One summer day when my nephew was around the age of six, we rode from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the "C" train for his first Central Park Zoo adventure with his uncle. I fished around his (okay, my) Batman knapsack, where I had stashed a variety of snacky treats, child repair standbys such as band aids and antiseptic, and his yogurt-stained copy of Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are. But as I navigated around the sack's many treasures, I also grazed some action figures my nephew apparently dumped-in before we left the house. I assumed they were the Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc., superhero action figures he scored from our traditional Saturday morning comic shop runs.
Blindly retrieving a "guy" from the knapsack (a term we used for action figures), I found the first of my nephew's superhero army was Todd McFarlaine's Spawn, a demonic-looking critter that had nothing to do with the tamer DC or Marvel universes his father and I were exposing him to. I asked where he got this interloper, and he confessed to trading his Superman for it at school, plus swapping-out Green Lantern, Flash and Robin with park pals and even his sitter's boyfriend. I reached into the bag again and this time, I liberated an even creepier, unfamiliar guy, which prompted me to check out the entire stash. Monsters and disfigured creatures completed the complement, and I was afraid I had uncovered some potential behavioral problem... hey, I was an uncle, not a parent.
Curious about how he perceived these macabre figures, I asked him to teach me which ones were the heroes and which were the bad guys. Handing him the plastic stack, the six-year-old looked at the first one, paused, and having difficulty deciding, raised his little head and asked, "I don't know. Hero or bad guy?" He repeated this with every guy until we got to good ol' Batman. This time, he confidently informed me, "Batman's a hero, but he's a bad guy too." Those words stuck with me the rest of the day -- which, by the way, ended happily, full of junk food and souvenirs, and with my nephew's first glimpse of zebras and leaf-nosed fruit bats.
Years later, I recalled that trip to the zoo with a comic book writer friend of mine who shall remain nameless (hint: he co-created Comet Man with Miguel Ferrer for Marvel Comics). We geekishly reminisced old Legion Of Super-Heroes books (in which teenagers from the future are so inspired by Superman that they start an inter-stellar, crime-fighting team... yes, I just typed that). We also discussed and were saddened by the "graying" of the superhero from its original black and white parameters as well as its continuing descent from role model to complicated or damaged antihero. Currently, in the world of comics, that image has been embraced thoroughly, with heroes who are beyond corruption practically non-existent -- even Superman killed. And now with The Dark Knight, we get such an incredible, boundary-breaking piece of pulp whose twisted philosophy is so convincing and noir so effective that, en masse, we most likely will see comic books and their relative movie and TV franchises adopt an even darker tone.
So did this knight have to be so dark? In order to create such a magnificent film, yes. But I have to say, I was concerned for all the under-ten kids at the two showings I attended. No, my generation wasn't prone to dropping anvils on people's heads after growing up on Looney Tunes. Still, the bat's out of the bag and it will be interesting to see the cultural ramifications of this new level of dark chic.