Posted by: Joe McCulloch on October 29, 2007
Let me start this one off with a question.
Why does Batman laugh so much in All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder?
There’s a number of possible, more-or-less mutually inexclusive answers.
First, maybe writer Frank Miller is completely fucking nuts, and simply has no control over what his fingers are doing anymore, which, naturally, is why he’s been entrusted with creative roles on expensive movie projects. Or maybe he’s trying to tell jokes. I’d say about half of them make me smile.
Alternatively, perhaps Batman’s cackle is an authorial one, just barely masking Miller’s sneer toward a readership he holds in low regard, even as he scoops up their cash. Just recently, in an interview with The Comics Journal (#285, Oct. 2007), Darwyn Cooke deemed Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again “a hateful piece of junk.” Those wouldn’t be Cooke’s first words on the issue, but this time it’s the “hateful” that catches my eye, as it suggests active bad faith on Miller’s part.
But there may be less wicked motives at play. For example, Miller may be drawing a parallel between his young Batman and a certain grinning arch-foe, set to appear in the series’ next issue. The connections between the two have long been part of Bat-lore; who can forget the ending of Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke? Perhaps Moore would like to forget it, but the image remains suggestive of still-applicable character undercurrents, for better or worse. Madness! Extra-legality! Joy!
Hey, maybe Batman’s just happy because he loves being Batman; he tells us as much via caption, after all. Going a bit deeper, Batman’s joy is indicative of his freedom. That’s probably the core theme running through at least the last twenty years of Miller’s work – freedom. All of the costumed characters in All Star Batman are joyful when they can do as they please, outside of society’s regulation, facing off against bad people and bad authority. Miller frowns at characters like his Superman and Green Lantern, who have the power of gods, but constrain themselves for whatever reason.
Taking All Star Batman as Batman: The Dark Knight Begins, you can see Miller’s young Superman (who can’t even tell he can fly, so low is his ambition) on the road to becoming the federal tool of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, a journey that will only end happily as he embraces his true godly nature at the conclusion of DK2. Super-freedom! Miller stops the story before Superman and Batman inevitably come into conflict again, saving him the trouble of escaping the thematic corner he’s painted himself into, but it’s easy to guess that his heart will remain with Batman – he’s a human who’s found such glory within his person that he stands with gods. And it’s all the funnier when the action is set in the old days, when superhero characters (and comics, stepping outside the fiction), didn’t quite know what the hell they were up to yet.
Hmmm, ‘old’ things.
You know, it could be that Batman is laughing because that’s what The Shadow did. Miller must be aware of the influence the famous radio and pulp character (first published in 1931, though a nebulous radio presence extended back a year) had on the 1939 creation of the gun-toting Bat-Man, so maybe he’s just paying a little homage with his early days story.
So then, why’s The Shadow laughing?
He’s got a good, strong laugh. Chills the marrow of the bones, I hear. His cackle is routinely followed by the crack of twin automatics, linking joy to deadly violence. He’s almost an aesthete in that way.
Really, why wouldn’t he laugh? He’s something pretty close to God on those Depression streets, commanding the unquestioning loyalty of a whole folk brigade, high and low class brought into the ranks. All are equal in the eyes of the false Lamont Cranston, the former Kent Allard.
He’s so domineering a character — yet aloof from human concern! — that he proves tricky to write. As Dennis O’Neil wrote in his introduction to The Private Files of The Shadow, a 1989 collection of comics he produced with artist Michael Wm. Kaluta circa 1973-74: “Unthinking obedience to a man is fascism; unthinking obedience to a deity is merely good sense.” To circumvent the potentially fascist aspect of the character, O’Neil set all of his stories on urban Depression streets, to remove the concept to a realm sliding into folklore, and declined to shade the title character’s personality, so as to emphasize his godly correctness in isolating sectors of evil to smash.
Other comics writers grappled with similar concerns, in different ways – Howard Chaykin gleefully embraced the untoward political aspects of the concept in his 1986 modern revival, having the character bark repressive sentiments while leaping into battle as a queasy-yet-dazzling aspect of past people’s fantasy, unique for his social cruelty. Writer Andy Helfer’s 1987-89 ongoing follow-up gradually pressed the manic aspects of the concept into outright parody, mixing in absurd elements of peer genres (can you say “robot body?”) to offset the bloody anxiety that the character embodies.
Indeed, O’Neil (back in that book intro) felt that Shadow creator Walter B. Gibson, while plainly influenced by the likes of Poe and Doyle — not to mention Jimmie Dale, The Grey Seal, a 1917 masked rogue playboy crimefighter creation of Frank L. Packard — was nevertheless unique in creating “instant folklore” by crafting a personification of urban anxiety as a force for good instead of ill. O’Neil further quotes one Chris Steinbrunner as observing:
“Menacing figures dressed in black had long been popular characters in mystery stories, films and plays… Gibson took this terrible, dread shape that had hitherto been the hero’s nemesis and made it the hero. The Shadow was both the force for good and lurker in the darkness.”
