Flipping Batman

A reflection on a sequence of lessons, from the teacher’s and from the learner’s perspectives.

By James Durran and Joe Minden.


From September 2021, Joe will be teaching English at Cardinal Newman Catholic School in Brighton. This blog is built around a piece of writing which he wrote in 2003, when he was a pupil in James’s Year 8 media class, at Parkside Community College, in Cambridge. James has written about this piece before, with Andrew Burn, in their book Media Literacy in Schools (2007); but what we want to do here is give an account of some of the teaching which lies behind it, and to reflect on that from two perspectives – that of the teacher and that of the learner looking back.


English and media: an integrated approach

Parkside was the first ‘media arts college’, under the specialist schools programme, and – for a while in the late 90s and early 2000s – was pioneering in its approach to media literacy, under the inspiring leadership of Andrew Burn, now Professor of English, Media and Drama at UCL. Media was taught throughout Key Stages 3 and 4, as part of an integrated curriculum, with English and drama. This was an approach in which it seemed natural to teach advertising alongside rhetoric, film alongside Shakespeare, and television documentary alongside print non-fiction. It was an approach in which pupils learned to use cameras, to edit moving image, and to design computer games. It was a teaching culture in which popular texts and forms were not regarded as of lesser intrinsic value, or as less worthy of study, but as an essential part of what might now be mistermed as pupils’ ‘cultural capital’.

Superheroes, on the page and on screen

In Year 8, one of the media courses was based around superheroes. Pupils learned about the ‘Golden Age’ of Marvel and DC, and explored the ‘superhero’ phenomenon, its cultural significance and its psychological power. They studied the conventions and communicative codes of comic strips as a form, and analysed examples. They invented, wrote about and designed their own superheroes, and created their own comic-strip narratives. And they studied, as a moving image text, the animated film Batman and the Mask of the Phantasm (Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm, 1993) which tells of Batman’s origins as the troubled millionaire Bruce Wayne, grieving for his parents and determined to fight the violent, criminal culture which killed them.

As part of this film study, pupils engaged in close reading of a number of frames, linking them to the film as a whole and to selected themes, including the representation of female characters, the ‘idea’ of the hero, the importance of settings, and different ‘types’ of villain. One image was studied with the teacher, modelling an analytical approach which pupils then followed in groups with other images, before discussing them with the whole class. Each pupil then selected one of the images to write about in detail.

Joe’s piece of writing was on this frame from quite early in the film, in which Wayne has left a party to visit a portrait of his dead parents and to contemplate his possible futures.

The starting point for analysing each image was simply to look at what was there in the frame – the mise-en-scene – and to ‘read’ in this the story being told. This was about unpicking narrative and characterisation. It was also about understanding how figurative codes were at work – in symbolism and in metaphor. Joe’s analysis shows the depth of analysis involved.

This image appears about halfway through the film, and it comes at a time when Bruce has become uncertain about his future. He must decide whether Batman takes precedence over Bruce Wayne, or whether the time has come to desert his quest for justice and break through the isolation and solitude that it has created in him.

The room he stands in, and its features, symbolise where he stands in life. This huge empty room, devoid of any homely touches or comfortable furniture, despite being in his very own house, represents how, even within himself, he cannot seem to unearth the part of Bruce Wayne that will let him conquer the loneliness and isolation that Batman has breathed into him.

In this shot Bruce is indeed just a sad, lonely and vulnerable human being, but the fact that he cannot communicate it to anyone means that he cannot lead a normal life, because he would have to maintain the secret of his second existence whether from his lover or from a friend.

He stands in this room, a reflection of his life, faced with two options. The portrait of his parents that he is gazing at, represents a route to the past, and the open window lying behind him is the path to his future: Batman. At this point, the past seems a brighter option and this is shown to us by the colour in his mum’s dress – it is red while everything else is blue.

A dark blue, nearly engulfing him, shrouds much of the room, but it is just being held off by the light from the window. This may perhaps represent how, although he longs to be back in happier times, the Batman side of Bruce is the only thing keeping him from being swallowed up by the turmoil within.

