Flashbacks in the Graphic Novel: A Journey Through Time and Space

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Foreword: This post continues to my investigation into classical cinema’s influence on the graphic novel. Here is the link to my first post on this topic: Classical Cinema’s Influence on the Graphic Novel

Classical cinema’s influence on Jacques Tardi is so pervasive that it is even noticeable in the smallest scale of his narrative structure, namely his panel composition. But before we dive into Tardi’s, “Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot,” I think some additional information on flashbacks will be useful for our analysis.

A flashback is a narrative device that stops a story and transports the viewer/reader back in time, usually to provide background information about a character, or other additional information that is crucial to the advancement of the plot. And although the flashback has been used in literature for centuries, it is probably most recognizable in film, where it has come to take on distinct visual style that distinguishes it from the normal chronology of a movie. Flashbacks in film are most often signified in two ways: through the use of an alternative color scheme (i.e. monochrome in a color movie, or sepia, in a black and white film), or through the wavy or blurred edges of the frame. Flashbacks’ dream-like visual qualities are complemented by their tendency to blur time and space; they tend to seamlessly blend together disconnected, and sometimes chronologically distant events.

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It is the characteristically cinematic flashback that Jacques Tardi creatively adapts to the medium of the graphic novel in “Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot.” This can be seen in the final panel on page twenty four, in which Tardi effortlessly joins five unique and unrelated pictures—two men standing with guns, a women walking toward a man standing next to a semi-truck, a man slapping his son, a prostitute, and a moped—together into a single, larger meta-narrative: the lead up to Martin Terrier’s birth and the first sixteen years of his life. Tardi’s unusual panel is notable for practical and well as stylistic reasons. To begin with the former, Tardi is able to condense approximately seventeen years’ worth of time and countless miles of space into a single panel, allowing him to effectively provide the pertinent facts of Terrier’s backstory and childhood, without adding unnecessary length to his text. Furthermore, the unique panel composition signifies the flashback and alerts the reader to a break in the linear chronology of the story. In regard to style, Tardi successfully mimics the filmic flashback through his elimination of the gutter[1] and his fluid collage of independent images. Through the combination of these aforementioned techniques, Tardi creates a dream-like panel in which he sends the reader spinning through space and time in order to uncover Terrier’s backstory. By using this innovative and cinematic style, Tardi challenges the reader to put together the panel’s fragmented and seemingly unrelated images into a coherent and cohesive narrative, without the assistance of individual panels which help to facilitate closure. In this respect, classical cinema has not only influenced Tardi’s narrative style, but also the level of involvement required by the reader in order to understand the story.


[1] The gutter is a term that refers to the space between the borders of each panel.

Classical Cinema’s Influence on the Graphic Novel

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As I began reading “Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot” by Jacques Tardi, I was immediately struck by the cinematic quality of this text. In fact, the first page of this graphic novel is structured very similar to a scene in narrative film.ImageThe first panel functions like an establishing shot[1] and orients the reader in the world of the story by showing him the setting; in this case, two people walking down a deserted street at night. The text boxes in this panel complement the illustration by provide additional information, such as the exact location of the setting, Cheshire Plain. Here, it is important to note that while the establishing panel provides a lot of information, because it is so broad in its scope, it provides very little detail about any one particular element. For example, because there are so many features and such little detail in the first panel, it is unclear who or what is the main subject.ImageThe second panel provides this focus by tightening the framing, while maintaining a logical connection to the previous panel. The reader is now shown the same landscape again; this time, at the street level from a few feet behind the couple. By centering the couple within the frame and providing more details, namely their gender and dress, Jacques Tardi signifies their importance. The text box also provides more detail to this panel by drawing the reader’s attention to the Bedford van situated in the middle ground of the image, which may otherwise have gone unnoticed.

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Initially, the third panel seems disconnected from the other two; it shows the profile of a man in a vehicle, hiding a gun, and looking forward. However, it soon becomes apparent through the text box, that this man is hiding inside the Bedford van that was referenced in the previous panel. Furthermore, when the reader orients himself within the space of the story, it becomes clear that the man is staring at the couple who are walking down the street toward him, alluding to the fact that he is planning to shoot one or both of them.Image

The fourth panel nicely pulls together the aforementioned elements—the man in the van and the couple walking—albeit a bit violently. This panel shows the man walking down the street with the woman, get shot by the man who was waiting in the Bedford van. By showing this action from close behind the couple, and matching where the shooter was looking in panel three[2], the reader is not only able to understand the spatial relations between the four panels, but also the chronology of them.

