Batman Live in Belfast

As the Dark Knight takes to the stage in Belfast, artist PJ Holden and writer Malachy Coney discuss the hero's popularity

Always one of the DC's heavy-hitters – part of the Trinity with Superman and Wonder Woman – the Caped Crusader is currently bigger than ever. Christopher Nolan has breathed fresh life into the Batman film franchise, while the critically animated television series has received multiple awards. Even forthcoming videogame, Arkham City is being awaited with bated breath.

And this is all before considering the many Batman and family associated comics – Batman, Batman Inc, Huntress, Catwoman, Batgirl, Birds of Prey and more. 

The Dark Knight dominates. Even Superman hasn't spawned as many spin-off comics. However, Batman's latest vehicle is something which has perplexed and intrigued hardcore fans and casual admirers alike. The Batman Live stage show, set to come to the Odyssey in Belfast. The performance features theatrical, circus and stage-magic elements, built around what sounds like a fairly standard plot for Bats and the Boy Wonder.

Tickets for the event have been flying off the proverbial shelves. It is hard to believe that a similar show revolving around Spider-Man or Superman would reach the same level of success. So why has the Batman character remained so popular with fans of all ages, 70 years after his first appearance?

Globally renowned Belfast-based comics artist (and fellow Bat-fan) PJ Holden believes that simplicity is the key.

'The core idea is so simple that you could explain it to anybody – a revenge fantasy about a child who has had everything taken away from him. But then on top of that there are all the cool toys and outfits.

'However, Batman is also very malleable as a character – you can take that premise and form it into a dark, serious film like The Dark Knight, or a goofy series, or anything in between. For artists he is equally malleable to draw. He’s a bloke with a big cape on his back and pointy ears, but he has a distinct silhouette which you can stretch out. The cape can be a flowing, organic thing which can take on a life of its own, and look really threatening. It sounds silly, but you can even have fun with the ears, deciding to make them short or really long [see Kelley Jones’ work on the character in the 1990s]. Many artists over the years have drawn him in many different ways, he is such a malleable character, due to the very simple premise.' 

For writer and artist Malachy Coney (with whom Holden has collaborated in the past), this versatility is both a blessing and a curse.

'We reinvent Batman for every generation. When Bob Kane created the character in 1940 he couldn’t have envisioned that Batman would be going so many years later, adapting to the environment he exists in, because he captured the public’s imagination like lightning in a bottle.

'I have so many favourite stories, such as Frank Miller’s Year One [also Holden’s personal favourite, and this writer's own], but a period which didn’t work for me was the late 50s-60s, where they had stories like Batman going to the moon. Some people love those fantastical tales, but I just bought into the myth of the character so much that it didn’t seem to fit when he went to live with the Flintstones, and had a leopard-skin bat outfit. Actually, saying it out loud it does sound quite fun, but it did break my heart when I first saw those stories – I thought the Joker must have been trying to give the Batman a bad rep by getting the writers to create those tales!'

The most well renowned Batman villain is, of course, the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker. Many writers, both on-screen and in print have alluded to the fact that the Joker would not exist without Batman and, indeed, the character boasts the most fearsome rogues gallery of all comic creations (many of which will be featured in the live show). Maybe the Dark Knight’s success, to some extent, lie with his fearsome – although admittedly sometimes goofy – villains?

Holden doesn't think it is so black and white.

'I like stories, so to me if the story is well written it doesn’t really matter. Because Batman is such a larger than life character, people often assume he has to fight larger than life villains. But in Year One, he fought pimps and the big villain was the head of a drug family. The book is also as much about Commissioner Gordon, and the affair he is having, as it is about Batman. It is a realistically drawn story which was a real coming of age tale for me, showing me that comics could be for adults.' 

To some realism and superhero comics might seem like odd bed-fellows. but for Coney it is a key reason why Bruce Wayne’s crime-fighting persona has endured the test of time.

'You could spend the rest of your life trying, and you would never be able to run as fast as the Flash, or jump skyscrapers in a single bound. But if you trained hard enough, you could conceivably become Batman or his partner – there is a big wish fulfilment element.'

Despite being most famous for his artwork with 2000AD, Holden has also been instrumental in bringing comics to digital media, helping design the Comic Reader App to facilitate the viewing of comic books on devices such as the iPad and various smartphones. For him, this is very much the future for Batman and his like.

'DC Comics have already signed an agreement to have their graphic novels published exclusively on the Kindle Fire, so it shows that they see the massive potential. As it stands, comics are readily available to purchase online and when the resolution on devices like the iPad improve it will be as good as viewing them on paper. However, there will of course still be a big market for print media. Indeed, like records and vinyl, as sales of digital comics rise, there will also be a rise in people collecting hardback editions of comics they have read online and enjoy. I’ve found myself doing it already!'

Both Holden and Coney are extremely interested in the forthcoming live show, if a little sceptical. 'There is a very fine like between "awesome" and "awful",' laughs Holden, “At first I saw the poster and thought that it would be terrible, but the more I hear about it and the more I think about it, it could be really, really good. I don’t want to miss my one chance to see it!'

According to Coney, 'If you’re going to do this, you’ve really got to go for it. There is no character in comics that lends himself better to a stage than Batman – he is so gothic and operatic by his very nature. It is very telling that people are so ready to accept Batman in this form, indicative of why he has lasted so long. In this case though, it’s not so much of a case of it being over when the fat lady sings, but being over when the Joker’s killed everyone in the auditorium!'

Awful or awesome, Batman Live promises to offer a completely original show and yet another fresh take on the World’s Greatest Detective.

PJ Holden will be signing comics in Forbidden Planet Belfast on November 12, where Mal Coney works by day as a mild-mannered shop manager. Batman Live is at the Odyssey Arena from October 5 - 8. For more information check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On.