And yet, as the picture shows, it is also the only thing that makes him long for the past (as the window sheds light on the portrait, letting him see it). The fireplace below the portrait is empty and this adds buckets to the cold, inhospitable atmosphere of the room. Bruce’s life. it also represents for me what will happen to him if he tries to grasp out for the past.

The way Bruce must crane his neck to look up at his parents and the way that they look down on him, implies that they are just out of his reach. If he tries to haul himself up to them, he will slip and be swallowed by the huge gaping mouth of the fireplace.

Visual grammar

In the course, pupils were also introduced to the idea of ‘visual grammar’ – the way meaning is related to aspects of spatial arrangement within an image. Influenced by the work of Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen, and their book Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (1996), we offered a simple framework for the formal analysis of images.

For example, we explored with pupils how vertical angle can imply power and weakness. In this image, the positioning of the viewer low down, with the ‘camera’ angled up at portrait, emphasises the dominance of the parents, and Wayne’s relative weakness. We sense the power they hold over him, even in death.

Wayne’s diminutive size within the frame further emphasises his vulnerability. But distance is also about engagement: our positioning makes him a remote figure; it is hard to engage with what he is feeling, even as we may try to.

Meanwhile, horizontal angle affects the viewer’s sense of involvement – subtly different from engagement. In this image, we are positioned at an oblique angle to the action, detaching us and suggesting objectivity.

However, Wayne is still the main protagonist within the image. He may be distant, but his position in the middle of the frame lends him salience. He is literally central, rather than marginal, to the narrative.

Degree of elevation within the frame can be associated with reality and ideality. Here, the raised up parents are an idea – and they are, of course, idealised – while Wayne remains anchored in reality, a meaning which is reinforced by colour.

Flipping the image

But the spatial arrangement which provides the most analytical fun in the classroom is the left/right positioning of elements within the frame. The ability, very easily, to flip any image in the Y axis allows pupils to explore how meaning is affected by what is on the left and what is on the right. We used to do this with acetate sheets on an overhead projector; now, it is easy to do digitally.

In this case, pupils tend to agree that the salience of elements within the frame is changed: the window becomes more noticeable. But they also agree that there is a change in the power relationship. Now on the left of his parents, Wayne seems less dominated by them. He seems to become more active in the image – to have more agency – while the parents seem more passive. He seems to be regarding them, rather than regarded by them. It is striking how this also works with inanimate objects: in the flipped image, the symbolically dark fireplace looms less oppressively, while the window seems not just more salient but more active, more deliberately casting light on Wayne and the picture – perhaps even observing them.

Meanwhile, according to the theory, what’s on the left is more likely to be more associated with the past and what’s familiar, while the right is more associated with the future and the unknown. So, in the original image, the picture on the left represents Wayne’s past, towards which he is drawn, while the open window on the right is his possible future – an escape into the city as Batman. In the flipped image, this meaning is lost. It is grammatically ‘wrong’. This is all culturally-determined, of course, and reflects the tendency by Western viewers to read action from left to right.

This visual grammar is analogous to verbal grammar in a number of ways, and it can be helpful with pupils to make simple translations of images into sentences. This, for example, could be ‘Wayne’s dead parents loom over him, as he turns his back on the future.’ Flipped, the image could read ‘Turning from the window, Wayne regards his dead parents.’ Subject and object are swapped.

Meanwhile, in this example there is a complex interplay of grammatical elements at work. In both the original and the flipped images, the Joker is lent salience and power by being central and elevated within the frame, as well as by lighting and facial expression; he is clearly the more active participant in both instances. But the horizontal angling involves us more with the hatted gangster, and with his terror: so, when on the left of the image, he does seem to be the subject of the visual sentence, but that sentence is in the passive voice: ‘The terrified gangster is dominated by the confident Joker.’ Flipping the image changes the voice to the active: ‘The confident Joker dominates the terrified gangster.’

