Sunday, June 23, 2024

Me and "Batman" (1989) - at 35

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Batman.   

Our final episode of The Signal Watch PodCast covered this movie.  I invite you to join Jamie and me through a chipper discussion of the movie and the forces around it.  And I've previously written about me and Batman.

To repeat some of what's the podcast and maybe elsewhere - I very much recall my excitement around Batman in 1989. 

I'd really come to comics in 1986, and like a lot of readers at the time, I mostly read X-books and the Bat-titles.  Bat-comics were kind of exploding at the time in the wake of Dark Knight Returns and with the arrival of the terrific talents of folks like Alan Grant on writing chores, veteran Jim Aparo and fresh talent Norm Breyfogle on pencils.  I think this era is one of the many well-loved eras for the books, and with good reason.  

Even in the era of Indiana Jones and Star Wars, Batman was the first movie I ever followed through development and to release date - then through box office and into home video.  It was not the first movie I ever loved, but it was the first movie I felt a level of personal attachment.  

I recall articles in Comics Scene, then the paper.  Reading Nicholson was the Joker and feeling uncertain how that would go.  Prince would be on the soundtrack, which seemed bizarre.

So excited was I - I purchased the novelization prior to the release of the film, and was half-way through reading it when I realized "this is a very dumb thing to do" and I cast the book aside.  I didn't know the term "spoilers" then, but I realized I was going to maybe ruin the experience a mere 4 or 5 days prior to seeing the movie.

My memory of seeing the film itself will always be tied up with a few unrelated things.

The last day of sleepaway basketball camp arrived in my hometown of Austin on the same day the movie was released.  Already, I resigned myself to the notion I wouldn't see Batman for a few days, as I would need to convince my parents I needed to leave the house after being away for a week (I was 14 and me disappearing for a week was still novel for everyone).  

I'd gone to camp with my pal, Peabo (not his real name).  Peabo's mom treated me like a natural extension of their household.  Which made sense given how often I was around their house and how much of their food I ate.  And she appreciated that I kept Peabo out of trouble, I think.  But Peabo's mom was coming to get us from camp (I lived a block away from him), and she announced as she was driving us back home that she had already purchased tickets for us to see Batman.  That night.

My parents are great, and in no way is this a tale of trauma, but to them, as sensible 1980's parents, my interest in Batman in comics and the movie was just some squirrely thing I did.  Reasonably, to my folks, Batman was just a movie, and I had all summer to see it - so what was the rush?  (watch any 1980's kid-centric movie and how disinterested the parents are in the kids' interests.  Very real.) 

The *need* to see Batman may have felt like a weight in my chest when I thought on the topic (and I did, probably pondering Batman as often as I pondered girls that spring and early summer), but the folks seemed puzzled how I would want to spend my first night home - after a whole week away! - in Gotham with the Caped Crusader and Clown Prince of Crime.  Why do that when I could have pizza with the family and share tales about basketball drills?  Or, of less interest, we would have *family time* (that dreaded 1980's concept) and I would learn what everyone else had been up to in my week away.  Had *they* been fighting super-villains?  Unlikely.

Plus, my chores had not been handled in my absence, and by gum, they were waiting for me.  

It is useful to mention here - my Bat-love was not a secret.  I had spent the last year of my life very loudly getting into the spirit of this Batman thing.  I had a closet with 5 or so Bat-shirts I had to be told not to wear so often.  I palled around with JAL and others talking Batman.  I went to the public library to check out large, expensive volumes of ancient Batman comics so I could read OG Batman (he had a gun!  and a girlfriend!  So weird!).  I spent countless hours trying to learn how to draw Batman like Norm Breyfogle - Jim Aparo's smooth, illustrator approach was way outside of my wheelhouse.  And I  read Dark Knight Returns on repeat, til the cover was falling off.  I'd go to any store to patrol the magazine racks, looking for Bat-comics and Bat-reading.

So, yeah, upon walking in the door from camp, I informed my mom "I'm going with Peabo to see Batman!" and was told "no you aren't" and, y'all, I was apoplectic.  

A deal was struck that I could only go if I mowed the lawn - a sprawling, indecently large lawn that is a tale for another day.  But it was a task I knew to take around 90 minutes in the Texas summer sun.  But I had an hour before I'd need to leave.  And imagined everyone would appreciate it if I took a shower, too.

Well, the strength of The Bat welled up within me, and I kicked on the mower, ignored the automated mechanism of the "power mower", and pushed that fucker as fast as I could, finishing the lawn in 30 minutes.  Including bagging the clippings.

I think there was a bit of shock around the house, and - of course - my work was inspected for flaws, but no flaw could be found.  Not when you have the precision of The Batman on your side.

Peabo's family picked me up, and off we went to see Batman at a theater that no longer exists outside Barton Creek Mall in Austin.

This is 1989, and the only reference to Batman 95% of the population really had was the Batman TV show from the 1960's, which was maybe one of the greatest camp comedy shows ever produced.  But, also, in 1989 - superheroes were considered *stupid*.  Reading comics made you a mental defective, pervert, fill-in-your-concern.*  Folks who currently take superheroes for granted have absolutely no idea what superheroes symbolized for "thinking people' before June 23rd, 1989.  

By June 25th, all of that changed for millions and millions of people.

But this did mean that inside the theater's lobby, someone had hung countless, hand-made *BAM!* *WHAP!* *POW!* signs, calling back to Adam West's Dark Knight Detective.  The little poster-board decorations twirled in the AC, assuring me someone who hadn't seen the movie yet knew they needed to do something Batman in the lobby.  And while that effort was appreciated, they were not clueing in from the trailer what the movie would be.  And, fair enough.  A lot of the newscasts, etc... leading up to the release leaned heavily into what people vaguely remembered from a popular show from 20-odd-years prior and which ran in re-runs through the 1970's.  

