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 Kelly Kanayama
WARNING: if you haven’t read Grant Morrison’s run on Batman but are planning to do so at any point in the future, please be aware that this piece contains major spoilers. Yes, I know it ended in 2013, but still.
Riddle me this: when is an enemy not an enemy?
When it’s three enemies, of course!
This is a particularly salient question if you’re Batman, for whom the greatest foe he has ever grappled with (here I am trying really hard not to do the Beavis and Butt-head laugh) is his, uh, Cut Crusader and Boy Wonders. His Batawang and Bat-bombs. The old “triple threat,” as my husband said when I told him I was writing this piece. Yes, I am talking about Batman’s dick and balls, because they – and the tortured libido that accompanies them – are his true greatest enemies.
Riddle me this, too: why is Batman incapable of finding a nice girl to settle down with? And that “he has to choose between protecting [insert name of girlfriend here]…and protecting Gotham City” excuse isn’t going to cut it, because while that may be the case for some of his relationships, it certainly doesn’t apply to his more dramatic entanglements.
He has quite the history of falling for women who turn out to be villains or at least walk on the wild side when it comes to the law; I mean, hell, he almost married Catwoman, and while she’s not a cold-blooded killer or mastermind of a worldwide terrorist network or anything, she is a career criminal, which doesn’t exactly seem compatible with his life goals. And then there’s Andrea Beaumont, a.k.a. murderous vigilante The Phantasm (for you Animated Series heads out there), and that nice lady cop who also turned out to be a murderous vigilante in Gotham After Midnight, and Talia al-Ghul – more on her later, but you see the pattern here. But what are the threads from which that pattern is woven?
You’re Not My Real Dad!
An answer didn’t occur to me until I read Grant Morrison’s Batman run, which is not only my all-time favorite Morrison joint but is also one of my favorite story arcs in fiction, period. One of the recurring motifs that drives the narrative is “the hole in things,” a phrase that villain Simon Hurt uses to describe himself and, throughout the comic, is visually echoed via images that include the ouroboros, open graves, eyes missing from faces, and Martha Wayne’s broken string of pearls.
If you haven’t read the comic, Simon Hurt is, like many Morrison villains, one seriously weird-ass dude. Instead of theming his whole costume, lair, etc around having a last name tailor-made for doing bad guy stuff – like maybe a whole bunch of sharp pointy bits sticking out of all the tables so you keep mildly injuring yourself whenever you walk around? It hurts, get it? No, that sucks, sorry – he spends his days wearing an old-timey masquerade/domino mask and opera cape while insisting that he’s Thomas Wayne, a.k.a. Bruce Wayne’s extremely dead dad. Oh yeah, he also psychologically tortures Batman and tries to irrevocably break his mind through hypnosis, secret medical experiments, and just generally fucking with his life hardcore.
For now, though, what I really want to zero in on is the Thomas Wayne thing. Why bring him into it in the first place? Surely it would be enough to get Batman addicted to drugs, implant bizarre post-hypnotic suggestions in his brain, threaten to smear the Wayne family reputation, break into the Batcave, try to kill Batman and all his buds from the Club of Heroes – you know, the standard over-the-top supervillain theatrics that make you wonder if supervillains have hobbies or what. Wouldn’t it be something if it turned out that they were all just bored as hell, and then they discover, say, a penchant for learning to cook new recipes or a hidden talent for knitting sweaters, and that’s what finally gets them to knock it off?
But no. Simon Hurt has no hobbies (except for, possibly, cape shopping) so he has lots of time to hone his craft until it’s scalpel-sharp. What makes him so dangerous is his ability to extract the most traumatic nuggets from Batman’s brain and then amplify and weaponize them in the ways that do the most damage. Hence the focus on dude’s dead parents.
It’s worth nothing that at no point in the comic does Batman seem to genuinely believe that Simon Hurt is actually Thomas Wayne. The World’s Greatest Detective knows that Thomas Wayne, his extremely dead dad, is, well, extremely dead, not running around in a cape while looking pretty close to Batman’s age.
Nevertheless, by claiming to be Thomas Wayne and making up dark, salacious secrets about the Wayne family, Simon Hurt gets at Batman’s greatest fear: if your parents were alive, they would be disappointed in you and vice versa, which if true would render the latter’s entire life mission utterly pointless. Literally chasing ghosts, and when you finally catch up to them, you find out that they’ve been shaking their heads sadly about you for decades.
