2010-01-05

Under the Cowl - The Real Bruce Wayne

Clark Leaves SupermanOne often stumbles across discussions about Superman's core personality. Is he really Clark Kent Midwestern farmboy who saw the world needed a hero and took up that social role not because he wanted to but because the world needed him - or - is he Kal-El, child of gods, sent to earth as savior and who as such finds it necesary to take on a human persona to ensure his humanity remains in tact. Although Kill Bill argued for the second, I tend to see Superman as the first.

This discussion is often ported directly to Batman. Is Bruce Wayne the core personality or is the Batman? I think that it is a mistake to even ask this question. Bruce Wayne can be a far more complex character than this debate allows for. Bruce Wayne is a man who choses to dress up as a monster at night and in order to hide this secret plays a fopp to the world at large.

Scary BatmanBatman isn't a personality. He was theatrically designed to be seen as a supernatural force of justice. There is no arguing with the Batman, no talking to him or avoiding him, no getting to know him. You just pray he doesn't happen to you.

The Bruce Wayn
e the world at large knows isn't a personality either. He doesn't have any true intentions. He is a character cooked-up because his wealth makes him a person of interest, interest he wisely wishes to avoid.

Neither is the true Bruce Wayne. The real Bruce Wayne is not the millionaire playboy or the urban demon. He is a man who has spawned both of these characters to achieve his ends. (As an interesting side note, most of the queer readings I've come in contact with start their interpretation with the observation that Bruce and Dick live duel lives: their alteregos being their true selves and their secret identities masks that don't extend to a social life.)

TwofaceIt's very unlikely that DC will ever portray Batman as a villian and as long as he is a hero, they won't overtly give him mental diseases. Therefore, portraits which give Batman a split personality as striking as Two-Face's will never be canonically accepted for long periods. Stories like Darwayn Cooke's Egos which explore to just what extend Bruce Wayne is fractured will continually arise and will always allow us to read between the lines of his dual life but there is a single core personality beneath the masks and cowls. So we must approach Bruce Wayne's personna as a cohesive unit which acts out two roles in order to achieve his ends. What that personna is and what his goals are has been in a state of continuous change since 1949.

Some people look at serial characters, especially Batman, and argue that he isn't anything except what we interpret him as. According to Neil Giaman's 'Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?' the nature of this man is unconsequential as long as he fights the good fight to the bitter end. Nick Mamatas would go even further and said in an essay included in Batman Unauthorized ``Batman is good at being all ... things because he isn't really anthing more than that logo.'' He is a floating signifier meaning that he is nothing but a saved space that can point to anything we want (anything that will make DC money). While I agree with this sentiment to an extent,the serial nature of comic books with it's retrospective retellings by various authors and long established fanbase with it's retention of previous versions leads to more of an evolution of and list of accepted Batman portrails.

Batman's ChairParanoid Control Freak
After this Batman watched his parents' lives ripped away from him, he vowed not to get his revenge on criminals but to remove them all together. This Batman is determined to never let tragedy touch him again by being better and stronger than even the worst villian. The world will not be safe until his war on crime is won. This is the Batman from the one episode “Artifacts” of the TV series “The Batman” who left a digital copy of himself for future generations in case any of his old rogue gallary should be resurected in the distant future. This is the Batman from 'Tower of Babel' and the Batman from 'War Games'. This is the Batman who has a plan for every alien invasion, every betrayal and every improbable scenario. He's an expert in everything. Although this Batman knows the strategic value of working in teams, having allies and training partners, he always keeps himself slightly removed. Losing them as friends would cause him pain so he pushes them away.

bloody BatmanPossessed Meglomaniac
This is the Batman of Dark Knight Returns. He isn't a hero. He's a vigilianty. No, not just a vigilianty - he's the goddamn Batman. The best version of this Bruce Wayne might just be from 'Nine Lives'. This Bruce Wayne isn't above using thugs to protect his interests. The book starts with the words: ``Bruce Wayne was a man filled with anger, spite, and greed... A man obseesed with justice.`` Later the lead character and narrator notes ''He is a cloistered man driven by gigantic - - almost supernatural forces, not simply greed as I thought.`` This Bruce Wayne is not only a violent sociopath but also a ruthless industrialist. His actions may result in a better world and that's how he may justify them but that isn't the true reason why he's become the Batman.

Batman ThinkingHaunted Hero
This Batman can never do enough. He couldn't save his parents when he was a child and so racked with remorse he tries to makeup for that terrible failing by saving others. But it's never enough good to bring his parents back. And so the mission is never over and the war never won. This is the Batman with display cases in his Batcave reminding him of fallen allies and his constant inadequacy.

The White Knight Dressed in Black
Batman OathThis is the Batman seen in 'Batman: The Brave and the Bold' and the 1960s television show. He is the direct desendant of Robin Hood and Zorro. Heroes dressed in black. If this Batman began battling crime out of revenge based intentions, he has long since out grown that. He is not morally ambiguous in any way but rather has unquestionable balance, walking the thin line between good and evil perfectly, like some nonchalant tightrope master. It isn't a metastable state: there is never any doubt he will tip towards evil because his perfect balance is unshakable. This is what Luke Skywalker was meant to be. While the priestly Jedi knights religiously gaurded only in the Lightside and the greedy Sith lords took advantage of the Darkside rejecting all selflessness, only Luke Skywalker balanced to the Force.