I agree with this summary of the character’s undercurrent. But he was not the first.
I don’t feel sturdy enough to tell you who the ‘first’ actually was, but I can tell you that there was another Mysterious Shadow, years before, a chaotic type of ‘good’ shaped by his own time and place. And one who didn’t hail from radio or prose or comics, but the young art of cinema. His adventures were followed in the serial form. He had roots in the same place as the pulp heroes, yet his accoutrements were often those of the later ‘superhero,’ at least the dark, brooding, human-avenger-of-the-night variant.
He was called Judex, which we are told means “Justice.” He debuted in a French movie serial named for him, which spanned thirteen episodes (an extra-length Prologue and twelve regular episodes) from 1916 to 1917. Just look at him. That black hat and cloak will never go out of style. Could use a little crimson, though.
But to best understand the concept of Judex, we must look to the career path of his co-creator, a French cinema giant by the name of Louis Feuillade.
Feuillade (1873-1925) was a bright light in French film as the silent era matured, and cooled toward its dusk; he’d hoped to be a famous poet in his youth, but he found himself at the film studio Gaumont in 1905, working as a scriptwriter. Feuillade rose through the company, quickly becoming artistic director of the studio and a hugely prolific filmmaker. He positioned himself as a sort of philosophical rival to the slightly younger-but-stronger studio Pathé, putting out series of light comedies and slice-of-life realist pictures to counter the sometimes loftier output of his rival. Feuillade’s approach was determinedly populist:
“I consider cinema as a place for rest, cheerfulness, soft emotions, dreams, forgetfulness. Others want to turn it into the temple of the abstract, the bizarre, the hallucinatory and the deformed; this is their business… We don’t always go to the movies to study. The public flocks to it to be entertained. I place the public above everything else. Since it is their own aim to be entertained, my only object should be to fulfill their desire. The public is my master.”
That quote comes from Fabrice Zagury’s insert essay to the 2000 Image Entertainment dvd release of Feuillade’s famous 1915-16 serial Les Vampires. That and Judex, released to R1 dvd in 2004 by Flicker Alley, are his only works domestically available to North American viewers. This makes some sense, as Feuillade ultimately became most popular in his own time for his fantastic serial films.
Most commentators specify Feuillade’s most lasting serial triumph as his 1913-14 screen outing for Marcel Allain’s and Pierre Souvestre’s ultra-popular arch-fiend Fantômas, star of prose fiction since 1911 (his influence continues to radiate – surely readers of this site recall the New X-Men character Fantomex). The project, totaling twenty-one chapters over five films, can currently be found on R2 PAL dvd from Artificial Eye.
It was a major success, and Feuillade soon moved to create his own weird villain epic, the aforementioned ten-chapter Les Vampires. Chronicling the Parisian criminal activities of the titular crime society, with special attention paid to iconic, black body stocking-clad villainess Irma Vep, the series caused a sensation, and was initially banned by police in the city of its setting as a glamorization of crime.
You can perhaps see why. Les Vampires is one of those good vs. evil tales in which the delight of evil is emphasized to the point where good’s eventual triumph is rendered at best hollow, and at worst hypocritical. It is demanded we first luxuriate in the antics of Irma Vep and company, so long as we wash our hands later and applaud the superiority of virtue, which is so inherent that it apparently needs not be pressed much on the screen.
The film was also released in the midst of the Great War, and its on-location visions of empty city streets, plus its themes of a polite society terrorized, likely spoke to the anxieties of the public, Feuillade’s master. He was never a darling of the filmic avant-garde of the time – beyond simple sniffing at unpopular aesthetic inclinations, he approached filmmaking from a novelistic viewpoint, and, while interested in the poetry of the image, he didn’t supplicate narrative before the formal potentials of the cinema (I know debates over an artform’s storytelling potential never happen today, but bear with me). Still, his deadpan intrusions of the nervous uncanny into poetic visions of anxious-yet-real locations inspired the likes of arch-Surrealist André Breton, and the redoubtable Luis Buñuel.
But wait… all this ’embodiment of anxiety’ sounds a bit like O’Neil’s conceptualization of The Shadow. You might as well extend that to Batman, Miller’s or Moore’s or otherwise. Only, these characters are presented to us as moody protectors from the really nasty aspects of contemporary life.
Judex, serial and character, is a bridge. In several ways. He joins the detective and costumed adventurer heroes of the literature and drama — Sherlock Holmes, The Scarlet Pimpernel, etc. — to the pulp characters and superheroes of the slightly later 20th century. At the same time, he joins the then-popular master criminal character type — Fantômas and Fu Manchu debuted at roughly the same time in France and England, respectively — to the ‘dark’ hero archetype often showcased in later comics and stories. And beyond even that, he represents a turning point in Feuillade’s popular filmmaking.
