Don’t Mess with Batman’s Cake

Batmancake.jpg

I’m stealing most of what follows from a blog called The Hooded Utilitarian, largely because it’s stuff I wrote in the comments section a year or so ago that I thought made the point I was trying to make reasonably well, so I wanted to have it over here, too.
The question at hand was about Batman, and how if he’s a self-made man who does what he does on willpower, grit and drive, why shouldn’t be come a Green Lantern? Their rings are fueled by willpower, so he’d be the most badass Green Lantern ever.
Since the blog entry was titled “Question for Kurt Busiek or Mark Evanier,” it popped up in a Google search, and I threw in my response, which was:
“Whatever in-story answers are offered, the real answer is that Batman works really well as Batman, so he’s going to stay Batman. Just like Tony Stark isn’t going to build armored suits for all the Avengers as an ongoing thing, and Richie Rich isn’t going to hand out millions to his pals even though he’d never miss it.”
It was pointed out that Tony Stark and Richie Rich are dicks, and that Batman often doesn’t work really well as Batman—bad Batman stories abound. So why not give him a power ring?
I noted that to be fair, the Guardians are dicks, too. And it’s not as if there would suddenly be no more crappy stories if Batman had a power ring. I expect there’d be more—if for no other reason than that Batman would have a power ring.
What was really going on, of course, wasn’t a push for Batman to join the Green Lantern Corps, a development that I don’t think many people think would make Batman stories consistently terrific, but rather the more story-management-centered question of, “Well, if you don’t want Batman to have a power ring, shouldn’t there be an in-story reason for it?” It’s not about giving him a power ring, but about explaining why he isn’t given one. In a setting where it would be logical for Green Lantern to hand out rings to his JLA pals, if it doesn’t happen, then should you be doing that kind of universe in the first place? If you’re not going to do it “right,” should you do it at all?
Me, I tend to think the reason Tony Stark doesn’t armor up the Avengers isn’t because he’s a dick, but because it would make both the Iron Man book and the Avengers book less special if you turn all those characters into Iron Man variants (though it did make a dandy issue of What If, way back when). And to the extent that Richie Rich is interesting at all, it’s in the contrast between his over-the-top wealth and his friends’ comparative normalcy; giving them all millions might be logical for the characters, but would making it more logical actually make it a better comic book for the Richie Rich audience?
So why do that kind of world, if it’s not logical? Well, ignoring for a moment that some of those problems still exists even if the books aren’t part of a “universe”—Tony Stark could make armor for his supporting cast (and on occasion has, but it doesn’t stick), and most of Richie Rich’s friends don’t have their own series anyway, the answer to the overall question, why put Batman and Green Lantern in the same universe if it creates illogical situations, is:
Because it’s fun to have the characters meet.
It’s fun to have Batman stories, and it’s fun to have Superman stories, but it’s fun to have Justice League stories, too. It’s not really any more complicated than that. It’s entertaining.
The stories are the cake, and the shared-universe stuff is frosting. Things tend to go horribly wrong when people start to think the frosting is more important than the cake, and then get better when they remember that it’s about the cake after all.
The real answer to questions like, “Why doesn’t the Flash clean up Gotham City, too?” is “It would make Batman’s cake lousy. People read Batman because they like crimefighter stuff where Batman’s cool, and don’t really want to see Superman or the Flash or Green Lantern mess with that particular cake.” On the other hand, people who like stories where Batman and Superman and Green Lantern work together have the JLA cake, and some people like both kinds of cake.
But if you start to tie it together with logic foremost in your plans rather than entertainment, then you need to explain why Superman doesn’t help all the other heroes almost all the time, and why aren’t the crimefighters turned into SF-type heroes to make them more effective, and you end up with everything being JLA cake, and no solo Batman cake left. Or you come to the conclusion that it doesn’t work, so Batman shouldn’t be in the JLA, which maybe preserves the Batman cake, but it messes up the JLA cake.
So in the end, the answer to all of these questions is: Don’t mess with my cake.
Batman cake, when well done, is good. JLA cake, when well done, is good. But if you pay too much attention to the frosting, the cakes all start to taste the same, and that might be logical, but it’s boring.
This is also known as the Go ‘Way Kid, You Bodda Me school of comics continuity. Shared universes are fun as long as they make reading comics more fun, and not fun when they start to tangle things up and mess with or distort the individual series concepts. When that happens, you can either go with it even though it messes things up, in the name of logic and continuity maintenance, or you can sweep it under the rug and look the other way.
Much as I love continuity, I’m a big fan of sweeping it under the rug and looking the other way. If it serves the X-Men series better to let Kitty Pryde age while it serves FF better to have Franklin age a lot slower, then that’s good—that’s cake, and both the FF cake and the X-Men cake should be good on their own terms. You just don’t have the characters talk about how they’re aging at different rates.
And if Batman could solve most of his cases by getting on the JLA communicator and asking Superman or Rip Hunter or someone to use time-travel or super-powers to solve the mystery, then that would make for boring Batman comics, so you ignore it, because that’s frosting, and the important thing to do is make it a good Batman cake, not to make the frosting all the same. Batman can do all that stuff with Superman or Rip Hunter in the other cakes, cakes where those flavors enhance the story rather than messing it up.
This isn’t unique to superhero comics. Just like readers who don’t let it bother them that Nero Wolfe was 40 years old for 40 years straight, or that Linus was in kindergarten when Sally Brown was an infant and later they were in the same class, there gets to be a point where you decide whether you want it to be strictly logical, or whether you want it to be fun.
Used to be, things sold better when they didn’t tie in too much, and nobody asked why the Avengers didn’t show up to help out with Galactus or where Spider-Man was that day. Nowadays, it seems like you can’t do a big story without it sprawling over most of the other books in the line, and that’s selling well…for now. But next year, or five years from now, who knows?
Maybe the individual cakes will be more important. Or maybe it’ll be mostly frosting, and Batman will have a power ring.
I doubt that’ll ever happen. If it were to happen, though, I’d be happy reading Hellboy and Fables and Scalped and Usagi Yojimbo and Girls With Slingshots and such.
If the frosting gets in the way, there are other good cakes.
[Art by Joe Quinones]

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