Will Brooker is the preeminent expert on Batman. He gained some notoriety in the late 1990s as the first person to write a doctoral thesis on the character, and he’s since written hundreds of articles and a few books on the Dark Knight. Now, though, Brooker is turning his attention to My So-Called Secret Identity, an original creation that’s launching as a webcomic on February 18 with preview artwork on his MSCSI Facebook page. Here’s Part One of our interview with Brooker.
MTV Geek: You’re probably most well-known as the authority on Batman, and in your first book, you start with some of your earlier memories of the character as a cultural touchstone. But for the sake of people who might not have read that, when did you first discover Batman and what about that character caught your attention most?
Will Brooker: I discovered Batman in the mid-1970s, in two forms that are often considered very different: re-runs of the campy TV show, and the monthly Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams comic books.
Of course, at the time I had no idea that the O’Neil/Adams series had been intended as a dark and gritty re-launch, designed to make Batman serious again and elevate him from the playful pantomime of the Adam West show.
I simply interpreted them all as exciting adventures of the Batman, whether he was a shadowy figure dodging bullets on the comic-book page, or an on-screen costumed hero beating up Cesar Romero to a Neal Hefti jazz theme.
MTVG: Despite the great deal of media attention the first Tim Burton movie, I believe you’d expressed an early interest in comics over necessarily the one character that originated in comics by your teens. I seem to recall seeing that you were also reading Sandman and other Vertigo-ish books. Was that a definite interest in comics per se at that point, or was it specifically the works certain creators like Grant Morrison that caught your attention? Did you continue to follow Batman’s comics during that same period?
Brooker: My interest in comics went through a couple of dips and peaks during those years. I was heavily into superheroes during the late 1970s and early 1980s, but drifted away from them for a while until (very fittingly) my dad gave me an issue of Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, then still in monthly format, in 1986.
During the mid to late 1980s my interests expanded across DC, Marvel and other, more independent titles from the ’graphic novel’ period. I read Moore’s Watchmen and Miller’s Elektra while they were still being published as monthly comics, for instance, and Frank Miller’s involvement led me to the Japanese title Lone Wolf and Cub. I read Chaykin’s The Shadow, the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets and Heartbreak Soup, the experimental anthology Raw… I was so hungry for graphic novels, and it was an amazing time when the medium was really opening up, pushing itself further and starting to believe in itself. Around the same time, I started buying 2000AD, and followed the stories of Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Zenith and Rogue Trooper regularly every week until the early 1990s.
I was also involved in the fanzine and small-press magazine culture of the late 1980s — magazines like ARK, Speakeasy and FA — where you could get articles and letters printed next to a review by Grant Morrison and a chat with Alan Moore. It was a review in FA that prompted me to pick up Morrison’s Doom Patrol for the first time, around 1988, and that steered me towards all the other titles that became the Vertigo imprint: Black Orchid, Shade, Sandman, Hellblazer, Kid Eternity, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Enigma and so on.
I was an archetypal Vertigo kid during the early 1990s, as I’ve documented in a recent autobiographical article, and was also part of the small press comics industry, a network of people who wrote and drew their own titles.
When I began my PhD in 1996, though, I had to narrow down my focus to Batman, and while I still read comics from a range of companies, I largely focus on the superhero genre and for the most part, centre around DC. Unfortunately you have to specialise to develop an expertise, and there are sacrifices to be made.
MTVG: You spent much of your college career studying pop culture in various forms, primarily film and television. I don’t know that when you started in the early 1990s, there was much professional interest in studying pop culture. Which is, I suppose, is a polite way of getting to the more crude question of: what did you plan do with a degree in film studies? Were you always geared towards staying in academia?
Brooker: To be fair, it was a degree in Film and English, and 50% of the degree was pretty traditional — Austen, Shakespeare, Defoe, Henry James, with some more radical courses on feminist science fiction and cultural studies. But to devote 50% of a degree about film (and some television) was a lot, for those days. Film studies has technically been going since the 1950s, but it was not quite an established discipline by the late 1980s, and television ranked even lower.
In all honesty, I don’t think there was a great deal of deliberation or conscious choice of a degree course on my part, when I was 17. I was considered a bright kid with good academic results, so everyone hoped I would go to university, and it would have been an act of rebellion beyond me at that time to do anything else. I enjoyed English literature at school, but I’d had to miss out on Film Studies at A Level because it clashed with one of my other strong subjects, French — so I guess this was, in a small way, an expression of picking what I actually wanted to do, as well as what everyone knew I was good at.
