Another director, Christopher Nolan, filmed part of his final installment of The Dark Knight Trilogy in Pittsburgh over the summer of 2011. During production of The Dark Knight Rises, comic book artist Jerry Robinson—the man credited with creating The Joker—visited the ToonSeum on Liberty Avenue. It was one of Robinson’s last public appearances before his death six month later at the age of 89.
Lord Grunge of the Pittsburgh-based hip hop duo Grand Buffet has added yet another layer to the “Pittsburgh as Gotham” legacy with Pittsburgh Batman, an original play that premiered at the Bricolage Theater in February 2013 with additional performances at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in March 2014.
“Last year’s show went over amazingly well,” Lord Grunge says of the original production. “Crowds laughed at all the right moments, and the laughs were big and real. I’m psyched on my play, and I don’t doubt its ability to entertain, but I gotta say that I was blown away by how well it went over with the crowds. I think out of the 300-plus people who saw it, I heard of only one person who left the show bitching about how much they didn’t like it. That’s a pretty sweet ratio.”
The Pittsburgh Batman of Lord Grunge is not your grandfather’s Dark Knight—nor the one of Adam West, Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan for that matter—yet is likewise difficult to pin down in regards to style. Despite dialogue filled with a litany of four-letter words, for instance, Pittsburgh Batman still has a very down-to-earth quality to it. The simple sets, meanwhile, are complimented by graphic slides of the Pittsburgh landscape, adding a Twenty First Century multimedia touch. Local drag performer Varian Huddleston opened the proceedings at both theaters as Pittsburgh Catwoman while Rhode Island rap artist Sage Francis briefly took the stage as New England Bane for a dance sequence at the Kelly-Strayhorn, giving the show a vaudeville/burlesque quality as well.
And although Pittsburgh Batman uses his fists against the likes of The Riddler and Penguin, the final confrontation with The Joker is a musical showdown with dueling vocal performances between Lord Grunge and Youngstown DJ Richard Elmsworth.
“I can guarantee one hell of an entertaining show,” Lord Grunge declares in regards to Pittsburgh Batman. “It’s crass, it’s vulgar, but I defy anyone who isn’t dead or a real stick in the mud not to be entertained at least a little. Probably a lot.” As for the plot, Lord Grunge adds that “it’s quite simple—Pittsburgh Batman notices a new rash of crime from a new breed of villain, and he’s got to beat the streets of the ’Burgh to find out who’s behind it all. It turns out it’s this creepy, eccentric madman who calls himself The Youngstown Joker.”
In addition to the usual assortment of super villains, Pittsburgh Batman also includes Steel City celebrities like Mayor Bill Peduto, former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and the legendary Andy Warhol, who apparently faked his own death and resides upstairs at the Andy Warhol Museum. While Pittsburgh Batman derides hipsters at a local bar who don’t appreciate the city, meanwhile, alter-ego Bruce Wayne likewise lets loose a litany of insults against ineffective government officials and high-brow snobs.
At its heart, Pittsburgh is a blue-collar town, and the working-class ethos of the region resounds in Pittsburgh Batman. “I’d say the two biggest inspirations were Pittsburgh and Batman,” Lord Grunge explains in regards to the genesis of the play. “Not being a smartass, either. That’s the honest truth. My favorite city and my favorite superhero.”
The character of Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939. Just like with any superhero that has been around for any length of time, the Dark Knight has had his fair share of different artists and writers over the decades, and each interpretation has its own group of supporters and detractors.
“Frank Miller’s Batman is my uber-favorite, if we wanna get specific,” Lord Grunge confides of his own personal preference. “I’m a sucker for individuals driven by vengeance, and I also love the non-superhero superheroes who are able to piss with big boys, so to speak. Dudes like Batman, dudes like The Punisher, they’re human men, but they can go toe-to-toe with mutants and demons and gods and sons of Krypton and all that other crazy shit. The heated conversations between Batman and Superman in The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again are some of my favorite moments in comic books of all time. Those scenes in those books totally exemplify what I’m talking about. Totally rules.”
While Lord Grunge is an obvious admirer of Frank Miller, Christopher Nolan is another matter altogether. In fact, Lord Grunge classifies Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy as a “failure” because the Batman of the series was not the Batman that he himself has come to admire.
“Batman, when told well in my opinion, is a major Good Guy with a minor in Bad Guy,” he explains. “He is NOT a boy scout. He’s a miserable, tortured genius and maybe even a little bit psychotic. He’s become a monster so he can battle monsters. Bruce Wayne keeps it chill, but Batman cuts loose on some Jekyll and Hyde shit. He gets black—Pitch Black!—if he needs to. And it eats him up! Psychotic, maybe, but psychopathic? No way! Batman is huge on conscience but gets brutal anyway. THAT’S a true heroic badass.”
Despite having very specific viewpoints on the essence of Batman, Pittsburgh Batman is not necessarily a reflection of those opinions. “My play is satire,” Lord Grunge emphatically states. “It’s absolutely NOT meant to be compared to the seminal Batman works. It’s a spoof. It pays tribute to the Dark Knight, but it’s its own thing. I don’t claim that it’s up there with the greats, or that it even follows my rules for what makes a good Batman story. Satire is its own shit, on its own level. In fact, I’ll bet that if I’d re-watch the Nolan films and imagine them as spoofs, I’d dig them—a little.”
Pittsburgh has given birth to both a Riddler and a Bruce Wayne, temporarily served as the back alleys of Gotham City during the filming of The Dark Knight Rises, and was one of the last stops in the legendary career of Jerry Robinson. With the exception of Gotham City, no other metropolis in the country is more deserving of having its own Batman, even if the Steel City version isn’t necessarily mainstream.
There are plenty of positive adjectives that can be used to describe Pittsburgh Batman, but in the end the play is a “love letter” from Lord Grunge to the city he calls home and the superhero that he admires.