It’s been a long time since Batman has encountered aliens. Older fans of the character – or just people who have brushed up on their comic book history – may remember that the late 50s and early 60s was a time when the chill which descended on the industry as a result of the Comics Code forced many superheroes into a shiny mode comprised of bright colors and silly stories. Batman often found himself battling space aliens during that period, probably because of the dual influence of the UFO craze of the 50s and the campy TV show of the 60s.
Although the UFO phenomenon has returned and the campy version of Batman has found its way into movie theatres, Batman: The Abduction stays away from silliness and explores the topic with seriousness. Norm Breyfogle, the artist and co-plotter of the Prestige format graphic novel due out next spring, has quite a bit to say about not only Batman, but UFOs and other cultural issues in general.
“I would say it’s the ultimate Batman story, at least for me,” Breyfogle explained. “It’s got aliens and UFOs (which I don’t have any opinions on, I’m very much a skeptic); it’s got Batman; it’s got Batman-fights-Bruce-Lee; it’s got psychedelia; it’s got the Kook (my own character); I co-plotted it; and it’s by one of my favourite comic book authors, Alan Grant.”
The idea for the story came out of a discussion which Breyfogle and Grant had via their fax machines while working on the Anarky mini-series. There was a philosophical undertone to the Anarky story which they enjoyed debating, and eventually the talk turned to other subjects such as UFOs. One thing led to another, and soon the pair was working out a storyline which featured Breyfogle’s own character, the Kook, as the antagonist. The Kook basically looks like the kind of guy who has been hanging around Berkeley since the late 60s, and he wants to bring his ideas about UFOs to the masses any way he can, even if it involves using Batman to do it.
“Basically, he’s a transformation of my own character, Metaphysique.” Breyfogle said, referring to his 1995 six-issue mini-series from Malibu’s Bravura imprint. “It’s like Metaphysique as seen through a much more skeptical filter. That’s why he’s called the Kook.” Metaphysique was in turn inspired by a real-life scientist named John Lily, who did a lot of experiments many years ago using isolation tanks and mind-altering drugs. Lily was institutionalised at one point because he tried to contact the President and warn him that an artificial intelligence was talking to him through the television. Similarly, the Kook wants to alert the human race to the reality of the aliens and is willing to use Batman to help him in his crusade, if that’s what it takes.
Many people dismiss talk of UFOs as nonsense, but Batman is bound by his detective impulses to find out whether or not the Kook has something legitimate to say. Batman’s abduction by aliens (or what might be aliens) early in the story sets the stage for this journey which is sure to be the strangest he has faced in the past three decades or so. The morning after the incident, even Alfred has his doubts, going so far as to declare: “Kidnapped by aliens? It’s tabloid sensationalism!”
As for his own personal belief in UFOs, Breyfogle has done a lot of research but remains a skeptic who has come up with many possibilities for what they could be. “If you can imagine anything,” he says, “you can come up with 100 different theories of what they could be, and a lot of them transcend subjective/objective metaphysics. They could very well be creations of our own mind and from another dimension at the same time.”
One of the more recent parts of UFO lore to make a comeback are the Men in Black, which have been part of the mythology for decades. In fact, Breyfogle mentions that Batman will face them during the story (not the Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones Men in Black, of course), although he doesn’t say what part they will play. Commissioner Gordon, who Breyfogle originally thought should be the abductee, will also9 play a small part.
Another character who was in Breyfogle’s original plot but later dropped is Superman. This brought into our conversation the inevitable Superman/Batman comparisons. He’s always been partial to both characters, and he even drew his first Superman story recently (Superman #130, written by Dan Jurgens), but Batman is the one he’s been closely identified with for the past eight years.
“Superman and Batman are like the light and dark sides of the same idea,” he elaborated. “Even though they appear to be very different, they’re not. They’re like the conscious and the unconscious, or the left and right sides of the brain. They both express the Western sense of individuality, the hero that stands against all odds and overcomes on the basis of his own merit.
“Batman is this primal idea of a hero, and Superman is this abstract higher consciousness idea of a hero. I like them both. I don’t want to reject one or the other, because they both happen to be part of my nature.”
With the film version of Batman a source of controversy for many fans, it was only natural for the conversation to also move into that area. Like many who saw Batman and Robin, Breyfogle is unhappy with the direction the film series has taken and would like to see a more serious tone in future efforts.
“Batman has been completely undervalued by the people who are making [the movies].” He said. “Who makes the decisions that turn Batman into a circus sideshow other than what he could be? I mean, you can have just as much excitement (or even more, because it would be punctuated with quiet areas in the movie), but have a better theme and actually try to say something.”
As someone who labels himself a California mystic “because I think everything’s infinitely complex,” Breyfogle is always interested in pushing the boundaries and explore deeper issues in the stories he helps create. A case in point is the Anarky mini-series he did with Alan Grant earlier this year. The two of them took a minor villain that they introduced to the Batman pantheon almost a decade ago and used him to essentially wage a philosophical debate about the nature of good and evil, with Anarky taking on characters such as Darkseid and the Demon in search of the answer.
Anarky discusses philosophy on what Grant calls the “lecture page” in each of the four issues of the series, which culminates with a fight against Batman. He introduces Aristotle’s and Plato’s views on life, and eventually takes the side of Aristotle, who believed that men are “basically good, decent and noble,” over Plato, who believed that “man is a wild and savage beast.” The development of Anarky’s views was what sparked the fax machine debate, and it’s a subject Breyfogle says was well-received by fans, despite the fact that one might think your typical comic book reader wouldn’t be interested in a story that involved philosophy.
“One good thing about the state of the industry these days,” he explained, “is that people who pick up comics are more than likely to be really interested; they’re not just investing. So that’s kind of gratifying. [And the series] did well enough so that DC is willing to listen to Alan’s idea for a sequel if we wanted to pitch them.”
So, despite a shrinking market, Breyfogle is still able to play with philosophy the same way he did with thye Metaphysique series he created several years ago, during the height of the boom. Everyone likes to talk about the state of the industry these days and what they think are the reasons for decreasing sales, but Breyfogle has other theories which go beyond the traditional “the speculators did it” thoughts.
“Power is becoming more megalomaniacal,” he offered. “It’s becoming more and more concentrated in certain areas, and the result I think is that culture is becoming a comet eating its own tail. It’s really hard to get a new vision out there because people don’t want to take a chance with their money.”
When asked if this applies to the comic book industry as well, he replied, “Perhaps to some degree. I think the best examples is that superheroes have crowded out almost every other genre. There used to be a lot more variety of stuff. I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to draw a Western; that would be fun.”
For now, Breyfogle is sticking with superheroes and drawing their adventures. He says he doesn’t have the time to write more stories (“Maybe if I learned to type”), although he still comes up with ideas and pitches them to writers such as Alan Grant and Steve Englehart in lieu of having a regular series to pencil. He offered his services to Batman line editor Denny O’Neil when a slot opened on Shadow of the Bat recently, but O’Neil responded that he had other plans for him.
“As long as they’re keeping me busy, I don’t have any complaints,” he said. “I like the emotional security of a monthly title – that I will have work when the present project ends – [but] I wouldn’t have done Batman: The Abduction if I had been on Shadow of the Bat. I wouldn’t have come up with the concept.