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Bat & Man: A Sonnet Comic Book by Chad Parmenter and Mark Cudd (illus.)

I picked up Bat & Man amid my own recent bat-craze. The full trailer for The Dark Knight Rises had just gone viral; I was knee-deep in a run-through of Arkham City; I was even following The Batman on Twitter @God_Damn_Batman. But the Batman mythology, despite films that provide luscious arcs of his formative years and a video game that includes pretty much every character, is a minimalist one. This is the nature of a mythology, to always only provide snippets of a far vaster cosmos, regardless of the size and depth of any individual narrative and the number of tellers who take up the tale.  Batman’s, for all intents and purposes, is perhaps the distinctly American mythology. While Superman inspires with his perfection, and the Marvel heroes prance around in more and more ridiculous scenarios, Batman is, well, Bat and Man, a paragon of flawed redemption and ambitious idealism. He is the stone-faced cowboy, the gothic Ahab of the modern age, the manifestation of the American apocalyptic id, who transcends and defies a socioeconomic system that limits righteousness. He is almost completely silent, his message the persistent enactment of retributive violence cloaked as justice.

He straddles the border between genius and madness, and the Joker brings this dichotomy to bear on Batman’s consciousness time and again. His life is a nightmare, the self-preserving lie to the Joker’s horrifying truth, as Zizek so cleverly put it. Chad Parmenter picks up the mythology with a literal nightmare of Batman’s own origins, an autobiographical spin on the roots of myth in the vein of good poetic work on superheroes by Bryan Dietrich and others. The poem, indeed the sonnet, may be the perfect vehicle for such a project, given its inherent minimalism and gesture toward unseen depth.

The book’s structure is subtle and unique. The narrative proper begins with “Hey Bruce. Wake up. You’re shrieking in your sleep.” It doesn’t surprise us that the source of this easy nonchalance is Selina Kyle, a.k.a., Catwoman, who happens to be sharing Bruce’s bed at the moment. Their banter exhibits the curtness and simultaneity of comic-book speak, back and forth within single lines like panels: “We should wait./No. Tell. But it’s a nightmare. Do your worst./You’ll learn too much. I’ll live. This one will haunt/your catnaps. Spill it. I’m too curious./It started by the bay. My parents…spawned” (his ellipsis).  Thus commences Batman’s narrative of the nightmare of a counterfactual upbringing, in which he is literally fathered by bats:

What did you dream then, sobbing in a ball?
That mother knew there was no boy inside
her body. Not so much as human cells
evolved there. Doctors – jokers. Tried to tell
her what was kicking in there was a child.

She felt me – bat. With feather ears, with eyes
like night lights, I would spy. With spindle nails
for fingers, I would scratch for freedom. Sails
of budding wings I’d flutter, and she’d die

before she let me out.

This is a twisted darkness commensurate with this universe. Note the element of dialogue here. Just as the above excerpt begins with an inquiry from Selina, so does each page of the book, to which a poem is the reply. The table of contents cleverly arranges these questions into a sort of found poetry of its own.

From his mother’s insemination (which is mythological in its bestiality. Later in the book Bruce describes a party in which he is “disguised as Zeus, disguised as swan”) we proceed through Bruce’s early years shrouded in martial imagery:

The nursery I was raised in – arsenal,
where suits of armor rusted to their swords
and soldered armies swarmed before their lord,/myself.

And his parents’ murder:

He squared/his shoulders. Tom did? Yes. Then the dark cursed
and birthed a fire. Roar. Star that ate his shirt
and burst. She howled “You bastard.” Mother? Heard

her lurch. Another fire. Roar.
Star that
_____blazed
so bright, so long, I saw her – mask with ink
exploding
_____through its cracks. The killer? Spliced
himself into the city night. Erased
_____me. Who did? Mother. Father. Shh. Close your eyes.”

Thus ends the “Bat” section of the book. The irony here resides in the fact that while the Batman origin story typically goes from man to Batman, here the order is reversed. Bruce is always already part bat, and learns to become a man in the sections “&” and “Man.” “&” depicts his upbringing in orphanages, in which visions of his father as a bat (“vampire father”) haunt his sleepless nights (“I stayed awake. He stayed in hell”). It was here that he embraced his identity and birthed his obsession with vigilante justice. Not before he endured a period of self-medication, “A year/I spent in articles I had to scan/to fabricate the night before,” what we are led to believe is the “&” portion of Bruce Wayne’s life.