When this image of the character Andrea kicking the Joker is flipped, she does seem to remain the active subject of the visual sentence, partly because of the cropping of the Joker’s form, and the obscuring of his face. However, some of her rootedness and power is lost. While the Joker is still flying helplessly beyond even the margin of the frame, his body seems visually to be invading it, and Andrea seems off-balance and defensive. While the original visual sentence might be ‘Strong Andrea decisively kicks the Joker out of her way’, the flipped image might read ‘Andrea repels the Joker with a desperate kick.’

There are, of course, no right answers here, and that’s important. The theory provides a framework for analysis, but understanding emerges from the exploration of subjective responses, and the debating of what they might reflect. The moment of flipping each image provides a shared experience which can be almost visceral – a sharp awareness of felt response, which can then be unpicked and debated. From an English teacher’s perspective, the level and sophistication of that unpicking can be startling.

Once pupils are introduced to this as an analytical tool, they delight in it and start demanding that every image is flipped to consider how meaning changes. Looking at directorial choices in film, they might observe that by positioning Juliet on the left of this frame, Luhrmann makes her seem cautiously in control of her encounter with a supplicant Romeo. (‘A cautious Juliet allows Romeo to kiss her hand.’) But it is by flipping the image that this meaning is really made clear: on the right, she seems startled and vulnerable, while Romeo seems almost predatory. (‘A determined Romeo kisses Juliet’s hand.’)

Exploring gender representations in advertising, pupils will note that the 1950s woman using Persil is striding (with her pen) into a confident, cleaner future, watched enviously by a colleague heading into a greyer past (with her pen) – a meaning which is lost when the image is flipped.

And pupils exploring context for Animal Farm will agree that the political meaning of this famous 1919 poster by Lissitzky depends on the ‘red wedge’ puncturing the soft belly of an overcome White Russia from the left; when the image is flipped, it appears to be being ejected instead.

That grammatical choices can be political is very teachable with images, and not just in overtly rhetorical texts such as Lissitsky’s. This evocative family portrait, for example, might speak to us of patriarchy or of matriarchy – just by being flipped.

Joe ends his analysis of the image of Wayne by bringing to bear his explicit understanding of visual grammar.

Another thing that makes the past a predominant feature in our minds as well as Bruce’s, is that it is on the left of the picture so we come across it first and only later do we realise the presence of the open window. This again implies the current importance of the past to Bruce, and the desperation to turn away from the remaining possibilities.

If the image is flipped it reads as ‘The open window sheds light on Brace looking at the portrait’ rather than ‘The portrait is being looked at by Bruce as the open window sheds light upon them’. Indeed, because the light is now coming from the left and we see it first, the picture seems brighter.

The light has been placed so that it comes from the right because subconsciously, our mind treats it as a secondary feature, and this reflects Bruce’s mood. However, I believe that the light coming from the open window is the most important part of the picture: it shows strongly the influence of Batman on Bruce Wayne, and that for me is the main thing about this character.

But perhaps what is particularly interesting here is his last sentence. He understands the theory, and it has helped him to deconstruct the image, but he is not bound by any standard reading: he is prepared to challenge it from his personal standpoint as an independent reader.

Joe’s writing and the curriculum

Joe was an exceptionally high-attaining Year 8 pupil, which is reflected in the depth of the knowledge he displays here: of narrative tropes; of forms, codes and conventions; and of how to analyse these. But this serves to illustrate something very important: that work with visual and popular-cultural texts can provide high levels of challenge for all pupils within, in this case, a mixed-attainment group. Far from being a sort of low-grade alternative to literature, media texts provide a site for rich cultural and textual analysis, even at Key Stage 3.

And in this single piece, Joe rehearses many of the practices which English teachers want their pupils to develop. There is sophisticated personal response, supporting and supported by careful, objective analysis. There is evidence of rich and complex interpretative reading. There is an exploration, throughout, of the relationship between reader and text. Joe navigates between concrete details and abstract concepts. He skilfully relates details to the whole text. He handles challenging psychological ideas. And, most importantly, he is practising analytical writing which is exploratory and authentic, rather than formulaic and obedient.

