What moral codes govern a hero who will not kill a mass murderer even to prevent the man from killing anymore? Why does such a man demonstrate terrible child-rearing habits by exposing a young boy to danger from criminals and ‘drafting him into a war’ (as one story in the series puts it)? What causes a millionaire to dress, as his arch enemy words it, like a ‘rodent’ and wander the streets at night? Why, if he is so concerned about the social order, does the millionaire not do more for the underprivileged of his city?
These, and several other questions of a moral and ethical nature have haunted only one character – besides good ‘ol Hamlet, but, as befits the obsessive procrastinator, we shall deal with the Danish boy later – in literature: Batman. In 2019, the 80th year of his tormented, humour-less life (despite having his Joker), 999 comic books (the 1,000th releases this year), dozens of movie and series adaptations, starting with Lambert Hillyer’s 1943 film, the Dark Knight has triumphed as a global cultural icon.
Bob Kane’s Batman appeared in 1939 in Detective Comics (known popularly as DC). The caped vigilante with a questionable dress sense was immediately recognised as an important member of the emerging superhero pantheon, alongside Superman, the Man of Steel (who appeared in 1938). The world going to war around the same time, critics note, helped the cult to spread – it is documented that Superman comics were sent to soldiers on the front, though clearly not intended as ammunition – among children and adults alike.
In a world populated by numerous scourges, with the appearance of gods in temporary abeyance – maybe they didn’t find a place to park in our metros – humanity turns to another mythology out of the sheer necessity to believe in something higher than us. Hence, the superheroes. They become, in the words of one of the finest studies of the superhero genre, ‘a modern mythology’ (Richard Reynolds, Superheroes: A Modern Mythology).
Different from Other Superheroes
The difference between other superheroes and Batman was: Batman was not alien, he did not possess near-magical powers but was simply a super-wealthy, supremely fit, brilliant man with the kind of gear that military establishments would die, or kill, for. He was macabrely morose, was orphaned early, and has so many complicated principles that Freud would have rubbed his hands in glee at the possibility of a disquisition as a worthy to follow his classic, ‘The Wolfman’.
Many story arcs grew up around Batman, many of them informed by the global events, World Wars, the Cold War, among others. Will Brooker’s source-text, Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon, is a wealth of information about the history and evolution of the comics series around this vigilante. For six initial issues, Brooker tells us, Batman’s origins were not made available, it was only later that the reasons for Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman were revealed.
What was also revealed was his interest in science, deduction and, of course, fitness. Batman’s investigations take recourse to a wide variety of cutting-edge devices and methods, but he also has access to police records and information thanks to his friendship with Commissioner Gordon. He functions, then, as a problematic adjunct to the legal-juridical apparatus.
Making and Ageing
In an early study, Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio summarise the qualities that make Batman: obsession, deductive skills, physical fitness and wealth. So much of Batman, in fact, is his sheer body-power. This body, devoid of the pharmacological-genetic alterations that mark, say, Superman, the Incredible Hulk or Wolverine, has come in for sustained attention. Paul Zehr’s Becoming Batman, from the Johns Hopkins University Press, undertook a detailed study of Wayne’s training programme — from diet to martial arts — to uncover the processes, the mechanics, of this superhero. Zehr proceeds to then do the unthinkable: discuss an ageing Batman, speculating that
Batman is at increased risk for osteoporosis as a result of his nocturnal lifestyle. All of the bonks to the head he has taken seemingly without consequence increase his chances of dementia, such as occurs with Alzheimer’s disease.
This undermines the very idea of a superhero: he must remain unchanging because it is the consistent appearance and recognisability, as Umberto Eco observed in his essay on Superman, which ensures the continuity we expect in our superheroes and gods. Yet, an aging Batman is precisely what inspired the TV series, Batman Beyond (1999-2001) and, more brilliantly, Frank Miller’s iconic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986).