I did not plan to go into academia, at all. After my first degree, I enrolled on a postgraduate course in film making at Goldsmiths’ college, which had a theoretical framework but was mainly very practical. Essentially, I wanted to write and create, but I hadn’t quite found the way that was going to work out best for me. I still do write and create; I just don’t make films, I make books.
Of course, that leads to the inevitable questions about your doctorate. Although it’s technically in cultural studies, I recall more than a few media outlets said you were the first person to get a doctorate in Batman, as he was the subject of your thesis. So what prompted you to tackle Batman as your thesis subject first of all, and secondly how did that discussion with your advisors go when you said that was what you wanted to do? I’m sure you’re not the first person to look at a fictional character as the study of your thesis, but probably the first to examine something that hadn’t yet been qualified as “a classic” in the popular sense.
I enrolled on a part-time MA in Film and Television after two years out of education (in 1994) and for the first time, I was actively choosing to get back into academia, rather than just following a route that seemed expected of me. On that MA degree, I wrote my final thesis on masculinity in contemporary cinema — and I was planning to develop that into a PhD proposal.
I had a structure drafted around Tim Burton and the masculine Gothic, issues of fatherhood in contemporary popular culture, the star persona of Michael Douglas and whatever else passed for worthwhile subjects in 1995. But I realised that as I sketched out the proposal and plan, the part I kept coming back to was the chapter on Burton, and specifically the fact that it would involve a study of Batman and Batman Returns.
It increasingly struck me that these were the sections I was really looking forward to writing — because how cool would it be to study Batman!
A young woman I was dating at the time, who is still a good friend, is with hindsight responsible for my subsequent career. She gave me a copy of The Many Lives of the Batman, edited by Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio. This incredible volume of essays opened a door in my head, demonstrating that you really could write this kind of serious book about fun stuff.
MTVG: A lot of the cultural shift, then, towards a general respect for studying film and television happened while you were actively studying it in college. Was that something that was brought up in your classes at the time, or was it something you didn’t really notice until after your graduated? And to what would you attribute that more public sense of appreciation?
Brooker: My memory of it is that the film studies classes were relatively conservative and traditional compared to what is taught now on Film degrees — as if there was a sense that the discipline had to prove itself by sticking with the classics, the serious, the established works of art. As I recall, we mainly studied films which were, even then, unquestionably important and well-respected, such as the work of Hitchcock, Truffaut, Eisenstein, Welles, Murnau.
I did write a few papers on comic books but that was a case of me being a bit daring and applying film and critical theory to a form of culture that was still kind of ’risky’ in academic terms: for instance, I wrote an essay on the 1930s gangster film genre that also discussed Milligan and McCarthy’s retro-future gangster epic Skreemer and the appendices of Morrison’s Arkham Asylum. I wrote a very long paper about Doom Patrol and postmodernism, and another extended essay about the representation of women in Crisis, Elektra, Gaiman and McKean’s Black Orchid and John Smith’s New Statesmen. My postgraduate diploma dissertation was actually an auteurist study of Grant Morrison, Zenith, The New Adventures of Hitler and Dare.
Similarly, my MA dissertation on masculinity in contemporary thrillers (of the 1990s) was slightly unorthodox, and it wasn’t wholly approved of as I was dealing with such recent, and trashy, movies.
My sense of it is that I was trying to write about the popular stuff I enjoyed, even back then — trying to map theories from more established areas of culture to the newer texts that were actually part of my everyday life — and that often I had to argue the case for it with my professors, and that sometimes it worked, and sometimes it backfired.
Television studies was a very new area in academia then, and we generally examined fairly traditional and familiar topics such as news broadcasts, how the police genre works, soap operas and BBC dramas. The study of comics was even more daring, and of course the study of videogames was unheard-of.
It was in the early 1990s (or this is my sense of it) that the study of really popular culture, trashy, marginalised culture and its fan audiences started to develop, through the work of people like Henry Jenkins.
So I think I was trying to do it myself from around 1988-1989, with varying success, and then in the 1990s I realised that there was actually a small movement of proper academics – not just students like me – who were publishing books about genuinely popular, contemporary culture and fans’ relationship with the stuff they loved. I guess that is when I found my home in scholarship.
