Batman vs. Batman

The small-town mayor of Batman, Turkey, is threatening to sue filmmaker Warner Bros. for using his locale's name without permission.

Yigal Schleifer
Headline News: Ercan Atay, editor of a newspaper in Batman, says the city's social issues trump the mayor's lawsuit.
Rich Clabaugh/STAFF

The comic-book superhero Batman may have finally found his match – and he happens to be a plain-spoken mayor from southeast Turkey.

The caped crusader's latest nemesis is Huseyin Kalkan, the two-term leader of a city called, appropriately enough, Batman (pronounced Baht-mahn). The politician recently raised eyebrows around the globe when he announced plans to sue Warner Bros., makers of the successful Batman films.

"Of course, I'm thankful to them for making the Batman name famous, but we can't let them use the Batman name without permission," Mr. Kalkan said during a recent interview in his office.

Kalkan's still-in-the-works lawsuit might seem like pure folly, but it could also be viewed as masterly guerrilla marketing. Small city mayors around the world take note: From his lair in Batman's city hall, Kalkan has managed to get his remote little town – one that has only recently started to emerge from decades of political and economic troubles – into headlines worldwide.

As a local municipal worker says, "We wouldn't have had better advertising for Batman, even if we had spent $1 million."

The mayor admitted a lawsuit is not coming any time soon, but if it's filed, it would not necessarily be a first. This past July, a court in Athens, Greece, ruled against a group from the Greek island of Lesbos, who tried to prevent a gay rights organization from using the word "Lesbian" in its name.

On the other hand, towns like Garfield, N.J. have yet to go after the makers of the popular cat cartoon and movie franchise.

Warner Bros. has little to say about Kalkan's lawsuit. "We are only aware of this claim via press reports and have not seen any actual legal action," read a company statement.

Still, Kalkan insisted that he's no joker – this lawsuit is serious. The idea came to him two years ago, when a visiting British journalist asked why nothing was being done to use the Batman movies' success to address the problems of the predominantly Kurdish city.

The city of Batman, a collection of mostly drab cement buildings located on a high, treeless plateau, would certainly never be confused with Gotham City.

But it does have a profoundly dark side. During the 1980s and '90s, the city was the scene of bitter fighting between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Turkish forces, as well as between the PKK and Islamists. Even the mayor is facing several pending court cases for his public praise of the outlawed PKK.

In Turkey, the city is perhaps best known for having an unusually high rate of female suicides – mostly young women accused of staining their family's honor.

At the heart of Kalkan's phantom lawsuit is really a desire to find a new image for this beleaguered city, or at least to foster a sense of normalcy. In many ways, the mayor has tried to be Batman's mustachioed avenger, presiding over the construction of new roads and a mall with a Burger King and a five-screen Cineplex, the city's first movie theater.

"Batman's a tough place. We very much want Batman's image to change," says Gulistan Akel, a sociologist working with Selis, a women's center run by the municipality.

Ekrem Konac, a cleaning-supplies manufacturer, supports Kalkan's efforts to safeguard the city's famous name.

"The idea is comic, but good things are happening because of it," he says. "It's nice to see that people around the world now know our city. Don't people go to see Morocco because of the movie Casablanca?"

The mayor of Batman has a history of thinking big to put his little city on the map. In 2003, to help kick off what has become a popular annual cultural festival, he invited as a headliner Ciwan Haco, a kind of Kurdish Bruce Springsteen. More than 200,000 fans showed up.

Although Mr. Haco is the only headliner to actually have attended the festival, the mayor has created buzz by inviting Michael Jackson, Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela to subsequent festivals.

"It's very expensive to bring Michael Jackson, so we dropped that," the mustachioed mayor said. "But we did get letters of thanks from Fidel and Mandela."

Kalkan's next stunt is trying to bring President-elect Barack Obama to his town for an official visit.

Still, Kalkan faces some skepticism. One local paper, called "Batman," ran several days' worth of cartoons poking fun at the mayor – one, a picture of Kalkan's smiling face atop Batman's bat suit.

Ercan Atay, the paper's editor, cites a few obstacles to Kalkan's lawsuit: Batman the comic strip dates to 1939, while Batman the city was only incorporated in 1955. And before the city's growth after the discovery of oil nearby in the 1950s, it was actually a small village called Iluh.

"He needs to stop this. If he actually takes this to the courts, he will look ridiculous," says Mr. Atay, who says the city's social and economic issues are more pressing. Rather than a lawsuit, the editor suggests inviting Warner Bros. to make the next Batman film here. The area surrounding the city is pocked with caves that are perfect for the movie, he notes.

"It could be 'Batman in Batman,'" he says. "Now that would be interesting."

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