Decades later, when Frank Miller revisits the Batverse, he chooses to reinvent the superhero: the All-Star Batman and Robin (2005-08), shows an unshaven Batman, perpetually grimacing, and downright unpleasant to Robin, whom he literally kidnaps. Miller’s volume would appropriately carry the tagline ‘a darker knight’ on the blurb. So Batman is aging, and not very gracefully.
The comics are classic, of course. But when they appear in graphic novel format, as they did from the 1990s, they become truly spectacular. The Daliesque Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth whose colours, especially in the Deluxe edition, are maddening in and of themselves, are compounded by the truly surreal drawing. The Batman texts by Miller, Alan Moore (The Killing Joke), Grant Morrison (Arkham Asylum, Gothic), Jeph Loeb (Long Halloween, Dark Victory) and painted by astonishingly talented people like Dave McKean and Lynn Varley possess a special appeal – even the violence gets aestheticised, perhaps unacceptably so.
The violence of the Batman texts is perhaps unique in the superhero mythos. Minus guns and advanced technological warfare, characterised mainly by hand-to-hand combat, the fights are also intimate and personalised, like everything else about Batman. The unrelenting violence of the latter Batman texts reaches staggering proportions with Death in the Family where Robin is bludgeoned to death by the Joker.
In The Killing Joke Barbara Gordon (Commissioner Gordon’s niece) is shot, and photographs of her bleeding and part-naked are displayed for Gordon to go insane – another Joker trick to see how much reality a human can endure before he breaks. As the Joker puts it: ‘All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day’. He then turns to Batman and informs him:
You had a bad day once, am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed. Why else would you dress up as a flying rat? You had a bad day, and it drove you as crazy as everybody else… Only you won’t admit it!
Batman is embattled, by his inner demons, the corrupt city of Gotham – originally it was not Gotham but ‘Metropolis’, then ‘downtown Manhattan’ and ‘New York’, as Will Brooker notes – and an unenviable group of villains. It is the tortuous mind, some of which Nolan captures quite effectively, that draws one to this vigilante.
Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, often rated as the largest-selling Batman comic in history, with David Mazzucchelli’s surreal art literally drew this cursed mind of Wayne in its opening pages, showing a man sitting in the shadow of outstretched batwings. This appealing vulnerability marks a major Batman theme. Yes, all superheroes have troubled origins and personal settings: foster parents, no-parents, dysfunctional social relationships, among others. But a haunted superhero? That pride of place is only Batman’s, and lends the necessary mystique to the character.
The villains, headed by the Joker, are a star component of Batman’s messed up life (for a compilation of the people in Batman’s world see the indispensable The Essential Batman Encyclopedia by Robert Greenberger). Catwoman, also a Bob Kane creation, has a romantic relationship with Batman, but is also, by virtue of being a burglar, his enemy. Poison Ivy is a former biochemist who now uses her knowledge of plant venom to wreak havoc. The founder of a cult/order, Ra’s Al Ghul, wishes Batman to succeed him as its leader. Edward Nigma, or the Riddler, is a criminal who loves puzzles. Penguin is a brilliant crime boss. Bane, made popular by Nolan, once broke Batman’s back in the Knightfall series (and briefly fights alongside Batman when the latter seeks to regain his mantle from Paul Valley who, with Wayne’s approval, becomes Batman when the original is injured), is a steroid-enhanced criminal. Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter returns as a villain in Batman.
Other famous ones include: former Gotham Attorney, Harvey Dent, who is now Two-Face; Scarecrow, a former biochemistry professor (Jonathan Crane); Harley Quinn, the Joker’s former psychiatrist; and several others. What is interesting is that the average IQ of the villain is adequate for a Mensa membership, thus establishing a sort of level playing field between the hero (Batman) and the villains.
That Batman kicks off huge philosophical questions due to his ‘virtue’ – he will not kill – lends a further dimension to the mystery of Wayne/Batman. He is flawed, like all of us, is uncertain, like many of us. One critic summarises some of the key concerns around Batman:
What makes a person go to such extremes? Is what Batman does good, or right, or virtuous? And what does his obsession, his devotion to “the mission,” say about who he is? How does he treat his partners, his friends, and his enemies? What is it like to actually be Batman?
