkien himself:

Wings or No Wings — That Is Not the Question

God what an atrocious title.

Anyway, according to The Encyclopedia of Arda, this single question receives more user input than any other of the literally hundreds of entries on their site — to such an extent that they have devoted several pages to the discussion of whether a Balrog has wings, whether they can fly (assuming they have wings), whether they can change shape and size at will (in order to accommodate both sides of the argument), etc. The subject has inspired scholarly essays, full-length book chapters, and a general feeling of chaos and uncertainty among Tolkien enthusiasts. If we don’t know whether a Balrog has wings, then gosh darn, is there anything we can really know for sure about Middle-earth?

To start — most coherent essays on this issue that I’ve read conclude that, based on painstakingly nit-picky considerations of what constitutes a metaphor, Balrogs probably don’t have wings in the same sense as, say, the Great Eagles (see: deus ex machina), or the Nazgûl’s flying beasts. To the No-Wings camp, this seems to justify the belief that Balrogs are utterly bereft of any sort of scary adornments attached to their backs, doomed to wander the darkened halls of Moria or Who-Knows-Where wearing an immortal sadface for their inability to take to the skies. (No-Wings folks don’t seem to raise any stink about visualizations of Balrogs with tails, despite the fact that Tolkien never used the word “tail” in reference to them.)

But just like the camp that says they do indeed have actual, honest-to-goodness wings, that interpretation takes a flying leap in reaching its conclusion. One thing is (almost) certain: Balrogs don’t fly. At least, we should assume this is true considering they fall to their deaths often enough that, if they could fly, they’d also have to be abysmally stupid (pun absolutely intended). But it is still entirely plausible that they might have wings, if only of a shadowy, ethereal sort. Why? Because they’re servants of Morgoth, and as such, there’s one thing they enjoy doing above almost anything else — looking scary.

Think about the most descriptive passages concerning what may or may not be wings on a Balrog: ‘His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings,’ and ‘…suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall…’ If Tolkien didn’t want us to imagine the shadowy cloud of a Balrog as looking strikingly similar to wings, why would he use the word twice within a few paragraphs, and in the only real physical description of this creature? Shadowy and ethereal does not mean functional, but it does mean it’ll be lookin mighty intimidating — which, as I’m sure none will deny, is exactly what Tolkien’s bad guys just loooove to do.This argument has been made before — i.e., “A Balrog can have wings if it wants to have wings, because it’s a lesser god and they do what they want.” Well… cosmetic, non-functional, scary-as-hell wings, definitely.

Further, let’s think about Tolkien’s use of his languages, as we always should. Their names in both Sindarin and Quenya mean “demon of power.” How do most people in the western hemisphere imagine a demon? Granted, there are many, many possibilities — even a cursory glance at Wikipedia’s page on demons reveals “demonology” to be a massive and convoluted subject (almost certainly more so than Tolkienology). However, my guess would be that a majority of people would describe a large, man-like creature with beastly features, horns, and wings, à la Lucifer and many other Christian visualizations of fallen angels (which, by they way, is more or less what Balrogs are). Search Google Images and see what comes up.

To my extensive (but necessarily incomplete) knowledge, Tolkien does not use the morpheme for “demon,” in any of his languages, to collectively describe a class of creatures other than Balrogs. “Orc” can also mean “demon” in his Elvish tongues, but it also carries other connotations, and as far as I can tell, “rog” in “Balrog” and “rauko” in “Valarauko” are not etymologically related to it. (“The word [orc] is, as far as I am concerned, actually derived from Old English orc ‘demon’, but only because of its phonetic suitability” — the author, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien) Regarding his use of the morphemes “rog” and “rauko,” though, this might be an indication that “demon” meant something fairly specific to him, especially considering that, despite being a devout Catholic and acknowledging The Lord of the Rings as a “fundamentally religious” work, he almost always avoided using words or concepts with any strong Christian connotations. Once the reader becomes aware of the meaning of the creature’s name, it seems nearly unavoidable that many should imagine it with wings, or at the very least, extremely wing-like forms expanding behind it.

