Batman Collected

Richard Gehr reviews "Batman Collected" by Chip Kidd.

Published November 8, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Rather than consider the Caped Crusader through the images and text that comprise the comics and movies devoted to his dark persona, talented Knopf book designer Chip Kidd proudly puts his substantial collection of Batman merchandise on display in this strangely superfluous book -- all as evidence of Batman's pop-culture significance. After all, our contemporary heroes today exist no less vividly through their licensed manifestations than in their original form. Take Mickey Mouse. Please.

Kidd's fascination with all things Batman originated at age four, when a Batman nightlight soothed his chicken-pox fever dreams. While this may explain Kidd's obsession, Batman hasn't always been a burning fixture on the larger American landscape. His stock peaked in 1966, when the wonderfully kitschy television show debuted, and again in 1989, when Tim Burton's hit film Batman introduced artist Frank Miller's "Dark Knight" -- the violent, noir-ish Batman that Miller had reinvented for DC Comics in 1986 -- to a mass audience.

"Batman Collected" sure looks impressive. Rarely has so much kitsch been photographed as lovingly as Geoff Spear has captured this motley gallery of fetish objects. Kidd and Spear have transformed the found and tawdry into something mysterious and impressive. In addition to the predictable action figures, lunch boxes and toy gizmos, Kidd has amassed a future archeologist's dream dig. His collection of cape-and-cowl-inspired junk includes unbreakable pocket combs ("made of a new miracle discovery"), needlepoint, bubble bath, air fresheners, underwear, tortilla chips, a pogo stick, wallpaper and many other chips off the Batman franchise.

Organized chronologically, "Batman Collected" has little to say about collecting beyond the suggestion that obsession is its own reward. What's missing here is the sense of weird creativity cultural clichis often inspire. Kidd offers a few examples of "Resin Heads" who've created their own Batman toys from scratch. Yet I suspect a universe of unlicensed Batman merchandise exists out there that Kidd, perhaps for legal reasons, couldn't include (Bullfinch Press is part of Little, Brown, which hovers under the Time Warner roof that also protects DC Comics).

What does all this commercial overdetermination finally teach us? That something as weird as Batman can be reduced to banality -- but that even a pencil holder can partake of the esoteric.

By Richard Gehr

Richard Gehr has been writing about music, books, film, television, and other aspects of popular culture for more than two decades. He has contributed to several books and written for Rolling Stone, Vibe, O, the New York Times Book Review, and Spin.

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