Part 2 of this series. Again diving into semiotics and Batman Arkham City‚Äö√Ñ√¥s complex and effective visual language. This time dissecting the dark knight himself. Hit the Batman tag for all articles of this series. Please go and read part 1 first. It might explain a few things here.
Themes in Super Hero Comics
Before we turn our attention to the dark knight himself, let’s talk about super heroes in general.
The appearance of a protagonist from a regular super hero comic compared to a protagonist from a regular western AAA game or movie can be quite silly and theatrical. A nickname and matching costume and custom gear seem to be a standard set up for any super hero or super villain. Why is that?
Well, comic super heroes have evolved from the so called masked vigilantes, which can be found in crime stories and western stories in old pulp novels. The idea of a fearless man, breaking the law to spread justice. Those outlaws needed to keep their real names secret to avoid getting caught. But they also needed to be a recognizable entity to be a beacon of hope for the innocent and an agent of fear for the guilty. And the best way to become infamous enough is by featuring a strong theme in your substitute identity.
Even if the masked vigilantes never considered giving themselves a fancy name, local newspapers, superstitious criminals and chatty townsfolk did it for them and for their super villain counterparts as well. Like with the ‚Äö√Ñ√∫Zodiac Killer‚Äö√Ñ√π or the ‚Äö√Ñ√∫Moth-man‚Äö√Ñ√π, people are quick to nickname anonymous evil doers, myths and also their heroes. It is no coincidence that people from the press so often play a big part in super hero stories. They provide a handy plot device to make a super hero or super villain name official.
J. Jonah Jameson from the Spider-Man movies ¬¨¬© Columbia Pictures. In the movies Jameson was the one naming two of the villains – the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus.
Within their respective mythologies, the idea of a masked vigilante establishing some sort of brand for himself actually makes kinda sense. But there is a good real life reason too: Marketability. Strong narrative themes, like ‚Äö√Ñ√∫the guy with spider powers‚Äö√Ñ√π in combination with strong graphic themes like ‚Äö√Ñ√∫red and blue costume with spider icons‚Äö√Ñ√π make for a very recognizable character. A character easy to communicate and offering lots of distinctive features that can easily be abstracted. And after all, popular super hero trademarks are cash cows for their holders.
So, to recap:
Themes are used by the super heroes and villains themselves to replace their civil identity with something that scares their opponents and inspires their followers. Themes are also used by the creators of super hero and villain characters to establish recognizable brands and increase the applicability of their characters regarding licensing and transfer into other media.
The strongest theme in all designs around Batman is obviously bats. But what does the bat iconography tell us? Why bats?
When we examine the symbolic qualities of a bat, there isn’t much to connect to Batman mythology. Batman is not a vampire (eastern european mythology), nor is he a familiar of a witch (western folklore) and drawing from chinese folklore, the bat is a symbol for good fortune and luck, which is so not Batman.
He also doesn’t do anything particularly bat-like, so the bat is not a symbol for his powers or techniques, which is normally very often the case with super heroes and villains.
There is some native american folklore using bats as a symbol for being able to see through lies and treachery, due to their ability to ‚Äö√Ñ√∫see‚Äö√Ñ√π in the dark. The character of Daredevil would therefore be far better agent for a bat creature totem. He is a blind person, but is able to see by using a sonar radar, which is exactly how bats see in the dark. And Daredevil is also able to recognize when someone is lying, due to his ability to hear someones pulse, which also perfectly fits the native american reading of a bat symbol. But I digress.
In the 1989 Tim Burton movie the script writers attempted in adding a symbolic quality to the bat thing by having Bruce explain ‚Äö√Ñ√∫They are great survivors.‚Äö√Ñ√π Glad he didn’t decide to have his survival skills represented by a cockroach. Surviving is not something specific to Batman, so this doesn’t get us very far.
Again, why bats?
In one of the earliest descriptions of Batman’s origins, written and illustrated by Batman creator Bob Kane, the character himself describes what the bat represents in his view… a black terrible creature of the night. And come to think of it, how many nocturnal creatures do you know, who are also kind of scary? A bat is actually a pretty good pick.
The bat in Batman stands for ‚Äö√Ñ√∫nocturnal‚Äö√Ñ√π and ‚Äö√Ñ√∫frightening‚Äö√Ñ√π. This gives us two themes to follow. A graphical theme in which we can exploit the iconic features of a bat and a narrative theme in which we can have a character be all threatening and spooky at night time.
