Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Bat Attitude

Dave has offered a few good suggestions on scaling back the Batman line in order to eliminate mega-crossovers like the current "War Games." However, the more I think about it, the more it seems like the mega-crossovers are just a symptom. Larger changes are needed to the Bat-line, starting with the approach to the character himself.

For almost the past 20 years, the conventional wisdom has held that Batman was the "real person" and Bruce Wayne the "mask." In other words, the foppish "Bruce Wayne" persona was a creation of Batman, much like the nerdy "Clark Kent" attempted to cast suspicion away from him being Superman.

However, I'm not sure that this holds up under scrutiny. We are told that Bruce Wayne's childhood trauma forever altered his personality, causing him to become grim and driven, and compelling him to embark on a lifelong crusade to fight crime. This new direction later found its ultimate expression as The Batman.

Still, it appears indisputable that Bruce himself created the Batman. Bruce is consistently portrayed as merely inspired by the bats, with their influence going no further. (Certainly he's not "summoned" by them or otherwise bound to them in any quasi-mystical way.) Simply put, Bruce wants his adventuring persona to be scary, and bats are scary; therefore, Bruce becomes a bat-man.

"The Batman" therefore allows Bruce to express his revenge on the mysterious forces which took his parents. It assumes the worst about the criminal element ("a superstitious, cowardly lot") and looks to do to crooks what the crooks did to him as a child. Such an attitude is very much a kid's answer to a problem. It is not a solution -- and Bruce should realize that he can do an equal amount of good through the Wayne companies. Accordingly, the Batman persona must only be one tool in Bruce's crimefighting arsenal.

Speaking of tools, it's never really explored in the comics, but the Bat-Signal and the unique, stylized looks of the Bat-equipment all form a sort of "brand identification." Taken as a whole, this "brand" reinforces the sense that Batman is a police force unto himself, equally important to Gotham society. It is, in effect, another element of Batman's psychological warfare. Since Bruce is a businessman, there's a darkly funny juxtaposition -- he basically "markets" the Batman to the Gotham underworld, so that it cannot help but be aware of his presence.

To me, such calculation argues against the vengeful Batman being in control of Bruce. The chronicles instead point to Bruce having used his talents, skills, and education to make "Batman" a scary, separate persona. This is not to say that Bruce can't also adopt the public guise of a foppish, shallow playboy. Obviously, to the extent that Playboy Bruce is a cover for Batman, Batman is "more real." Nevertheless, because "Batman" was conceived after Bruce vowed to fight evil, it is hard to see how "Batman" was always there. Indeed, Batman is almost an elaborate joke, or prank, which Bruce plays on criminals. ("Playboy Bruce" is a similar act for the benefit of daylight society.) Assuming that Bruce is in on this particular joke, he would have to be pretty far gone to let the joke consume him.

Mark Waid examined Bruce/Batman's duality in a JLA arc, "Divided We Fall," where the Leaguers were literally split into their "civilian" and heroic selves. When confronted with violence, the separated Bruce Wayne boiled with rage, but had no way to channel it or defend himself. The separated Batman was practically an automaton, possessing fantastic skills but featureless and lacking any kind of drive. While Waid acknowledged that Bruce needed Batman as a sort of therapeutic outlet, he still ascribed the emotional components of Batman's crusade to Bruce. Thus, Bruce was the "real person" and Batman the fiction. If it were the other way around, as the Bat-books argue, then Batman would have held all the critical cards, and Bruce would have been an ineffectual wimp, helpless without Batman's anger.

Unfortunately, the current Bat-books have continued to present Batman as a rude, distant figure, awash in personal demons, who alienates his colleagues as much as he helps them. Ironically, this was also reinforced by a Mark Waid JLA arc -- "Tower of Babel," which preceded "Divided." In "Babel," the notion that "Batman always has a plan" led to Waid's supposition that Batman would develop protocols for disabling each of his League teammates. Batman's needs for secrecy and self-reliance naturally prohibited him from sharing even the existence of these plans with them, and the League kicked him out when they learned the truth.

