Batman has been in fights all his life: physically, mentally, spiritually. But who or what is his greatest foe? Shelfdust asked some of our favourite comics critics to pick Batman’s Greatest Enemy… but who do YOU agree with?
By Tom Shapira
There’s this great bit in The Dark Knight Returns (that is, of course, a tautology) in which an aging Alfred recalls reading a mystery story to a young Bruce Wayne: ‘Master Bruce asked – no, DEMANDED… “The killer was caught. And punished.”’ Even before he was Batman there was this element of control to young Bruce Wayne, a desire to establish a rational and utterly moral universe. This element that was enchanted to the nth degree once random chance took his parents away.
More than anything else, control is a crucial part of Batman. Control of the self – Batman had trained, mind, body and soul, to become the most perfect human specimen that could be conceived of. Control of the world around him – when young Bruce Wayne makes the oath that will decides his destiny, as seen in Batman #1, he swears not to take vengeance on the one single criminal that is responsible but rather “[to spend] the rest of my life warring on all criminals.” Batman is going to stop crime, all of crime. He is going to make so that random chance can never happen again. Going back to The Dark Knight Returns Batman tells Superman the one big lesson his parents taught him ‘the world only makes sense when you force it to…’ This carries an implication – you can force it to, if you are strong enough.
Which is why the Scarecrow (AKA Dr. Jonathan Crane) is Batman’s greatest enemy. The Scarecrow is all about taking away control, making a person a victim of his own various neuroses. This is especially troublesome to Batman who used to be the one dealing fear, not being on the receiving end of it. Bruce Wayne stopped being a child when he was about eight-year-old, more than any other enemy The Scarecrow can return him to that condition – before he was able to master his own destiny.
This is best seen in 1987’s “Fear for Sale” which, other than being one of the best single issues in the history of the character, gives us a rather unique take on both its main players. In this story Scarecrow has developed a new variant on his classic toxin, one that removes inhibitions / fear from any who are subjected to it. It’s a rather brilliant inversion of the criminal’s usual M.O. (which probably became stale by the late 1980’s) that still works within the bounds of the character – an obsession with figuring out how people work. A natural expansion of Crane’s civilian identity as a psychology professor.
This issue also reintroduces Crane’s villainous origins: other members of the faculty made fun of his clothes. It’s rather funny in how pathetic it is, but it also works to establish him as an inversion of Batman: The Bruce Wayne identity is that of a fool and a fop; people laugh at him and he knows it. Batman is self-assured, he knows what he is and doesn’t care what other people think of him.
The Scarecrow’s whole motivation is to avoid being mocked, which rather brings to mind Margret Atwood’s famous saying – “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Indeed, the one change Barr and Davis do when recalling the Scarecrow’s origin is replacing the older males mocking him with two young women; as the internet teaches us daily – there’s nothing more dangerous than a man who feels slightly scorned by a woman (especially those who like to brag about their ‘smarts’ and ‘logic’ as Crane often does).
After using his new toxin to blackmail a group of pro-athletes, poisoning them and then dangling the antidote in front of their faces, Scarecrow kidnaps Robin and keeps him locked in a factory which is, of course, rigged with death traps. Now Batman must rescue his young ward, while himself under the influence of the fear-removing drug.
This is one of these rare, certainly post-1970’s, stories in which Batman can be seen smiling. He really is having a blast escaping all these traps. Batman is happy. Sure, he’s under the influence of drugs – but he’d be far from the first person to use some chemical assistance to achieve happiness. Except Batman can’t be happy, can’t be giddy, can’t be excited. Batman can’t be a child. Children have no control, they are under the whims of grownups and also of their own turbulent emotional state. Batman can’t have that. Batman is the sense of control, an iron grip upon a world gone mad.
The actual death trap’s a breeze, Batman has played this game many times before. But he never struggled so hard to maintain composure, which is just another way of saying ‘being Batman.’ It’s not just the cape and the gadgets and the martial arts, what makes Batman into Batman is that he keeps his composure. The Scarecrow doesn’t just want to kill Batman, he could’ve done it earlier in the issue – he wants to prove to the world that Batman is just like him, a victim of his own impulses. Jonathan Crane is a pathetic, weak, individual and he wants to think everyone is like him.
Batman wins. Of course he wins, his name is above the title. There’s a neat technical explanation to how he escaped the last trap (reminding us how boring had Batman become when writers just let him overcome things between panels simply because he’s Batman). But what is actually important is how he overcame the effects of drug – by focusing on the distressed Robin and how it is his responsibility to save the Boy Wander. Batman is not afraid for himself, he is afraid for others.
The ending of the issue, showing us the motivating fear Batman held to while fighting the effects of the toxin is one the most terrible cases of irony within DC Comics – an image of Robin’s grave, with legend 1974-1986. They ended off by two years, “A Death in the Family” was already waiting in the wings. I wonder if the creators of the issue knew then, of the plans being made by higher ups, that Jason Todd is set up to be killed by a public vote?
What is important is that, in a way, Jonathan Crane has won as well: Batman has overcome the anti-fear toxin by submitting himself to fear, by admitting that he cannot control everything around him. Jason Todd’s death is an option, a viable option even, in their line of work. No matter how hard he trains, no matter how much he prepares Batman cannot change that fact. With his anti-fear toxin the Scarecrow had finally put real fear unto the Batman.
Detective Comics #571: Fear For Sale
Written by Mike W. Barr
Pencilled by Alan Davis
Inked by Paul Neary
Colours by Adrienne Roy
Lettered by John Workman
Tom Shapira’s writing has been featured on many different websites, ranging from Multiversity and Shelfdust right through to recent pieces published at The Comics Journal. The best place to find him online is on Twitter, right here!
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