Q&A: Eight Decades of Bats

You’ve said in the past that Bruce Wayne having a job a job program for criminals was out of character. And even just watching the animated series again, I don’t think I agree. He has wanted to help people, even criminals, many times. Harley Quinn is a big one. Jason Todd tried to steal his tires and might have been able to get away with it. There’s Two-Face as well. Bats may not have the same views as, Nightwing, but to say he’s all about Tomas Hobbs and nothing else is missing some nuance.

It’s not nuance. The issue is that these characters have passed through the hands of many writers. That’s not a criticism of your position, per se.

You’re not wrong. Take Adam West’s Batman, and you have a character who truly looks for the best in everyone. Scattered through the years there have been a lot of truly altruistic versions presented. The key word there is, “versions.”

These are different writers takes on the character. We exist in a world where one set of writers looked at the character and created a lighthearted romp where the greatest foes he faces are lovable (if dangerous) buffoons. And another set of writers turned him, literally, into a vampire, who preys on the unwary. This can make life really tricky when you’re trying to offer up a concise critique of a character like this. It’s not just Batman by the way. Many comic book superheroes, and even most mythological figures suffer from this.

Now, obviously, if you’re wanting to talk about something like Thor, you can pick from a vast array of different, conflicting, sources, and (to some extent) chose the scope of your examination. The scope is actually pretty important. Do you look at the modern interpretations or a specific subset, (like “Thor in video games”), do you look at the actual myth, or the changes to the figure’s presentation over time as cultural and other factors changed? Do you intersect them with something else, for example, looking at “how Norse mythology interconnects with Arthurian myth.”

Modern franchise characters offer some similar options. You can look at Batman in specific eras, under certain writers, or how the character reflected changing social trends over time. In some cases you can even splice off specific pieces, such as reboots or alternate versions, and analyze those examples.

Fortunately, Batman makes this somewhat easy. Most of the time, the character is fairly consistent but there’s always going to be stuff like Stephanie Brown or Jean-Paul Valley that is not, and breaks character on his behavior. Batman hiring a brainwashed assassin and putting him in a powered armor batsuit was a fixture in the 90s in Knightfall after Bain broke Batman’s spine. We also have Batman killing the teenage girlfriend of Tim Drake through neglect after taking her on as Tim’s replacement and trying to use that event as a teachable moment. (See also, Batman: War Games.) DCUO’s Bats, who often sounds like he’s in the middle of a nervous breakdown while handing out quests to a number of nascent MMO heroes might be another.

Consider this, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Frank Miler, Mark Millar, Geoff Johns, Jeff Loeb, Chuck Dixon, Bruce Timm, Garth Ennis, Gail Simone, and many, many more have all written for Batman either in his own books or in other comic incarnations. If you haven’t been paying attention, these writers all have vastly different approaches and outlooks when it comes to presenting their characters. Grant Morrison honestly believes that Batman snaps and kills the Joker at the end of “The Killing Joke”, and he presents this as objective fact. Alan Moore, who wrote “The Killing Joke” thinks Grant Morrison is a moron. We haven’t even gotten discrepancies with the way Batman is presented on film. Remember, Batman and Robin is the film adjacent to Batman Begins, they’re both technically canon. Do you imagine Christian Bale grew up to be George Clooney or Adam West? The Adam West Batman is one of Batman’s most famous versions. There are lots of different versions of Batman to choose from.

As a fan, you might pick and choose your canon but many of the versions which don’t appeal to you are just as valuable from an analytical and critical perspective. So, keep that in mind as we move forward.

I did not say that it was out of character for Batman to seek to redeem people. The issue here is the methodology. At the core of Batman, you have a guy who dresses up as a bat to scare criminals into line and when that fails, he resorts to violence. I mean, at the extreme end, we’re talking about a character who kept a yellow power ring around, “just in case.” Except, sometimes, with some writers, he abandons this entire philosophy when convenient.

At this point, I should probably step back and abstract Hobbes a bit.

Thomas Hobbes wasn’t saying that it was impossible to govern, or that people couldn’t be productive members of society. He simply argued that, if left to their own devices, people suck. That they will do whatever they want to one another, unless kept in line somehow. That’s Batman; people suck, and the only reason they follow the law is because they’re afraid of what could happen if they don’t.

