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 Justin Partridge
I used to have a terrible party trick.
Usually after more than a few beers, I would start to “take questions” from the assembly. Meaning if there was something they always wanted to know about their favorite superheroes or some kind of nagging bit of trivia that they were obsessed with, I would take the question and more often than not, I would have the answer. Because this is the kind of thing I find validating, you see.
A lot of the time they were about the X-Men animated series or some kind of oddly worded question about how superheroes copulated with one another (and their human companions), but one time I was allowed a real deal belter of a question. My friend’s big sister, a longtime fan of the “Nolan-verse” Batman films, had a question about the Dark Knight.
“Who is Batman’s true love?”, she asked.
At the time I answered glibly. I said “JUSTICE!”, thinking myself monstrously clever and now realizing I was more than a little drunk. But still she pressed, asking for a real and honest answer. The group and I started to consider. Could it be Catwoman? No, that seemed too obvious. Could it be Dick Grayson? The evidence was certainly there (as well as my own innate desire as a baby bi to see Batman have a boyfriend and to have validation for my still-standing head canon that Dick and Bruce were at least a LITTLE bi themselves), but the question still hung heavy.
Then it hit me. “It’s Gotham. Gotham City is Batman’s true love.” After a bit more “discussion” and a few more shots, that seemed to be a satisfying enough answer for the assembly, allowing us all further obnoxiously loud discussion then about the infrastructure of the city and her colorful citizenry.
But that answer never left my head. It still rang true to me, and truer still as I saw the sort of shapes that The Batman’s exploits would take within the comics, as the character springboarded from Grant Morrison’s Bat Epic to the runs by Scott Snyder and Tom King – and even further still into James Tynion IV’s still a’flourishing garden of dark delights. Even when the books were ABOUT The Batman’s love life, his true heart still held fast to his city.
This caused my answer to further blossom as well, sprouting like an alluring, but dangerous flowered vine of Slaughter Swamp across my mind year-after-year. If The Batman so loved his city, forging himself into a righteous weapon in order to protect it, how would he ever allow himself to have a REAL relationship?
It wasn’t until Shelfdust asked my (cleared of alcohol) brain another question that it was pushed into blooming into something else entirely. “Who is the Batman’s Greatest Enemy?”, they asked me. Who above all tormented the Dark Knight and pushed him to his physical and mental limits?
To which I respond, The Batman’s Greatest Enemy is His Mind. For it will not allow him to listen to his Greatest Weapon: His Heart.
While that might sound a touch hyperbolic (as well as woefully over-emotional), let us first consider what we know about The Batman. What we have seen both of his Mind and Heart as his War on Crime commenced. After Bruce Wayne’s solemn vow to his parents at their graves, he naturally turned to training both his mind and body for the impending war against criminality, and their superstitious and cowardly lot. From there he went from the peaks of Nanda Parbat to the lowly streets of The Narrows. Wayne honed himself into a weapon, forging his body into rolled steel and his mind into an immaculate memory palace of ghoulish facts, figures, and investigative methods.
We also know that through this time, The Batman was also inoculating himself, let’s say, against the world at large. He was exposing his mind and heart to substances that would expand his consciousness and allow him a perspective beyond that of just a run of the mill detective. He would know everything… for he would have experienced everything, dipping his brain into a myriad of psychoactive substances and mood-altering chemicals in order to understand their effects on the human mind.
His “training” complete, he returned to his city; His One True Love. He aimed at starting his mission of defence and retribution for his fallen parents. But this first night out was… less than successful, leaving him bloody and dying on a street he could never hope to control. He returned to his opulent ancestral home and had his fateful meeting with the creature that would become his totem. It led him to another promise, this time to his long-since-passed father. You know exactly the one.
“Yes, Father, I Shall Become a Bat.”
The promise gave him a further buffer between his humanity and “the War”, as he then forged an entire separate personality. He built himself up to be the darkened Knight his City needed now (and his parents needed then). From that moment on, The Batman became like stone; an implacable paragon of justice and ruthless effectiveness, herding his Love into some semblance of order and confabulating the feeling of accomplishment with affection. Ever watchful and ever prepared to act, Batman stood above the city’s civil constituents (and even its citizenry) as a stalwart, nearly unreachable aspect of Gotham City. He became even more ingrained into it now than its baroque, twisted architecture. The trouble is…
He. Never. Realized (or allowed himself to acknowledge). This. Was. A. Bad. Thing.