"Batman Can Only Rely Upon Himself" didn't originate with "Tower of Babel." It stretches at least as far back as 1993's "Knightfall," in which the manipulative Bane ran our hero ragged to weaken him for their ultimate confrontation. In 1999's "No Man's Land," efforts to reclaim quake-ravaged Gotham began and ended with Batman (notably using a new Batgirl for "marketing"). In 2001's "Bruce Wayne: Murderer?" arc, the possibility that Bruce could have killed a lover who discovered his secret was entertained, if only briefly, because the other Bat-colleagues weren't sure how far Bruce would go to protect his other identity. The current "War Games" centers around yet another Bat-plan gone wrong. After 11 years of Batman perpetually pushing his friends and associates away, it is long past time for his attitude to change.

However, the distance between Batman and his proteges is important in at least one respect -- it allows them to maintain their own separate comics. Nightwing, Catwoman, Robin, and Batgirl can't be about the eponymous characters' relationships to Batman, or there would be no point in their existence. Still, each periodic line-spanning crossover tends to create anew the same dynamic:

-- a solo character grows and develops in his/her own book;
-- he/she is treated as a subordinate by Batman for no good reason; and
-- at the end Batman recognizes his/her value.

It's a vicious cycle -- the characters are at once dependent on the Batman imprimatur and striving to be independent of it; and periodically they interact with Batman himself but are never quite treated as equals. Again, Batman's perpetual "I need you"/"I'm better than you" attitudes contribute to this cycle. Warming up relations between Batman and his associates would justify a reduction in the number of Bat-titles and would help integrate Nightwing, Robin, Catwoman, and Batgirl more fully into Batman's adventures. Such integration would enrich the Bat-books across the board and would force creators to examine new character dynamics, instead of simply uniting the associates in their frustration with Batman.

Given the current conventional wisdom, I would expect a large number of fans to see this as a step back, dulling the fine edge which Batman has cultivated over the years. My response is that this merely acknowledges Batman's need to correct what has become a self-destructive behavior. When it comes to the small band of people you've allowed to join your inner circle, trust works a whole lot better than intimidation.

Besides, despite Batman's self-described solitary existence, he has always tended to surround himself with confidants, even in this post-Crisis, post-Dark Knight era. As described above, his impersonal attitude towards them facilitates their solo adventures (and creates bizarre, almost codependent relationships); but such an attitude is becoming increasingly unrealistic given the characters' various histories.

It would serve Batman better in the long haul for him to drop the pretense that he will be forever alone on his solitary quest, and let his associates "in on the joke." The Batman persona is at its heart nothing more than another elaborate strategy for fighting crime. It shouldn't be the Alpha and Omega of Bruce Wayne's life. His longtime friends like Alfred Pennyworth, Leslie Thompkins, Dick Grayson, and Barbara Gordon all recognize this. The sooner Bruce realizes that "Batman" is as much a fiction as "Playboy Bruce" is, the sooner he can start forming healthy relationships with his associates, and the better the Bat-books will be.

2 comments:

Matthew_Rossi said...

I think back before I was posting on Howling Curmudgeons I posted something to the effect that neither the adult Bruce Wayne nor Batman are 'real': the real person is the child who was in that alley, who is emotionally frozen at the moment his life spun out of control and who has created the ultimate fantasy of adult freedom from responsibility in playboy Bruce Wayne, and the ultimate fantasy of a defender who will do absolutely anything to prevent the kind of loss he suffered in Batman. Clearly, the Bruce inside those two nested masks has an obsession with recreating the family he lost: by now he's accumulated four Robins, two Batgirls, Alfred, Leslie, even Superman by some accounts (in the silver age Superman was Batman's golden brother, in essence the reflection that helped define him as well as a close friend as ably illustrated here - the current relationship is more ambiguous, of course, but both men can understand what it is like to lose your whole world) and is hardly a loner. Batman is the ultimate stern but protective father, while public Bruce is what a child might imagine adulthood to be like.

I guess I'm saying I agree with you, just in my typical long winded fashion.

Tom Bondurant said...

Now that you mention it, Matt, I remember your essay. I read that Superman annual too.

(Hope you're feeling better, by the way.)

It seems to me that the "Bruce is the mask" paradigm really came to fruition once Denny O'Neil became editor in 1986. (Frank Miller was already advocating something similar in Dark Knight by portraying Batman as struggling to get out of Bruce.) Before that, the conventional wisdom was just the opposite -- in fact, Steve Englehart had Bruce wondering if he was just a "daytime mask" for Batman. So, aside from it being editorial policy at DC for practically a generation, it may also be a mark of the post-Crisis Batman.