A companion piece to Episode 35: The Podcast We Deserve, written by Laurel Hostak
As a writer, I am more inspired by place than anything else. The ability to describe the atmosphere of a location, smell the smells, hear the music or simply the bustle of the street, physically experience the climate-- these are the first tools I reach for when crafting a story.
In my personal experience, the place my mind goes first when searching for inspirational locations is Prague, Czech Republic. It was always a dream of mine to visit the motherland, and when I finally made it there, the city was more than I could have imagined. It's the kind of place that sings so powerfully in my heart that I can't help but try to capture it. The city is old and the streets are cobbled. There are monuments from various centuries and architectural movements stacked on top of one another, creating a hodge-podge of history from block to block, rather than a unifying style like Paris' 19th Century limestone buildings. You can feel the layers of myth and legend in the stone bridges, in the gleaming, and in the Gothic and Baroque towers piercing the sky. The city rises and falls along the Vltava. Every hour, it becomes an echo chamber of clattering church bells. For me, Prague is a place of character, spirit and timelessness. It absorbs the stories within its limits, they seep into the stone. It breathes, it comforts, and it frightens. The atmosphere is thick and palpable. That's what I need as a writer--to be surrounded by the story. And that is how other stories do a number on me. That's how Batman does a number on me.
In each expression of the Caped Crusader, his city of Gotham figuratively and literally looms large. The "episodes" is Batman's adventures take place in the shadow of tall buildings, beneath forced perspective that reminds us of our smallness and helplessness. It accentuates the divide between the rich and the poor, the have's and the have not's. It creates the underbelly of corruption and indulgence that oppresses the poor crime-ridden communities as it festers below the decadent upper classes. It's a tale of two cities that echoes the split in Bruce Wayne/Batman's own consciousness. It's Batman's head, inside out.
We owe a great deal of Gotham's lasting aesthetic to Tim Burton's movies as well as the subsequent Batman: The Animated Series, which evolved in continuity with the former. The combination of 1920's and 1930's Art Deco style with film noir visuals and a haunting nod to the gothic (listen to episode 35 for lots more on gothic genre influences on the Batman universe!), reinforces the dichotomies of Gotham's heroes and villains. We are reminded that one can be motivated by justice and good intentions and still feel compelled to achieve those ends by perpetuating a cycle of violence. That it's possible to be a billionaire philanthropist seemingly well-adjusted businessman and still wrestle with personal demons or post-traumatic stress. That the idea of reconciling all of the conflicting impulses that create our day-to-day existences is cumbersome at best.
Batman is one of the best-drawn characters in contemporary culture precisely because every comic, series, or movie wrestles head-on with this duality, with the "two cities" that struggle inside all of us. Even in a universe where all-powerful men can fall to earth and others can resurrect indefinitely by bathing in "Lazarus pits," this treatment of character strikes me as more realistic than most. Batman shows us that the divides between all binaries are blurrier than we like to think. Good and evil, light and dark, strength and fear, justice and revenge. Gotham is instrumental, as an expressionistic landscape, in bringing these themes to the surface.
I start with location as a writer because of how it can express character on a visual and emotional level. Because of how it affects me, even from a simple establishing shot. Every shot of Gotham in all its menace and opulence reminds us that we never know what lurks in the shadows or around the corner. This is true of the Burton world, the animated series, and even of stories like the Dark Knight Returns and the Nolan films, which serve to ground Gotham in more recognizable geography. But it's impossible to imagine these stories taking place in real world New York, or Hoboken, or LA. Even in the handful of time Batman adventures stray from Gotham, we know he brings it with him. To rephrase an old cliche, you can take the Bat out of Gotham, but you can't take Gotham out of Batman.
Batman is always timely and always timeless. His relationship to Gotham, in any iteration, is key to understanding him, because he is both a product and producer of Gotham. He was formed by its decadence and corruption, and he also feeds that decadence and corruption. He is literally, for better or worse, the hero Gotham deserves—and we can identify with that as Americans because we are a product of our own complex national or local histories and we continue to make our future while more ignorant of that than cognizant. The Dark Knight Returns has a huge place in that legacy because in making a darker, grittier Batman for the flashy excesses of the 80s, it grounded much of the action in specific real-world conflict and fear. So contemporary Batman feels personal because it took those cues, and turned Gotham into our world, our world into Gotham.