What’s not (usually) Batman, is Hobbes answer. He argued that the way to “deal” with people was to form communities, bound together by a social contract. While this is somewhat reflected by Bats, it’s not usually articulated as such. You can see this a lot more clearly articulated with the Adam West era stuff. While being one of the most optimistic versions of the character, he’s also, very strongly arguing that social structures need to be adhered to for the good of all.  It’s still Hobbes’s commonwealth, just not how you usually think about Batman.

With that said, as cynical as Hobbes is about human nature, the overall tone of the Leviathan isn’t nearly as bleak. He is arguing that people can transcend, their state of nature. Put simply, “people suck, but they can be better.” He then goes into excruciating detail how he thinks that’s possible.

So, I said Bats’ outreach programs were out of character, and I stand behind that.

Let’s talk about the personal stuff. His relationships with Jason Todd, Harvey Dent, Stephanie Brown, Damion… those are consistent. They’re not completely out of character, though I have to wonder about Jason. The Red Hood murdering people with guns goes against everything Batman supposedly stands for, but DC has embraced Jason back into the Batfamily when he’d kick Damien out for doing the same thing… let’s move on.

Bats’ is forming, or trying form, a community. Dent is outside of that, but Bats desperately wants to believe reform is possible and (re)include him. This is arguably true with several of his villains. He does believe they can be reformed. That’s not in conflict with Hobbes. Hobbes believed that people could be better, and Bats follows that ideal. The issue is the exceptions he makes.

Most of the outreach programs Bruce Wayne runs build off of an idea that all someone needs to succeed is a little help. That normally, people are decent, and that when someone gets out of line, it’s a product of other factors pushing them to behave in that way. That’s not Hobbes. This is Superman. Superman believes that people are, by nature, decent. That they are driven to do bad things, either because they’ve become misguided,  or because they’re forced to.

Now, the irony in this is that Batman is in a far better position to affect change from Superman’s outlook. He has the resources to engage in civic works. He could put money into Gotham in ways that would actually reduce crime and corruption. He could improve the city he lives in. This is the legacy of Thomas Wayne; a man trying to make Gotham a better place through strategic philanthropy. Bats doesn’t. At my most generous, I’d be inclined to chalk this stuff up as an element of his cover and as such, in-character. Because rich celebrities throw money at charity, Bruce Wayne does. And, there’s a potential to write this stuff off like that. It’s not something Bats believes in, but he does it to keep public opinion on Bruce’s side.

There’s probably something to be said, in the vein of Watchmen‘s thesis: You can’t really make the world a better place by punching muggers. It just doesn’t work. The problem is, that’s Batman’s plan. Beatings will continue until morale improves. At the same time Gotham is a complete mess, much like Watchmen‘s New York. To be fair, this is not an intentional correlation. Bats needs muggers to punch, so Gotham needs to be a hell hole.

When you’re writing, it’s very important to remember that you and your characters are different people. They (probably) have a different philosophical outlook from you. At that point, simply doing something because it would be nice, or because you want to is insufficient justification. It needs to be something your character would do. You need to justify their decision, at least to yourself; check that it is consistent with how they view their world.

When you are analyzing, it is equally important to asses the ideology a work, and its characters. Translating that to the author’s ideology can be tricky, even if you know what you’re doing. Understanding the ideology of a character comes from looking at their words and actions. Finding idiosyncrasies and discrepancies is a vital step in determining the nature of that character. Writers often look for behavior that may be considered out of character, because they are attempt to assess the work. It’s a literary acid bath. This isn’t malicious, it’s not trying something you love. It’s a writer looking at a piece and trying to learn from it. Eventually, it’s something you need to do as well, to grow.

Also, you can love something stupid. You can love something that doesn’t make any sense. There’s no accounting for quality. I’ve watched some terrible movies that I’m still quite fond of. But, it is kind of important, to be honest with yourself. Fandom can constrain your growth as an artist. You love a thing, and that’s good, but then you let that stake out your borders. Don’t let that happen.

I like Batman, but he is a mess.

-Starke

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