Feuillade and writer Arthur Bernède very likely created Judex as a means of preserving some of the nasty, popular flavor from the director’s earlier costumed epics, while also promoting wholesome values. Good notions that wouldn’t get the authorities and cultural commentators angry with them. Judex was a new black-clad character, one who’d move outside the laws of society and command great fear, but who’d only bedevil the bad sorts. Anarchy that wouldn’t piss the police off. A Fantômas you could take home to grandma. And even better – over the course of his adventure he’d learn compassion, fall in love with a sweet girl, and insert himself smoothly into clean bourgeoisie living.
Put simply, with Judex, the superhero is not a dream of protection in which the madness of modern living springs out with might and fury to save us from our fellow humans. Rather, the superhero is anarchy’s domestication, a fantasy of the madness itself calming into the status quo and realizing virtue. Despite being another wartime release, his film does not so much as admit a war is happening; it can be presumed the Great War has not yet begun for Judex, and thus he can sink cozily into a proper, popular notion of the status quo. Unlike The Shadow, or Miller’s Batman, he does not laugh. He does not need to.
That makes Judex-the-serial a very odd watch for today’s superhero enthusiast. I mean, beyond just being a silent movie, which is an acquired taste to begin with. Then again, maybe the fantastic aspect of Feuillade’s grounded art helps things out for today’s viewer; Walter Kerr theorized in his excellent 1975 book The Silent Clowns that silent comedy can be enjoyed ‘as is’ by modern viewers because the limitations on realism mandated by the technology of the time do not distract from foolery as they do drama, so natural is the former in an unreal place. I think that may extend to the mad stories of Feuillade. Be warned, though – nothing this cool happens, or could even be expected. This adventure’s all about being nice, which really sets the character against his spiritual descendants.
So many similarities, though! Judex is the alter ego of one Jacques de Tremeuse, a lad born into riches. Sadly, his father takes on the poor financial advice of sly capitalist Favraux, and winds up killing himself in shame over losing the clan’s cash… just seconds before the family finds out that a gold mine will insure their prosperity for eons to come! Jacques’ angry mother makes him and his brother Roger swear on their father’s corpse to exact awful vengeance on Favraux, which naturally inspires Jacques to grow up to be the kind of guy who dresses in a fancy black costume, hides out in a gadget-stocked subterranean cave, sets up a network of helpers in the surrounding area, trains a large pack of dogs and a small flock of birds to be his helpers, and masters the art of disguise. Roger’s there too, as his non-costumed sidekick.
But Judex isn’t even in the Prologue. Sort of. Viewers used to American sound serials might be thrown by the pace Feuillade maintains, more akin to the serial novels of Dumas than a cliffhanger-every-episode matinee thrill ride. For his beginning, Feuillade sketches in the twisted relationships of a large cast, all of them brought together at Favraux’s country estate.
His daughter, Jacqueline, is planning to remarry after her husband’s death, although she’s been hooked up with a slimy, in-debt aristocrat that only wants her money. Also a fan of money is the diabolical Diana Monti (played by Irma Vep herself, the great “Musidora“), a crime queen who’s posing as nursemaid for Jacqueline’s foppy lil’ son while actually serving as Favraux’s mistress, in hopes of slipping into his will. She’s backed by criminal lifer Moralés, who’s actually the lost son of another man Favraux ruined, Kerjean, an elderly ruin who’s fresh out of jail and after an apology. He unknowingly prompts Judex, who’s disguised as yet another member of the cast (a fact not revealed for several episodes), to make his move, threatening via letter to kill Favraux if he doesn’t give half his fortune to the poor. This necessitates the presence of a bumbling novice detective, Cocantin, who completely fails to protect Favraux, who *gasp* *choke* falls dead just as Judex predicted! How weird and uncanny!
It’s a very decently structured start, followed up by some quick action. The sheltered Jacqueline learns of her late father’s ill deeds, tosses her slickster fiancée out, and gives the whole blood money fortune away to charity, winning the eternal loathing of Diana Monti. Meanwhile, Favraux isn’t actually dead – Judex and company spirit his stunned ass away to a holding cell deep in Our Hero’s Chateau-Rouge headquarters, where he’s left to await execution. Judex keeps tabs on him with an “electric mirror” and a typewriter that makes words of fire appear on the wall in Favraux’s room (this is the stuff the Surrealists ate up, btw). But even as the villain slowly goes nuts, Judex’s chill heart begins to melt over good Jacqueline, who’s taken on work to support her son, and is vulnerable to the plots of Diana Monti, who’s very nearly on to the whole scheme.