That these are not easy-to-answer questions is proven by the release of an entire volume devoted to them: Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul (2008). That said, are his actions in fighting crime within the purview of the law? Is vigilantism a version of citizen-police work? Batman would say in Nolan’s film, ‘it is what I do that defines me’ (Nolan’s Batman Begins), but the point is: what he does is not within the bounds of the social order’s legal apparatus. Offering a moral justification to resolve a legal situation – crime – is only guaranteed to generate more ethical dilemmas, and Batman does invite these dilemmas. (Frank Miller’s other cult vigilante of this kind would be V in V for Vendetta.)
For some, Batman is a moral exemplar. For others, he sets up the formula that determines the future course of action for himself, but also for humans in general: ‘I have to make them afraid’ (Year One). There are, for many critics, interesting psychological insights to be drawn from say, the Joker or Batman himself. Intelligence shading into insanity is central to the Batman universe. Here, for example, is an interpretation of the Joker’s ‘insanity’ in Arkham Asylum:
It’s quite possible we may actually be looking at some kind of super-sanity here. A brilliant new modification of human perception, more suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century. Unlike you and I, the Joker seems to have no control over the sensory information he’s receiving from the outside world.
He can only cope with that chaotic barrage of input by going with the flow. . . He has no real personality. He creates himself each day. He sees himself as the lord of misrule, and the world as a theatre of the absurd.
Amadeus Arkham, founder of the Asylum, was also its first inmate. In his case, there are several parallels with Wayne, the most startling being Amadeus’ mother who believed she was haunted by a supernatural creature. Till one day, Amadeus also sees this creature: ‘But God help me, I see it. I see the thing that has haunted and tormented my poor mother these long years. I see it. And it is a bat. A bat!’ Elsewhere, the Joker declares:
Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random, and pointless, one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them? In a world as psychotic as this… any other response would be crazy! (The Killing Joke)
That the Joker sees himself as Batman’s double or reflection is an old theme. When The Killing Joke ends, Batman and Joker are laughing together and Alan Moore has stated on record that ‘Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other’ (https://www.cbr.com/alan-moore-interview/). The Jekyll-Hyde complex that is such a key theme in literature finds its expression here, as in Stephen King’s The Dark Half.
Eighty years later, Gotham seems to have as many innovative criminals as it did in the 1940s. Despite frequent debates about vigilantism and public outcries against beyond-the-law operations such as Batman’s, the belief in a messianic saviour who patrols the streets while honest people sleep has never diminished. Gotham, we are frequently made aware, needs Batman.
But the point is: Batman is symbolic of an attitude and set of qualities. What we read, and admire, when we read the Batman story arcs is this, not the character per se. The Batman universe is akin to all good literary worlds, where the character and plot are reasons to think of more universal concerns of good/evil, justice, society, etc. That he is neurotic and obsessive, deeply flawed and often miserable makes him all the more appealing: a hero with a tragic flaw, if we were to adapt Aristotle’s requirements of a tragic hero! It is the messy subtexts to the Joker’s villainy and his taunts to Batman, the tragedy of a Solomon Grundy, the misdirected genius of a Poison Ivy or Scarecrow – variations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Moriarty theme – that also render the Batman universe so complicatedly attractive and tragic.
In the age of a superhero revival (but did they ever die out?), we celebrate Batman@80 as time’s endless monument, even as we wait for the superhero event of the year from the other great superhero mythos, Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame. Tired, short-tempered, often lonely – Batman soldiers on across the many adaptations, from Tim Burton to Christopher Nolan, across 80 years. DC’s greatest fictional creation has remained its biggest commodity, its global icon. Cowl, cape, complexes, all remain in place, as the idea of Batman continues to thrive. It is indeed what he does that defines Batman, and the caped crusader’s endgame isn’t here yet.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)