As a little chunk of curriculum, this work was doing a number of important things. It was adding layers of knowledge to (and complicating) what pupils had already learned about film, images and texts generally, and how these can be deconstructed and understood. It was maturing pupils’ sense of narrative and its relationship to culture. It was deepening and broadening their awareness of a range of representations – of heroism, of masculinity and of family. It was consolidating their understanding of links and patterns across different textual forms. And it was accelerating the development of their skills of analysis and of its communication, which they would go on to use at GCSE and beyond, including in work on English Language and Literature.

Joe’s perspective – thinking back to Parkside

It is difficult to overemphasize what a fun place Parkside was to study English, media and drama in the early 2000s when I went to school there. Talking now with friends who were there too, we all have positive memories; it turns out we all kind of intuited that we were part of something special, whether or not we felt much affinity with English, media or drama. We felt respected as thinkers, enabled as makers (of comic strips and short films, for example) and valued as participants. In fact, the enduring strength of some of my friendships from that time is in part a result of the kind of bonds built up working on projects we had to do for class – a dramatic short film about a series of catastrophes in the boys’ toilets comes to mind. These projects never felt like mere exercises but like absorbing and meaningful undertakings in themselves.

For me personally, the work we did on comics – and this piece of writing in particular – was transformative. There are two main reasons why. They relate roughly to the ideas of agency and legacy.

Agency

The work on visual grammar was hugely enabling. Learning how to anatomise a shot, to reflect on the way in which its composition influenced interpretation, suddenly made looking at images – film stills, advertisements, book covers – an absorbing game. It supplied a simple toolkit that allowed me to link my personal response to compositional factors. This was a kind of analysis that prioritised meaning without neglecting technical features, and modelled how to confidently respond to verbal, as well as visual, texts.  

My exploration of the image of Bruce Wayne looking at his parents’ portrait, in particular through flipping it, did something simple but powerful. It revealed to me that I, as a reader of texts, had a position; that the makers of the texts knew about that position; and that they wanted to influence that position. Elements of the composition – the portrait, Bruce Wayne, the window – were located deliberately, in relation to one another, to encourage me to respond in a certain way. If we moved them around, suddenly their relationship was different and so was the way it struck me as a reader.

Flipping the image was vital because it revealed the machinery. It demonstrated that these were contingent and manipulable factors. That, in turn, empowered me: I could position the image, the text, back.

I still remember vividly, albeit in a dreamlike way, the excitements of this discovery. There was excitement in the classroom as James, with inquisitive and playful delight, first flipped one of the images we had been discussing and waited for our response. There was excitement in groups as we brought our developing skills of analysis to bear on these transformed texts. And there was excitement at home as I set to work on exploring in more depth, and writing up, my ideas about this particular example.

One of the things that strikes me looking at the piece of writing I did now is the rather brief attention I gave to the ‘verbal’ versions of the images:

If the image is flipped it reads as ‘The open window sheds light on Brace looking at the portrait’ rather than ‘The portrait is being looked at by Bruce as the open window sheds light upon them’. Indeed, because the light is now coming from the left and we see it first, the picture seems brighter.

I dutifully render both images as sentences but I don’t then pursue the implications of the two alternatives. I think, as James suggests, I wanted to show that I had understood the principle while being more interested in following through my final idea: that, despite having a secondary position in the unflipped image, the light coming from the window was its key feature.

This, in itself, was an insight enabled by the work of flipping both the image and its verbal version. There was empowerment in finding an interpretation that, as James notes, ran slightly counter to the orthodoxy of the model we had been taught. But the reason I pick up on it is because in my memory creating the verbal versions of the sentences was electrifying. As a teacher just finished training, this is something I am trying to keep in mind – an apparently perfunctory statement in a piece of written work is simply no index whatsoever of the impact the thinking behind it may have had on the thinking of the student. 