As The Batman’s legend and abilities grew, so did his disconnection from the city he loved. As his standing within the larger Detective Comics Comics super-community strengthened – culminating to his leading and enlistment in various Leagues – his need to become “more than just a man” increased, pushing him past his once established limits toward the goal of being more.
What that usually meant was, Bruce Wayne continued to make the active choice to leave behind that aspect of himself. He expanded his own self-image to not even NEED Bruce anymore. Most notably you see this explicitized in the worlds of Morrison and Porter’s JLA (the birth of the “Bat-God”), an idea which was then built out further through the pages of Morrison’s own Batman, Batman R.I.P, and the Return of Bruce Wayne. Why connect with humanity if The Batman (& Robin) Can Never Die!? What is a Heart to a Bat-God? What is divine emotion to a non-believer?
But this hardening starts in the pages of Batman #428 – part 4 of “A Death in the Family”. Locked in a perilous chase across the sands of the Middle East, Batman & Robin see the clownish face of death. But only Jason Todd pays the ultimate price, first infamously brutalized by the Joker and then blown into comic history thanks to a blood-thirsty fan vote by telephone. But the effect Jason’s death would have on The Batman are the real aftershocks. It’s a moment that would go on to have reverberations as far into “Knightfall” and even further into “No Man’s Land”. The dark mark on Bruce’s soul that his version of love garnered him.
The Batman didn’t have “allies”: he had “soldiers”, and Jason had now proven himself the best among them. But he was pushed into the arms of death by his own push to be the better Robin. To live up to the long shadow cast by Dick Grayson when he wore the costume. But even more damningly, he was in that warehouse because he wanted, nay needed, to prove worthy of The Batman’s attention and admiration. To finally become the Boy Wonder he knew Bruce wanted. All it cost him was his life.
But sadder still, this spectre of death would linger over The Batman for years to come after this. Time and time again, after the death of Jason Todd, creatives would introduce someone into Bruce’s life, only to then cut them out again. Reliving over and over again the root trauma of love and loss that started his War on Crime in the first place. Each new death provides a chilling echo back to the deaths of Thomas and Martha, pushing Bruce further and further away from meaningful connections, still under the guise of “necessity” to his ongoing War.
The more and more Bruce falls away, the higher and higher the walls around his heart become, surrendering fully to the cold calculation of The Batman’s mind and contingency plans. All toward the goal of buffering the man away from his own near constant trauma. Keeping Bruce the person locked in a sort of emotional amber, keeping the man still the scared little boy surrounded by blood and pearls.
While tragic perma-death cycled through his civilian connections (Damian years later; Jason; Silver St. Cloud; Jezebel Jet), Bruce’s heart was always going to end up in Crime Alley. The Bat-Family are at the very least a step in the right direction. They’re a super-community buffeted with love (characters like Barbara and Dick in particular are usually depicted as being hyper-empathetic), and all of them have known loss and experienced the yawning emptiness of spirit it leaves within a person.
But even with their semi-branded support, it does Bruce no good to continue framing his relationships through the mantle of the Bat. Again, The Batman can’t afford friends, only fellow fighters so that is what he surrounds himself with. Lost souls like Jean-Paul Valley, Cassandra Cain, and Stephanie Brown. All of them touched by horror and indoctrination, but given a new purpose after being conscripted into Bruce’s War.
The trouble is, they get more out of this than Bruce. Though they soften him in ways and pull him back from the brink, The Batman’s laser focused mind will never allow him to be more than a commanding officer to them. The True North they need to carry on the legacy of the Bat beyond Bruce, doomed almost to confabulate love once again with service. Just like the man at the center of their found family.
The Batman’s Greatest Enemy is his Mind. For it will not allow him to listen to his Greatest Weapon, His Heart.
Maybe one day the two will finally align and The Batman will become even more than he knew he could be. It is unlikely. As unlikely as a perfect answer to a party trivia game question.
Writer: Jim Starlin
Artist: Jim Aparo
Inker: Mike DeCarlo
Colourist: Adrienne Roy
Letterer: John Costanza
Justin Partridge is a writer and critic who has written for sites including Newsarama, Rogues Portal and DIS/MEMBER. For more, you can find him on twitter here!
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