Jacques Tardi is not only able to establish a logical connection between his panels, but also effectively orient the reader within the space of the story through his use of continuity editing[3] in “Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot.” By doing this, he is able effectively create suspense, while simultaneously allowing the careful reader to piece together elements of the story and draw his own conclusions, before they are made explicit, or denied entirely. Furthermore, Tardi’s cinematic structure allows him to create a complex and interesting narrative, while avoiding the unnecessary confusion of his reader.

Footnotes

[1] Typically, a long or extreme long shot used to introduce a setting to the viewer.[2] This is called an eye-line match in film and is a technique used to preserve spatial continuity. [3] The main style of editing in narrative film-making used to establish a logical connection between shots and smooth over the inherent discontinuity that arises during the editing process.

A Break from Superheroes

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I want to begin by apologizing for neglecting my blog over these last three weeks. I have been buried under countless midterms, job interviews, and papers; but at last, my life has returned to normal. I am currently enjoying a week long break from class, in which I will be dedicating plenty of time to reading and writing about graphic novels.

After reading two Batman stories, I wanted to take a break the superhero genre for a while and move unto something a bit more realistic, but no less dark and gritty. While looking for a new graphic novel in the local bookstore, I stumbled upon “Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot,” by the renowned French illustrator Jacques Tardi. This noir tells the story of Martin Terrier, a professional assassin, who after one last job intends to return to his home town, elope with his long lost love, and retire in peace. Needless to say, his idealistic plan goes awry, leading to fast paced chases, violent shootouts, and an unexpected ending that no one saw coming. The graphic novel is only about 100 pages, and I have already started reading it, so expect a post about it tomorrow. In the meantime, enjoy a few panels from “Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot.”

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The Internal Conflict of Lieutenant Jim Gordon

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I felt compelled to share and analysis to this gorgeous full page panel in Frank Miller’s “Year One” because it succinctly encompasses many notable elements present in the graphic novel. On the narrative level, this panel is very representative of the entire story. Unlike his previous Batman tale, “The Dark Knight Returns,” Frank Miller’s “Year One” is composed of unambiguous dialogue, internal thoughts, and narration. In this panel, it is clear that Jim Gordon has many things on his mind, including his relationship with his wife, his duty as a police officer, and the mysterious character of Batman. This panel’s artwork is also very characteristic of “Year One.” David Mazzucchelli beautifully complements Miller’s minimalistic narrative with his near photorealistic artwork; in “Year One,” the speech boxes are easily read and understood, while the intricate illustrations command the reader’s prolonged attention in order to fully appreciate their complexity and profundity. This panel in particular showcases Mazzucchelli’s incredible attention to detail—not only do the sheets have an intricate pattern to them, but their texture accurately conveys the weight and positioning of Jim Gordon and his pregnant wife Barbara, on their bed.

In addition to the aforementioned narrative and artistic qualities of “Year One,” for me, one of its most defining characteristic is its unparalleled thematic depth.  And although “Year One” has many themes, the largest, and perhaps most noteworthy, manifests itself in Jim Gordon’s internal conflict, regarding his conception of the world, and remains unresolved at the end of the graphic novel. But before we continue, let’s examine Jim Gordon’s character and philosophy in order to better situate his momentous conundrum within the framework of the graphic novel.

In the beginning of the “Year One,” Jim Gordon sees world in simplistic binary terms. Much of this is related to his job as a police officer, which, by his beliefs, requires him to uphold and enforce the law. This means that everyone is either an innocent civilian, who must be protected, or a guilty criminal, who must be brought to justice—there are no exceptions. But as the story progresses, he confronts two main phenomena that challenge his beliefs, namely Batman and the police and civil servants of Gotham city. Batman problematizes Jim Gordon’s worldview because he cannot be neatly categorized as either a civilian or a criminal; Batman breaks the law by violently assaulting people, but, he only attacks criminals, and as a direct result of his actions, the crime rate in Gotham has been reduced. Similarly, the fact that the Police Commissioner and the Mayor of Gotham city are corrupt, challenge Jim Gordon’s worldview because they directly oppose his belief that title dictates behavior. In other words, the police are NOT inherently lawful, despite being required to be by their occupation. By the end of the third section in “Year One,” Jim Gordon begins to deeply question his philosophy and conception of the world, leading to an internal crisis.