My memory was that when we walked back out from the theater into the lobby, those little signs seemed so... weird and misguided.  We'd just seen a movie that had nothing to do with the four-color show making fun of superheroes.  We'd seen a movie maybe as unique and new as when Star Wars hit theaters, and leaned into taking superheroes *seriously*.  (YMMV on how that's held up.)

You instantly knew it was going to be an interesting summer as movie-goers rethought something that had a particular take in the monoculture.  By Monday, Bat-fever took over the media.  Whatever was going on in 1989, it hit us just right.  

Batman was the first movie I recall seeing lines around my local theater to get into, and that lasted for weeks after the release, at least at Showplace 6 in North Austin.  The box office was making headlines, which was not something I'd previously seen - although I won't discount the power of selective perception.  

And, lord, the merchandise.  

Star Wars gets all the credit for figuring out merchandise, but WB was more than happy to exploit those now well-paved paths.  Toys, of course.  Shirts.  Posters.  Two soundtracks - Prince and/ or Elfman.  Lunch boxes.  Batman Chuck Taylor All-Stars.  You younger folks will have no memory of how weird it was to suddenly see Batman prominently displayed in regular stores and not just in toddler sections.  There's just no comparison in today's world where genre media has infiltrated and you can find a shirt with whatever you want on it in five minutes online.

I don't recall having money to buy much more than the soundtracks (on cassette), a poster and a very stupid cyclist cap I proceeded to wear the rest of summer.  Money went into movies, music, comics and books back then.  I considered myself too old for action figures and toys, so that wasn't on the table.  

MTV played the bizarre-o Prince track "Batdance" on seeming repeat (with an odd and horny video, which was peak Prince), and other songs which barely appear in the movie were on the radio.  The Elfman soundtrack sold like hotcakes and made Elfman a household name.

People who knew me as one of the Batman-guys clipped articles from the paper and gave them to me to read, which I gratefully did.  Kids from school I saw on the street over summer immediately jumped in to talk Batman as I nodded sagely at their earnest reactions.

At some point, my folks saw the movie.  I can't remember when, but surely they took me once the movie was a story in the press.  The eye-rolling at all of the Bat-stuff disappeared - Batman had cultural cachet!  And my mom did two things that surprised.  

The first was that she bought me Batman Cereal, somewhat unprompted, as we walked past an endcap at the grocery.  It was "a sugar cereal", and at my house, we ate Cheerios and liked it, dammit.

The second was that - without me around - she spotted the VHS tape for sale and bought me a copy.  It's a weird way to feel seen, but nonetheless.  It closed the loop on a few things for me.  To this day, every once in a while something Superman or whatever shows up, and I am as touched as I was when that tape was tossed in front of me as I studied.

All in all, I remember seeing the movie in the theater six times, including at least once at a dollar theater where there was, again, a line.  It made $400 million at the 1989 worldwide box office.  Converted to now - that's over a billion.  And I attribute part of that to folks like myself who saw it several times.

The movie came out between the end of my middle-school career, and the start of high school.  When I showed up for freshman year, I'd learned to wear contacts, actually kissed a girl by this point, - but I also pushed the Bat-shirts to the back of the closet.  

I wasn't embarrassed.  It was way, waaaayyy too late for that.  And I didn't stop reading Batman comics - and wouldn't stop until about 2010, which is a different topic.  Mostly, I felt like everyone had enough Batman, especially me.  The movie certainly didn't need any promotion, folks got what I dug about the character, I guess.  But I also was not sure being "The Batman guy" needed to be who I was for the next four years.  We were all now Batman-guy.  It wasn't like folks invaded my turf, I just felt like the tent was big enough for everyone here.  I'd go be weird about comics, which folks weren't going to pick up.

A few fellow kids asked me where my shirts were, and I truthfully said I still had them.  And I wore them on the weekends, and maybe a few times to school.  But you were more likely to see me in a shirt with an NBA team on it, if I was wearing a t-shirt.  

But, in art class I was still looking for ways to turn every project into a reason to draw superheroes.  And it's not like I didn't let my geek flag fly at the slightest provocation.  If I could interject Batman into the conversation, I would - and did (I was not allowed to map Gotham for a class project in Geography, and I'm still burned about that).  It would be a while before I'd get pedantic about the screen Batman versus the *real* Batman of the comics.  Which I'm still happy to do.

I still love the movie, though I'm old enough and have seen it enough to be aware of flaws, plot holes and everything else.  I think Keaton is great, Basinger a dream, Nicholson perfection.  The design and story really work, even if it's hard to believe a guy in a rubber shell is beating anyone in a fight.  Plus, the car is still breathtaking.

It was such a fun summer, and a good way to cap off what had been my middle-school introduction to comics and how I now thought of Batman.  There seemed to be almost a narrative push to the timing.  I'd come into Batman comics the summer before middle school, and I'd now enter high school with the world cool with this oddball thing me and few other pals had been championing.  And - as one can imagine - that embracing of geek culture stuff has happened again and again with things I considered would be my niche interests in life.  But something about the timing of Batman, and my entrance into high school, meant I didn't feel any ownership of the character, just glad folks were into it in some small way (and I could be RIGHT, dammit).  

*it was part of what made reading comics, in my mind, "punk rock" when I was coming up.  It was cool to have this thing that was sneered at by parents and teachers, but you knew you were one of the few who got it, man.  And then folks like myself took over entertainment, and...

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