Everyone Reads Frank MillerSubversive Freedom Fighter
This is the Batman from Batman: Year 100 and Batman Strikes Again. This Batman is about self empowerment. He frees people from control, be that control by the government or control by our fears of criminals. He has bettered himself into a highly skilled adventurer who nolonger has anything to fear from the cowardly criminals who killed his family. This man seeks to be an inspiration to the citizens of Gotham,. His goal is to cause others to also find the hero within themselves. This is the Batman that took Jason Todd under his wing to bring out the hero within him.

Fascist
Batman's Place in HistoryThis is the Batman Alex Ross showed at the very beginning of 'Kingdom Come', the Batman who is willing to build an army of robots to comb the streets in search of social deviatants. This is the Batman who built Brother Eye. To him the ends justify the means and the only acceptible end is the safety of the innocent. This is the Batman who demanded that Commisioner Atkins allow him command the police during War Games. It's interesting to read “The Cult”, a parable about the censorship of the Comics Code and how moralists shackled and immasculated Batman. In the story and in real life, Batman was able to escape his imprisonment and become victorious. But there is a strange and haunting subtalty in the story. After escaping from the villian who represents the bookburning rightwing, Batman returns in a tank and by force reastablishes the social structure. In two separate occasions, he allows individuals to die for the greater good of the whole and to conclude the matter he burns every the memorial of what happened. He imposes his moral code on others by threat of violence and is constantly sacrificing the rights of indivicuals for the security of the community.
Batman beats up hoboI hope that I have demonstrated that there are certain archetypes to the character of Batman. Clearly, an interesting character is a multidimensional one and so some of the best Batman stories are those that mix these archetypes and put them at odds with one another. If you have thoughts about this, it would be great to hear them. I realize that even in this list foundamental building blocks for an acceptible portrail, there is room for some overlap. For example, this old blog post made me question whether or not my "Possessed Meglomaniac" was actually one and the same as the "Fascist". But after thinking about the definition of fascism and what the blogger was describing I think that he was using the term incorrectly. The Batman he was describing was not a fascist. So did I miss any cornerstones to the history of the character? Or do you think that Batman really can be anyone in the costume?

PS. You really need to check out
Agan Harahap's photos.
PSS. No more Batman Essays in the future. I promise.

6 comments:

mohitparikh said...

I think Bruce Wayne and Batman are only images, not the core personality. The core is free, fluid. In the core is that which was there when the Bruce was assumed dead and the Batman wasnt yet born.

wht do u think abt the batman portrayed in the muvs 'Batman Begins' and 'The Dark Knight'? i dont think he is even close to any of the archetypes u wrote abt.

P.S. Essays on Batman are fun to read.

mohitparikh said...

http://goodcomics.blogspot.com/2005/07/should-we-hate-batman.html

this was stupid.

Bruce said...

The Nolan Batman is the Haunted hero without a doubt. Sure he's young but wait until that guy gets a couple of Robin's killed. How's he going to handle that?

Bruce is already nearly completely defined as this archetype by TDK. At first he sees Harv as someone better than himself and then he spends the rest of the movie struggling with the fact that people will (and then did) die because of him.

And finally it ends with him taking on the mantel of sacrificial lamb. The war is never over: it only gets bigger and bigger. Being haunted doesn't make him weak: it's what makes him as strong as he is.

M.C. Elroy said...

Well done, sir. Similar to something I've been working on for a while now.

Of course, there is plenty of overlap, even within singular stories. I think this is because, while certain writers might state that they prefer thinking of Batman in a particular way, these writers (at least for the last few decades) are typically fans of the character overall, and as such cannot help but to portray Batman as a mixture of the character-types you've mentioned. For example, Frank Miller's Batman in the '80s is haunted, megalomaniacal, and a fascist, but he seems to have started out as something more heroic. However, Miller's Batman of the new millenium is a symbol of empowerment and fighter of social tryanny, but he's also a crazed adventurer.

Batman would not be nearly as interesting if he were a simple character. I personally think that the recent movies portray him as a complex mixture. I've been working on a lengthy essay on "The Dark Knight" for some time now, and I think that Batman/Bruce is haunted, trying to be a symbol, and he can be a bit fascistic (I also think he's a bit of an adventurer, or perhaps he simply has a death wish).

All that said, I'm glad you're back to blogging, and I would actually look forward to more Batman essays.

Bruce said...

That's a great point. I didn't mean to say that every incarnation of Batman can be boiled down to one single one of these. That would be boring. The best characterizations are the ones that are complex mixtures. The ones that have different archetypes complementing each other and in conflict with each other.

I hope I get to read your essay when it's completed. There's not enough critical thought about Batman out there.

Bruce said...

There is that Planetary/Batman cross over that's about all this. And some professor has a web page where he explains how he uses the book to introduce his class to the concept of historical context.