Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Mysteries of Gotham

I obtained the other day a Hardcover copy I ordered of Denny O'Neil's novelization of Knightfall.  As I often do I skipped to read the afterward before the actual book, in this case it didn't spoil anything since I knew the story from the BBC Radio Drama, and got a glimpse of the actual Comics in Robin Flying Solo, from various reviews I've read these adaptations of the story are improvements.

The afterward I'm assuming is also written by O'Neil since no one else is credited and it seems like what he'd say.  In it he suggests that the ability of a Bat like creature which used to be a symbol of evil to become a modern Hero perhaps has it's roots in how the way Cities are viewed changed in the middle of the 19th Century.  Dickens is the literary reference he cited, but I feel that theory provides good context for my desire to talk about how the roots of Batman and the genres he traverses stem from Eugene Sue and his French peers.

It was in Les Mysteries de Paris (The Mysteries of Paris) that Eugene Sue pretty much invented modern Urban Crime and Mystery genres.  But key pieces that came before were Vidocq's memoirs and Lamothe-Lagon's The Police Spy.

I'm hardly the first to compare the protagonist of Sue's novel to Bruce Wayne, an Aristocrat secretly fighting evil by night in the Streets.  Key factors of who Bruce Wayne is are missing of course, but still he could be described as the first Dark Knight.

One of the evidences of the Dick Tracey influence on the Golden Age Batman stories is the commonality of villains with hideous scared or deformed faces, often explained by an accident involving Acid or Chemicals, like The Joker and Two-Face.  Well that trope also begins in The Mysteries of Paris with le Maître d'École (The Schoolmaster) who intentionally scared his face with acid to conceal his identity.

That novel was a massive hit and thus naturally spawned a slew of imitators, the most obvious of which tended to be called "The Mysteries of _____".  Stephen Knight's book The Mysteries of The Cities: Urban Crime Fiction in The Nineteenth Century talks about many of them.  Not all will be specifically mentioned here.  And I will mention here some he didn't.

Alexandre Dumas The Count of Monte-Cristo began from an editorial mandate to create another Mysteries of Paris.  But the final product is not really street level enough to make that connection clear.  I'd say the most Suesque novel Dumas wrote was probably The Mohicans of Paris.

There were two novels called The Mysteries of London.  One by an actual Englishman, George Reynolds, which was vital to kicking off the Penny dreadful craze.  And there was Paul Feval's Les Mysteries de Londres which actually began serialization sooner.  It was also an overlooked influence on tCoMC, and it had an abridged English Translation in about 1847/8.  And later Feval made it part of a shared universe with many other Crime novels he wrote, chiefly John Devil and The Blackcoats series.

But we also can't overlook Sue's own next project, The Wandering Jew, which was about equally as big a hit, and carried on some similar themes.  And later in the last couple novels of Sue's Les Mysteries du People saga he made them part of the same universe.

In the 1850s, Ponson Du Terril sought to emulate The Mysteries of Paris with his Les Drames de Paris series, which inevitably morphed into the Rocambole saga.  Rocambole was so influential a french literary term was named after him, Rocambolesque.

In John Devil, the character of Gregory Temple very much anticipates Sherlock Holmes, but the influence seems to have been indirect.  The key middle man was Emile Gaboriou who started out working for Feval, but then wrote many detective novels of his own.  Chiefly the Monsieur Lecoq series, Lecoq is cited by name in the first Holmes novel.  Nick Carter who was created in America about the same time as Holmes also has about the same roots.

All of these French novels and writers were an influence on later writers like Gaston Leroux (Cheri-Bibi, Phantom of The Opera and Rouletible), Maurice Leblanc (Arsene Lupin) and Marcel Allain & Pierre Souvestre (Fantomas).  And in turn on early silent serials like the Fantomas adaptations, Les Vampires, Judex and Belphagor ect.

On the Penny Dreadful connection.  One character who's existence is probably just a coincidence but still worth noting is The Human Bat.

The known and confirmed immediate artistic influences on Batman were 1, Superman who DC wanted a repeat of, 2, Kane being visually inspired by Silent films like The Bat, and The Man Who Laughs which was in turn an adaptation of one of Victor Hugo's later novels (Brian Stableford suggests that novel owes a slight debt to Paul Feval).  3. Bill Finger who actually wrote the stories was mainly drawing on Sherlock Holmes, Zorro, Dick Tracey, The Shadow and similar pulp character like The Spider, and perhaps a bit from hard boiled Detective novels like those of Hammett and Chandler.

Zorro's name being a Spanish word for Fox is further evidence to me his roots go back to Paul Feval's Le Loup Blanc, and it's prequel La Louve.  The former had three English translations in the mid 1800s all called The White Wolf.  Other swashbucklers Feval wrote that are similar and had English translations were Le Bossu and The Three Red Knights: or, The Brothers' Vengeance.  As well as Bel Demonio which even had an English Language stage play adaptation performed in London.

I agree with Rick Lai that the immediate roots of The Shadow lie chiefly in The Phantom of The Opera, Arsene Lupin, and Judex.

Let's talk about Batman's villains a bit.  Professor Hugo Strange actually appeared first of the recurring villains.  In his very first appearance he wasn't mainly a Mad Scientist which modern depictions focus on, he was explicitly a Professor Moriarty figure.  And Moriarty was inspired by criminals Lecoq faced and in turn by Feval villains.