“Man” begins with the accident that shaped Bruce’s destiny, in which a Halloween party at Wayne manor is interrupted by a swarm of bats, which catch fire by torches lighting the lawn. One becomes tangled in Bruce’s date’s hair: “The more/she fought, the tighter it was caught. It lit/her scalp. You put it out?  I tried. I…poured/my drink on her. Oh god. The fire caught/and spread. She sputtered ‘Zeus,’ my dying star.” It is here that Selina reminds us (actually, we do need reminding. Bruce’s story is sordid, but not unlike a believable Batman origin tale) to “Calm down, dear. It’s just one more nightmare. Right?” Right? Bruce then describes his guilty flight into hiding, out of the public eye, at which point Selina realizes that “This really happened. I remember. You went underground.” This subtle blend of fact with dream nicely underscores the tone of the whole account: this very well may have happened, all things considered. Bruce’s telling concludes with an image of the discovery of the Bat Cave, which we may in this case call hell. In a drunken stupor around the darkened mansion

I’d found a door. It couldn’t, must/
be Father’s cellar door. Lit up. With what?
An orange glow was pulsing from inside.
I had to break it. Bad bat. “Sorry, Dad,”
I prayed, and kicked the frame. Again. It burst,

Exhaled a veil of smoke. Behind it, floor –
but no. I must have been insane. Why? Where I set my feet was just a shaft of air
descending to a monolithic pyre
how many hundred feet below. It snared
me.

Selina comforts him, in a nice elision over two pages, with “Then I woke you back into the here/and now. Your dream is Batman’s memory.” This declaration is appropriately vague. Myths float in the zone between dream and memory, a collective vision of the origin and manifestation of our cultural anxieties. But the book ends in comic book fashion, with some more banter between lovers, on a short-lived break between stints as hero/anti-hero:

You’re just a boy. I’m more than that. You’re Bat—
I’m what? You’re bad, I said. Okay. Hey. Lie
here next to me some more, and we’ll forget
that nightmare life you’ve spun for me. I’d like
that, but I can’t. That sound, under the bed?
My phone. I have to go. Then so do I.
__________________________Goodnight. Good bat.

There is some interesting paratext here, too. “Bat” and “&” begin with epigraphs that are so serendipitously spot-on that the sections may have been inspired entirely by them. “Bat” opens with lines from Rilke:

And how bewildered is any womb-born creature
that has to fly. As if terrified and fleeing
from itself, it zigzags through the air, the way
a crack runs through the teacup. So the bat
quivers across the porcelain of evening.

This perfectly captures the chaos of Bruce’s conception, and Rilke’s image of the bat mirrors that of Batman, whose obsessive “zigzags” taint an otherwise pristine life as Bruce Wayne. “&” begins with lines from John Berryman: “Henry, for joining the human race, is bats,/known to be so, by few them who think,/out of the cave,” introducing a biting pun on Bruce’s underlying insanity.  Mark Cudd’s illustrations that introduce the sections not only embody a portion of the narrative, but convey the general theme. Of particular interest is the diagram that opens “Bat”:

It staunchly conveys the air of contamination and disfigurement that characterizes Bruce’s account of his conception.

The book is also bookended by a pair of sonnets from an external voice. The first, titled “Holy Sonnet for His New Movie,” is a nod toward the odd commercialization of such a dark story. “Your christ in vinyl tights” should generally cause nightmares, but “Don’t you close your eyes to weep/or let them blur with tears; no watering/the roses with your cheeks; he’s glittering/behind these sponsors.” Bat & Man reminds us, however, not to be anesthetized to the real horror. “Sonnet on Selina’s Machine,” the final poem, is literally a voicemail from Batman to Catwoman, an ominous love note:

I need
you to return my call. I swear
your alter ego’s name is safe with me.
I need it that way, need her to stay clear
and skylined on skyscrapers’ tips, to flee

from me, but not this far ahead. I’m near
now, on the fire escape. Pick up. I see
your shadow on the blinds. I hear your purr.

