The Batmobile has two wheels and the Joker stole a schoolbus: tyke Dark Knight books are Two-Faced transmedia storytelling

I cannot stress this enough: The Dark Knight is not a movie for children, as it induces nightmares in experienced adult action fans. While being an awesome action movie, I am shocked that it wasn’t R-rated based on the level of violence, cruelty, and overall negativity.

But if you want your child to have official Dark Knight related merchandise or books there is plenty available including a slew of items for 3 to 8 year olds. Yes, Dark Knight for your preschooler!

The Batman franchise has always been effective at covering the story of Batman from different angles through different media sources, in what is now called transmedia. Pre-Batman Begins Batman transmedia is discussed in Will Brooker’s Batman Unmasked and Roberta Pearson’s & William Urrichio (eds.)’s The Many Lives of the Batman. As Henry Jenkins has written, before the release of Batman Begins, DC comics had origin story comics specifically telling more about the back story of this version of Batman. But officially sanctioned transmedia Dark Knight Batman becomes deeply troubling by completely ignoring age and maturity distinctions.

The most jarring transmedia storytelling for tykes takes place in four stories, all the type of paperback “flippy book” usually featuring Little Critter, the Bernstein Bears, Dora the Explorer, Thomas the Tank Engine, Sesame Street, and other children’s favorites. Two are branded as “I Can Read Level 2,” the same level as A Bargain for Frances, the Amelia Bedelia series, the Arthur (chimp, not aardvark) series, and the Frog and Toad series.

But the Dark Knight‘s Gotham is no Richard Scarry’s Busy Busy Town.

The plots of these books infantalize the plot of the movie in disturbing ways. The plot of Batman Versus the Joker is: The Joker steals a schoolbus, the police can’t find him because there are so many schoolbuses on the street — so let’s send Batman to catch him on his two-wheeler Batcycle, and after a short chase, Batman catches the Joker! In two other books, Rachel (as “the girl” — not as a lawyer), is briefly kidnapped by the Joker at the birthday party she throws for Bruce (Batman!) and Batman quickly saves the day!

The Dark Knight is a dark, dark, dark movie, and these children’s books seem almost made in a different universe, perhaps the world of Batman as personified by the 60s television show. Adult Batman fans, especially those familiar with fanworks or the “What If?” and the “Elseworlds” series, can suspend canon / “what I know to be true” for an enjoyable story (even if it is Batman the Vampire).

However, these Dark Knight books are for children, small children, who just cannot handle the movie! Creating children’s books based on this movie is like Two-Face, seemingly nice on the surface, but with underlying pointless cruelty, once the kiddies who have read the book are subjected to the movie.

In discussing video games directed at children, Sarah Grimes mentions transmedia branding deliberately being used to involve kids in non-appropriate materials:

I too think that children are poorly served by the games industry [with] a lot of badly designed games [] using popular media-brands (Bratz, Spongebob, etc.) as a Trojan Horse to create intertextual value and to get kids’ playing them.

I am not the only one disturbed by these books, with a pre-release of the Dark Knight move-tie-in article in Slate and Nell Minow of Movie Mom saying

These books are essentially ads for movies that are inappropriate for children and the Federal Trade Commission and the MPAA should prohibit this kind of licensing for products intended for those who are too young to see the movie.

The idea of a masked crusader who fights bad guys and makes everything better can be done in a (reasonably) child-friendly way. For example, there is a-non Dark Knight movie Batman book that simply describes the origin story, Batman: The Story of the Dark Knight by Ralph Cosentino (interview here). Bluntly, this is the cutest version of Batman I’ve ever seen, perhaps because he looks like a Lego person. While still too scary for the sensitive child, this book is age-appropriate in a way the Dark Knight movie-tie-ins aren’t. I will be reading the Consentino book to the superhero-loving children in my life when they are old enough.

While some fan-created works, such as Harry Potter fanfiction and fanart, has been criticized for taking a children’s series into a more adult arena, in that situation, fans rather than content owners were creating the not-appropriate-for-small-children material. Oftentimes, owners and creators talk about how only they can be true to the story and characters, stating that official equals best.

But in this Dark Knight transmedia case, the owners of the material are creating materials for children that have no legal differential from other intellectual property (copyrighted or trademarked materials) in the Batman pantheon (there is no cause of action for misuse or spoilage of one’s own trademark!). And until the FTC decides to step in, DC has no economic disincentive or legally compelling reason to stop — there is no larger marketplace of ideas for Batman (ownage) and DC can do whatever they want with him. For example, have Batman and Robin work with Scooby Doo and Shaggy in the 70s.

I strongly believe that basing children’s books directly upon the storytelling in a just-about-R-rated movie is a wrong step in creating seamless transmedia storytelling — children deserve to not be introduced to a world beyond their emotional capability through a back door.

To get a flavor of these children’s books, you can read some of Batman Versus the Joker and I am Batman.

Browse inside Batman’s Friends and Foes
Browse inside Batman Saves the Day

Official Dark Knight products include a coloring book, subtitled “Official Movie BIG BEST BOOK to color” by well-known Batman comics artist Mike De Carlo.

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Comments (3)

[…] The Batmobile has two wheels and the Joker stole a schoolbus: tyke Dark Knight books are Two-Faced t… […]

[…] This extreme change to the Batman mythos / canon could be undone, but I doubt it. This step seems made to upset both long-term and casual fans. I’m puzzled by the need to make such a dramatic change in canon, after all, the Batman franchise has survived Congressional hearings, and the franchise is flexible enough to include stories ranging from the campy 60s TV show to Frank Miller’s nihilistic misogynistic vision (and as a manga series in Japan). At present, the Batman transmedia franchise includes many varied elements — comics, movies, toys, video games, and these products are marketed at audiences ranging from toddler to adults. […]

[…] I thought that many products directed at children are not age-appropriate (such as movie tie-ins: The Batmobile has two wheels and the Joker stole a schoolbus: tyke Dark Knight books are Two-Faced t…). But anything negative Muppet-bound? […]

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