Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Proposal for a Batman Course

[I submitted this to my department this week. Let's see what what happens.]

This course will focus primarily on one man’s vision of Batman: Frank Miller. You might know Frank Miller as man behind such blockbuster movies as Sin City (2005), 300 (2006), and The Spirit (2008) but he is most famous for a series of Batman comics he created. We will begin by looking at Understanding Comics to learn how to interpret the comic book page, followed by an interactive lecture on the history of Batman from 1939-1985. After that two-week introduction we will reach the center and largest part of the course, as we read and discuss Miller’s Batman comics: Dark Knight Returns (1986), Year One (1987), Dark Knight Strikes Again (2001), and All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (2008). We will explore their relationship to the earlier generation of comics and their relationship one another – Frank Miller makes radical and controversial leaps as both an artist and a writer during these years, and his Batman reveals a very questionable politics. Students will learn to articulate these developments – and learn how to write about the comics medium -- through an essay on his early years, and another on his later years. In the final part of the course we will look at Batman in the movies. Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) would not have been made were it not for the excitement Miller created for the character in the mid-eighties. The recent mega-blockbusters Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), the first of which is founded in a loose interpretation of Miller’s Year One, are very much in the shadow of the man who defined what Batman is. A third and final essay will evaluate the influence of Miller’s Batman in the movies – possibly including Sin City, 300, and The Spirit, which in many ways are Batman movies that are only superficially something else.

Course Books
Understanding Comics
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Batman: Year One
The Dark Knight Strikes Again
All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder

Paper One, 1000 words (30%) – On Miller’s Dark Knight Returns or Year One
Paper Two, 1000 words (30%) – On Miller’s Dark Knight Strikes Again or All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder
Paper Three, 1500 words (40%) – On Batman, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Sin City, 300, or The Spirit

The problem with teaching a course on comics is that comics have a poor ratio of expense versus material for discussion. Even with books on reserve and used books I cannot teach a class on superhero comics generally or even the Batman character generally without students running up a bill of more than $100 or having limited access to the material. My solution: a course on one creator’s vision of Batman, in which I will do a Power Point presentation on the Batman character from 1939 to 1985. The course books will cost, according to less than 70 dollars. Because of Miller’s recent turn as a film director, and the reliance of the recent Batman movies on his work, going to film is an easy way to flesh out the class with easily available material that can be cheaply rented and/or shown in class.


James said...

Good luck! Hope you get the go-ahead, sounds like it'd be a hoot.

scott91777 said...

This is awesome! I've been teaching The Dark Knight Returns for several years now in American Lit. Then again, I generally get students signing up for an American Lit. class who show up and discover that I'm throwing in Batman with Whitman... whereas you, presumably, will be having students signing up specifically to study Batman.

I have to say, though, with The Dark Knight... expect this class to be in HIGH demand. Generally when I ask my classes if they've seen whatever the big supehero movie of the moment is, I get about half the class raising their hands. This semester, out of about 120 students, I think there were maybe two who had NOT seen the movie.

scott91777 said...

Would you mention the Animated Series at any point? The Dini/Timm version of course. I find that's a good entry point since a lot of our students are of the age that they grew up watching those cartoons.

scott91777 said...

Oh, and have you seen that the Blu-Ray version of The Dark Knight apparently has a feature where you can put in your own picture in picture commentary? It would be great to use for something like this.

vcaramela said...

being a recent convert to the Blu-Ray and all its BD Live WiFi goodness; I hope and pray Geoff takes your advice, Scott and puts out his own commentary or scene-specific commentary for The Dark Knight.

Geoff Klock said...

Actually -- I can do that without the Blu Ray: the rifftrax guys have a thing where you can record your own commentary. I have it in the works to do one soon for Dark City.

It WOULD make an awesome class project -- every student give commentary on a scene.

Jason said...

Sounds awesome, even though I just blogged about not liking Batman.

I'd still take this course, though.

(But, here's a question: Is Sin City a Batman movie superficially about something else, or is All Star Batman and Robin a Sin City comic book only superficially about something else?)

Andrew said...

I just finished writing my essay on DKR, Watchmen, and The Killing Joke for a seminar on the History of Superheroes, so I'm curious about whether or not you'll cover depictions of Batman after Miller (other than the blockbusters)?

I ask because (having just written about this extensively), I think Moore and other writers make some interesting intellectual moves in order to make Batman a viable hero after Miller essentially says he needs to be a threat to an innately flawed social order.

I like the idea of using The Animated Series as well.

finsof72 said...

I'd not only take it. I'd major in it.

Simon Mac Donald said...

