By Abhimanyu Das
Long after the superhero genre’s labored journey from Golden Age to Dark Age, into the treacherous realms of moral complexity, gratuitous brooding and–dare I say it–literary aspirations, its genesis story remains strikingly simple. Borne out of commercial expediency and popularized by the historical flashpoint of World War II and the resulting market for escapism, it came out swinging. Did its creators harbor any deeper personal agendas for these characters? Probably. But when Bob Kane and Bill Finger created Batman in 1939, the unlikeliest fate they could have conceived for him was that of whipping boy for a world’s worth of media pundits.
Initially, the artistic approach to these stories was far removed from the doom-laden mythologies currently drawing criticism. The early iterations of the superhero archetype were almost universally cloaked in the spirit of hope and aspiration. Even when a character’s heroism was tempered with rage or a propensity for violence—as was the case with Batman—the underlying ideology was optimistic, even utopian. Nuance or real-world ramifications need not apply. The goal was nothing less than a world without misery, crime or Nazis.
Popular culture has always been a convenient scapegoat for real-world violence and superheroes have drawn ire as long as they have existed.
In his Pulitzer-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which doubles as a fictionalized early history of the superhero genre, Michael Chabon popularized an oft-advanced theory on the collective mindset that birthed this unlikely new pantheon. Positioning the titular protagonists of the book as surrogates for the creative teams that defined the Golden Age of comics, Chabon contends that the fledgling superhero tradition was a new and optimistic phase of Jewish literature. They were empowerment fantasies—20th century Golems—that began with the dreams of their Jewish creators—Siegel and Shuster (Superman), Kane and Finger (Batman), Kirby and Lee (most Marvel characters)—and branched out to include those of an entire nation of hopeful yet beleaguered immigrants. Then, rather than remaining rooted in the reveries of a few proto-nerds, they became idealized symbols of immigrant identity and assimilation, defenders of the perennially victimized, commanding circulation figures that contemporary comics publishers can only dream about.
The decades since the ’30s and ’40s have witnessed considerable broadening of the superhero’s narrative and thematic ambition, an evolution (some would say cynical decline) that accelerated with the mid-’80s arrival of the glibly monikered Dark Age. Inspired by pop-culture touchstones like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the new strain of superhero comics attempted to incorporate greater psychological depth, artistic experimentation and gritty atmospherics, launching a bevy of condescending “Biff, Pow: Comics Have Grown Up!” headlines that continue to this day.
These aspirations were regularly confused by over-zealous creators with an open license to escalate violence and sexual content, but often enough, the writers and artists succeeded in taking the genre to new places. These were not happy destinations, rife as they were with anti-heroes and psychopaths feeding off each other’s pathologies. The defining quality of the deconstructive new tales was a readiness to say uncomfortable things about the sort of person who might actually be inclined to put on an outlandish costume and run around attacking sociopaths. In short, it was no longer possible to generalize about the basically hopeful nature of superheroes.
Batman’s monopolization of the grittier end of the superhero spectrum stems from his being a flawed human being.
Batman’s place in these epochal shifts between light and dark has been consistently mercurial. Interpretations of the character have ranged from light-hearted and campy (as typified by the 1960s TV show) to pitch-black (the most common contemporary take). The recent wild speculation about the Bat-mythology’s part in encouraging the deranged actions of a coward is hardly the first time the character has gone on trial. Popular culture has always been a convenient scapegoat for real-world violence and superheroes have drawn ire as long as they have existed. In the 1950s, Congress held a series of hearings on the comics industry, goaded on by the theories of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who held it responsible for everything from sexual deviancy to juvenile crime. Batman held a special place in Wertham’s righteous heart—the character was responsible not just for inspiring violence but, thanks to Robin, homosexuality and pedophilia.
The qualities used to justify the sustained scapegoating of Batman (“too dark, not comic-booky enough”) are mostly repercussions of the very factor that makes him interesting: his humanity. Batman’s monopolization of the grittier end of the superhero spectrum stems from his being a flawed human being, irrevocably damaged by childhood trauma and daily exposure to murderous thugs. Super-powered demigods like Superman or Green Lantern exist on a different plane, removed from the burdens of human psychology or accountability. When Superman loses Lois Lane, he turns back time and resurrects her. When Batman loses Rachel Dawes, all he can do is internalize just a little more grief and stew in guilt for not having saved her. Nothing short of editorial reboots can reunite him with the numerous loved ones whose deaths he has witnessed. The “dark” half of the Dark Knight can hardly be excised, integral as it is to his motivations and mental state.