I actually did a post about The French History of The Femme Fatale, in which I mentioned French predecessors for both Catwoman and Poison Ivy, chiefly Irma Vep of Les Vampires for the former.  Thing is however, Catwoman didn't wear a costume at all in her first appearance, the original Catwoman has been described as being like a female Arsene Lupin.  The Lupin novels themselves arguably more then once toyed with the idea of a female Lupin, as I also hinted at in the Femme Fatale post.

The Penguin has also been compared to Dick Tracey villains like Broadway Bates.  But I feel a key predecessor of The Penguin was Gutman from The Maltese Falcone, who looks more like The Penguin in the 1931 film version then he does in the more well known 1941 film. 

Batman and Superman have both changed a lot from how they were in the earliest of their Golden Age stories.  I personally think that's for the best with Batman yet lament it with Superman.  I certainly love all the expansions of and additions to the Superman mythology to come from later writers, but I feel a core piece of the soul of Siegel and Shuster's character has been lost.  Which is why I still feel the best Live Action Superman is George Reeves and the best Animated are the Fleischer Shorts, but even there what I'm referring to is already fading, The Champion of The Oppressed.

I think my justification for that different perspective is partly because Batman was a more blatantly derivative character.  Siegel and Shuster had to fight for years to get a publisher to take a chance on Superman, while Batman was the product of an editorial mandate to recreate the success of Superman, just like so many works made in the wake of The Mysteries of Paris.

Not to say Superman wasn't also influenced by earlier fiction/mythology.  Comparisons to Pulp adventurers like Doc Savage and the one Cracked.com accused Superman of ripping off are common.  And Siegel and Shuster's goal was partly to create a modern Samson but with an origin that was a SciFi version of Moses.  The connection to Samson in turn causes comparisons to other mythical strongmen from Herakles/Hercules to Machiste.  And the origin story I feel happens to resemble Sargon and Perseus more then Moses.

But the point is Superman was from the start clearly distinct from his literary ancestors, while Batman's distinctive characterization had to be developed by later writers.  Writers like Frank Robbins, Denny O'Neil, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, Chuck Dickson, Jeph Leob, Greg Rouka and Gail Simone.  And while they're a mixed bag we can't overlook Frank Miller, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.  And plenty of what's been done in other media was important too.

But of course it's not just the Golden Age writers who drew on earlier stories.  Later Batman writers first off drew on earlier Batman stories.  But also in the 70s there was a lot of James Bond influence, Ra's Al Ghl is a product of that.  And later Nolan cited James Bond influence for Batman Begins (which was also novelized by O'Neil), Heat and Clockwork Orange for The Dark Knight, and Joseph Campbell and Star Wars for TDKRises, and also A Tale of Two Cities, so Dickens was relevant after all.  But I feel the James Bond books themselves owe a debt to Batman, particularly the villain Goldfinger who has a very Penguin vibe to me, or at least based on the same earlier characters as The Penguin.

Jeph Leob's The Long Halloween was in Batman canon a simultaneous sequel to Miller's Year One and reworking of aspects of Eye of The Beholder.  But he was also drawing on The Godfather films, Raymond Chandler novels like The Long Goodbye which inspired the name, and Silence of The Lambs.  And Tim Burton shared Bob Kane's love of old German Expressionism Silent Films, thus we see plenty of Cabinet of Dr Caligari in Batman Returns.

And even those influences can still be traced back at least partly to these French Authors I'm seeking to draw more attention to.

I haven't read Gotham by Gaslight yet, but from the premise I'm already disappointed.  Things like using Jack The Ripper rather then normal Batman villains isn't what I want.  For starters I would like these 19th century literary roots of Batman to be looked at in how to adapt him for a period piece.  And then the fact that Teddy Roosevelt was once New York police Commissioner makes using him as inspiration for Gordon seem natural.

But also I saw Gangs of New York a few weeks ago, and it has some things in common with how I'd imagine a 19th Century Batman story.  Daniel Day Lewis character could make a good model for The Penguin, and Cameron Diaz for Catwoman, and Twede for Rupert Throne.

Years ago I saw a documentary on The History channel about Crime in Ancient Rome, the main host/narrator of the show seemed similar to me to Keith Scott from One Tree Hill, but I don't know if it was really the same actor.  That naturally got my mind spinning about how you could do Batman in Ancient Rome.  But now I'm well off the main subject of this post.


  1. I switched to another browser, so hopefully leaving a comment here will work. Anyway, I have myself been thinking that Rodolphe, the hero of The Mysteries of Paris, is very much like Batman, with Murph as his Alfred. I'm glad to see others agree with me. I'm only 300 pages in, but it's a wonderful novel and I'll post about it in more depth when I finish it. Keep up the fascinating posts!

  2. I've finished reading The Mysteries of Paris - definitely a fascinating read. Will write a blog about it later this week. Then I plan to read Reynolds' The Mysteries of London later this year. As for Batman, I was wondering if you knew about the new Hulu original film "Batman and Bill" which just came out a week or two ago about how Bill Finger helped to invent Batman. I know next to nothing about Batman really but it looks interesting so I'll likely watch it soon.

    1. I've heard of it, but I don't have Netflix.

      I'll make sure I read that Blog Post.