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The superhero has permeated American culture for more than a century. Graphic novels depicting heroes like Superman, Green Lantern, and The Flash grab the imagination, tapping into both the reader’s deep seated longing for the ideal and his fantasies of titanic power. The exception to the god-in-tights trope that otherwise defines the genre is The Batman. Unlike his iconic foil, Superman, Batman fights to the best of his ability without powers. Ironically, it’s this that makes him more powerful as a character. Readers of Batman comics, consciously or not, put themselves in the shoes of Batman. If Batman can do all this, the reader thinks, maybe I can conquer my problems too. Batman has become a potent pop-culture icon of self-actualization and ambition in the face of adversity, and the stories depicting him are a direct parable for the conflict against one’s own inner darkness.
Batman’s saga begins with a smoking gun and a promise. Up until that fateful night, he was merely the young son of a wealthy family in the crime-ridden Gotham City. He was on his way home from a night at the cinema when mugger violently killed his parents. Young Bruce Wayne, orphan, channeled all the pain and hate he felt on that night into a promise to himself that was as simple as it was naive: to end crime in Gotham. As he sat alone in the rainy alleyway by the corpses of his parents and listened to wail of GCPD police sirens, he took the first steps of his journey of self-actualization that would last him his entire life.
And so he grew into something greater. The story of his growth is rare within the superhero genre. Superman was born with extraordinary abilities, and the Green Lantern was given a magic alien ring. The Martian Manhunter is, well, a martian. Batman, on the other hand, studied and trained and traveled the world for his abilities. He learned from the masters of the martial arts, criminology, and detective work. For twelve years he paid sweat and blood for every inch of progress he made towards optimizing his being. The fact that Batman worked so hard to become himself is rare in the genre, and is a breath of fresh air from the zero-to-heroes one reads about in other superhero graphic novels.
Frank Miller told the story of how Bruce Wayne became Batman in “Batman: Year One.” He had just returned home to Wayne Manor and didn’t yet know where to begin in the undertaking of his epic quest. “I’m not ready… I have the means, the skill — but not the method,” he mused. “ . . . No. That’s not true. I have hundreds of methods. But something’s missing. Something isn’t right. I have to wait.” Unfortunately, he was unwilling to restrain himself from carrying out what he promised he’d do more than a decade ago for long, and within a week Bruce Wayne, disguised by a fake scar on his face, walks out into the shady streets of Gotham for the first time as a vigilante.
In the East End of town, Bruce is propositioned by a prostitute of no more than thirteen years. When he refuses, her hulking, angry pimp provokes him into a fight. Though Bruce would have won handily one-on-one, the fight is prolonged when a band of prostitutes complicate things. The police arrive, handcuff Bruce, and detain him in their squad car. Unwilling to let his one man crusade end before it begins, a lightheaded and bleeding Bruce Wayne breaks the handcuffs and causes the police car to swerve into a nearby building. He drags the police officers to a safe distance before he flees to Wayne Manor.
The trope of the Hero’s unfamiliarity with a new situation is common, even ubiquitous, within works of fiction. In Campbell’s Monomyth model of story structure, this phase is called the Belly of the Whale. This is the twilight stage between the protagonist’s decision to undertake his quest and his inevitable emergence as a newer, stronger character. Bruce Wayne’s emergence occurred as he sat alone in Wayne Manor looking out into the night. The previous night’s incident had illuminated the quality that he knew was missing: intimidation. When he fights criminals as a man, he does so on their level. They have nothing to fear from another human. No, he knew that they needed a symbol, a legend that would strike terror into the hearts of those who would hurt the innocent. In order to fight something as pervasive as crime, he would need to do it in a way that transcends humanity.
Suddenly, a bat crashes through his window, and he remembers an incident from before his parents’ death. He had been chasing a rabbit through the estate as a young boy when he tripped and fell into the subterranean depths beneath his house that would later become the batcave. Bats scurry away from the mysterious interloper of their domain. All that remains within the cave is Bruce and a solitary bat, who flies to attack the intruder:
“Then . . . something shuffles out of sight . . . Something sucks the stale air . . . and hisses. Gliding with ancient grace. Eyes gleaming untouched by love or joy or sorrow. Breath hot with the taste of fallen foes, the stench of dead things, damned things. Surely the fiercest survivor, the purest warrior. Glaring, hating, claiming me as your own.” (Miller)
Batman returned to reality and realized that in order to be the symbol of terror he needs to be, he would become a bat. He donned the cape and cowl and went out into the night as The Batman.
As Batman began his crusade and crime began to decrease, the caliber of the criminals he fought rose dramatically. New criminals, each one with their own unique brands of psychosis, began to plague Gotham one by one. Analysis of these characters reveals their most interesting feature: each represents a negative facet of Bruce Wayne’s personality, and one can safely interpret their conflict as a direct metaphor for Batman’s constant struggle to eradicate his flaws.
The theme of villains representing negative traits extends to almost the entire cast of his iconic foes. There’s the Scarecrow, a psychologist turned psychopath who uses a hallucinogen of his own design to invoke terror in his victims. This comparison is low-hanging fruit, as the core of Batman’s arsenal is using fear as a tactic to force criminals into submission. The Scarecrow represents what lies on the other side of the line that Batman treads between justified and unjustified intimidation. Two-Face is a former district attorney, Harvey Dent, who lost half of his face when a mob boss splashed him with acid. He lost his mind and devolved into two separate personalities of good and evil that he alternates between on the flip of a silver dollar. He serves as a stark contrast with Batman; when they clash it represents two separate ways of dealing with personal tragedy. Furthermore, the entire character is a direct allusion to the famous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the longstanding theme of the balance between our higher minds and the primal dark side that lives within us all. It’s no coincidence that Batman also has to grapple with a dark side of his own; the anger and hurt he feels from his parent’s murder.
