In “Comics as Culture”, M. Thomas Inge posited that comics and jazz were the two art forms that “perhaps represent America’s major indigenous contribution to world culture.” A throwaway line; as you can tell by the title he didn’t write much more about Jazz, but one picked up by this article by Brad Mackey Batman As Jazz. In it the writer takes the metaphor that one stage further and considers the act of creating certain kinds of licensed comics as Jazz itself (namely the reinventing and riffing on a familiar motif to create something new). Its an argument that works best with Batman and less well with most other monolithic US comic characters, and allows the following excellent quote: Batman has been riffed on so many times that he’s become the “‘Round Midnight” of the superhero set.

This idea of the malleability of Batman is one that DC Comics had thrust upon them about the time of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and was a well they drained next to dry in the nineties with endless “Elseworld” tales of a slightly different Batmen. There was the Victorian Batman (Gotham By Gaslight), Batman as a vampire, Batman as caveman etc etc…and they would all end up in pretty much the same way – telling the same story of the self-made hero saving a city by dressing up as a bat*. Its also a theme that Grant Morrison in his recent Batman RIP has leant on heavily. Because the question he asked was, what if all of Batman’s adventures really did happen to the same man, what would that do to them? (Answer, drive them nuts). What he could conveniently try to ignore is what if all these different tonalities, these different ways of telling Batman stories, were about the same man. That would prove that they were nuts – if not subject to some pretty major mood swings (or Swing The Moods if you will).

At the heart of all of this is DC Comics clutching on to their USP in the comic book world. Marvel has the soap opera, DC has the original superheroes, the archetypes. It is a drum that has been almost banged to death. Batman and Superman (and Wonder Woman though they have never been quite as successful in stressing her unique status) are really only as archetypal as DC wants them to be, BECAUSE THEY KEEP TELLING US THEY ARE. In Trinity, the current DC weekly comic, Supes, Batman and Wonder Woman are presented as the fundamental trinity that holds the universe together. When they are destroyed, the Universe changes to try and compensate. In Morrison’s Final Crisis Superman is seen to be so important that there is a suggestion that the entire Crisis takes place because Superman popped off to the future for a bit. So not only are the ways various characters are handled a metaphor for jazz in the DC Universe, but so is the repetition of the same stories over and over again. This is not all DC Comics fault, the fans do keep clamouring for the greatest hits (aka bringing back characters from the dead). And whilst some retelling is inevitable in a serialised comic, the number of ways we can be told that Superman represents hope dwindles. Jazz is not all about reinventing the standards after all, ask anyone whose seen a lousy jazz funk band break into Take Five.

(I found that article via this bit on Brad’s Blog, which was linked to FT via the photo which was linked to this article here Tom wrote a couple of years ago about the comic Batman: Jazz. Everything connects.)