According to Twitter, today is International Superheroes day! So let’s talk about a guy who doesn’t actually have powers, has even less self-esteem, claims not to be the family type despite having 5+ kids running around, and probably could use a hug.
In this video, the vlogbrothers duo Hank and John Green argue about Batman in one of the best songs to dance to that also has the lyric “Crime is caused by systemic disenfranchisement”. It’s an auto-tuned mash up of two videos that they each did– one where John asserts that he “kind-of hates Batman” and one where Hank asserts that “we are all Bat-People”. They both have very interesting points (which I’ll get to in a second), but first, we must air our biases. I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a DCAU (that’s DC Animated Universe) stan– my first real introduction to some of DC’s characters was through the 2003 Teen Titans tv show, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are my favorite iterations of Batman and the Joker, and I find that the DCAU does generally good work in terms of their writing and character development– not to mention the animation and everything else that goes into making a cartoon show, but I’m really talking about the writing here. The DCAU gave us such iconic lines as “I am vengeance, I am the night, I! AM! BATMAN!” and “I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard…” just to name a few. The DCAU gets down to the essence of its characters and even manages to make Superman and Martian Manhunter, two of the most powerful beings in the DC universe, relatable and interesting.
That being said, I heavily dislike Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice (though the latter less than the former). I am also not looking forward to Suicide Squad, and think Jared Leto needs to stop. Though Viola Davis is a great choice for Amanda Waller. So there’s that. The comics are on their way to a brand-new “not-a-reboot-but-totally-a-reboot-because-everyone-hated-the-New-52”, and some of the choices they’ve made in their books are just baffling (the Superman/Wonder Woman ship, that Harley Quinn contest, the entirety of Red Hood and the Outlaws). They are doing some good stuff– what I’ve seen of Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl is great– but overall, I feel like DC needs an enema to get rid of all that Miller left over from the 80’s. It won’t solve everything, but it’s a start.
That being said, let’s talk about Batman.
“Crime is not actually caused by evil.”
Batman’s origin story is so overplayed that I’m not even going to talk about it, but there is a piece that often gets left out.
(Batman is distributed by DC Comics, obviously)
This is where Bruce gets the idea to become Batman. It’s not because he was scared of bats as a kid, but because he knows that “Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot”. But it’s not the only way he fights these things. The Thomas Wayne Foundation funds medical research, as well as a clinic located in the heart of Crime Alley, where… well, you know. The Martha Wayne Foundation acts as both a patron for the arts, as well as funding education (especially for those with learning disabilities), orphanages, and soup kitchens. Batman also makes a bit of a habit of hiring former minions, and makes generous donations to Arkham Asylum. Even in The Dark Knight Returns, pre-return “IDGAF” Bruce Wayne funds Harvey Dent’s reconstructive surgery. Batman, like Clark and Diana, has an extraordinary capacity for compassion– when written well.
“Batman’s values and actions are a reflection of our own values and actions to make the world better.”
“When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential “meaning” an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.” –Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
In other words, the more simplified the image, the more universal. This is why an emoji like this :) can represent everyone, while the Mona Lisa is a specific person. Comics and cartoons have the great power of universality, but what does every comic fan know about great power..? Superheroes as a whole are an interesting case in this because they do vary, sometimes noticeably, from writer to writer. Adam West’s Batman is certainly not the Batman from the Arkham Asylum games. But the modern Batman seems to stem from one source in particular, and that is, in fact, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. For better or for ill. That Batman has just come out of retirement, picks up a Robin in the form of Carrie Kelly (the first girl Robin), and is in general very angry and very myopic. He doesn’t necessarily act without thinking, but he doesn’t seem to care about the overall impact of his actions beyond Gotham. Superman himself in an inner monologue says “We must not remind them that giants walk the earth.” His monologue mentions a Sub-Committee hearing where Batman told the congressmen “Sure we’re criminals. We’ve always been criminals.”
“We have to be criminals.”
“Not the heroes Earth needs, but the heroes Earth just happened to get.”
Batman v Superman seems to go the opposite direction, though it does pattern itself after The Dark Knight Returns to an absurd degree (but that’s another blog post). In BvS, the country is not going after Batman, but Superman– and Batman’s the one to say that the heroes need limits. (Not that he follows that advice himself…) Ben Affleck did a great job portraying Bruce, if not Batman, and it really touched on the duality of the character. But it is very common discourse within the comics community to compare the two heroes. Unfortunately, many end up degrading Superman in favor of Batman. Batman seems more “real” to them, he’s “dark”, he’s “gritty”, and he “takes action”, as opposed to Superman, who is “unrelateable” and “overpowered” and… alien. At the end of this brilliant video essay by Kyle Kallgren, Kallgren boldly states that “It’s not that we can’t believe that a man can fly; we can’t even believe a man can know that it’s wrong to kill.” He follows this with audio from an interview with Zack Snyder about his decision to have Superman kill Zod, while simultaneously playing the scene from Man of Steel where it happens. He ends the video paraphrasing Nietzsche: “Superman is dead. Superman remains dead. And we have killed him.” What does this have to do with Batman? Consider this: in a fight between Batman and Superman, Batman would almost always win. Superman canonically trusts Batman with pieces of Kryptonite. Batman has at least a dozen plans for what to do if Superman becomes evil. SUPERMAN TRUSTS BATMAN EVERY DAY WITH HIS LIFE. The most powerful being on Earth, and he is held accountable by Batman. (Coincidentally, it was recently revealed that the only hero that Batman doesn’t have a contingency plan for is Wonder Woman. Take that as you will.)
“How is that heroic?”
So: are we all Bat-people? I would say no. Some of us are Super-people. Some are Wonder People. Some are Hawk-People and Aqua-people and Flashes and Robins and Starfires and… See what I’m saying? Superheroes were created with the intent to be universal, but with the passage of time, they became specific characters, with all of the details and uniqueness that came with it. And that’s a good thing– characters should evolve. But that’s also why characters like Katherine Kane and Jaime Reyes and John Stewart (no, not that Jon Stewart) are so important. I wrote another post this week about The Incredibles, and one of the things that’s said in that movie is “And when everyone is Super, no one will be.” People often take that as the message of the movie, despite the fact that it’s literally said by the villain. The point of The Incredibles, as is the point of the growing diversity in comics, is that everyone can be a hero.
Everyone can be Bat-people. But if Batman’s not your thing, there’s plenty more to chose from.