A Batman for everyone…

Dodano: 2 May 2013

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… ten most interesting Dark Knight rip-offs in comics

The author of the article is Michal Wolski, who contributes to the Doktorant website, where he analyses the Ultimate Marvel universe.

For many years Batman has attracted and inspired comics enthusiasts. Bruce Wayne and his alter ego have proven time and time again that they can easily accommodate needs and expectations of readers, regardless of their age or location. The story of a multimillionaire who fights crime with cutting-edge technology in order to make up for the loss of his parents is in the case of Batman skilfully and subtly correlated with many layers of symbolic meaning, including atavistic fears, the allegory of mask as well as almost totemic connection with the spirit animal – the bat. This type of character is thrilling and inspiring, and as far as the commercial aspect of the comics industry is concern, it is bound to generate profit. No wonder that many have tried to recreate Batman’s success.

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Such attempts are often extremely difficult and always quite fascinating to observe. How does one create a character who would have similar impact on readers’ imagination and would emulate the most important elements of the original, but at the same time would be unique enough to live on as a separate entity? When a comic book character can be considered not a rip-off, or a plagiarism, but a hero in his or her own right? And finally, which elements – according to the creators – are responsible for the success of the original and should be copied, and which it would be better to replace? These questions must be asked by anyone attempting to capitalise on the success of the original work. In the case of Batman an additional another challenge arises, since the source contains a universal, complete and finished character, able to exist in childish stories from the Golden Age of comics as well as in dark, more ambitious scripts written by Frank Miller. Batman’s shoes are extremely difficult to fill. Yet potential problems did not discourage various comic book creators from trying, and their efforts often turned out to be quite compelling.

The list below is a subjective compilation of ten most interesting, most unique and varied attempts at recreating the success of Batman. The list is by no means comprehensive; due to limited space it does not include characters whose iconography was influenced by the Dark Knight (e.g. Todd McFarlane’s Spawn) or various instances of plagiarism and parodies (except for maybe two examples typical for the entire category). The list presents characters produced as more or less explicit attempts at critical and creative reconstruction of the Batman theme. Each of them combines distinctive features of the Dark Knight with some original approach resulting in a different image and reception of the said character. The order in which they are listed is deliberate: the characters are arranged according to the degree of proximity to Batman – from distant inspirations, to direct references and almost evident imitations.

And the list opens with…

10. Green Arrow

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The character was created in 1941 by Morton Waisinger. A millionaire known to most simply as Oliver Queen, when summoned by the Arrow-sign in the sky, turns into a superhero equipped with cutting edge technology, such as Arrow-Plane or Arrow-Car, comparable to Batman’s vehicles. Green Arrow has even his own Arrow-Cave and a young side-kick called Speedy, a direct reference to Robin. As we can see, the entire superhero framework was copied from Batman almost to the letter.

The structure of the character also reveals certain analogies. Bob Kane very often said that Batman was largely based on Zorro – a wealthy plantation owner during the day, a masked crusader fighting injustice at night. In the case of Green Arrow the source of inspiration comes to mind almost instantly: it is of course Robin Hood, himself comparable to Zorro – and subsequent superheroes. What is more, both Robin Hood and Zorro are heroes who despite their upper class background use their resources (personal skills and/or financial means) to help the poor and the oppressed. This conforms to the view that the rich have the power and an obligation to support the poor, which would to some extent justify social inequalities. However, that also allows to maintain the conservative status quo and this exact result is clearly visible in the case of Green Arrow, as well as the next character on our list.

9. Iron Man

Iron Man’s connection to Batman may seem distant at fist glance, but they both function in a similar way and fulfil similar roles in their respective universes. Stan Lee created Tony Stark in 1963 as an obvious hyperbole of all Batman’s characteristics. Iron Man is therefore a millionaire living off his inventions, equipped always according to the most recent technological developments, and quite literally a knight in shining armour, guarding the capitalist regime. However, typically for Marvel comics, hyperbole resulted in simplification of many of character’s building blocks. Batman’s trademark hatred towards firearms becomes Stark’s aversion to weapons industry. Bruce Wayne treats his wealth merely as a means to an end, whereas for Tony Stark it is an end in itself and he does not shy away from boasting about it. Batman’s intellect makes him the most accomplished detective in the world, but Iron Man’s intelligence allows for technological quantum leaps. And while Batman uses our primal fears (such as fear of bats) to battle real and deadly versions of fairy tale monsters, Iron Man is a technocrat fighting against mystical forces, represented by his arch-enemy, the Mandarin.

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Paradoxically, superhero features exemplified by Batman, when ridiculously magnified in Iron Man, have created a brand new quality, which now has very little to do with its source. Thus Marvel did not manage to establish their equivalent to Batman, but thanks to Stan Lee, gained a comparable superhero with a serious fan following.