Fortunately for the casual fan, but unfortunately for us Wing-Agnostics, Tolkien was actively against forcing a single, particular meaning on the reader. His primary interest was to entertain with an enjoyable fantastical narrative, and he frequently indicated his displeasure with both over-analysis of a text to the point of meaninglessness (“He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom” — Gandalf), and with the “tyranny” of authors who intentionally fashion a story so as to deny any freedom of interpretation. See The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien for many examples of this sentiment, as well as the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings.

My final conclusion, then, is basically an altered version of an above statement: Balrogs (almost certainly) don’t fly, but a Balrog can have wings if you want it to have wings, because Tolkien was an author who wanted you to enjoy the story to its fullest. My Balrogs have wings of shadow because I think they look more intimidating and evil that way, and that enhances my enjoyment of Tolkien’s writing. Tolkien was vague about the appearance of Balrogs — probably intentionally, what with the whole “cloaked in shadow” thing. It’s a fact we should face with excitement rather than frustrated deliberation.

As of two days ago, I have a much more important question on my mind. Balrogs: hosts or a handful? The answer could change my visualization of an entire age of Middle-earth.

Faster than a speeding bullet, and almost as unique — Enemies & Allies by Kevin J. Anderson

This will be the first Sure as Shiretalk book review. Yes, I do indeed still enjoy books from time to time, even though no one’s forcing me to read them and requiring me to buy a specific edition from the local extortionist… erm, excuse me, campus bookstore. Anyway, here goes.

I’m a sucker for all things Batman. You guys know that. So when my uncle got this book from the fam for his birthday last year, I was intrigued (I borrowed it from him because I’m poor and cheap and I generally shy away from buying things I’m not absolutely sure I’ll like). I also really enjoy pretty much anything about the UFO scares of the 40s and 50s (hence why I liked Kingdom of the Crystal Skull more than others seemed to), and I find the Man of Steel tolerable, and sometimes even interesting, when he’s juxtaposed with the Dark Knight. And besides, the only other Batman novel I’d read was No Man’s Land, which was suspiciously, annoyingly lacking in Batman (as were the original comic versions). I was also psyched for another novel by Kevin J. Anderson, whom I had read and liked long before for his work in the “Star Wars Expanded Universe” or whatever they call the non-canon (and therefore good) Star Wars lore these days. I was hoping the late 50s setting would add some new interest to the meeting of two superheroes who tend to run into each other in the comics almost as often as Clark Kent runs into kryptonite on Smallville.

Well, despite the fact that Anderson sends both Batman and Superman to exotic locales such as Siberia and Area 51, the heart of all UFO conspiracy theories, there was almost nothing new or interesting about any of their interactions. Even in the key moment, when they meet each other for the “first time” (how many times can that happen in one universe, anyway?), Anderson can’t seem to think of any scenario other than what has probably been written a hundred different times by as many authors since the late 1930s: Superman is all hands-on-his-hips, spouting his “halt evildoer” nonsense, and Batman is gruffly having none of it and disappearing into thin air. Oh, and the dialogue is flat and fails to say anything worthwhile about any of the super important differences between the two characters.

Sigh… So you just biffed the most anticipated moment in your epically-staged but disappointingly-executed novel about the two most popular superheroes in history. Any reason I should read on instead of picking up The Dark Knight Returns again to wash the awful taste from my mouth? I guess I couldn’t really think of one at the time, but I kept going anyway (I’m apparently just loony enough to stick it out to the bitter end, but sane enough to be irritated with myself afterward). Lex Luthor is the supervillain for this go-around, and he’s without doubt the most enjoyable figure in the novel. Anderson does get the character right here; Superman’s nemesis is quite sufficiently despicable, and his final line in the book almost makes it worth the three or four hours (tops) it’ll take you to read it.

Anyway, the whole thing comes off as more of an outline in need of serious expansion and revision than a complete, polished novel. I would’ve welcomed another few hundred pages if it meant the story would be long enough (and good enough) that I’d actually have the time to get invested in it. And, though this is certainly personal preference speaking, more Batman is never a bad thing. But as it stands, the entire novel zips by about as fast as the Man of Steel rushing to save Lois Lane falling off whichever tall structure she decided to climb today, and you’re not going to find any situations or sentiments here that aren’t better said somewhere else in the vast DC canon. Take a look at this .gif about these two bruisers of comic books instead of reading Enemies & Allies — it’ll save you some time, and it’s definitely more enjoyable.

2 stars of 5.