Should Batman Get Over It Already?

August 10th, 2009 by | Tags: , ,

A friend of mine, who used to enjoy the Batman: The Animated Series back when it aired, recently told me that her regard for Batman was finally snuffed out.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a lead into griping about how Batman is being portrayed these days.  I’ve done that enough.

Her contempt for him is a matter of principle, not continuity.  Something terrible happened to him many years ago and as a result he, in many ways, dropped out of life.  He has a multi-billion dollar business he doesn’t run.  He has people who love him to whom he can’t show his love, or even any measure of friendship or gratitude.  And he goes out, night after night, indulging in what could be called suicidal behavior.  This is supposed to be a testament to how much he loved his parents.

In my friend’s view, it’s selfishness and laziness.  There’s no excuse for refusing to take care of yourself.

Obviously, there are different versions of Batman.  Miller Batman, for example, goes out kicking ass because he enjoys the hell out of it and doesn’t much enjoy anything else.  Other versions are more about service to the public, or a need for control, than grief and mourning.

And yet, while a lot of other things about Bruce Wayne have changed over the years, the origin story remains.  I think this is because, my friend notwithstanding, most of us think of the idea as romantic.  This romanticism is common in comics.  There is a idealistic component to someone who is committed to seeing justice served, even if it means breaking into private homes to illegally collect evidence, or forcing confessions out of people by threatening them.  When a superhero bypasses the rules of normal society, we step free of the prosaic need for order and let ourselves believe that life is uncomplicated and can be solved by anyone tough enough not to follow any of the rules.  And, of course, we don’t have to live in the kind of society that such a thing would lead to.

It’s the same with origin stories, which tend to lay on the tragedy pretty thick.  There is a romanticism to believing that certain kinds of suffering leave an indelible mark on the soul, that we cannot get over them, and that our inability to do so strengthens and ennobles us.  Our inability to bounce back can be seen as a kind of nobility in and of itself.  It’s a pretty idea, when you don’t have the burden of the reality.  We can enjoy the results of such a tragedy-fueled heroic journey with Batman, or Superman, or any of the other heroes, without having all the tedious pain and loneliness they feel.

Unless we’re too smart for that.  Which I, fortunately, am not.

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16 comments to “Should Batman Get Over It Already?”

  1. Bruce Wayne began training himself as a child’s reaction to a loss beyond his control. Training in criminology, martial arts and various other disciplines was his way of seeking to understand and ultimately control the world that had pulled the rug from under him.

    When he returned to Gotham, he could have used his foundation to help the poor, called it quits and funnelled the rest of his money into getting a really good shrink, settling down with an Heiress and having two kids; Thomas and Martha. That would have been the “mature” thing to do.

    But by that point he knew he could do more. He had the training and he had the resources, and there’s no way in hell he would have had a good night’s sleep if he wasn’t doing everything he could to make Gotham a better place. Altruism is generally selfish. We help others because it makes us feel good, or because we would feel bad if we didn’t.

    It’s kinda ironic what he did was paint a big Target on Gotham for every flamboyant crazy out there, and he still doesn’t normally get a good night’s sleep!

  2. This is a pretty funny view of Batman, world’s biggest crybaby: http://www.biggercheese.com/index.php?comic=740

  3. people say superman is a dick, while the insta billionaire just dresses up in rubber and drives penis mobiles.
    if supeman is a dick, batman is an assh0le.
    I heard a young sierra leoneian boy talking about how after searching for days, he found his family’s ashes after being burned alive.
    that is suffering, and he got over it.
    in essence, batman is an affront to being a cultured human being.

  4. @edc: Not really. Bruce Wayne believes (or at least believed) that he was doing what he did so no other child would suffer like he did. Wether or not he acknowledges the success of that strategy is a moot point now. So many costumed kooks now call Gotham home that he couldn’t step away from the cowl even if he wanted to.

  5. Saying Batman needs to deal with his parents death by retiring his costume and running the various Wayne corporations reminds me of when cranky relatives or acquaintenaces bitch people out saying stuff like “You need to get over this whole ‘life’s dream’ nonsense and get a real job–one that makes you miserable–get married–TO ANYBODY, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE–and have some kids!”

  6. Does it matter that Bruce did not set out to become a vigilante? Hell, until the first Crisis, Bruce would’ve grown up on a world without superfolk and costumed weirdness. Bruce dedicated himself to becoming a policeman, someone who’d uphold law and order and protect the innocent. In the real world, you occasionally encounter people who were victims of a crime or tragedy and devote themselves to fighting the underlying causes. MADD, the Polly Klaas Foundation, to say nothing of people who study law, medicine, etc. due to some personal inspiration. Bruce might also have expected to have a personal life, while doing this meaningful job (when he, of course, doesn’t need a paying job at all).

    It was in finding that “the law” and “justice” don’t match, and that “the law” can’t always “protect the innocent,” that he decided to seek his own inspiration. So in a sense, his childhood/youth reaction to the murder is more sensible. It’s his disillusionment with the system of our society that led him to his … intense lifestyle. Keep in mind that, while he doesn’t like the way society works, he didn’t just decide to use his billions to influence it. He decided to put on a mask and beat the crap out of bad guys. I think the missing Batman story is in what could have disillusioned him in the system THAT much. It wasn’t just another news story about a suspect being released for lack of evidence — it would have to be a huge thing to make you think “I know — I shall become a bat!” is your logical move.