This carefully constructed panel highlights Jim Gordon’s monumental internal struggle through several short, yet thoroughly effective speech boxes. In this panel, Jim Gordon begins to work through his philosophical problem stating, “He’s a criminal. I’m a cop. It’s that simple. But—” (Miller 70). The subtle nuance found in the final word of his statement, “but,” alludes to the fact that Jim Gordon no longer holds firm to his previously held worldview; his mind has not been completely changed, but the seeds of doubt have sprouted. This becomes clear as he further qualifies the simplicity of his previous assertion, stating, “I’m a cop in a city where the mayor and the commissioner of police use cops as hired killers” (Miller 70). At this point, the reader becomes distinctly aware that not only are their exceptions to Jim Gordon’s binary model of good and evil, but that one’s title has no intrinsic bearing on his behavior. Jim Gordon continues along this line of reasoning as he reflects on Batman’s actions, thinking, “he saved that old woman,” “he saved that cat,” and “he even paid for that suit” (Miller 70). Here, it becomes clear that one’s title is irrelevant, and that one’s actions, and the resulting consequences of those actions, are all that matter. Although Batman is labeled as a criminal, his actions are exemplary of heroic behavior; and on the other hand, despite being labeled as law enforcement, the behavior of Gotham City’s police force aligns it with criminals. With that said, despite what appears to be quite compelling evidence, Jim Gordon does not unequivocally resolve his internal struggle in this panel—he does not reach a definite conclusion about the validity of his worldview. Instead, he is left to feel the immense weight of Batman’s fate and the future of Gotham City—cleverly represented by the heavy “hunk of metal”—that lie precariously in his hands.

 

Batman: No Longer the Hero

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First off, let me apologize for the delay in getting this posted. After finishing “Batman: Year One,” I was so overwhelmed with its thematic depth that I really struggled in narrowing down a topic to write about. With that said, I hope you enjoy the following essay, and I will be posting another one later this week. If you have any specific area or topic, relating to “Batman: Year One” of course, that you would like to see written about please let me know. As always, I look forward to your comments and critiques.

Batman: No Longer the Hero

In “Batman Year One,” Frank Miller’s greatest accomplishment was removing Batman from his previous position of a hero, a being that is perfect and able to transcend societal and institutional constraints to fulfill his higher purpose, and instating him as a human, an imperfect person who does the best he can while operating within the limitations of society; although Batman possess extraordinary and valiant qualities, he is not without fault, nor is he free from the influence of his environment.

Although Batman is a crime fighter who saves innocent civilians and punishes criminals, his motivations are about as dark as they come. Although, when one places his motivations for vigilantism in the context of his traumatic personal history, they become much more reasonable and even relatable. Given the fact that Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents’ cold blooded murder at the age of six, it becomes understandable that his sole purpose for living is to exact revenge on the criminals of Gotham city; in fact, one can easily see how Bruce Wayne believes they are responsible for taking away everything he once had. Similarly, it becomes easy to understand the justification, and even necessity, of his violent tactics and methods, when one situates them within his environment. Gotham city is a cesspool of crime and violence, where the cops are hired killers, and the public officials serve the interests of the highest bidder. In this vile place, it is not only impractical to subdue criminals and turn them over to the police, but ineffective, since they will likely escape justice by bribing the police with their ill-gotten funds. In this position, Batman is left with no option but to violently combat the criminals who pollute Gotham city and threaten the safety of its law abiding citizens.

By conceptualizing Batman as a human and not as a hero, Frank Miller gives him the complex and multi-faceted characterization that he deserves. Batman is no longer the overly simplified symbol of unfaltering good that is easy to admire, yet nearly impossible to identify with; instead, he becomes a realistic and relatable example of the agency that an individual can possess, despite being constrained by the large and inescapable world in which he lives.

