Friday, July 08, 2005

Why I Hate Batman, Part Two

In the first part of this expose, I outlined my case against the Batman. To begin with, I have a natural antipathy to the more grounded crime milieu in which most Batman stories take place - especially considering the mundane nature of most of the criminals he fights. Those criminals who are more spectacular in nature - Batman's "famous" rogues gallery - aren't actually very cool at all, consisting primarily of mental cases in colorful costumes. In many cases these villains, hailing from over half a decade in the past, have been the recipients of regrettable attempts at "modernization", which result in radical reinterpretations that bear little resemblance to the original character, and are quickly forgotten.

There is something inherently tacky about the way Batman's mythos seems to have been constructed, with an ad hoc willingness to stick any ill-fitting concept onto the Batman gravy-train in the name of variety. While it is true that Ace the Bat-Hound and Bat-Mite rarely show up anymore, I present to you Exhibit Number One, Robin the Boy Wonder. Why did this concept last? It's one of the worst anachronisms in a genre filled to the brim with inherited anachronisms. I can understand why they created Robin, back in the day. I can maybe even see why successive generations of creators felt the need to continue the character, even after the point when every other sidekick had either been abandoned or - in the case of 60s Marvel - deleted from the superhero mythology altogether. I mean, after a certain point its a self-perpetuating thing because they've got copyrights and trademarks and Underoos and all that. But hey - John Byrne got rid of Superboy after Crisis and no one at DC (who wasn't a Legion fan) really seemed to care one way or the other. Was there really that much money coming in from Robin Pez Dispensers that they just couldn't have swept the character under the rug at some point?

Whenever I see Batman, who is supposed to the consummate bad-ass, with a fresh-cheeked moppet in tow, I can't help but laugh. This is especially galling in recent years as multiple creators have devoted a lot of energy to making Robin not a joke. I don't care what kind of fancy martial arts you teach him, there is no way a fourteen-year-old boy can stand up to grown men twice his size - or more - and not get his ass beat like a bongo. You can't tell me Blockbuster or Killer Croc or any of these roughnecks wouldn't just grab the kid and rend him limb from limb like they were tearing into a Thanksgiving turkey. It's just stupid in a very profound way.

There's a story in the Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told volume entitled "Operation 'Escape'", from 1952, the stupidity of which I never tire. First, it begins with Robin addressing a class at the Police Academy. Steve Guttenberg is nowhere to be seen (although that would probably make a better story). This is an actual, honest-to-God "Police College", and the best they could do in terms of a guest lecturer was a pre-teen boy in green fish-scale shortpants? No fucking wonder the Gotham Police couldn't find their asses with a map. Anyway, Robin proceeds to deliver a lecture on the proper method of preventing yourself from being burnt alive when chasing crooks atop a thirty-foot tall, fully-functioning cigarette lighter, as well as how to escape from a deep pit with only a broken tennis racket, a golf ball and a pair of cleats. This is something that only a six-year-old could ever love. I think that as soon as the prospective reader was, say, eight, he would begin to wonder.

The Batman mythos is filled with an accumulation of ideas just like Robin - silly little ideas aimed at six-year-olds which successive generations of creators would spend a lot of time trying to rationalize in increasingly "mature" settings. The master villain of "Hush" turned out to be the all new, grim and deadly Riddler!!! I'm glad I didn't buy that story - when I heard that the most popular Batman story in years had been, essentially, a front for an "Ultimate" Riddler revamp, I almost split a side laughing.

But I said I'd devote some time talking about a Batman story I did like. Well, there's another story reprinted in that aforementioned Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told called "The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne", reprinted from 1983's The Brave & The Bold #197 (written by Alan Brennert and drawn by Joe Staton). It is, fittingly, the last story in the book. Although it was printed a good couple years before the Crisis, it essentially serves the same purpose as Alan Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? - putting a nice coda on almost fifty years of adventures in advance of an inevitable ship-to-stern revamp. Now, while it is true that the post-Crisis Batman wasn't anywhere near as exhaustive a reinterpretation as the post-Crisis Superman, the Batman who entered the 80s would become, with the unwitting help of Frank Miller, almost unrecognizable as the same Batman who entered the 90s.

"The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne" is a story of the final adventure - or one of the final adventures of - the Batman of Earth 2. Of course, the Batman of Earth 2 was the Batman featured in the comics from 1938 on through some point in the 50s or early 60s - I'm sure someone out there knows the exact point. The idea, though, is that the Earth 2 adventures actually occurred as they were published in "real time" - in the late 30s and throughout the 40s and early 50s. So, the story begins in 1955, with an aging Batman facing the prospect of eventual retirement.

