The serial figure, as we call it, is not merely a character in a series; rather, it exists as a series – across a variety of media, shaped by a dynamic interplay between repetition and variation. Serial figures such as Batman, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, or Tarzan proliferate in literary works, films, comics, television series, and video games, and (in stark contrast to the characters of ongoing, monomedial series) they constitute discontinuous, plurimedial serialities without regard for diegetic consistency. Serial figures are 'flat' in most of their instantiations, and they show a remarkable self-reflexive awareness of the material parameters of their own serial restagings – and the media-technical changes informing these restagings.
A great number of serial figures are Janus-faced beings who oscillate between secret and public identities, or between the human and the animal or technical, and this narrative duplicity maps nicely onto the duality of inward and outward-looking perspectives towards diegetic contents and medial forms. Movement between media implies constant revision, a lack of true origins (or an overabundance of the same), so that productions in a new medium constantly circle around origin stories, rewriting them and thereby positioning the new medium as the figure's native turf.
It is fitting, then, that Tim Burton's Batman (1989) stages the central battle between the title figure and his nemesis Joker as a battle over media and (serial) memory. In this clip, Joker hijacks broadcast TV to issue his challenge, which Bruce Wayne reviews at his elaborate multimedia console (combining televisual reception with production, surveillance, recording, and computing capabilities), before turning to a newspaper clipping recording the past. The very circumstances of this 'face-off' thus belie Joker's claim that this is "just [between] the two of us." The ensuing flashback gives us the figures' 'backstories,' but it does not disrupt the highly mediated format of the encounter, relating the past events in markedly cinematic terms and in a highly artificial noirish style from an impossible vantage point (certainly not the child's perspective). "I have taken off my makeup – let's see if you can take off yours," quips Joker near the beginning.
This is the one thing, however, that serial figures cannot do. In the end, Wayne dons his Batman suit to go to battle. Framed by a multitude of media, the scene gestures towards the fragmented, plurimedial existence of every serial figure.
Putting More Make-Up On
Thanks for this fabulous and inspiring post. I think that the Joker's taunt "I have taken off my makeup - let's see if you can take off yours" is instructive because it misrecognizes the actual logic of serial figures, which tend to appear in ever different guises and makeups as they move from one medium to another and then another (think of the dancing Batman and the many Jokers in Prince's Batdance video). Thus, for Batman to take off his makeup would mean to reveal one Bruce Wayne, whereas putting on the Batman mask and costume has produced endless versions of this serial figure (and is therefore an essential element of the genre). In light of all this, it is, however, quite ironic that in a plurimedial series such as Batman, even demasking won't settle identities. After all, the removal of Batman's mask on the big screen has reaveled a series of actors (Michael Keaton, George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale), all of whom recall in one way or another earlier incarnations of the figure, for instance the campy Adam West of the 1966 television series.
Your point about the Joker's self-reflexive understanding of the logic of proliferation makes sense. And you're also right about Vicky Vale's knowledge of Batman's civilian identity, which was one of Burton's "violations" of the comic book continuity that raised the most extensive fan protest (apart from casting Keaton as Bruce Wayne). It foregrounds the conflicting demands that different media place on plurimedial figures (a Hollywood blockbuster pretty much needs a fermale love interest; a superhero comic book doesn't necessarily).
an end to continuity
Wow, this has taken off without me. Wait! Two observations on a discussion which makes lots of relevant points:
1. The uncovering of Batman’s identity in this movie may have more substantial consequences than the two of you acknowledge – this might really be the beginning of the end of the serial figure. It signals to the filmic (re)birth of Batman as a series character. In Batman Begins or The Dark Knight Batman acquires the kind of depth that a neo-noirish blockbuster demands, his psychological quandaries are foregrounded to an extent that the ‚figure’ in its recognizable flatness does - at least - no longer take center stage.
2. Thanks, Daniel, for bringing up the issue of iconicity in your first response. I think it is indeed important to reflect on how precisely a certain ‘look’ (or 'sound,' in Tarzan's case) is constituted and how these iconic features then come to be actualized in the course of the figure’s career. I find it intriguing that even in instances where a certain actor can be identified as responsible for a figure’s iconicity (Lugosi for Dracula, Karloff for Frankenstein’s Monster), at a closer investigation the iconic features of the figures can be seen to ‘accrue’ (as Shane put it) gradually, although the instantiation of the figure is only successful if this accrual remains unnoticed. Every successful enactment needs to be seen as the most truthful rendition of the figure’s essence. Irony and the serial figure don’t go well together.
Codes of comprehension
Very interesting post & conversation! This is somewhat anticipating my post for tomorrow,** but I am particular interested in how viewers/readers draw upon our accumulated knowledge about a character to infer interiority & backstories in a series. But in such interserial systems, what guidance are we given as to which previous iterations "matter" and which are of another narrative frame? When we watch Nolan's Batman films, how do we draw upon and/or revise our knowledge from previous films & comics? Are there cues in the texts, or established conventions of consumption to guide us? And how might differently knowledgeable consumers decode differently?
** Tune in tomorrow for more on seriality & character interiority - same Bat time, same Bat channel...
Wonderful exchange, thank you
Wonderful exchange, thank you all! What emerges for me is the crucial importance of historicizing perspectives on these distinctions (serial/series, figure/character), and not just as an additional interesting way of looking or talking about them but as their very "form of existence". As always, when we're analyzing popular series, we're dealing with moving targets (to an extent that novels or feature films are not), so that their typologies keep evolving in feed-back with their reflexive self-observations. (Including viewers' practices: in a very fundamental sense, I think Jason's question is a question that addresses the historical mobility of viewing practices & sense-making repertoires). So Ruth's point about the death and (re)birth of series characters and Daniel's reminder of the frequent and ongoing alterations in this regard make a bunch of sense to me (and I think they ultimately point away from typological concerns).
The only time I stumbled was when you said that "irony and the serial figure don't go well together", perhaps because I'm not sure if really all reenactments are looking for "truthful rendition of the figure's essence". I would think where we have self-reflexivity, the possibility of irony is never far away. Isn't there sometimes something more playful happening in these re-enactments (think of the many in-built dimensions of self-parody in the Batman universe, I think Daniel will talk about this on Friday). Or take James Bond: not exactly an example of the kind of plurimediality you're talking about, but perhaps close enough: up until very recently (when the series claimed to take the serious road toward character essence, a kind of Frank Miller-ization of James Bond), introducing a new actor for the serial hero was always a major occasion for irony in the narrative (even with Timothy Dalton who was also, half-heartedly, advertised as the Bond that was most "faithful" to Fleming's "original" character).
In any case, great thread, and it keeps reminding me that the self-reflexive activities of serial narratives are not just some academic gimmick (because we like to talk about these things) but cannot be overstressed if we want to make sense of what's going on in this particular mode of storytelling.
[PS: the thumbnail image above does not really show me. It's a comic book supervillain called Nigel.]
well, yeah, irony killed the best of us
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