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A Few Updates and Then Back to “Year One”

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As some of you may have noticed, I’ve recently added a ratings system for the essays that I have posted so far. Although I would prefer comments because I think that they help facilitate discussion and add to the richness of the topics, by providing more information and varying opinions, I understand that they are not for everyone. So, I have provided a very simple, supplementary method of assessment in hopes of receiving more feedback on my writing. This system is very easy to use, all you need to do is hover your mouse over the number of stars you think my post deserves and click. Thank you in advance for your willingness to help me in my journey as a writer.

My first midterms are right around the corner, so please bear with me during these next two weeks because I will be very busy and not able to post as frequently as I would like. With that said, I will be putting up my final essay for “The Dark Knight Returns,” on the role of the media as both a narrative device and as political commentary, later this week.

The next graphic novel I will be reading is “Batman: Year One” by Frank Miller. I was so impressed with his innovative narrative style and imagination in “The Dark Knight Returns,” that I wanted to read another of his works. I chose to read “Year One” because I wanted to see Frank Miller’s take on the origin story of Bruce Wayne/Batman, as well as the fact that it is in the same continuity as his other Batman stories. Because “Year One” is in the same timeline as “The Dark Knight Returns,” I think there is an amazing opportunity to create a dialogue between these two stories.

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Bruce Wayne’s Death and Batman’s (Re)Birth in “The Dark Knight Returns”

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Foreword: As promised, I am dedicating this post to discussing how Frank Miller re-envisioned the character of Batman in “The Dark Knight Returns.” With that said, I have decided to move away from the more general/overview model of my last post, and venture back to a close reading/textual analysis model that I used in an earlier one.

Background Info: In the original story of Batman, Bruce Wayne was a playboy millionaire who disguised himself as Batman when he donned a costume and fought crime. In other words, Batman is just a character that Bruce Wayne plays to strike fear into the hearts of the criminals that he attacks, as well as to hide his identity from the public. In “The Dark Knight Returns,” Frank Miller turns the original story on its head by shifting the central focus from Bruce Wayne to Batman, and by portraying these two characters as radically different entities— both physically and mentally—that inhabit the same body.

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Analysis: In the beginning of “The Dark Knight Returns,” the reader learns that Batman has not been spotted in ten years, and that the citizens of Gotham suspect that he is either dead or retired. The reader soon discovers that Bruce Wayne has been deliberately repressing Batman for the last ten years, ever since he took a vow to never let Batman take control of their shared body again. Although the voice of Batman is never directly heard at this point in the story, Bruce Wayne makes it clear that he must exercise an extraordinary amount of self-control to keep him at bay, as he explains that Batman “struggles relentlessly, [and] hatefully, to be free” (Miller 19). In fact, Bruce Wayne highlights the hardships he must endure as he explains that Batman preys on him when he is most vulnerable, by bringing him to the bat-cave “when the night is long and [his] will is weak” (Miller 19). Although faced with unimaginable temptation by Batman, Bruce Wayne stays firm and reassures himself of the control his possess as he thinks, “I will not let him [break free]. I gave my word” (Miller 19).

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Although Bruce Wayne’s self-control is strong, Batman’s desire for escape is also strong. This becomes apparent to the reader about halfway through the first book of “The Dark Knight Returns,” when the voice of Batman is heard for the first time, signaling a shift in the battle for control over their shared body. Batman attempts to assert his dominance over Bruce Wayne in three separate yet intertwined ways: 1. By belittling him—Batman tells Bruce Wayne, “you are puny [and] you are small” 2. By relegating him to the position of a mere vessel—Batman tells him, “you are nothing [but] a hollow shell” 3. And by declaring his unstoppable power—Batman tells him, “you cannot stop me—not with wine or vows or the weight of age” (Miller 25).

