Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What Batman Means to Me

Back in March, on CBR's excellent Comics Should Be Good blog, a piece was put up about the murder of Batman's parents, and the shifting identity of the killer (check it out here). Reading some of the responses got me to thinking about exactly how I view Batman, my favorite super hero (and possibly even literary figure) of all time. So, I wanted to dive in here for my first post in serious Batmanology. Because personally I feel like Batman having captured Joe Chill, the man who shot Thomas and Martha Wayne, is important for who the character should be.

I have seen many many interpretations of Batman as a character over the years, some from creators and even more from fellow readers and fans. But I think in the long run, it comes down to a couple of touchstones. Do you think Batman is truly mentally unbalanced, or just driven and more than a little obsessed is one of them. But I think, at it's most fundamental, the question is, do you think Batman is driven by Vengeance or Justice? And for me, I'll answer justice every time. And here's why, both from an emotional and personal stand point, and from evidence in comics.

I have always been uncomfortable with the Millerian concept of a Batman who desires nothing but vengeance. I feel a character with those motivations is more an object of pity than someone to be aspired to. Now I don't think Batman is meant to be Superman, this glowing bastion that everyone looks up to, but he's a hero, not an anti-hero. he does good. I feel the thing that drives Batman more than anything else is the desire to make sure that no one else has to go through what he did. He will not take a life, even the lives of criminals, because he views all life as sacred.

A good example of point/counterpoint here is setting Batman against the Punisher. The Punisher is a character who is entirely about vengeance. He lost his family and what he wants to do is right there in his name: he wants to punish bad guys. And with startlingly few examples over the years, Punisher really isn't known for being a guy who takes in orphans, say, or who tries to help out the victims of crime. He has a goal, and that is to make those who do wrong in his eyes pay. And for that character, that's fine. That is what the Punisher's calling is. But I don't see that in Batman.

Why I believe Batman should catch Joe Chill is this: if all that drives Batman is revenge against the person who killed his parents, then one of two things happen once he has: either he just gives up being Batman or he blows his own brains out because his life has no meaning. But a Batman who continues to fight crime after Joe Chill has been imprisoned or died is a Batman who is looking for more than just revenge: he is trying to make the world a better place, even if it's by his own dark means. I will not deny that part of what drove a young Bruce Wayne to take up the mantle of the Bat is vengeance, and not seeing his parents' killer brought to justice was a major contributing factor to that, and I think he knows it. But the difference between what drives a teenager to take up this quest, and what keeps an adult on this crusade, are two very different things.

The idea has been put forth that Batman's great nemesis isn't the Joker, or Ra's al Ghul, or Joe Chill, but crime itself, an abstract concept. And I agree with that. And again I view it as a positive thing. You can't get revenge on CRIME, and if you think you can, then you are definitely not right in the head. You can only fight back it's tide. And I think Batman knows this. He knows that what he is doing is never going to bring about the end of crime in Gotham, and he's OK with that. Because every person he saves from Gotham's criminal element is one more person who can do good and make a difference.

The English major in me is hearing years of teacher's calling out, "Where's your textual evidence?" So, here it is. Detective Comics #439 features one of the greatest Batman stories ever told, "Night of the Stalker" by Steve Englehart and Sal Amendola.

This is the story of a completely silent Batman tracking down a gang of bank robbers who left a boy orphaned while trying to make their escape. In the end, Batman does catch them all, but he knows that it will not change what happened to their victim earlier. And, so, in the end, he is left alone with nothing but his own memories and tears

I've known at least one person who has commented  that they feel like this is out of character, that Batman does not cry. I would generally agree with this. Batman is emotionally closed off, and thus is not known for tearing up at every sappy movie he's ever seen. But this is different. He has seen someone suffer his pain. and he feels for them. He has made an empathetic connection to another human being. A man who is a machine of vengeance doesn't do that. But one who sees the pain of others, the injustice of the world, can look at it and feel for others.

I think most tellingly, though, is the relationship between Batman and the Robins, specifically Dick Grayson. When Batman saw the Flying Graysons die, and saw their son watch them fall to their deaths, he realizes that what he has here is the makings of another him. A Batman entirely driven by nothing but his own sense of revenge would take that boy and he would hone him like a weapon, make him into the heir of his own rage to continue on in the endless war on crime.

What Batman does instead, though, is to hep Dick find the man who killed his parents, and to make peace with the event. In the episode of Young Justice, "Agendas," this is said baldly during a discussion between Batman and Wonder Woman:

Batman: Robin needed to help bring the man who murdered his family to justice.
Wonder Woman: So he could turn out like you?
Batman: So that he wouldn't.

Batman truly cares about Robin. He wants a better life for him. That doesn't sound like a man who views him as just another soldier.

The biggest piece of textual evidence is also not text in the strictest sense of the word, since it comes from non-comics media, but from an episode of a cartoon, specifically what I feel is the strongest outing from the wonderful Batman: The Brave and the Bold, "Chill of the Night"

Written by Paul Dini, one of the seminal Batman writers of the past 20 years, I loved watching "Chill of the Night" because it put into the character's mouth exactly what I had been thinking about Batman and his relationship with Joe Chill, and with vengeance and justice. The episode follows Batman as he finally is able to track down Joe Chill, and he nearly gives into his rage. But the whole sequence of events has been set into motion by the Phantom Stranger and the Spectre to test Batman and see where his loyalties truly lie: with vengeance, represented by the Spectre, or justice, championed by the Stranger. And in the end, Batman chooses to not kill Chill, and to bring him to justice. It could be argued that this is non-canon, which it isn't, and that B:TB&TB is a cartoon that skews younger in its viewership, which it does. But this episode is dark! It could have easily been a script for the high watermark of all superhero cartoons, Batman: The Animated Series.

I accept freely that this is an opinion piece. Everyone has their own view of Batman, and I respect that. But for me, Batman is a Dark Knight, one who champions the cause of justice and hope that he can do something to aid those in need even more than he can harm those who would do wrong. That's what, to me, makes him a hero.

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