I’m sure Batman’s parents would be proud of him if they were alive – or would they push him into therapy, what with Thomas Wayne being a doctor? – but the point is, they’re not alive to tell him either way. No matter how the dead feel about you, they’re not going to tell you on account of being dead, and so all you can do is speculate. So you strive for some kind of goal that you think would garner their approval and praise, all the while knowing that you’re never going to get it since, you know, death, which keeps pushing you even harder, because you need to believe, even in the tiniest, most childish corner of your heart, that it is possible, otherwise why are you knocking yourself out night after night for the rest of your life?
Okay, my dead diasporic ancestor guilt and I may be projecting a little bit here, but honestly, this is part of the reason I love Morrison’s take on Batman so much. They get at the emotions surrounding that impossible pursuit, how it feels to be driven by a need for validation and completion that you are just never fucking going to get.
“The hole in things”, remember?
Or at least, one of them.
Enter The Batawang
All these words, you may be thinking, and none of them are about what’s wrong with Batman’s desire to smash! Well, wonder no longer. Here comes the hard stuff. (Am I proud of myself? Yes. Yes I am.) Or should I say, Batman’s boner.
Consider how devoted Batman is to chasing validation from his parents that it is literally not possible for him to receive. Now stir that a little bit here, spike it a little bit there, throw in some puberty hormones, let simmer for a few years, and voila: one lifetime of psychosexual torment. If the most motivating love you know is rooted in the impossibility of reciprocation, that’s going to screw with your models of attachment real hard. Especially if, instead of seeking professional help, you enter the near-death state of Thögal and volunteer for sketchy experiments as methods of dealing with your shit.
Although he has a brief frenemies-with-benefits dalliance with Catwoman for a few issues, Batman’s main nonplatonic entanglements in this run are with Talia al-Ghul (Daughter of the Demon/his baby’s mama) and Jezebel Jet (a supermodel/head of state with a wildly problematic name, which I’ll get to in a bit), both of whom could be described as “entirely unsuitable matches” if we were in a Jeeves and Wooster novel.
Oh, wait. Did I only label Jezebel Jet as having problematic aspects? Because in this run Talia straight-up sexually assaults Batman. They do seem to have a consensual romantic and possibly physical relationship in the comic, but the part where he impregnates her appears to be the result of him being reproductively coerced.
So Talia has Batman’s baby, who, once he’s old enough, becomes a pawn in her increasingly obsessive ploy to win the Dark Knight back to her side. And since hell hath no fury like an al Ghul scorned, when that doesn’t work, Talia takes up her father’s mantle and creates the global terror network Leviathan, operating on a scale of death and destruction that Ra’s could only dream of.
I’m choosing my words carefully, because I do not want to suggest even to the tiniest degree that survivors of sexual coercion or assault are in any way responsible for what their abusers perpetrate upon them, or to minimize the gravity and repercussions of such actions. All I will say about this is, for that brief moment when he’s not aware of the reproductive coercion that took place, Batman’s response to waking up in Talia’s bed suggests that he was all too happy to engage in some consensual boning (or what he thought was consensual boning) with her. “I imagined someone like you”, he says, smiling in what moments of post-coital glow he can savor.
But even there, it’s not the healthiest expression of happiness, is it? I mean, what exactly was he imagining that’s fulfilled in Talia? A combo of WAP + envenomed parent-child dynamics? Crippling ancestral guilt that turns into homicidal competitiveness? In the end she turns out to be a mass-murdering maniac – so, cool fantasy, bro – in addition to being a reproduction-coercing rapist. Still, there was something deep and compelling there once, at least before the sex crime that nuked the possibility of any future relationship.
Fast forward some years, and here’s Batman in full Bruce-Wayne-the-feckless-billionaire-playboy mode at a fundraiser, meeting a super hot supermodel who also happens to be the head of state of an unnamed African country: Jezebel Jet. Sadly, as Batman’s love interests often are, she is bad news.
I do kind of dig the wrist cuffs over the gloves. Is that weird? Other than that, though, I definitely think male comics artists need fashion experts like Claire Napier on hand when drawing sexy rich fashion-forward women, because this outfit has strong “free-to-play mobile game” vibes.
