So chances are if you’re reading this you’re one of the many readers who love your comic books filled with action-packed martial arts. My love of martial arts and of the world of comics has a very unique connection. They mean a lot to me for various reasons, but much can be attributed to one of the best men I have ever known, Tom Artis, who I was lucky enough to have as my mentor during my time as a young adult. Some of you who know your stuff may know who he was. If you haven’t heard of him I suggest you hit up google, put in Tom Artis and comic books and find out who he was. He was the artist for many comics, top works like “She Hulk”, “Judge Dredd”, and many others. If you’re familiar with his work as a comic book artist, you will be pleasantly surprised to know that Tom Artis was also a master level martial artist. He developed his own fighting system based on the formidable Chinese body guard style of fighting known as Ba Gua. My constant study coupled with Tom’s deep understanding of martial arts and his ability to pass on that information has made me a better martial artist and a better teacher. These skills have also given me the ability to understand and interpret fight scenes in comic books and movies, which is why I was asked to this column.
Let’s talk Comic Book Kung Fu. When I look at fights in comic books or even in the real world I try to imagine why these fights started? Many times it’s about a person feeling like they have been humiliated or dethroned from their position in the social hierarchy. This social imbalance generally creates the villains that we love to hate so much. This loss of social capital creates the need to regain their original status, or one they think they deserve, which in turn leads to a fight. Heroes many times use their martial abilities to save those who cannot save themselves, to right the wrongs they feel have been done to them or the world, or to try and maintain social balance. I like to think of martial arts as a way of expressing oneself, regardless of whether in the venue of training, disagreements, or comic books. Martial arts in comics (most of the time) is about maximum efficiency in head smashing. I personally love head smashing, but I also love when a comic shows martial arts being use as an instrument for the hero to become a better person.
The featured hero for today happens to be one of what I call my personal “Magnificent Seven” comic book heroes, Batman. I am by no means a Batman junkie. My love for Batman is outweighed by the many poor portrayals that have pissed me off, but to each his own. What I am focusing on is Batman’s style of martial arts.
The earlier 1940s and 1950s versions of Bruce Wayne reflected a very different sort of man than the Bruce Wayne of today. In these early comics, Bruce Wayne was portrayed as a man who perfected his understanding of finance and business to a Rockefeller-level, honed his detective skills to a Sherlock Holmes-level, and his understanding of technology to a Bill Gates-level. In these portrayals, the fighting style of Batman clearly reflects these aspects. Batman shows an almost Vulcan-esque level of emotional restraint in terms of fighting, which is mimicked in the daily life of Bruce Wayne. Often times, the more traditional comic versions of Batman use a smooth blend of gymnastics, boxing, Aiki Jiu Jitsu, and Aikido. Batman’s early stylistic representations typically reflected an emphasis towards the throwing and controlling type movements of Aikido and wrestling. In these early renditions of Bruce Wayne and Batman he was portrayed as the perfection of Man, built and driven by his past.
Batman’s current interpretation is that of a man who is not built by his past, but broken by it. I’m referencing Christian Bale’s portrayal in “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight”. In “Batman Begins”, Bruce Wayne is trained to overcome his fears and use these fears to fight criminals. Unlike the invincible Batmans of before, Bale’s portrayal of Batman has a more humanistic approach. In the original versions of Batman, Bruce Wayne is never drawn with injuries: black eyes, bruises, limps, etc. Anybody who has experienced a fight knows that you do not come out unscathed. In Christian Bale’s representation, Bruce Wayne becomes known for returning to the office with bruises, bite marks, and stitches. This morphs Batman’s weaknesses of the 1940s and 1950s into the weakness of being merely human. This drastic change in overall character also caused Batman’s fighting-style to change. In the modern Batman adaptations, the Keysi fighting method is used and it perfectly reflects Christian Bale’s less restrained, angst-ridden version of Batman. The Keysi Method is a style that was developed in street fighting conditions, so it tends to be reckless and emotionally driven and seems to focus on one’s physical drive and overwhelming force. In “Batman Begins”, a heavy aspect of Bruce Wayne’s initial training included street fighting and fighting in a prison, which further justifies the director’s incorporation of this style.
As is evident with all heroes and heroines, their strengths come to reflect the strengths of their creators. Their weaknesses make them accessible to the general public. In the case of Batman, the flaws of the 1940s and 1950s no longer apply to the present day audience. “Batman Begins” and the “Dark Knight” succeed in making Batman a weaker and more human character, which might be why they are two of the most highly received movies of the current generation.