The most iconic and deranged villain of the Batman’s is the Joker, a loose cannon of a criminal who “…is some days a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day. He sees himself as the lord of misrule, and a world as a theater of the absurd.” (Morrison). The Joker represents the chaos to Batman’s order, the very thing he tries to eradicate both inside of himself and in his environment.
But it goes deeper than that. When one abstracts the two characters to their core differences, the key item is hope. Moore’s classic, The Killing Joke, explores the dichotomy between him and the Batman. In The Killing Joke, the story begins with Batman visiting Arkham Asylum, intending to work out his differences with the Joker. Unfortunately, he discovers to his dismay that the Joker had already escaped and had kidnapped Police Commissioner Gordon, tormenting him with the goal of breaking his spirit and causing insanity. Over the course of the plot the Joker’s own past is revealed, illustrating a portrait of an everyman pushed to madness from great tragedy: the loss of his wife and unborn son. In light of this, I contend that that the Joker’s kidnapping and torment of Commissioner Gordon was not a random act of chaos like so many of his crimes are, but an attempt to justify his own being. He wanted to prove that all it took was “one bad day” (Moore) to turn anyone to insanity, and that his environment, not him, was responsible for the terrible things he wrought.
Inevitably, the Joker’s plan fails, and Batman gets a few moments to speak with the Joker in private before the police arrive. This scene is what made The Killing Joke great, because it lays waste to the the barriers that separate the two characters and for a few moments they speak on equal ground. Batman found the joker standing in the rain, dejected. He asserted that he doesn’t want to hurt the Joker, but that if they continued on their current course, one of them would just end up killing each other. He extended his hand and offered to help him, to try to rehabilitate him. The Joker holds his temples and responds with a joke. (See Attachment A).
The joke is about two men in an insane asylum who try to escape by jumping off the rooftop. One does so easily, but the other fears falling. The first offers to shine a beam of light across the gap for the second to walk across to freedom. But the second refuses. “What am I, crazy? You’d turn the light off halfway!” (Moore) On the surface, the meaning of the joke is simple: The Joker refuses because he’s insane. However, the whole scene grows more melancholy under Darius’s spot-on interpretation.
Darius said that the Asylum is supposed to represent the “one bad day,” or the suffering in life. The two inmates were the Batman and the Joker. Batman jumped across to freedom with ease, but the Joker was so scared of falling (read: failing to be rehabilitated) that he doesn’t dare go. Batman’s offer of rehabilitation was something that the Joker believed was inherently as hopeless as walking on a beam of light. Furthermore, the Batman would only “turn off the light” halfway, because the Joker refused to believe that the world had a place for him.
The Batman and The Joker were simply two men linked by identities molded from loss and suffering. Batman’s belief that order and justice can be brought to the world grounded him and kept him sane. The Joker, without any such ideals, turned to violence and madness. The Joker represents what Batman could become if he lost hope for tomorrow, and their conflict is not only the struggle between two men linked by tragedy, but an unending battle between hope and despair.
Even more prevalent than the theme of internal self-actualization is the theme of humanity transcending itself to do the impossible. The cast of fantastical characters with extravagant super powers in the DC Comics universe banded together to form the Justice League of America in 1960. The team sported one Jacob amongst the throng of Goliaths: The Batman. Not only was he the only member of the JLA without any powers, he’s one of the two iconic leaders of the group.
In the biblical book of Genesis, Isaac bears two sons, Esau and Jacob. Like Superman, the elder brother Esau was brave and strong, a fierce hunter, the classic alpha-male; like Batman, the younger brother Jacob was weak and soft-spoken by comparison, but very quick-witted. God prophesied that each son would represent a nation, one more powerful than the other. Isaac’s blessing originally belonged to Esau. However, Jacob’s intelligent forethought and planning secures the blessing from his elder brother’s fingertips, despite Esau’s apparent might and superiority.
The contrast between Batman and Superman is clear and obvious. The Esau to Batman’s Jacob, Superman also exists to be a symbol: A symbol of safety and protection. Faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! It’s a bird, it’s a plane! No, it’s Superman! The citizens of the utopian Metropolis have nothing to fear from crime, because they lie safely under Superman’s jurisdiction. It’s not unreasonable to compare the semi-omnipotent and omnipresent Superman to a god. The concept of Batman vs. Superman has existed since their characters first interacted within the JLA. In Frank Miller’s magnum opus, The Dark Knight Returns, an elderly Batman defeats Superman through careful foreplanning. It just so happens that a movie inspired by The Dark Knight Returns is slated to premiere in the summer of 2015. The fact that such an idea is even explored illustrates just how much Batman is respected as an icon of the human spirit, and triumph over immense obstacles. With enough planning and thought, Batman can stand up to, and even defeat, the god in blue. Coincidentally, Jacob later goes on to be given the name Israel, or “He who struggles with God.”
Why, though, is any of this relevant? Comic books are, after all, intellectual junk food for children whose time would be better spent reading Shakespeare. Well, maybe, but I think we can all learn from Batman. Few things would be out of our reach if everyone dedicated themselves as wholly as him to overcoming obstacles, self-improvement, and simple justice.
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