8. Biały Orzeł

Biały Orzeł, which translates literally as “White Eagle”, is the only representative of the Polish comics industry on the list. Similarities to Batman seem at first glance rather faint: Aleks Poniatowski, created by brothers Kmiołek, seems to be cast from a different mould – he is a less dark superhero, born of an entirely different kind of tragedy. A closer look, however, shows that the concept of the character – although not always directly – to some extent corresponds to the Dark Knight. Both protagonists are wealthy, they manage huge enterprises (although Poniatowski loses his fortune), take advantage of the newest technology and operate at night. They are motivated by some form of revenge and have young sidekicks. Both Batman and Biały Orzeł decided to put on a costume as a result of an epiphany, inspired by an animal spirit guide. Even their image, masks and costumes, are similar, only differences being colours and the cape.

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Biały Orzeł is a newcomer to the market, so it would be difficult to predict whether analogies to Batman will continue, or if the creators will further modify the character. Yet for the moment – despite obvious differences – Biały Orzeł seems to be “the Polish answer to Batman”.

7. Midnighter

Midnighter is one of the American answers to Batman, presented by WildStorm, a publisher who had attempted to create their own superhero universe, before they were taken over by DC Comics.

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Lucas Trent aka Midnighter was created in 1998 by Warren Ellis and together with Apollo, another one of Wildstorm characters, was supposed to create a superhero duo similar to Superman and Batman (such a duet exists also in the Marvel universe: Captain America and Iron Man). Unlike Batman, Midnighter is equipped with a range of superpowers, such as accelerated healing abilities, superhuman reflexes and strength, and he is not reluctant to use firearms. Midnighter and Apollo are a married gay couple, which evokes Grant Morrison’a sensational and controversial statement, that Batman, at least in stories he authored, was gay. (The statement in question was quoted in the American edition of Playboy in April 2012. It is worth noting that Fredric Wertham made a similar point much earlier in his book Seduction of the Innocent.) Regardless of whether we decide to treat Morrison’s words seriously or not, those elements of Batman’s character which may support his opinion can be found in Midnighter.

6. Moon Knight

Moon Knight is yet another Marvel character clearly alluding to the Dark Knight. When Doug Moench created him in 1975, he immediately evoked associations with Batman. One of Moon Knight’s alter egos, Steven Grant, is a millionaire, who used an alias Marc Spector to receive secret service training, worked as a mercenary and offered his services to a moon god, Khonshu, who named him the knight of revenge. The lunar god may be only marginally connected to the bat metaphor, but both symbols – the moon and the bat – evoke similar connotations (nocturnal life, irrational and ephemeral fear of the dark of the night). Moon Knight’s main drive is the revenge on wrongdoers and criminals, which makes him similar to the Dark Knight. Also Spector’s gear, including throwing darts, truncheons, Mooncopter and many more, is equivalent to Batman’s arsenal.

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Moon Knight has of course many features which distinguish him from the Dark Knight and allow him to exist as a separate brand. These traits vary from the blindingly white costume (which, however, is supposed to elicit fear in his enemies, so its function is exactly the same as Batman’s suit), to multiple personalities (a consequence of Marc Spector’s many aliases), to his strength dependant on phases of the moon. Since the Dark Knight springs to mind immediately in the context of Moon Knight’s adventures, the creators did much to separate his image from Batman’s, but it is still not easy to avoid associating the two, so the authors are forced to constantly emphasise differences and these elements, which make Moon Knight unique.

5. Nighthawk

Yet another Marvel character openly inspired by Batman. Nighthawk was created for comics set outside the main universe, in so-called Earth-712, such as Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme from 1985. The eponymous team is almost a copy of the Justice League of America with equivalents of Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and of course Batman. The latter is represented by Kyle Richmond aka Nighthawk, a man forced to fight injustice, who decided however to lay off the superhero costume in order to become the President of the United States. His decision caused global chaos and a conflict among superheroes of this universe, in which many of them died. Dystopian reality of Squadron Supreme is reflected in behaviour and personalities of the characters, who are faced with impossible dilemmas, make mistakes and finally bring destruction onto themselves.

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Squadron Supreme, including Nighthawk, is a variation of a supervillain group from the main Marvel universe (Earth-616), known as Squadron Sinister, which made their debut in 1975. In that version Nighthawk and his comrades were supposed to be copies of the members of the Justice League of America in order to show what a conflict between the JLA and the Avengers would look like. It is not difficult to guess that the round was won by the flagship Marvel superhero team.

Nighthawk was later featured in other series (his last significant appearance was in New Thunderbolts in 2006), but he is usually treated as a minor character and it seems that the House of Ideas has no particular idea what to do with him.