Good luck getting it approved. Do you think those of us in Canada would be able to take it via distant education?

Anonymous said...

Including the animated version of Batman as well is a great idea. I have been a long time comic reader, and I still think one of the best Justice League stories ever is Season Two of Justice League Unlimited (the Cadmus arch).

If nothing else, the Batman animated series episode which showed the various versions of bat man, down to the Frank Miller version, would be interesting. I believe they included that on the Blueray version of the the recent Batman cartoon movie that came out right before the Dark Knight hit theaters.

scott91777 said...


Yes, the Target edition of Gotham Knight included that... as well as a couple of other episodes of the Animated series.

Marc Caputo said...

(But, here's a question: Is Sin City a Batman movie superficially about something else, or is All Star Batman and Robin a Sin City comic book only superficially about something else?)

Jason: that's where my dislike of ASBAR comes from - the fact that its Gotham is Sin City. But to me, Sin City (the comic) is Gotham without the hope of a Batman.

Still, I'd take this course in a heartbeat (and probably come out with a better appreciation of ASBAR, damnit!) - Geoff, can us locals audit?

Geoff Klock said...

I do not have a lot of time to write now, but I should remind you guys that I work at a COMMUNITY COLLEGE; given the audience you might find yourself bored. This is not exactly a grad class or anything.

Triumph of the Underdog said...

Bored? Not if enough of us show up! Haha. Sounds great though, Geoff.

Stephen said...

While I understand the price issues, I'd really recommend adding (at a minimum) two books to the syllabus. First, some pre-Miller Batman -- one of the "greatest stories ever told" volumes or something like that. I think you can and should still do the powerpoint, but I think it wouldn't be enough to see it flashing by: you'd want them to *read* it.

Second, I'd add at least one other post-Miller Batman -- ideally, two or three. I think it will be a lot richer & more interesting with other visions/versions of Batman to compare Miller to. Looking at the ways other comics writers/artists -- and not just the filmmakers -- responded to Miller's Batman (successfully or not) would add a *lot* to such a course, I think.

(I don't know enough about Batman to know what those books would be. THE KILLING JOKE would be an obvious possibility. I don't know if either of Morrison's Batman books -- either ARKHAM ASYLUM or the recent run -- is successful enough to warrant inclusion. But I'm sure you'll come up with something.)

Again, I do get the price issues. But I think that you'd be short-selling the possibilities of the course not to include a few more books to help contextualize the Miller work.

(If it *wasn't* for the price issues, I'd strongly suggest adding in *still more* stuff -- more post-Miller Batman, and maybe some of the various pseudo-Batmans which have been done, from Moon Knight to Rorsarch to the appropriate volumes of Astro City, etc etc. (You could even throw in Cerebus's Roach...) But obviously this would be pushing it.)

Looks like fun. I trust you'll let us know what happens!


Mikey said...

Morrison's Arkham Asylum was pretty dire. Received wisdom is that the McKean art is the real intriguing aspect of the book but I think it's the book's most glaring failure. It would've been a much better book if it had been drawn by Bolland.

However, in spite of it being a mess, Morrison says some interesting things in the annotations to the script included in the recent hardcover. He says that the ordeal he puts Batman through in Arkham Asylum (place and text) is intended as a 'purifying experience' for the character (and the superhero genre), a purging of the dark, grim and gritty Miller Batman that allows the character to emerge as the cool, confident "zen warrior" of his 90s JLA run.

It's a nice conceit (if a bit flabby), particularly because after Miller, Morrison's JLA-version of Batman is most people's favourites (including mine) and the most effortlessly convincing. If it's true, it sets up a nice relationship to Miller directly. I happen to think this might be a load of crap, with Morrison speaking with the benefit of hindsight fifteen years later.

However, if he is retroactively claiming this for the book, it still sets up a dialogue with Miller, as Morrison feels the need to justify the book, and set it up after the fact as an answer to Miller's version (so strong that, as others have noted, it's unofficially official canon).

In either case Morrison is overcompensating in the shadow of Miller. The conversation between them has been happening for a good while.

In terms of Miller ruling the roost (there's a cock gag here): Moore has also disowned The Killing Joke as he sees it as a contributing factor to everything that went wrong with comics that followed - needless shocks, violence etc. (Geoff, did you talk about this in your book? I can't remember.) Only Frank Miller, it seems, has not felt the need to start justifying his Batman.

Also - Geoff, do you think 300 is a Batman movie superficially about something else? Or rather, a Frank Miller movie very obviously NOT about something else?

Geoff Klock said...

That animated episode with the three versions of Batman I will certainly use: thanks.