    Of course, that origin was set in an earlier time, when no one obsessively mapped real-life logic to slightly macabre kiddie entertainment. So an alternate route would be to say, hey, that’s just what he decided to do; shaddup. But since the comics these days try so hard to be more “realistic,” I do think it invites us to challenge the motivations like this.

    And lastly, the idea that Batman is a loveless, lonely obsessive locked in his cave is a modern twist. From O’Neill/Adams in the 70s until Miller in the late 80s, Bruce was driven, but not nuts. Writers like Steve Englehart, Doug Moench and Mike Barr, as I recall, did a Bruce Wayne who was as well-balanced as you could make a caped vigilante.

  7. “in essence, batman is an affront to being a cultured human being.”
    in my defence, I was really, really tired when I wrote that.

  8. Really I think a lot of it has to do with the validation he keeps getting. Alfred, the most constant presence in his life wants to take care of him but becomes an enabler, helping him on his crusade and doing his best to patch Bruce up when he inevitably suffers the side effects of such. A long series of young people have admired and tried to emulate him (at least at first). Through Commissioner Gordon he even gets validation that the law isn’t enough, and that the police need him to hold some kind of control in the city. And who’s to say evil costumed freaks wouldn’t have shown up without him? His presence doesn’t necessarily create them, at least in their world. In our world the reason the freaks exist and are never truly defeated is because the story demands it. A Batman who succeeds in finally ridding Gotham of crime once and for all is the end of a story, not one that can keep being written month after month.

  9. On the whole I agree with your friend’s take on Batman, but I still like Batman comics. Hamlet’s a self-important douchebag who can’t deal with his dad’s death and has mommy issues, but it doesn’t make the play less compelling. I’d argue that batman works best when you’re *not* sure about his motivations (which is why I enjoy Miller’s batman).

    Just like a Conan’s a murderer, thief, drunk, misogynist, and cruel, but I still love batman comics.

    The power fantasy of “If faced by tragedy, I could…” can be very compelling especially when you’re young and your world view is more didactic.

  10. I meant I still love Conan comics…

  11. I agree with Guy Smiley–the whole idea of Bruce as somebody incapable of showing love or friendship etc. is very modern. There was a time when he was out having fun and had relatively normal relationships (aside from keeping the secret that he was Batman).

    But really, a lot of what he is is just hard-wired now, I’d think. Turning to charity work exclusively (he already also does that–he’s not completely cut off from his business) wouldn’t give him a new personality. And one of the things I really love about Batman is that he’s obviously a character who despite his gruff exterior actually has created a really tight family who he loves and who loves him. I assume the feeling nowadays is that he has a hard time relating to them in a healthy way because his early trauma made him afraid of letting himself believe he had a family again, but he actually did go out and create a family to replace the one he lost.

  12. Batman is the 20th Century Hamlet. Without exterior stimuli driving his passion he is just another boring, spoiled prince.

    That’s the paradox.

    As the singular goal-driven Hamlet he is interesting. But after a while it also makes him boring. The myth isn’t supposed to be told over and over and over and over and over….. it’s supposed to evolve into the next expression of the myth.

    It’s like going to see Hamlet once a week. Eventually you’ll long for another play.

    Batman’s almost 70 year old myth-weaving. How many ays can you tell the same play?

  13. @Coleman: That’s the Superhero Fan’s Dilemma. On one hand, you’re completely correct. On the other hand, what real harm does it do? I mean do monthly Batman tales stop people from creating their own stories?

    Someone once said that superhero comics are like the beer of comics. There’s shitty swill beer and there’s lovingly crafted microbrewery stuff. And while there’s fine wine and whiskey out there, it’s one thing to expand your horizons and another to dump all your beer down the sink because the classier stuff exists.

    Wow that was sooooo awkwardly phrased.

  14. @Lugh: Yeah, totally. And every now and then you drink the swill beer anyway because you just want to get pissed.

  15. I’ve been a major Batman fan all my life, growing up with the Timmverse and so happy to have the pinnacle of Batman storytelling (Nolan’s epics) told onscreen while I’m still young. But as you look at all the “canon” comics or a conversation on Batman, it’s funny that people haven’t just been able to mentally do away with elements of the story that undermine the mythos or just don’t fit. Like Robin. That kid in bright underwear in a dark Gotham is obviously was originally created as a marketing ploy and remains only because it’s still a good cashmaking ploy. A man of Batman’s intelligence would endanger a child like that? Arkham’s revolving door is another example. The lack of actual change that Batman’s brought to Gotham. So, when critically talking about Batman you gotta realize what the purpose of each media’s representation and which is it that deserves critical analysis. Now without mentioning seminal stories from both the cartoon and comics, obviously Nolan’s pictures are the ones that realistically follow Batman’s arc. In an appropriately written comic, Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman for futile purposes and would drop it if he believed he wasn’t needed. So if you’re gonna put a magnifying glass on a comic that’s been going on for so long not because the story actually demands it but because the profit does, then you have to take that into consideration…and stop trying to play my boy out.

    Batman Forever (obviously take that back)

  16. The current cartoon Batman – the Brave And The Bold version – is probably the healthiest Batman I’ve seen recently, and not coincidentally my favourite Batman in quite a while. All the dark brooding nonsense is dropped, his parents are mentioned exactly once – and even then it’s a very adult regret that he didn’t say more when they were alive, rather than some GRRR REVENGE THE NIGHT ALL SENSE LEFT MY LIFE masturbatory fantasy – and it just works much better than he has in comics for a long time.

    I’m enjoying the Dick Grayson Batman a lot for the same reason. I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed the idea of a grown-up, healthy Batman, and now we have two of them.