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 Ritesh Babu
“Yes, father. I shall become a bat.”
These iconic words ring out across Bat-mythology, reverberating across the past and the future. They are inevitable. They are forever. Of all of Frank Miller’s contributions to comics, they are the most remembered.
And while most focus on the ‘Bat’ part, the ‘father’ part of that iconic line is just as vital. See, The Batman isn’t just any random idea or response. It’s not just ‘Dead Parents, Punch People!’. That’s missing the nature of the idea as it has been written. Historically speaking, it’s an idea handled by male writers: about masculinity, and the fantasies of men, thus acquiring a male-centrism that’s entrenched. Thus… Batman is, at its core, what Bruce Wayne wishes his father, Thomas Wayne, had been.
Imagine you’re an 8-year old boy, and your parents are your entire world. You’re a boy who wants to be just like his dad. Your dad is the biggest, strongest, most important and powerful figure in the tiny little kingdom of your youth. He is your god, he is your hero. There is nothing that he cannot do, and who he is and more vitally, what you think he is shapes you on a fundamental level. You believe in him the way only a child who adores his father can. And then you see him shot to death, with a simple click. A small shell of metal destroying the towering titan that is your father. How can that even be?!
On some level or another, young Bruce Wayne hoped, believed, dreamed, wished – both in that moment and for years afterwards – that his father had somehow been able to stop the shooter. His world was shattered and taken from him, as all his ideas and assumptions had a sudden hole amidst them. And thus his eternal pursuit from that moment on becomes an attempt to fill that hole. Or to put it more bluntly, his pursuit becomes that of realizing the world he assumed was real before it all came crashing down. The idea that things could be great, that you could, truly, properly, be unconditionally happy, and more importantly, that your father was the invincible, impossible force that could stop anything.
If reality doesn’t obey his ideals, he’ll force it to, and thus The Batman is born. A creature meant to be all that young Bruce hoped Thomas Wayne was. His might is unrivaled, his bravery unquestionable. Bullets can’t catch him, and even when they do, they bounce off his impressive armor. This is not a man that can ever be taken down by one man or even a single gun. Assemble an army of men with guns, and you’d still fail. It’s the ideal of the protective father-figure hero, who can do the impossible, who has it all, made manifest.
It’s why it’s ‘Yes, father’, given the history, rather than ‘Yes, mother’, or ‘Yes, mother and father’. It’s very specifically about the patriarchal figure. It’s why so many Batman stories revolve around the idea of fathers and sons. That’s the central beating heart the stories always return to, whether it’s about Alfred, Bruce’s surrogate father, and his place, or the Robins, which place Batman into the role of the father. And that Bruce does become a father figure in his own right is important and vital here, because so much of the Batman idea is about self-actualizing a perceived ideal and role of youth and the assumptions that come with it. It’s about becoming and growing into the kind of man you dreamed of being like, and what that entails and means.
Thus it becomes quite natural then that the ultimate antagonist for The Batman reflects back on all these ideas. That they examine this core impulse that drives and makes a Batman.
Enter: Doctor Hurt.
A Lynchian force of horror, he is the Ur-Evil Father-Figure at the heart of The Dark Knight’s sprawling story. Also a Wayne, and also named Thomas, Doctor Hurt embodies the absolute terrors that Bruce Wayne dares not even voice. If Batman is manifesting non-existent ideals into reality, about willing fantasy into existence for salvation, then Doctor Hurt is about the harsh, monstrous nature of reality. It’s why he laughs at the sheer absurdity of the notion that is The Batman, and desperately yearns to tear it down. It’s why he must debase and destroy it.
He represents that same symbolic hole that begat Batman, but if Batman was possibility, the something from nothing, then Hurt is the erasure and rejection of possibility, the nothingness that threatens to destroy anything that may emerge. He is The Hole In Things, the gap that can never be filled, the hollow horror of reality that will always be there. Hurt is, for Batman, The Devil to be confronted in the deepest pit, the darkest hour, at the end of it all.
Doctor Hurt is what you get when you try to ‘realize’ Batman, because in the end The Good Capitalist is a fantasy. The Batman is a construct in a dreamscape, the archetypal realm of ideas, and the more you try to truly ‘realize’ him, the closer you end up to Hurt. For what else could a ‘realistic’ billionaire crusader with international power, secret cabals, alliances, plots, and a need for control come across as when put through that tired veneer, in a modern age with Elon Musks, Peter Thiels and Mark Zuckerbergs? Hurt is what most people are often railing against in their frequent critiques of The Batman idea, conflating artifice with actuality.
And that he is draped in the iconography of Batman, bearing his father’s costume, name, title, and his attempts to destroy Batman involve…basically spreading fake news, and Bad Takes, should be very, very telling. He’s Batman as the entrenched, privileged white capitalist taken to the natural realistic extreme. And while serving as the rich entrenched white capitalist critique, Hurt also avoids the problematic aspects and history of patriarchal antagonist figures like Ra’s Al Ghul, who’s rooted in old Fu Manchu-esque setups of ‘The Foreign Devil’ as conceived by old White American men.
It’s why Hurt stands out as a relevant figure in Batman’s world. And most horrifically, rather than just casting doubts and perverting the past of Bruce Wayne, Hurt’s influence extends all the way into the future. Hurt is such a force of patriarchal horror that he isn’t just haunting Bruce, the son of Thomas, but also Damian Wayne, the son of Bruce. He’s a horror haunting the entire lineage, fathers and sons. He is the curse of The Batman, that all who take on the heavy cowl must wrestle with, in their turn.
And yet, for all of that, being the emptiness that just exists to consume and destroy, he is someone that can never grasp the true nature of Batman. All his attempts at ‘creating’ his own puppet iterations of The Batman fail for this very reason, which is what leads to his plots to co-opting its very nature into serving his own. Like any greedy capitalist, he craves ownership. And like Batman’s own true False Father, Bob Kane, Hurt is a lying bastard trying to lay claim to that which was forged by others. Much like Bob Kane will never be Bill Finger, Hurt will never be the true Thomas Wayne, the man that’s actually behind the inception of the Batman ideal. He’ll never be Jerry Robinson anymore than Hurt can be Alfred Pennyworth. He alone cannot subsume and control The Batman idea, for The Batman is more, and is forged by better, more worthwhile figures’ presence.
But that doesn’t stop Bob Kane’s name from being on every single Batman credit, and neither will it stop the unrelenting force that is Doctor Hurt. He’ll always be relevant as long as Batman is around, for the potency of what he represents is eternal and undying, much like Batman himself.
Batman & Robin #13: The Garden of Death
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Frazer Irving
Letterer: Pat Brosseau
Ritesh Babu is a writer and critic whose work has been featured in publications including PanelXPanel, XavierFiles, and Adventures in Poor Taste. To find more from Ritesh, you can follow him on Twitter here!
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