It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when my fascination with Batman began. I remember encountering the Grant Morrison Justice League comics as a twenty-something, where Batman is portrayed as the most tactically minded and hypercompetent of a group that includes Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash, among others. The inaugural storyline features most of the heroes, minus Batman, taken out by a new superhero team, who turn the public against our intrepid, original heroes; Batman, however, eludes capture and deduces not only their true identities (as evil white Martians, not the good green kind) but their weakness to fire, and manages to kick their asses and escape their clutches long enough to free the rest of the heroes. It’s the first of many moments where Batman’s finest weapon is his mind, and I responded to it, picking up as much Justice League as I could, as well as the No Man’s Land series of trades.
No Man’s Land was another storyline where Batman surmounted the impossible. Gotham had been rocked by both earthquakes and plague outbreaks, and the US government (manipulated, of course, behind the scenes) determined that Gotham was too beleaguered to assist. The bridges were detonated, after which Batman’s rogue’s gallery divided the city up between them, and those who hadn’t fled were left to fend for themselves. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because Christopher Nolan mined the storyline for ideas when he wrote The Dark Knight Rises (that’s not a dig; the Nolan movies are incredibly respectful of the classics of Batman canon). The story itself is of varying quality, but the Batman line had some good writers working on it at the time and, by and large, they were left free of editorial interference, so it mostly holds up in isolation. (Unfortunately, a lot of the story beats the characters ran through were either ignored or repeated after the storyline was over, but such is the nature of corporate comics.)
However, these stories weren’t my first exposure to the Dark Knight. In high school I rushed home so that I could catch Batman: The Animated Series, as dark and noir a take on the character as a cartoon ostensibly for kids could be, at a time when the movie franchise was disappearing into camp with Batman Forever, which thankfully wasn’t, and Batman and Robin, which was notable only for the admirable feat of making George Clooney forgettable. In fact, I was following Batman in what is known as the DC Animated Universe, or DCAU, for most of high school and college, as the series progressed from Batman: The Animated Series to The Batman and Superman Adventures (where the Batman adventures were always more interesting that the Superman) to Justice League, the cartoon, featuring a Batman just as cranky and hypercompetent as his comic book counterpart.
Even further back than that, I was seeing the Keaton Batman films in the theatre, enthralled even with Burton’s notable disdain for the canon by his theatrically gritty Gotham. And before that I remember dog-eared copies of The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told, and The Killing Joke, a comic I was too young to be reading and one which I did not fully understand at the time. Batman has been with me through all my life; I am not, by and large, a person who can name a favorite something, but if you asked me who my favorite superhero was, I would have an easy answer.
Because I have a tendency to overthink, and because I have a commute, I found myself thinking about Batman this week. Not for any particular reason; I wasn’t considering the now old, in internet terms, news of Affleck taking over the role (my capsule thoughts: the problem won’t be Affleck, but the inevitably terrible script) or any other topical Batman matters. I haven’t seen any of the Nolan movies recently; about the only thing that would prod my thinking in that direction is my Batman mug I have at work. (In light of that, perhaps I should get myself a mug that says something about a successful career.) Now, if you’ve read anything I’ve written here, you know that I’m preoccupied with how stories serve us. It’s not that I think every story needs a moral, or a one-to-one equivalence to every life, but I’m fascinated by deeper meanings and connections and so my mind goes stumbling down those passages readily. I was thinking of why Batman has endured, trying to unravel why the story of Bruce Wayne has been told and re-told across multiple media platforms, and why we remain interested.
Batman’s appeal is often posited in relation to the other heroes of the DC Universe who, as I’ve mentioned, are far more powerful than he. Superman is a messiah figure, an all-powerful being who exists to help us. Wonder Woman is either a goddess or empowered by the gods, depending on which origin DC happens to be going with at the time. Green Lantern can create anything he can will into existence. The Flash can travel at speeds incomprehensible to and unattainable by humans. The Martian Manhunter can transform into anything, pass through solid objects, read minds, fly, and is as strong as Superman himself. When placed among these groups, Batman compares poorly, but his appeal in comparison is that he is the peak of human achievement, as strong and well-trained as it is possible for one man to be. And to a certain extent I see it, but the older I get, and the more of the world I see, the more I find that Batman’s real power is something different.
Grant Morrison summed this up pretty well too, this time in Final Crisis, a maxi-series that ran a few years back. The world is ending, everything is going to shit, and Mister Miracle, one of the only people who can stop it, is in Japan, trying to find allies. He stumbles across the Super Young Team, a group inspired by both American superheroes and Japanese pop culture. Most of its members have names and powers inspired by one or more of the more prominent DC heroes, and this goes for its leader, Most Excellent Superbat, whose name I have seriously considered legally changing mine to, because why wouldn’t you? When asked what his power is, he has this to say:
“Being rich,” is a pretty common origin in comics, because it solves a lot of narrative problems. “How can that dude afford all those robot suits?” “He’s a millionaire industrialist.” Problem solved. Batman has sculpted himself a ridiculous physique, perfect for beating up thugs in dark alleys, and he’s learned every martial art he could find a teacher for. He’s trained himself in investigative techniques and all manner of scientific disciplines and constructed technological marvels big and small to assist in his one-man crime fighting crusade, and none of it would be possible without his wealth. His money, as an origin story, is almost a mirror image of Superman’s; just as Clark Kent was born with nearly limitless power because of his Kryptonian physiology, so too was Bruce Wayne born with limitless freedom because of his inheritance. Bruce can pump iron for hours and practice forms and katas to his tortured heart’s content because he never has to worry about where his next meal is coming from, and he can study everything there is to know about the art of deduction without ever having his cognitive function impaired by poverty.
The thread you dare not pull in the sweater that is the Batman comic book franchise is that Bruce Wayne has chosen perhaps the least effective method of actually fighting crime. He has, yes, made himself into a pinnacle of crime-fighting ability, but one man cannot possibly solve all of society’s ills one fist fight at a time. Some Batman stories have grappled with this, others ignored it; there is a sense, however, that Batman himself knows this, that he is under just as much of a compulsion as any one of his villains. Nolan’s Batman films took this head on, making it the arc of the character, taking advantage of the fact that he could, if not end the Batman story for all time, at least end his Batman story. It ends one of the only ways it can; with Bruce walking away, letting his fortune do work for him, transforming lives in a positive way, while he himself leaves his pain behind, and leaves the work of the Batman to someone else. Trying to make comics realistic is thin ice (as is the notion of realism itself), but stepping out onto it for just a moment, we might imagine what might happen if a child who lost their parents to violent crime grew up with a vast fortune and a desire to make a difference. How many charitable foundations could be started, how many schools funded, how many houses built, if one person chose to wield their vast fortune for such a purpose?
We are living in an age of unequaled income inequality, where the corrosive, destructive effects of wealth in the hands of a few on our politics and our society are playing out every day. Even wealthy people with reputations for philanthropy tend to misuse it (for example, Bill Gates’ disappointing and troubling association with the school reform movement), and most, like the Koch brothers, or the Waltons, possessors of wealth that surpasses that of the poorest 40% of Americans, are outright trying to fuck the rest of us, as hard and as long as they can. Perhaps the enduring popularity of Batman rests in the fact that he is that lone anomaly; a rich person who gives a shit about the rest of us.