I am still thinking about the relationship between 300-Spirit-Sin-City and Batman and what is a version of what. But I need more Miller Batman to fill out my class and this stuff is both popular with my students, and cheap and easy to get.

Andrew -- my students, at the community college CANNOT spend more than 70 dollars on books for a class, so I really CANNOT add more books. I wish I could.

Locals can audit I guess (but again I think you might be bored); joking aside , working on distance learning is something I will be looking into in the fall.

StephenFrug -- I agree completely with everything you are saying, and would really rather teach a general superhero class than a Miller class. But these kids just cannot pay more than 70 bucks for books. Almost all of my students are from low income families and are the first in their family to attend college. Ask for more and they will drop; if they drop this class gets tanked. This is the only way to get the job done. The best I can do it put some stuff on reserve in the library, but my class sizes are really too big to make it practical that EVERY student -- or even most students -- will go in and read it.

Mikey said...

One intention I always had when planning on teaching comics was arranging a discount with the local comic book store for my students. If they're all going to come in and buy a bunch of books each they should get some money off (and I would've pushed for 20%).

And on the flipside, when I worked in a comic book store it's the kind of thing we would always be happy to do for people.

Andrew said...

For the course I just took, the Prof. did manage to arrange for 35% off at the local comic shop. It was pretty cool. It would've been cooler if I had already owned fewer of the texts...

speedreeder said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
speedreeder said...

Geoff, It sounds cool, BUT, I would think that teaching just the Frank Miller Batman is a little bit narrow. I think you will have to put Miller's Batman in a larger context, especially the original Bob Kane Batman, the silly Bill Finger Batman, and the Denny O'Neill Batman. Ultimately I don't think Miller's Batman makes any sense if you don't know the original Bob Kane Batman, and the campy 60's Batman.
There would be an EXCELLENT and cheap Batman anthology, which, unfortunately, is out of print!

I also don't know if McCloud's book would be necessary for a class, I personally think Understanding Comics is overrated, but that's just me.
I think a lot of your students would be surprised to learn that Batman starts way back in the 1930's!

But it would be a fascinating course either way!
Good Luck!

scott91777 said...

While I certainly don’t think Understanding Comics is overrated, I’m not necessarily sure it needs to be a required text in terms of actually having them purchasing the book. It has a lot of great stuff but I think a lot of the stuff would be pretty tangential to the course, particularly if the focus is to be on Miller’s Batman. I would just cherry pick the best bits and go over them in class as part of your introduction. I usually find that about 20 minutes worth of lecture on ‘how comics work’ covers most of the bases… Granted, since the entire course you’re teaching revolves around comics you might want to go more in depth but, still, I’m not sure if requiring them to buy the textbook would be necessary (since price is a concern). Maybe get a couple of copies to keep on reserve in the Library? That way if student’s wanted to access them for clarification or to use in their papers they would be available, but not have it so they would HAVE to use them if they weren’t able.

Maybe do something similar with a Batman anthology, mention, a few key stories from it in class and then have it available for those who are interested in reading further.

Some discussion of Superman will probably be necessary also since his character and the development of that character overtime are so crucial for understanding the conflict between the two at the climax of the Dark Knight; generally I just do this along with our class discussion of the fight… nothing as in depth as you have planned as Batman would be necessary but, depending on what your classes knowledge of the characters are, it definitely helps. Since I’m generally teaching this to people who don’t ever realize that there’s a comic in the class until they buy their books I get a lot of comments along the lines of “Batman and Superman know each other? I thought they were from two separate comic books?” Continuity between books is not something a lot of them are familiar with.

Another idea, since you’re using the ‘Dark Knight’ episode of the Dini/Timm animated series… it’s worth noting that the opening segment of Gotham Knight is a similar concept: Three kids telling three different versions of Batman and there is also a classic Batman story ( “The Batman Nobody Knows” by Frank Robbins and Dick Giordano) it is included in the out-of-print version of “Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told” (still can be found cheaply on amazon I’m sure… or online even) which is basically the same premise. What’s great about the story is that it’s only 5 or 6 pages long and could easily be read IN class. Combining those three would make an excellent transition from ‘the evolution of Batman’ lecture to the ‘Miller Specific Batman’

Streebo said...

I agree with Scott's assessment of Understanding Comics as a requirement for the course. To give McCloud his due - UC could certainly serve as the subject of an entire course of it's own - whereas in a course on Miller's Batman - perhaps only 4 or 5 pages describing the panel to panel relationships would be needed. You could easily provide these as a photocopied handout and knock off one book from your student's expense. If I was in your area - I would sign up for this class in an instant!