4. Fixer

While Nighthawk was deliberately, yet indirectly alluding to the Dark Knight, Fixer from Frank Miller’s Holy Terror could be considered an unofficial Batman. The comic published in 2011 was conceived as an uncompromising, one-sided and brutal story about Batman’s clash with Al-Quaeda. The idea was simple: Batman, as a tool of American propaganda, was supposed to be a hero who shows no mercy for unambiguously evil, cruel and foul Muslims. The problem was that DC Comics decided to withdraw from the project, so Miller redid his original concept and replaced Batman with a twin character he created.

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For those unfamiliar with the origins of the story similarities between Batman and Fixer might be difficult to spot. Some indications of such a connection are Natalie Stack, the burglar who helps Fixer and with whom he forms a romantic relationship, the costume (painted red, if the cover is any indication), or certain secondary characters, such as Dan Donegal, the equivalent of Jim Gordon, but not much more. Fixer unashamedly uses firearms and his attitude is surly and unpleasant, which makes him a rather flat and vague character. But the very fact that he was conceived as Batman makes him interesting enough to be included on this list.

3. Nite Owl

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Another dystopian superhero, Nite Owl, was created by Alan Moore for his 1986 cult graphic novel Watchmen. The name was used in this universe by two characters and only the later one – Daniel Dreiberg – features some visual similarity to Batman. He was also using a wide range of inventive gadgets to fight crime. Dreiberg inherited from the previous Nite Owl the Owl Car and the Owl Cave, and he added a flying machine called Archie; all these elements are Batman’s trademark features. Nite Owl may not share the Dark Knight’s taste for vengeance, his steadfastness or the knack for playing detective – mainly because in Moore’s dystopian vision superheroes became largely demythologised – but his background, image, visuals and main features leave no doubt as to who had been the model for the character. This line of associations is continued by J. Michael Straczynski in the series Before Watchmen, centred around Nite Owl.

2. Hawk-Owl

Another of Marvel’s attempts to create a Batman-like character, this time in the Ultimate universe (Earth-1610). Hawk-Owl, created in 2002 by Ron Zimmerman, is at the same time a parody and a deconstruction of the Dark Knight. Come nightfall, multimillionaire Jack Danner moves to the Owl’s Nest (the equivalent of the Bat Cave), concealed in a cloud above his mansion, where he keeps his Hawk-Owl Car. He is equipped with numerous gadgets, he can see in the dark and he defends the oppressed. He fulfils his role as a superhero, but fails completely when it comes to interpersonal relations, which is visible in his interactions with other inhabitants of the mansion (equivalents of Bruce Wayne’s family and friends) as well as during training sessions with his sidekick, Woody.

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Hawk-Owl is a larger-than-life and comically maladjusted (which Wood mercilessly points out) character with multiple issues, conceived in order to reveal structural shortcomings in Batman (e.g. we can see how he is wounded by a poisoned dart aimed at the only unprotected body part – the area around his mouth). Nevertheless, the plan has failed, mainly because the parodic tone did not conform to the rather realistic premise of the Ultimate universe. Moreover, many of these supposed shortcomings stems from the very nature of superhero comics, so it gave the impression that the authors were forcibly picking holes in the convention. Thus the Hawk-Old did not meet readers’ expectations and was discontinued.

1. Dark Claw

In 1996 Marvel and DC Comics decided to carry out a rather outlandish plan in order to boost their falling sales: they merged two characters from two different franchises in the hope of receiving a hero composed of the best features of the two sources. Their results varied greatly, but one of the more successful was Logan Wayne aka Dark Claw, a fusion of Batman and Wolverine.

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It would be difficult nowadays to treat the idea entirely seriously, but the fact remains that something exceptional had been created: a Batman substitute, which is something more than Batman himself. Of course Dark Claw inherited all of Batman’s distinctive features (except for the bat symbolism, although bat-like elements of his suit are still discernible), gained Wolverine’s claws and a new nemesis, Hyena, a rather ludicrous mixture of Sabretooth and the Joker. Dark Claw remains, however, the least ridiculous of all Marvel/DC amalgamations and presents an interesting concept of transformation and development of Batman’s brand, all the more interesting for its uniqueness.

As previously stated, the list above is by no means comprehensive, but it may give some idea as to how and by what means various creators tried to recreate Batman’s commercial success. While sometimes differences between the characters are huge and quite distinctive, many differ from the Dark Knight only in details and after a small alterations would fit right into one of the Batman’s stories. (This obviously does not apply to such enormous deviations from the original, as Iron Man, or overt imitations, like Dark Claw). It is important to remember that Batman himself changed multiple times, as he was re-imagined and written by various scriptwriters. The range of characters alluding in one way or another to the history, the image, or the idea of the Gotham City’s superhero is incredibly wide and diverse. It seems quite clear that since his first appearance the Dark Knight has inspired artists and his legend will continue to compel creators for many years to come.

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