So then Jezebel Jet –
WE INTERRUPT THIS ESSAY FOR AN IMPORTANT PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT
If you write a character who is a) Black and b) a hot lady, please do not call her “Jezebel Jet”. No one should ever do that. I mean, “Jet” by itself in this context is hmmmmm, but coupled with the connotations of “Jezebel”, the evil foreign woman who is portrayed as even more evil due to her foreignness and whose name, over time, has become reduced to a synonym for “deceitful temptress”? Not to mention the many harmful stereotypes thrown at Black women throughout the centuries? Look, I get that the black-and-red color combo is a recurring thing in the story arc, but please do not. Not like this.
THANK YOU. WE NOW RETURN YOU TO YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED COMICS CRITICISM
– what was I talking about?
Right. Batman’s dick, balls, horniness, et cetera. He falls hard, or at least seems to fall hard, for this beautiful, problematically named woman. They have dates where they go out to fancy restaurants and do extreme sports together. They have charged banter, complete with sexily raised eyebrows. They have arguments about the seriousness of their relationship. He even lets her into his Batcave, and no, that’s not a euphemism; at one point, she hypothesizes that Bruce Wayne = Batman, and he confirms it.
Here he is, finally able to combine his two selves into a unified person who gets to slide the Batawang into a bodacious GF. A bodacious GF who isn’t carried away by passion, but makes overtures to the sad, hurting, unresolved-trauma-shouldering little boy that resides within the Batman. Bruce…what if you’re not well?
This is far from the first comic to wonder whether becoming the Bat is one big unhealthy mechanism for coping with wicked unresolved trauma – Darwyn Cooke’s Batman: Ego comes to mind, for instance – but it’s the first one to conflate that with Batman’s libido, as far as I can tell. And that is a really important conflation, because the survival of the Batman narrative depends upon not questioning its premise, both within fiction and outside of it, so asking Batman deep questions to his face essentially aims to annihilate what and who “the Batman” is.
Of course, it turns out that Jezebel Jet is evil (with that name, who’da thunk it?). Not just regular villain-with-a-weirdly-specific-theme evil, but evil evil. Batman discovers that she’s part of the Black Glove, a group of obscenely rich psychopaths who get their kicks from destroying people’s lives. Led by Simon Hurt, the Black Glove has picked Batman as their latest target. Although the Caped Crusader manages to free himself from their trap at the last minute and kick all their asses, the whole thing leaves him a bit shaken. As he muses while beating up some henchmen:
“When did I first suspect she was part of the trap?
‘I want you to know I understand,’ she said.
I think it was then.
About a fraction of a second after I realized how heavily I’d fallen for her.
Almost instantly realizing it was the bad I’d been attracted to all along.” [emphasis added]
He’s not using the word “bad” in a fun tongue-sticking-out emoji way here. Ms. Jet’s “bad” is full-on corrosion of the soul; when she slinks away home on her private jet, chagrined at having been vanquished by the Bat, she exclaims, “I have a country. I’ll beggar my people if that’s what it takes to bury him!”
That’s what Batman was “attracted to all along”. That wrongness on a visceral, human level. The same “bad” that he’s devoted his career, mind, money, time, body, etc to eradicating. In short, he is attracted to something wholly antithetical to his fundamental sense of identity, and chooses to pursue it anyway. These women who steal shit just because they can, who take second jobs as costumed murderers, who will happily spill oceans of innocent blood in order to get back at an ex-boyfriend – they cannot coexist peacefully, i.e. in any sort of sustainable relationship, with a man who stands against everything they do. And Batman? If he allows them to continue doing what they do, he basically wouldn’t be Batman anymore. To lust/long for these women, to follow where his libido leads, is to flirt with annihilation, which is why his romances so often land him in literal death traps or fights for his life.
But he can’t stop. Perhaps because something in his vestigial kid mind keeps spurring him on towards the void – love means never giving up on chasing ghosts, after all, whether it’s love for your murdered parents or the super hot babe you think might be evil down to her bones. Leading the World’s Greatest Detective on a quest that by its very nature can never truly go anywhere? That’s something an enemy would do.
Maybe even one’s greatest enemy.
Or three enemies, depending on how you count them.
Batman #656: Man-Bats of London
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Andy Kubert
Inker: Jesse Delperdang
Colourist: Dave Stewart
Letterer: Nick J. Napolitano
Kelly Kanayama is a writer and comics scholar who is literally writing the book on Garth Ennis. Don’t believe me? Have a look at her Patreon page here! You can also find Kelly on Twitter here, highly recommended.
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Oh that was a lot of fun. Thanks so much Kelly.