This is a smart delineation between identities. The series proper ends with a willful obfuscation of their true selves (“You’re Bat—I’m what?”). Here, their love is in full bloom, in their own creepily managed way.

In all, Parmenter gets the idea of the dark mythology. His use of ellipsis and punning enjambment and elision creates an air of mystery and deliberate concealment. You definitely don’t need to be a “bat-fan” to get a lot out of this. Maybe that’s the point – it’s also the nature of mythology to slowly but surely seep into the collective consciousness. This is due to a lot of things – ubiquitous exposure, divergent retellings by multiple authors, a clear socio-psychological identification, etc. – but we have here an origin story that is more Ovid than Hollywood.

This is how I usually go to Kramerbooks. I arrive in Dupont Circle in the pre-dinner hour, emerging from the Q Street exit of the Metro and heading shortly down Connecticut Avenue and through the glass door by the shop window. Immediately you are inundated with wood shelves and stacks of all the books you’ve been reading about in magazines and online in recent weeks. Moreover, the smell of the place – coffee and pastries mostly, but pervasive and richer; it seems to have seeped into the pages – is most inviting. I browse the stacks of new releases, reading first pages and blurbs, getting a sense of what the reviewers have been talking about. The large wall to the left of the entrance comprises the fiction section, while smaller, chest-sized shelves in the foreground display titles in philosophy, religion and spirituality. In the back, facing the entrance, are travel and foreign language titles, as well as politics and history. Neighboring the back wall is the entrance to Afterwords cafe, with one of the best menus in Dupont, and not just for a bookstore.

When you enter the store and gravitate toward the fiction wall, there is an entrance adjacent to it to another room that houses poetry and local titles, as well as a shelf of recent anthologies from The New Yorker, Paris Review, and “Best American” series. Also in this second room is a cozy bar, where you can order a Rogue Dead Guy Ale, which, especially for $6.50, is up there with The Big Hunt’s House Amber as one of the best bets for beer in Dupont. Grab a book from any of the copious shelves and saddle up to a two-person table to peruse and sip before heading to happy hour or dinner.

Typically, I browse for a good quarter of an hour, before friends arrive and we head to another spot for drinks and dinner. During this short interim, I indulge fantasies of ownership, lament the limited capacity of my wallet and shelf space to accommodate all the books I want. But I gird myself and leave with nothing, happy to have looked, touched, but saved myself again. After wine at Circa or beer at The Big Hunt or vodka at The Russia House, grab a meal at any of the incredible restaurants in the Circle and surrounding areas. Maybe head to Gazuza for a nightcap, hookah, and some of the best downbeat jams in the city. Then, when you’ve had your fill of eat and drink, head back to Kramers for the best after-hours atmosphere in town. There is low-key live music every Friday and Saturday night, and the restaurant is open well into the early morning. Wind down the evening with friends over brownie sundaes or any one (or two) of their gourmet pies.

And then the coup de grace. Inhibitions and apprehensions disarmed, I return to the bookstore, at last ready to purchase. A night of full indulgence sufficiently dulls the pain of $27 for a Zizek or new fiction. Bargain books Kramers is not. But the massaging of the senses, physical and intellectual, makes for a great city night.

Visit kramers.com for menu options, music schedule, and hours.

There should be a warning on the cover of Moby-Dick. Beware, it should say, reading this will require blood.

Fair warning would only be fair. As it is, the word of caution comes too late. Melville only mentions this cost, this culpability, when one is already hundreds of pages in. It’s only mentioned after we know to call him Ishmael, after we’ve followed, fascinated, behind Queequeg the face-tattooed harpooner who carries his god in his pocket, after we’ve sat through a scary sermon, heard a beggars warning, met the crazy Quaker shipping company owners and boarded the Pequod with Ishmael. It only happens after we’ve watched the waters for whales, watched while the water’s impossibly calm, and after we’ve learned the customs and social structures of whaling ships, after we’ve met everyone and after we’ve seen the one-legged captain with his thumping and his obsession.

Then we’re told we’re doomed.

The structure of this moment — this too-late announcement that one is irrevocably involved — is, of course, the same for the reader as it is for the characters in Moby-Dick. This is what happens in the novel and what happens, at the same time, to the reader of the novel. It’s a metafictional moment revealing one’s ethical responsibility, revealing it not as a choice, but as a sentence.

