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Holy Derrida, Batman! We've been deconstructed.

How many, I wonder, of the throngs now queueing to see Batman Forever have bothered to read The Many Lives of the Batman, a 213-page book - with no pictures - edited by Roberta E Pearson and William Uricchio. Published in 1991, and subtitled "Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media", it comprises a series of essays providing the essential academic background to an appreciation of the Bat-genre.

Batman or, as we should properly call him, The Batman, first appeared in the pages of Detective Comics in May 1939 as a response to Superman's hugely successful introduction in Action Comics the year before.

Superman, we learn, "represented a calculated response to the Nazi concept of the bermensch... Superman was a uniquely American bermensch with a social conscience."

While Batman claimed a firm perch-hold in the public imagination, the other members of the Bat-family were slow to join him. Robin, The Boy Wonder, arrived in April 1940, a member of the Flying Graysons trapeze act who had seen his parents killed by gangsters. (The current film is, in that respect, true to the original idea.)

The Joker had been playing tricks on Batman from the start, to be joined in his nefarious acts by the Penguin (December 1941) and Two-Face (August 1942). Alfred, the butler, arrived in 1943, until when Batman must have ironed his own cape.

As Batman moved from comic books into radio, TV and film, the characters and the nature of Gotham City underwent continuous changes as "shifting signifiers" of American attitudes.

Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the difficult matter of the Batman-Robin relationship. As Fredric Wertham, an influential moral crusader and opponent of the comic book, wrote in 1954:

"The Batman type of story helps to fixate homoerotic tendencies by suggesting the form of adolescent-with-adult or Ganymede-Zeus type of love relationship... It is like the wish dream of two homosexuals living together."

The publishers of Batman fought back by introducing Batwoman in 1956 and, in 1961, Batwoman's niece as a girlfriend for Robin.

"I can hardly wait to get into my Bat-Girl costume again," the Batette says to Robin, "Won't it be terrific if we could go on a crime case together like the last time? (sigh)." Robin answers: "It sure would, Betty (sigh)." However, when readers of the comic books were invited, in 1988, to vote on whether Robin should be killed off, they sentenced him to death by 5,343 phone-in votes to 5,271.

As further useful background reading, try Umberto Eco's "The Myth of Superman" in The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1979).

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