Much of the rest of the serial sees Judex ‘n pals saving Jacqueline from peril, all while the hero frets over whether to reveal himself to the woman who considers him her father’s killer. High melodrama indeed, interspersed with slapstick comedy from Cocantin, or a street urchin called the Licorice Kid (I tend to laugh at any joke involving small children smoking cigarettes, and there’s several here). The cast shifts and swirls from role to role, crooks going straight only to turn back to crime, and various Judex allies shifting from location to location. Complications pile up, and several outrageous coincidences occur.
It’s very much a ‘values’ film. Judex is connected with earlier madmen and villains, locking a guy up in a cave and leaving him there to flip out, but he gradually becomes kinder. Locations are heavily bucolic, setting the work apart from the urban simmer of earlier serials, and implicitly celebrating a simpler way of life. Feuillade’s camera never moves; his eye for beautiful and quietly menacing natural settings is very fine, as is his sense of composition, although he’s fascinatingly prone to let little errors — a man dropping his pipe, a dog leaping into a car while a character enters — remain present in the finished work. His is a poised, but not controlled realism.
The overriding sex of Irma Vep is absent – here, it’s mostly the pure Jacqueline, all cream and light (not actually a virgin, given the kid, but close enough), set against the sexually open and therefore evil Diana Monti. A late-in-the-game addition of a plucky adventuress character (who even gets decked out in Judex’s cloak for a rescue scene) does relieve the work of its virgin-whore complex, although Feuillade takes every opportunity he can to play up the character’s t&a, leaving the male gaze intact. Huh. Almost like a real superhero comic, then!
And yet, all this celebration of the bourgeoisie does give Judex a certain something that’s lacking from the pulp and comic works that would follow in its save-the-day footsteps. First, there’s real attention paid to the aristocratic aspects of the rich superhero setup. As Judex’s faith in his mission of revenge fades, the very first thing he does is travel to the family estate, in full costume no less, and ask Mother permission to call off the vengeance. Imagine Batman having to run his missions by Martha Wayne before leaving stately Wayne Manor. But for Judex, familial bonds and tradition are of the utmost importance.
Moreover, in chronicling his uncanny character’s path from cruelty to humaneness, Feuillade paints this early superhero with super-compassion, and characterizes his ‘super’ nature as being a catalyst for forgiveness and reunion. After the kidnapping of Favraux, he never attacks thugs or the like, only using lethal force for self-defense. In a wonderful scene near the finale, Diana Monti sticks a gun in his face, but he calmly brushes it aside, saying “I’m here to negotiate.” Diplomacy has never seemed so mighty!
Obviously I’m ‘reading’ this work from the perspective of 21st century superhero comics, and maybe I’ve just read way too many of those, but there’s something genuinely touching about the work’s faith in people as good at heart, and inclined toward peace and forgiveness. Could it be the ultimate wartime fantasy? The greatest weird aspect of a work forced to live in a world more suited to Les Vampires? Every death in this work is anti-heroic, and deeply sad. Feuillade lingers on the pleading eyes of a man shot down after a car chase. When Diana Monti meets her end, her body coughed up ashore from the sea she plunged into, a man crouches sadly over her. You wonder how her life went that she got there. Musidora’s eyes always seem tired in this work, as if her character has been through an awful lot.
Europe went through an awful lot more. Even though Judex finds some happiness and stops wearing that fucking costume — the final step in chaos’ movement toward order — there was nevertheless a 1917-18 sequel serial from Feuillade & Bernède titled The New Mission of Judex. I haven’t seen it. I don’t know where I could see it. Maybe he fights the Penguin? The original story was remade twice, once in the 1934 feature Judex 34, written by Bernède himself and directed by Feuillade’s son-in-law, Maurice Champreux, and then in 1963 under the plain Judex title, from Cinematheque Française co-founder and Eyes Without a Face director Georges Franju, who supposedly plays up the WWI connection and the period gender roles in his homage. The character has also appeared in Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier-edited Tales of the Shadowmen anthology, a sort of Wold Newton Universe thing for France.
But his primary adventures never continued after the war.
It’s one of those odd little extra-fiction coincidences that the timeline of Judex seems to end precisely where that of the pulp Shadow begins, and in exactly the same place. One could easily imagine Jacques de Tremeuse skulking his romantic head around the shadow-black wartime France, and running into a certain French-allied agent by the name of Kent Allard. The enormity of the world-stopping focusing event that was the Great War facilitates such possibilities, out in the fields of black and red disaster.
Perhaps there — metafictionally speaking, and with hindsight — we can imagine that a ticklish desire for chaos to cool, and grasp virtue, was transformed into a yowl for justice to incarnate from the smoke. Fashion tips were exchanged, and the cloak was passed. Ironically, it went from a good devil, who’d hardly lift a finger in violence unless direly pressed, to a cruel cherubim, his song the work of blazing twin automatics. He’d shoot them all down, and laugh.
It’s all you can do, sometimes.