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Despite being inescapable and unstoppable, Batman still remains trapped inside the body that is currently controlled by Bruce Wayne. In fact, Frank Miller likens Batman’s captivity to that of a person trapped inside a prison cell, by visually representing his symbolic struggle throughout page twenty six. In the first panel, the windowpanes cast a shadow—that resembles prison bars—over the physically and mentally broken body—ruled by Bruce Wayne—who leans over a table for support[1]. This striking symbolism continues in the fourth panel, where the reader is shown the view from inside “the prison.” It is worth noting this perspective is much darker then the aforementioned panel, both literally, in the sense that the panel is almost entirely black and devoid of color, and metaphorically, in the sense that there seems to be no possibility of escape for Batman. However, this perspective is lightening in panel seven, both literally, in the sense that the panel itself is brighter, and metaphorically, in the sense that the flying bat offers a possibility for escape. Throughout the page, the warring perspectives of Bruce Wayne (the dark panels) and Batman (the light panels) continue in their battle for control over the single body that they share. In the end, the possibility of escape is realized in the final panel of the page in which the flying bat crashes through the window, representing the symbolic freedom that Batman has finally attained[2].

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Although it is alluded to throughout the next several pages of the graphic novel as criminals are violently assaulted, and innocent civilians are saved by a mysterious force, it becomes explicitly clear on page thirty-four that Batman has indeed come out of retirement. Here, for the first time in “The Dark Knight Returns,” the massive physical differences between the characters of Batman and Bruce Wayne start to become clear—Bruce Wayne is fifty-five years old and has fallen victim to the weight of age, while Batman is a man of twenty or thirty years who is in excellent physical condition[3]. Additionally, the reader can also begin to see the vast mental differences between the two characters—Bruce Wayne is peaceful, complacent, and has a bit of a drinking problem, while Batman is violent and frequently acts impulsively[4].


[1] Here I think it is important to recognize Frank Miller’s homage to the genre of noir in his use of shadow to evoke imagery of both the prison cell and captivity.  Here are some visual examples of the noir style shadow from the film Double Indemnity: http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/eng3940h/files/2010/02/double-indemnity-legacy-series-edition-20060830022522077_640w.jpg and http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/eng3940h/files/2010/02/CM-Capture-5.png.

[2] Here it is important to note that even though Batman is shown without his costume several times throughout the rest of the graphic novel, he is NOT Bruce Wayne; Batman and Bruce Wayne are distinguished from each other by their mental attitudes, physical abilities, and various other characteristics, not by their clothing.

[3] While this is the first example of the contrast between Batman’s physical prowess and Bruce Wayne’s physical weakness, it is certainly not the only one. In fact, I think this aforementioned difference become much more apparent during Batman’s battles with the mutant leader later on in the story.

[4] It should be noted that these examples have not been drawn from a single panel, but rather they have been gathered from various pages throughout the story, and have been synthesized here for the sake of simplicity.

Thoughts on the Narrative Style of “The Dark Knight Returns”

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I have officially finished reading “The Dark Knight Returns,” and at this point I think it is appropriate to post some of my thoughts about the story. But, since there is so much I would like to say about this graphic novel, I will be making more than one post.

To begin with, I would like to address the narrative of “The Dark Knight Returns,” which has often been its biggest point of controversy. Since its debut, it has come to be recognized as a one of the best English language graphic novels ever written by Time magazine, and has also entered into many other top ten lists; but with that said, it certainly still has its critics. In fact, one of the most steadily raised complaints against the graphic novel is its storyline, which has often been described as convoluted and difficult to follow. Overall, people seem have strong, and polar opposite opinions in regard to Frank Miller’s graphic novel—they either love it or they hate it; and for anyone who is curious, I belong to the former category.

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In my opinion, the best element of “The Dark Knight Returns” is Frank Miller’s unique and daring narrative style. It is not often that someone produces a coherent story told from a third person perspective, while simultaneously allowing the reader to venture into main characters’ thought processes, let alone such iconic ones as Batman, Robin, Superman, and the Joker. Furthermore, I thoroughly enjoyed Miller’s decision to focus on the unnamed inhabitance of Gotham city and give them a central place in the story, because while this is technically a story about Batman, it is also a story about the city of Gotham. This narrative choice is significant because it gives a more realistic portrayal of both Batman, and his place of residence, by highlighting the fact that Batman is only a single person, and can only do so much to combat the rampant crime in Gotham—at the end of the day, it is up to the citizens of Gotham to reclaim their city from the filth that has over taken it.

