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 Mo Ali
Gotham is a city forever two minutes from midnight. Famed home of the Caped Crusader, its history is a long and bloody one, full of revolution and civil war and even the occult, as it has endured multiple upheavals (and uprisings) to become the flawed jewel we know it as today.
Ugly stone gargoyles stare at each other across a bruised cityscape wet with rain; conflicting architectural styles fight for dominance in a slow spiral of urban decay. Airships emerge lazily from behind oppressive skyscrapers to pass silently overhead, giant floodlights cutting deep into the cold night sky as the sounds of gunfire and police sirens merge into one.
Where Metropolis is a city that looks to a brighter future, Gotham City is caught in the amber of yesteryear.
“People make cities” as author Jane Jacobs said. But if people can make a city, can a city make its people? It’s a strange, simple question, and one upon which, as the saying goes, we build our church, for I propose that there is no greater enemy to stand against Batman in all his gallery of colourful villains and antagonists than Gotham City itself.
The idea of a city as a living entity is not a new one. A collective organised to inhabit a designated space, following systems of governance and co-dependence, maintaining and interacting within the space and each other? All comparable to that of a living system, and like any such system a city must be able to adapt, evolve and fight in order to survive a constantly changing world.
It’s in Batman #405 that we witness this with Gotham.
‘Year One’ previously sees a young Bruce Wayne returning from self-imposed exile to Gotham City, hoping to utilise his newly gained knowledge and fighting skills to battle the City’s criminality and corruption. Having faltered in his first attempts to do so and feeling dejected, a surreal moment of revelation gives him the idea of tapping into the strange and the fearful – and thus the ‘Batman’ is born.
With this new persona we begin #405 as Batman goes to work, slowly fighting his way up from the poverty-stricken streets, ascending the criminal food-chain to reach the very top: the powerful men and women controlling everything.
Batman declares war on the assembled, and in turn the City declares war on him: the corrupt Police force, the criminal organisations and enterprises, and the affluent families that sit back and profit from it all – these are the elements that make up the City, whether it be via governance, organised crime or systemic poverty, and they all begin to mobilise against him.
This is Batman’s biggest mistake. In thinking that Gotham was a city in need of hope and openly declaring his intentions, he hadn’t considered another possibility: the City as a ‘living entity’ had evolved to survive without it.
Let’s first consider pathology. The strength, nature, and severity of a disease will determine if, when, and how a human body can fight and recover from it – but there are instances where this can, over time, become a long drawn-out relationship between host body and disease. Such is the case with Gotham.
Where most cities would have succumbed long ago, Gotham as a living system evolved, adapting to and surviving the crime and corruption that had infested its ‘body’ – corrupted elements assimilated into the host to ensure its continued survival.
Where Batman saw himself as the cure, the City viewed him as a pathogen, an invading organism at odds with its equilibrium and to be fought against. And how could it not? Bruce Wayne was an outsider to begin with. The Wayne family lived on the outskirts, a rogue element to be viewed with suspicion and caution, and never truly a part of the whole. The benevolent actions of Thomas and Martha Wayne as they attempted to use their wealth to ‘fix’ the City’s problems only caused the City to fight back, with Bruce’s parents paying the price.
But how does the City fight back – how does it ‘make’ its people?
‘Psychogeography’ is in simple terms the principle of how you affect your physical environment and how your physical environment can affect you. The urban or geographic environment you inhabit will over time influence your behaviour and emotions as an individual, just as individuals can on their own or as a collective affect their environment.
A building is said to be ‘haunted’; ground can be hallowed or cursed; a house, town, city or country can be somewhere you call home… or somewhere you hope to flee from.
The concept of ‘Batman’ is an attack both on geography and psychology – disrupting the ‘order’ of Gotham City’s landscape and systems through his physical actions and affecting the citizens on a mental level. But the converse is also true, as Gotham City fights the Batman with psychogeography, through its corrupted systems and individuals. Gotham has a long and complicated history and over the years this has altered it.
Batman takes down one criminal kingpin only for another to take their place. Batman gains allies in law enforcement, so the City ups the ante; once it can see that ordinary criminality and corruption can’t fight this invading organism, the City turns to ‘supervillains’ – larger-than-life antagonists to employ in its ongoing battle.
It’s no simple accident that causes the creation of the Joker, Batman’s adversary and opposite, or the constant attraction of other bizarre and colourful characters that come to the City looking to fight the Dark Knight. Their origins come as the City formulates antibodies, remedies to maintain it so it can continue to survive.
Batman believes that if he can remove enough ‘bad apples’ then he can make things right and make a difference, but sometimes you need to get rid of the whole rotten barrel. You need to look at the bigger picture, the macro instead of the micro. If a system is designed to oppress or subjugate some to the benefit of others then it can’t be reformed, it can only be removed… and a new system needs building in its place. Better, fairer, and more just.
In the end, for Batman, this remains his biggest problem to tackle, and it’s why Gotham will always be his greatest enemy.
Batman #405: Who I Am, How I Came To Be
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: David Mazzucchelli
Colourist: Richmond Lewis
Letterer: Todd Klein
Mo Ali is the writer of both Midnight Man: Bullet Time and its sequel, Midnight Man: Gunspace. To see more of his work as a writer and as an artist, head to his website here or follow him on Twitter here!
This post was made possible thanks to Shelfdust’s Patreon backers! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!