Media studies, cultural studies, film and television studies have enjoyed ups and downs in terms of their popularity and level of respectability since then. Right now, I think they are not highly regarded in the context of increased tuition fees (in the UK) and high graduate unemployment — understandably, some people think that the study of popular culture is a bit too light, a bit of a novelty, not really a solid basis for a career in difficult financial times. I can understand that attitude, though I do think it is always important for us to examine stories and their audiences.
MTVG: Your thesis, of course, led to your first book on Batman. And since then, you’ve also written books on Star Wars, Alice in Wonderland, and Blade Runner. One thing I find interesting about those subjects is that, despite all residing in popular culture in the broadest sense, they all occupy very different places in the public’s collective mindset. Can you speak to your interests in those stories, and how they all relate (or don’t) in your mind?
Brooker: On the face of it, they may seem very different stories — although there are many superficial crossovers between Alice and Batman for instance. What links them, for me, is not their detail but the role they play in people’s lives. All of those stories have evolved across many forms, over many years (Blade Runner is the youngest franchise of those four, but it’s still been through an incredible number of changes, across different media), and have sparked a wide range of interpretations.
Just as Alice has been illustrated in many different ways since 1865, so Batman is almost a different character when drawn by Jim Lee, Tim Sale or Dave McKean — but, like Alice, there’s something essentially recognisable about each version that lets us identify them all as parts of the same whole.
It’s that dynamic between the essential character, or core story, and the different interpretations and retellings of the story, that really drives my interest. That relationship applies to Star Wars — the canonical original trilogy, the very many unofficial and semi-official spin-offs, and the more subversive engagements such as slash fiction — and to the different versions of Blade Runner’s story, including its spin-off novels, video games and soundtracks.
What I am interested in is the role that stories play in people’s lives — different people, at different times, in different cultures — and the relationship between the tellers of stories, the audiences (who often become producers too) and the stories themselves, across various forms.
I’ve written about those particular franchises or stories because those are the ones I know and like best: but I’ve also written about, for instance, the computer game Jetpac, the TV show Dawson’s Creek; about Doctor Who, the Alien series, mobile phone advertising, the Flex Mentallo comic… I’m not really an elitist.
MTVG: I seem to recall seeing a few notes from you, too, expressing some… hesitation in slogging through the Twilight books for the sake of some articles.
Brooker: Yes… well, I was telling a story there, and like all stories, it was only partly true. It resulted in this article:
I didn’t really stay up all night reading the Twilight books and writing about them. It was just a story. I do enjoy the Twilight movies and soundtracks, but was not really taken by the books.
MTVG: Your comment about the different times in particular stands out to me in that one could explain the greater number of Batman interpretations over, say, Blade Runner because not only has he been around longer, but each time period was looking at him from an inherently different socio-political context. Blade Runner can’t have been viewed through the lens of World War II simply because it wasn’t around then. Does that extended timeframe suggest that more radical departures are needed from older works to keep them culturally relevant? I don’t know that I’ve seen any Star Wars or Blade Runner approaches as removed from the original movies as, say, American McGee’s Alice is from Lewis Carroll’s.
Brooker: I can’t argue with this point at all, because it is brilliant and absolutely true.
I’m not sure if more radical departures are needed over time, but they certainly become more possible. My experience of these franchises suggests that in fact, they tend to cycle from one interpretation to another, along a spectrum from ’light’, innocent playfulness to ’dark’, sinister seriousness.
That’s certainly true of Batman, whose recent Nolanised incarnation attempts to evoke both the 1939 original and the 1970s O’Neil and Adams reworking. In between, we had the 1950s and 1960s silliness, and the 1990s Schumacher pantomimes.
McGee’s Alice may seem like a gothic reboot, but the idea of Alice as somehow dark, haunted and frightening dates back at least to the 1930s and to psychoanalytic readings that sought to discover sexual meanings and hidden symbols in Carroll’s books. Many illustrators of the books pick up on this reading and portray Alice’s adventures as slightly nightmarish — and many, in turn, represent her time in Wonderland as an essentially harmless romp.
Star Wars and Blade Runner, I agree entirely, haven’t gone through the same cycles or the same variations of interpretation. They are younger texts.
James Bond and Doctor Who, however, might now be at the point where, looking back, we can identify that kind of shifting from play to seriousness, dark to light, reflecting cultural tastes and the broader societal context. I’m no expert in Bond or Doctor Who, but my sense is that they have now reached a similar stage as Batman, where they are full-blown, complex, sprawling myths that take many different forms.
Check out Part Two of our interview with Will Brooker next week!