Creating these versions transformed my understanding of English as a subject and of language analysis in general. Even within the two different syntactical arrangements there is an implicit analysis, compressed into the status of certain components as active or passive, or arriving sooner or later in the structure. But from then on, I was thinking actively about how not just images but sentences were positioning their components and me as their reader. How could I fiddle with them? How could I explain their power? Why does Macbeth keep using words the witches use? The work on images was immediately and intuitively transferable to verbal texts. That was that, I was off.

So when I refer to agency it is about a kind of empowerment, the discovery of an active position as a learner in relation to texts – visual and linguistic. Crucially, it is also about the sense of creativity and the experience of pleasure that stemmed from this. Neither of these things were separable from a developing independence, from the feeling of increasing agency. In fact, they were its constituents.  

Legacy

I lied. Creating those verbal versions of the flipped and unflipped image didn’t transform my understanding of English as a subject and of language analysis in general. How could it have, all by itself? My developing understanding must have had as much to do with the other teaching going on at Parkside, with things I was reading and doing at home, with all manner of other influences, as with this one powerful instance.

But it doesn’t much matter what really happened. What fascinates me is that I remember this moment in the way that I do, as transformative. If I were to build a narrative of my growth as someone who works in, with, through and because of texts, and has now trained as an English teacher, this is the starting point I would have to choose. I have lived with it in that way for 18 years.

In terms of curriculum design at Parkside, the learning that happened here fed into work on Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet – discovering the ways in which moving image, the activities of the camera, shaped viewer understanding. It fed into Macbeth in Year 9, giving me the confidence to tackle Shakespeare’s language with the same curiosity and enthusiasm I’d felt analysing a moody Bruce Wayne. It fed into studying King Lear in Year 10 through a range of film adapatations – a process which facilitated a far deeper engagement with the complexities of the play than a focus on it as a univocal text possibly could have.

The legacy, the sense of confidence and agency, was a result of the whole approach, really, not just one moment. But the way I remember the work on Batman is an illustration of the symbolic power certain memories of learning can come to have, of how they can be nourishing resources over time which let you back into critical insights. I don’t think it would have had such power without its connection to so much else that I studied; Parkside’s integrated curriculum across English, media and drama allowed insight to diffuse across learning, to enrich the whole process.

Above all, however, what mattered was not specific curricular content but an attitude – modelled by teachers like James, and reflected in the kinds of empowering enquiry we were supported to undertake. This was an attitude of genuine curiosity. A questioning disposition towards all the texts that seek to shape understanding; a desire to understand how they do it; and a commitment to developing the tools to respond.

The scarcity of this disposition shocked me profoundly as a trainee during the last year. The teachers with whom I worked and who mentored me were wonderful, inspiring professionals; it was that the subject itself seemed at times a shadow of its former self. Particularly in the GCSE-level teaching I did, I was astonished at the pressure to focus on what Barbara Bleiman (using terms from a research paper by Wolsey, Lapp and Fisher) calls ‘local operations’ – the minutiae of English; the feature-spotting; the compressed, deadened, teacher-administered, exam-ready interpretation. Against this, Bleiman talks about ‘global moves’ – bigger picture thinking which, far from ignoring local operations, gives them a meaningful context in which to sit.

The work on flipping Batman was about global moves and local operations. It gave me the confidence, as John Yandell puts it, to ‘stand in judgment over a text’ rather than feel judged for how I stood in relation to it. I felt motivated to think about details and language features, not as things to spot in an infinitely boring, literature-wide, high-stakes-assessed version of Where’s Wally, but as part of the technology of making meaning. And I felt equipped to challenge that technology, too, and the meanings it makes.

Joe Minden is on Twitter, at @JosephMinden

See also The power of exploratory writing

See also From page to screen and back again: teaching Shakespeare through film and film through Shakespeare

5 thoughts on “Flipping Batman

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  1. It should be mentioned that all of the “flipped” analysis depends on an audience that is literate in a written language that reads left-to-right. It would be interesting to contrast this with stills from anime, or panels from manga, to see how they communicate the same messages.

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