Suddenly the vampire mannerisms, the hiding in the shadows, the blackness of all his stuff, all of it makes sense. And so does the inflationary use of bat icons. It transports the message of ‚Äö√Ñ√∫fear me at night‚Äö√Ñ√π anywhere.
In some Batman stories the bat-like appearance is actually making people doubt, if he is a human or some sort of demon. But most of the time the use of bat icons is just a way for Batman to display his commitment to being a terror of the night. Like war paint. In the case of Arkham City, it is clearly the latter. Goons piss their pants no the less.
The character of Batman originated in 1939, more than 70 years ago, and was re-imagined quite often. Many changing lead artists on the comic books, many incarnations in tv-shows and movies and games together make up for quite an impressive library of character variations. Interestingly most variations stayed true to some of the most iconic features of the original design.
We got a tight grey dress with black panties, gloves and boots. On his chest we got an icon of a bat silhouette with spread wings and a cape and cowl, which together resemble the icon on the chest. And finally there is a yellow-ish utility belt.
The strongest variation to be frequently found is the black parts of his costume sometimes being displayed in blue. The story behind that is not design decisions. It’s printer problems. For the printers of the time (middle of the last century) it was quite difficult to print dark grey tones. So the color designers replaced the dark grey in the black parts with blue. Using blue to articulate the bright areas of black material was quite common those days. From this point the blue cape and cowl design emerged by artists like Bill finger reducing the black spaces in their drawings.
Fun fact: the problem of properly printing grey is also the reason why the color design for the incredible Hulk turned from grey to green.
The blue cape and cowl version often is used for commecial goods aimed at small children, like the Fisher Price action figure above (center), which also features a friendly face and softened ears. Note how the Lego Batman kept is lack of colors, grim eyes, expression and sharp features. This is because Batman Lego, like Star Wars and especially Indiana Jones Lego is aimed at adult collectors too and not only at kids. And see how the Batman Begins version kept the yellow utility belt, though everything else fell prey to the ever-present black leather biker look which dominates most super hero movie appearances.
Over all, the character of Batman is a pretty iconic design, which allows toy companies, game publishers and movie studios to re-create the character for vastly diverse audiences and still keep it recognizable.
The Batman Of Arkham City
The Arkham City version of the caped crusader keeps most of the original design elements in place and sports a soft blue-ish tint on his mask and cape. The utility belt features just enough yellow tint to keep the color theme accurate. The mask design is a derivative of the popular mask design by Alex Ross. Overall the designers were comfortable creating a Batman that would feel right at home in the comic books of the source material.
But there are of course also big concessions made to please the AAA gaming audience and their viewing habits regarding Unreal Engine visuals. Batman is considerably beefed up and his suit is unusually heavy on combat gear and technology elements. Keeping enough elements from the comic and adding just enough AAA gaming visual influence makes him a very solid hybrid design, aimed at pleasing both audiences.
Key Images And References
There are quite a few cleverly spread images and references in the game to keep the Batman fanboy happy.
Most noteworthy are references from the most influencing publications, which include the famous Frank Miller comics ‚Äö√Ñ√∫The Dark Knight Returns‚Äö√Ñ√π and ‚Äö√Ñ√∫Year One‚Äö√Ñ√π, the two Tim Burton movies, the Bruce Timm 90′s animated Series (Batman, Joker and Two-Face have the same voice actors in the animated series and in Arkham City) and the Nolan films of course. Later for characters like the Joker, Alan Moore’s ‚Äö√Ñ√∫A Killing Joke‚Äö√Ñ√π sure belongs on this list too. All of them are must reads and must sees of course. ;)
Here are three picks of iconic bat-verse images, which found their way into the game:
Well, I’m going to stop right now or I wont get any sleep. There is almost no end to the references to classic Batman iconography in almost every aspect of the game. GUI, combat moves, gadjets, cut scenes… everything is cleverly connected to the bat-verse and closely following the themes around the caped crusader.
See you soon with more. Still a lot of stuff coming: The Joker, Gotham, Two-Face and other characters are already in the pipeline for this article series. Check the Batman tag for all related posts.
See ya soon.