Did you know it’s the year of Batman?
The Caped Crusader has been around as a fictional character for 75 years. Originally created in 1939, Batman (or “the Bat-Man,” as he was first known) was a response to National Publications—which later became much better known as DC Comics—needing more superhero titles. Superman had hit prime time a year earlier, and National knew it was on to a winning formula with costumed heroes, a theme comic book publishers have explored endlessly since.
I’ve stated a few times in this column that I’m not much for superheroes. I don’t say this out of snobbery or as an attempt to be indie-er than thou; superheroes are just not what I write, nor what I generally read. Much work has been done around superheroes in the comics industry, so much that the two are hard to separate. Some of it is profoundly interesting and much of it resulted in genuinely iconic characters. I’ve had my flirtations with a mutant title or two. But superheroes, for all of how much I get how they happened and why they’re around, never held my interest for long. There are only so many narrative possibilities, even in the hands of those gifted at the craft.
But no one can deny the significance of the Batman mythos in our culture. He was one of the earliest superheroes, to be sure, and in the seven and a half decades since his creation, has been interpreted, reinterpreted, deconstructed and reinterpreted again. He’s been played on screen by everyone from Michael Keaton (a risky choice if ever there was one) to George Clooney, directed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher (and many others), and written by dozens of legendary writers, both on the screen and on the page.
The less said of the dreadful Adam West television series the better, but the campy TV version is credited with carrying a comic book character fully into the mainstream, something only a few truly giant titles managed to do by that time. (C’mon, you’ve got the theme song going through your head right now, don’t you? And what other TV shows, about a comic book character or otherwise, featured Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, and Liberace?) Batman is a character so profoundly soaked into the fabric of this country’s cultural history that I think everything would unravel if you took him away. We’ll never cease to be interested in him.
Meanwhile, Batman has become oddly relevant to our times, as we think of billionaires, secretive vigilantes and the population of über wealthy people that operate above the law. Bruce Wayne is unquestionably the 1%. We may trust in his motives and ethics, or even trust that he has our best interest at heart, but name one aspect of the character that isn’t a scary tale of wealth abused to work around (though ostensibly somehow in support of) the law.
There’s a whole story behind how and why the character was created, but it’s not nearly as interesting as all the directions he’s gone since. For me, aside from the fact that Batman is just a regular human being, albeit one with tons of money and gadgets, the most intriguing thing is the way in which older, even classical sources were consciously incorporated into the new mythos. Superman is fascinating because much of what’s intriguing about him was almost (we think) subconsciously woven into the story.
With Batman, creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger very deliberately pillaged literary characters like the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro. Even the visual aspects of the character pulled from sources like Leonardo Da Vinci. Most of the time, when comic book characters tap into something archetypal, it seems unintentional. However, even the villains in the Batman stories, characters like the Joker, intentionally go much deeper into archetypal darkness than most comics books dare to. The poignancy and violence of Batman’s origin myth—that Bruce Wayne, as a little boy, saw his parents gunned down in front of his eyes and then inherited their vast wealth—is a character study that still intrigues psychologists today.
The other bit that fascinates me about Batman’s history is his brush with scandal. In 1954, a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham published a book—some might say screed—called Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham didn’t merely target Batman; he denounced Wonder Woman as a lesbian and Superman as an anti-American fascist. Broadly, Wertham’s thesis was about how comics books encouraged every sort of deviance and criminality in young people, and should be, he felt, totally banned.
Wertham’s focus on Batman was specific, in that he found in the stories a bit of what people of his time might have referred to as a “whiff of lavender.” The Batman stories, Wertham insisted, were “psychologically homosexual,” something he felt should be evident to any God-fearing person:
Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature “Batman” and his young friend “Robin.”
Many feel that Wertham had a bad case of “she doth protest too much,” his rabid pro-American stance a product of his origins in another country (he was born in Germany), and his objections to sex, particularly his fascination with homosexuality, an indication of a suspicious degree of interest in the subject.
In any case, today, Wertham’s sputtering is funny—and yes, perhaps he was just jealous of Bruce Wayne’s glamorous gay life. But sadly, the parents of the 1950s took it all very seriously indeed, and Wertham’s vendetta against comics led to decades of self-censorship by comic book companies (the alternative being direct censorship by the government, after a series of congressional hearings into the causes of juvenile delinquency).
His moral objections and prurient fascination with sex and violence aside, I don’t think Wertham was wrong about there being something rather gay about Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, nor do many others, including a few branches of modern scholarship. Grant Morrison, one of the most celebrated writers working in the medium (and one of the many who have worked on Batman), said:
Gayness is built into Batman. I’m not using gay in the pejorative sense, but Batman is very, very gay. There’s just no denying it. Obviously as a fictional character he’s intended to be heterosexual, but the basis of the whole concept is utterly gay. I think that’s why people like it.
The homoerotic subtext of Batman and Robin was so blatant that Saturday Night Live parodied it with “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” a long-running animated sketch about a pair of superheroes that go on adventures amidst endless double entendres, riding around in a phallic super-car. As with all parodies that really hit home, the dialogue and imagery isn’t even that far off from the original, particularly the campy 60s TV show. And don’t get me started about the various women introduced into the Batman stories in an attempt to give him a love life. Leave alone the psychological dimensions of so tortured a person plausibly having a relationship with anyone other than his butler and young “ward,” the only two major characters privy to his secret identity. Throwing women into that mess is about as credible as Rock Hudson’s studio-arranged flings.
Do I, as an occasional reader, think there’s something a bit gay about a billionaire adopting a runaway and donning tights with him in a bat cave? Naturally. But what’s really interesting about the Batman mythology is that there’s clearly something far darker than this theme going on. As the Christian Bale once said in an interview, “What kind of guy walks around dressed like a bat?” Frank Miller, another famous writer who once worked on Batman, said, “He’d be much healthier if he were gay.”
Celebrate the year of Batman by delving into any part of this character’s arc—at the very least, it’s good for a snicker or two, but if you dare, the cowled superhero, one of the originals, holds up a very dark mirror to both society and the self.