This metafictional moment comes in a metafiction chapter of the novel, the chapter where Ishmael, the narrator, uses this genre to directly address the reader, directly address the nature of the narrative, the bookness of the book, and the question of the truth of the story. It comes in Chapter 45, “The Affidavit,” which starts out, “So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book…” The function of the chapter is the function of an affidavit, that is, to swear to the truth of something, and Ishmael does this by epistemological appeal to his own eye witness testimony, to the stories commonly known among those who know these things, and news accounts and written documents, where “A fact thus set down in substantial history cannot easily be gainsaid.” He swears and declares that what he says is the truth. He has, he says, “no more idea of being facetious than Moses when he wrote the history of the plagues of Egypt.”

To make this direct appeal on behalf of the truth of the narrative, the narrator has to step a step away, into metafiction, and in doing that directly addresses the reader. He warns that “they,” by which he means “landsmen,” by which he means us, “might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.”

Ostensibly this misinterpretation — which is, maybe, the most common interpretation seen in readings of Melville’s magnum opus — horrifies the narrator because it’s wrong, and because it remakes the horribly real into a nice little morality tale. It seems, though, that, in truth, the fear here is also that the readers, in making the whale into an allegory, in making the story a fable with a learnable lesson attached at the end, might exempt themselves from any moral responsibility. Swearing to the truth of what he has to say, by means of metafictional address, the narrator also in this moment manages to point out that the reader is always already ethically involved.

“Do you suppose,” the narrator says,

that that poor fellow there, who this moment perhaps caught by the whale-line off the coast of New Guinea, is being carried down to the bottom of the sea by the sounding leviathan — do you suppose that that poor fellow’s name will appear in the newspaper obituary you will read tomorrow at your breakfast? No: because the mails are very irregular between here and New Guinea. In fact, did you ever hear what might be called regular news direct or indirect from New Guinea? Yet I tell you that upon one particular voyage which I made to the Pacific, among many others, we spoke thirty different ships, every one of which had had a death by a whale, some of them more than one, and three that had each lost a boat’s crew. For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! Not a gallon you burn, but at least on drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.

This is a sort of shocking moment, for you are sitting there or I am sitting here, reading, quietly reading, for all intents and purposes innocent of the world’s blood and bother, its violence and tumult, and Ishmael comes right out of the page and accuses us of blood. Whether by not reading about our involvement, when we read the paper in the morning, or by reading about it here, we are not separate, he says. We are, in our actions and inactions, culpable.

Moby-Dick is, in one basic sense, an economics story. It’s about the kind of capitalistic colonialism America has always been involved in. Like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the story suggests that this system, this kind of colonialism, whereby we scour the world for resources to take, just assuming they’re ours for the taking, is pretty normal, pretty acceptable. The problem with the system, these novels propose, is that sometimes a crazy person, a Kurtz or an Ahab, takes the enterprise crashing over the edge into excess and insanity. It is, in this sense, a warning about a limit. Melville shows us, though, that it’s not just the crazy people, those who betray the fiducial interests of the mission, who are the problem. It’s also those who acquiesce.

When Ahab announces his insane mission, “And this is what ye have shipped for men …”, the harpooners all shout out “Aye, aye!” Starbuck alone resists, saying he’s there to do business, not vengeance, to make money, not mad revenge. Starbuck wants to focus on this normal business of capitalism, rather than waging war on the ontological, attempting to “strike through the mask!” of visible things through to the “inscrutable malice,” the “inscrutable thing” behind reality. Starbuck resists, but only for a second, and then he falls silent. He cannot separate himself from this, cannot opt out. In his silence, Starbuck acquiesces. “Aye, aye!,” Ahab says, “thy silence, then, that voices thee.”

We, the readers, in the same way, slip past the limit we are supposed to be aware of. If we are not reading, the narrator says, we have, in that, tacitly accepted the situation, and are involved. And if we are reading, well, look at the light we’re reading by: its oil we’re burning, oil that can only be got with this system, that always requires blood.

The metafictional moment acts as an ethical trap, and, more than 200 pages into the text, it’s sprung, a surprise, and we’re caught.