Throughout “The Dark Knight Returns,” I was required to devote my full attention in order to understand what was going on at both at the macro level of the narrative, and at the micro level of the characters. And although this may seem like a tedious task to some, for me it was a challenging, yet thoroughly rewarding experience. All too often, I am confronted with narratives that are not only so simple that I can figure out how the story will end from the very beginning, but they are formulaic and unoriginal, usually with a small element or two changed, so they can pass as “new.” Rarely these days do authors and directors construct a mainstream work that is complex and original[1]. However, Frank Miller did just that; he created a unique and intricate narrative that successfully re-imagined Batman as The Dark Knight.

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My next post will discuss the role that “The Dark Knight Returns” played in re-imagining and re-envisioning the character of Batman. And as always, I would like to hear other people’s reactions and thoughts on “The Dark Knight Returns,” so please feel free to share this post and to comment below.

[1] There are plenty of complex and original works out there, but very few of them reach mainstream audiences.  The reason for this is twofold: 1. many authors and directors do not want to risk their careers on a work that may not be well received because it is different 2. Many channels of distribution—publishing houses and media conglomerates—do not want to fund projects that aren’t guaranteed to make a profit.

I happened upon this short clip and was so amazed that I wanted to share it. This work manages to combine the graphic novel with film in a very unique way, and it is truly unlike anything I have ever seen before. I would like to do a bit of writing on this clip next week, so I hope I will have time. But until then, enjoy the clip and please feel free to post your thoughts and opinions on it.

This gorgeous short film about a gunslinger hired to kill death uses traditional techniques of origami and kirigami paper manipulation to transform static comic book panels into innovative cinematic art.  The fascinating approach to animation is only enhanced by a heck of a good Wild West yarn spun by writer and director Edson Oda.   Definitely worth a watch, kittens.  Enjoy!

Malaria Short Film

(via io9)

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Batman’s Death Wish in The Dark Knight Returns

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When I first came across these two panels on page 10, I didn’t pay much attention to them, but the more I thought about them, the more I became intrigued and puzzled by their subject matter—Bruce Wayne’s favorable musings about death. The question that first entered my mind was, why would Bruce Wayne considered his own death good? And furthermore, what about a flaming car crash was particularly appealing, yet not enticing enough to follow through with? While the text does not offer any clues into Bruce Wayne’s thought process in this particular instance, it does offer a bit of overarching information about Bruce Wayne’s “death wish.”

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In “The Dark Knight Returns,” Bruce Wayne is portrayed as a vessel for Batman (instead of the other way around), so without him, Wayne feels like “a zombie,” “a flying Dutchman,” and a “dead man” because in a sense, he is—Wayne is just an empty shell, a remnant, and a constant living reminder of the hero he once was (Miller, 12). From this evidence it seems that Bruce Wayne wants to die because he wants his body to match his soul, which has been dead—ever since Batman retired—for the last ten years.

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But I fear it is not that simple. Near the end of the first book, Bruce Wayne again speaks fondly of his death, but unlike last time, his body and soul have been united as one—Batman has reclaimed and repossessed Bruce Wayne, endowing him with a new-found strength and sense of purpose. As Batman runs building to building across a tightrope, he thinks, “In ten years I’ve never felt so calm. So right. This would be a fine death…” (Miller, 51).

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A few panels later, after being hit by a bullet, Batman falls off the tightrope and plummets toward the city many stories below, thinking, “…a fine death. But there are the thousands to think of…and Harvey*…I have to know” (Miller, 51). While Wayne’s motivation for wanting to die remains unclear, his reasoning for denying himself this pleasure becomes clear. Wayne won’t let himself die at this moment for two reasons: First and foremost, he is incredibly selfless—Batman won’t let thousands of innocent people die when he is able to save them, even though he doesn’t care to save himself. Second, he is curious—he wants to know if the bandaged man is actually Two-Face.

*At this point in the story, Harvey Dent (aka Two-Face) has been “cured”—both physically and mentally—and released from Arkham Asylum. Shortly after his release, he disappeared and his calling card began to appear at the sight of various crimes. Now, a man with his face wrapped in bandages has taking the news tower hostage and is threatening to blow it up unless a five million dollar ransom is paid.

For more information about Harvey Dent, see my earlier post: https://ditto004.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/two-faces-become-one/