Grown-ups who read comics try in vain to justify their juvenile hangover. In recent years, this mostly futile endeavour has become fractionally easier as a spate of superhero movies have taken their source material rather more seriously than before. The zenith of these is The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan's pitch-black stab at the Batman mythology in which the Caped Crusader is portrayed as a dangerously unhinged vigilante who mercilessly dispatches criminals only a hair's breadth from his own psychopathy. This is a long way from the ker-pows! of the camp 1960s television series. The evolution of costumed vigilantes to this point is rooted in the emergence of liberal values in the 1960s.
Marvel Comics produced a phalanx of iconic figures who superficially reflected the changing times and more serious ideas: the X-Men, a legion of people born with genetic mutations that gave them superpowers but marked them as outsiders. Some struggled for civil rights and integration into society, while others fought against it.
Spider-Man was as much about teenager Peter Parker failing to score with girls as it was about catching thieves just like flies. The Hulk is a tale of pure Freudian id, frustrated uncontrollable rage being the character's sole form of expression.
Marvel's publishing rival DC Comics owns the two most iconic superheroes - Superman and Batman, both of which predated the new wave of socially conscious dramas. But the catch-up occurred in 1986 with Frank Miller's comic The Dark Knight Returns, a noir tragicomic review of Batman's career as he steps out of self-imposed retirement and into his own death. In the same year, DC also began publishing Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. It was the first serious attempt at a deconstruction of the superhero, featuring real people and their mundane emotional baggage. Time magazine put the collected volume of the Watchmen series in its top 100 novels of all time, the only graphic representation in the list.
These two meta-critiques of the genre sparked a new wave of maturity in comics, but also a spin-off industry of "the science of (insert superhero)". E. Paul Zehr's book Becoming Batman is the latest and most bizarre addition to this genre. Zehr is a kinesiologist and neuroscientist, an academic who studies how people move. He is also very keen to point out that he is a black belt in karate and other ker-splatting martial arts. He fuses these two pursuits in a thoroughly researched study into pretty much every physical angle that a fictional man might go through to become a fictional superhero. The scientific detail is staggering, covering many aspects of biology at the pitch of an undergraduate textbook.
There is no tongue-in-cheek in this book. At times, it is bewilderingly po-faced: on page 55 there is an image from the 1940 debut issue of the comic Batman showing his alter ego, Bruce Wayne, weightlifting with a dumbbell. In the caption underneath, Zehr declares that this "would not have been a likely part of his training". How foolish of Batman's creator to make such an error. Elsewhere, Zehr compares the body mass indices of former-Mr-Universe-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger and record-breaking cyclist Lance Armstrong to that of Bruce Wayne, a man who doesn't exist, and whose BMI, to my knowledge, has not featured in any Batman stories.
Comics matured in recent years with superhero-free books (aka graphic novels, if you please) intended solely for adults by writers including Daniel Clowes and Art Spiegelman. Nevertheless, the superhero genre struggles to, and possibly cannot, attain a level that stands up to serious scrutiny. Ultimately, there's got to be some kick-ass action, involving impossibly muscly men and improbably scantily clad women. There are interesting things to say about these modern sagas and their relationships with the real world, but the scope is limited. Either way, this book emphatically does not say them.
Zehr says that Batman is appealing because he has no supernatural powers. Superman is, in effect, omnipotent, which is pretty dull, even with his token Achilles heel of Kryptonite. Batman is just a guy driven by his relentless conviction. In the recent film and Miller's comic The Dark Knight Returns, Batman is a terrifying psychopath who, like all psychos, is convinced he is right, despite the fact that his actions are anchored in a morally grim place. How a man would get to this place is interesting. Knowing what metabolic processes enable him to bench-press 300lb is not.
Becoming Batman plays directly to the stereotyped comic reader: physically puny teenage boys who fantasise about being tough, agile and graceful. As a guide for those who are considering popping their undies over some tights and taking down maniacal supervillains, Zehr's book is a good starting point. Beyond that, this fan-boy analysis sadly reinforces the notion that if you are a grown-up who still reads superhero comics, you should probably do it in secret.
Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero
By E. Paul Zehr
The Johns Hopkins University Press
Published 16 December 2008