It’s a surprise, I think, because we think of reading as safe. Library posters and summer reading programs teach us that.

There is even a strain of thought that understands reading to be a kind of act of ethical resistance, as a way to ethically opt out, ala Slovoj Žižek’s promotion of politics of Bartleby, with Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener’s radical repeated refusal to participate. Reading, the idea is, is an act of passivity that exempts you from the hubbub of capitalism, the structural violence of our modern world. Reading is a moment wherein one is not a part of the machine. Reading, where one is so intensely turned inward, is a place where one is not acquiescing, by act of mere modern existence, to the system.

It’s a tempting thought precisely because reading feels so safe. It has, at least for me, been an existential refuge. As we become increasingly aware that our lives are entangled in structures and systems we didn’t choose, structures of race and class and economics, structures of global power, of ideologies invisible to us, of what the old Calvinists called sin and sin nature and our fallen state, and are always entangled in ways which can be to our benefit but also our damnation, of course we have wanted to find a safe place. And reading feels like a safe place. When I, by contrast, am standing in a grocery store, looking at the kinds of coffee on sale, I am caught up in the colonialism that made this possible, the environmental problems that this entails, the Cold War politics and third world policies of US, and the choice I have is not whether to participate or not, but how. When I interact with other races or don’t interact with other races, when I interact with other genders or don’t interact with other genders, when I step out my door with an American passport in my pocket, an American passport with its patriotically-themed pages printed in pale blue, I’m all ready involved. I don’t get to choose in the way I think I want to choose. In the way I was taught that ethical action is a kind of choosing. I’m just stuck with the responsibility and the question of how. Against this, though, reading has felt like it was safe.

Then Melville says: This costs blood.

There are a number of problems, of course, with conceiving of reading as an act where one isn’t ethically involved. As “ethical resistance.” What does that even mean? Another, the big one, for me, is that it is always this move of self-exemption that enables unethical behavior. We always, always, always find ways of making other people the bad people, and ourselves safe from moral responsibility. We disown our own responsibility and culpability with never-ending displacements that would rival a nursery rhyme, the cow takes the dog, the dog takes the cat, the cat a rat, the rat the cheese, and no one just stands alone with it. The search for the guilty party is always the search for other people. It’s displacement. Trying to find a way out of our ethical problems seems to always involve saying we never had them, they weren’t ours, we resisted, and this exactly repeats the structure of the problem. Actual ethical moments, it seems to me, can only come as this kind of shock that collapses the distance we place between ourselves and culpability.

Melville does this in this moment of metafiction. It’s one of the brilliant things metafiction can do, though it doesn’t always. The knock against metafiction is that it’s narcissistic, self absorbed, smart kids showing off. This can, in fact, be the case, but metafiction also offers us or can offer a real chance to see ourselves for what we are, to acknowledge our own responsibility.

Consider a work that is by no means a classic of the metafiction genre: Jud Süß, Oskar Roehler’s 2010 film about the 1940 Nazi film of the same name. Roehler’s film shows the original film, even integrating clips from Joseph Goebbels’ original into the story about a story. In one scene, Roehler shows Nazi soldiers watching the vicious, anti-Semitic film, zooming in on their awful, leering faces, and then he cuts, and shows the scene from the back of the theater, and we see their heads and shoulders as silhouettes, watching the movie. We see them, in that moment, in the same way we see the people in front of us, and the shot collapses the distance we might normally place between ourselves and those evil other people. We are watching them watching, and that visual stutter serves to point to the fact that we are sitting there as they are sitting there, leering at them leering, and we are not separate and distance from them. It isn’t, I don’t think, an act of moral equivalence, but simply serves to focus us on a question: How do we distinguish ourselves? How do we separate ourselves? How is that we’re different?

There is, in metafiction, a possibility for ethical realization. Moby-Dick isn’t metafictional, by and large, but a brilliantly shaggy, multi-genre work. When it is metafictional, though, in this chapter, “The Affidavit,” it manages to surprise, and to collapse the distance we so often put between ourselves any sense of culpability.

Hey you, he says. You. You’re involved in this.

Drawing courtesy of Matt Kirsh, who is drawing a picture for every page of Moby-Dick.