This is quite obviously not the modern asshat Batman. The story concerns Batman's concerns over eventually being abandoned - left alone. Despite his pretense of being the consummate loner, what has Batman, in any era, always done? Constructed surrogate families. His family was killed, so what does he do? He adopts a child (Robin). He has a father figure (Alfred). He's got siblings and lovers and nieces and even pets (Superman, the various Batgirls, Batwomen, Huntresses and Batdogs). Even today, what does Batman do? Pretty much the same thing, only he's a remote, controlling prick to everyone who tries to get close to him. Well, the Batman of Earth 2 is a nice guy: he actually likes his friends and surrogate family. After a dose of the Scarecrow's fear gas, he realizes that his one, true fear is the loss of his "family". They disappear in front of him but he's too wrapped up in his own worries to realize that their disappearance is just a symptom of the gas. He sets out to track down the Scarecrow and "rescue" his friends, who he believes to be captured.

He enlists Catwoman's aid. Now, of course, the Catwoman and Batman of Earth 2 were eventually married, and this is the story of their courtship - Batman realizes he's all alone and even if he hasn't yet figured out why, he turns to Catwoman as the one person outside of his close family who he can trust. She agrees to help him but notices how upset he is:
"Batman's acting so strange, so obsessed . . . is there something wrong with him?"

In a few years that would become his default mode. Later on, when Batman is in the grips of horrible, fear-gas inspired hallucinations, Catwoman addresses him and delivers what could be the best summation of Batman's character . . . ever:
"All your life you've been terrified of losing anyone else the way you lost your parents! So you created a world for yourself -- a world of conflict and confrontation -- a world where no one could ever get that close to you again!

Batman only breaks the hold of the Scarecrow's fear gas by revealing his identity to Catwoman - and his love as well. It sounds corny as fuck, but it makes perfect sense: all these years, all Batman ever really needed was a hug. His primal trauma defined him so absolutely that, while he may have been the World's Greatest Detective, he was also absolutely unable to see the shape of his own problems.

Which is, of course, why Batman is ultimately such a dead-end character. Any Batman, of any era, is Batman for the same reason. Whether or not he's happy-go-lucky or grim & gritty, he's still Batman because he's mentally trapped at the age of ten. Has pathology is so transparent that it was obvious to me from pretty much the very first moment I could understand the character - instead of just recognizing the costume - that he was not so much a Grim Avenger of Justice as a very, very sad and traumatized man. If you try to take it seriously, it's just horribly depressing.

"The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne" wasn't actually a big blow-out like Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, for the simple reason that it also laid the groundwork for the last couple years of Earth 2 stories before Crisis effectively mooted the entire notion. But still, reading it in the context of the Greatest Batman Stories book, it presents as nice a concluding chapter to Batman's story as you could ever hope for - really, it's the only way it could end. The Batman who emerged from Crisis, unlike Superman, was ostensibly the same Batman who had entered the story, but he was soon to undergo a pretty radical metamorphoses. By the early 90s the transformation into modern asshat Batman was complete. By then, a character who I had always thought to be silly had become truly repugnant.

In light of this, it has become apparent to me that The Dark Knight Strikes Again was something of an attempt by Miller to undo the "damage" he had done with his earlier stories. Now, it's not Miller's fault that the people who followed in his footsteps weren't interested in exploring any but the most obvious opportunities opened up by his stories, but perhaps he feels some guilt all the same, or at least wanted to see if maybe he couldn't tip the scales away from something that had become stale and repetitive. To its credit The Dark Knight Strikes Again doesn't read like any other Batman story of the past twenty years. I remember disliking TDKSA to an extreme degree, but it might be worth my time to return to the book with this interpretation in mind.

For some reason I've always been fascinated with superhero eschatology. Origins are fairly boring. The actual month-to-month adventures of most heroes are, essentially, static. But in a format like the old "Imaginary" stories or Marvel's What If?, creators could sometimes let loose and, freed from the constraints of having to perpetuate a trademark in the "real" books, bring the characters to logical conclusions, play around with the potent thematic material that could never really be addressed definitively in any other context. There is something enduringly powerful about a story like "Superman Red / Superman Blue", even if it is kinda silly - it sums up the optimism and utopian naiveté of the era quite brilliantly. Sometimes an "imaginary" story is the only real way to extract something of lasting value out of otherwise exhausted concepts - which is why the best, most compelling Batman tale is the one they can never tell, the one where Batman actually grows up, comes to grips with his problems and decides to snap out of his perpetual adolescent fugue and assume the burdens of adulthood, with all the responsibilities that entails.

Nowadays, even with Hypertime, a story like "The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne" is about as imaginary as you can get - the friendly, honest and amiable Batman in that story couldn't be further removed from the amoral psychopath of today. But in my book, it's one of the only Batman stories I've ever read that actually dealt with the character's problems in a rational, deliberate fashion, instead of simply enabling them.

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