His status as a lowly mortal provides talented writers with enormous potential for riffing, almost always bleak. On the grimmest end of the scale, creators like Grant Morrison and Alan Moore write him as borderline insane, broken by personal tragedy to the point that he derives a fetishistic thrill from overcoming his lurid nemeses. Moore’s The Killing Joke and Morrison’s Arkham Asylum go so far as to suggest that Batman and the Joker are two sides of a catastrophically dysfunctional symbiotic relationship, an assertion that director Christopher Nolan runs with in 2008’s The Dark Knight.
Most writers don’t pitch quite so noir, retaining the character’s inner torments but leaving his heroism front-and-center. In fact, the two serve to reinforce each other: it’s easy to be heroic when bullets bounce off your chest, but it takes a little more strength of character to endure when each blow from the enemy takes a toll. Bruce Wayne becomes Batman via tireless self-improvement, retaining his aspirations to greatness even as the comics world grows steadily more cynical.
This has long been a feature of Batman stories, varied as they are. Batman falls the hardest, but because the valleys are so very deep, the peaks soar that much higher. The latest cinematic installment, Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, literalizes this theme: Bruce rebuilds body and soul after a brutal defeat at the hands of the terrorist Bane and is forced to ascend from a hellish underground pit into the light. Not the subtlest of visual metaphors, but it sharpens the democratic ideal of the character; given impetus and fortitude, anyone can aspire to heroism. Batman’s fortune is incidental; there are numerous story arcs (including most of The Dark Knight Rises) in which he prevails without the protection of his money. Superman has always been said to represent the American Dream, but Batman is the real self-made hero. Born vulnerable, he wills his way to the closest possible approximation of invincibility.
Batman … is not just a 75-year advocacy for reason, moral fortitude and the betterment of oneself, it is also an argument for the sanctity of human life.
Even to a dedicated and life-long fan, the act of analyzing the relative merits of fictional heroes can sometimes feel faintly absurd; an elevated variation on playground philosophizing over which DC titan would win in a fight. But such knee-jerk dismissiveness aside, this stuff matters. Alarmist and misguided as it is to blame superheroes for mass murder, critics are right to take these stories seriously. That said, to take them seriously is to read them in context, and carefully, before deeming a “message” positive or negative.
Media scholar and University of Southern California professor Henry Jenkins, who, post-Columbine, testified before Congress on the issue of media violence, argues eloquently against lazy, cherry-picked interpretations. In a blog post reacting to the Aurora shootings, he writes:
In the case of Batman, ‘the work as a whole’ is not just a 75-year advocacy for reason, moral fortitude and the betterment of oneself, it is also an argument for the sanctity of human life. Batman came about because young Bruce Wayne—in a knife’s twist of synchronicity—watched his parents get shot down outside a movie theater. This origin story was not accidental; it was devised by Bob Kane to canonize the decision (made by Detective Comics editor Whitney Ellsworth) to exorcise guns from the hands of heroes. Only the villains carry firearms. Despite frequent provocation, Batman does not shoot or kill people. The few instances in which he takes a life (as in The Dark Knight Returns) are anomalies that carry grave moral consequences. The decision to refrain from killing is not easy, occasionally costing the lives of allies and loved ones. Yet, he is shown to persevere in this one basic tenet, common to nearly all appearances of the character.
This essentially life-affirming and humanist philosophy is writ large upon the canvas of the Bat-mythos. In the very film that James Holmes chose to co-opt with his perverse plan, Bruce Wayne lays out his cardinal rule to Selina Kyle: “no guns, no killing.” In the fan communities there exists a time-tested decision-making methodology. When plagued with crippling doubt, you simply ask yourself: “what would the Batman do?” In the face of panicked finger-pointing and bandying about of the Second Amendment at the expense of the First, what would Batman do? A now-immortalized panel from The Dark Knight Returns depicts the Caped Crusader breaking a rifle over his knee. “This is the weapon of the enemy,” he says. “We do not need it. We will not use it.”
Abhimanyu Das writes about film and pop culture for The Sunday Guardian (India). He has also written for Slant Magazine, The Revealer, The Indian Express and The Wall Street Journal’s “Livemint.com,” among others. You can follow him on Twitter: @rohandas.