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 Priya Sridhar
Batman over the years has been a sex-god, a representation of hope, and possibly a propaganda piece for the one percent. He’s a wealthy philanthropist that uses his money to terrorize the criminals of the night and rebuild the city during the day. Despite this, he is a flawed human being that never reaches happiness. He only feels satisfied when seeing criminals behind bars or receiving rehabilitation.
I’d argue that Batman’s greatest enemy is not any one particular villain in the Rogues Gallery. No – what really threatens Batman is that Bruce Wayne might one day fall in love. He cannot have a serious romance while hiding a dark secret from all the women he dates.
In the Golden Age, Batman dated women indiscriminately. He saved one from a vampire, shooting it even — this was before Batman had a “no-guns” rule — and even rescued Catwoman from the jungle after she kidnapped him and Robin. The newspaper comics showed him handcuffed to a woman accused of murder for a whole night and moping after she revealed she had a fiance.
Few knew the man’s secret identity, however, apart from the first Robin, Dick Grayson. Thus, none of these relationships were serious and seemed like a cover. The problem was that some readers got the wrong interpretation. One was Dr. Frederic Wertham.
Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent accused comics of corrupting children while lacking a bibliography or just talking to some comic artists. Thanks to his flawed statements, people suspected that Bruce Wayne took in Dick Grayson to groom him in a weird paedophilic relationship. Obviously, this was not the case; Dick has always been Bruce’s son. But the public did not listen.
To circumvent these wild claims, DC Comics writers added more love interests that could stand on the same level as Bruce, in theory. There’s a reason no one remembers the early Bat-Woman and Bat-Girl, who pursued a reluctant Bruce and Dick. Bruce, in particular, keeps saying that Kate Kane interfered with the fine art of crime-fighting. If he were the one pursuing her, it’d look like harassment. Kate pursuing him, however? Just a wild game of “hard to get”.
This was all fun and games, during the corny Silver Age. But we would later see the emotional impact of Bruce Wayne’s love life clashing with Batman’s mission. I point to Silver St. Cloud as the love interest that served as a genuine obstacle. She fit the grim and gritty era well and could represent conflict in her tiny frame. Also, she’s the first normal person in comics canon who refused Batman as a partner.
Socialite Silver St. Cloud has more depth than the typical vapid starlet that Bruce Wayne would pursue. She had thoughts, and opinions, and he liked that about her. Her career would eventually become event-planning, a magnificent (if potentially short-lived) gig in Gotham… where villains have a habit of crashing special occasions.
Bruce despite himself fell for Silver, for her brain and personality. He in turn revealed more than his playboy side, which saved him at a crucial time; Silver knew him so well that when Hugo Strange impersonates Bruce, she realized something was wrong and notified Dick Grayson. Bruce had tangible reasons to trust her.
Could Bruce have been happy with Silver? Doubtful. Every time Bruce dates someone, he has to ask if he can trust them with Batman. Apart from the obvious problem of not being able to tell emergency services in case of serious injury, the boyfriend or girlfriend would have to live with the constant peril. No mansion or fortress is entirely safe, and Bruce puts himself in danger every night, even when badly injured. He also goes through cycles of driving his sidekicks and partners away, depending on who writes his story.
“The Laughing Fish” is the best comic that represents Bruce’s conflicting agendas. Batman makes his appearance calling on Silver St. Cloud, Bruce’s serious girlfriend. He confronts her about possibly knowing Batman’s secret identity. Silver stands her ground, only to collapse the minute that Batman leaves. She spends her screentime ruminating about if she can stand that the man she loves has a dangerous double life.
How does this relate to the comic issue’s main plot? “The Laughing Fish” has the Joker poisoning all of Gotham’s fish and trademarking their new smiles for the money. When the government officials explain that fish are a natural resource and cannot receive trademarks, Joker poisons them all until he gets what he wants. Batman does not save most of the Joker’s victims, even when impersonating one of them. Bruce would consider Joker poisoning him a worthy sacrifice if he saved an innocent. He doesn’t consider how his death would affect Dick, or his later protegees when he would adopt them.
Silver seeing Batman fighting an irate Joker cements her decision. She tells Bruce that she can’t stand seeing him put himself in danger willingly, even if for the greater good. That would mean nights of waiting, not knowing which night would be the last. Then she walks away, ig. Bruce in later issues angrily vents his frustration on criminals and considers giving up the cowl to have a normal life. This is the closest Bruce has come to retirement, without age or death being the main factor.
Can Bruce be happy with a love interest? Yes. We’ve seen it in various canons, like with Selina Kyle in Earth One. As for the main comics continuity? Bruce needs to find someone who knows his secret identity and can live with the pain and uncertainty. Silver is not that woman. And she’s the woman who reveals Batman’s greatest enemy.
Detective Comics #475: “The Laughing Fish”
Writer: Steve Englehart
Artist and colourist: Marshall Rogers
Inker: Terry Austin
Letterer: Ben Oda
Priya Sridhar is a critic and author whose work has been seen at websites including Book Riot. For more of her work, head across to her website here, or find her on Twitter here!
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