Content warning: the comic discussed in this essay contains mention of suicide.
By Steve Morris
Batman can be anything that writers want him to be – he’s one of the most well-known and recognised superhero characters ever created. He can be a warm and charming hero who hides in darkness; he can be the most bitter and gothic figure in a collapsed and horrific world. He can be Adam West. Whatever the creative team needs, Batman can be, and its that flexibility which has helped him be the star of some of the most uniquely different stories within a singular comics canon. He can be in a noir; he can experience a mystical quest; he can take on the mob; he can fight gods. Nobody has the range of Batman.
That range exists at the mercy of his writer, for the most part. And in recent years Batman’s been the domain of writers like Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder, and Tom King. And he’s been incredibly depressing for a lot of that time. Batman as pragmatist has always been a feature of the character, but we’ve seen that become his determining factor across the last few years, spilling across into a cynical media landscape that washes out his colour and has him murder people in movies; abandon people in video games; lose himself in the comics industry.
I’m using Batman #12 as an example of this, which is selective cherry-picking: I’ve not read the whole run, I’m making a point based on subjective bias. And you? You love it.
The issue finds Batman making a break into Bane’s prison-island home, chasing after his old foe as well as his former lover, Catwoman, who has apparently betrayed him. The comic is made up almost entirely of double-page spreads, showing Batman’s long, mindless trudge through the prison as he attacks and breaks an entire army of Bane’s minions, slogging from hallway to hallway as we read a letter Batman has written for Selina.
It’s a letter which details his childhood, and his reasoning for becoming Batman. It’s a point which Tom King, the writer, comes back to often during his tenure, and here we see Batman make the case that his choice to be a hero is essentially a choice of character suicide. He has given up on his chance of a life in order to become this thing, this Batman, who will “swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals”.
A big boast. A cool one? A grim one.
Here we have Batman as the hollowed-out remains of Bruce Wayne, who has rededicated himself to breaking bones and “warring” on his enemies. He’s removed himself from his humanity and opportunity to live out a proper life, because apparently this is what you need in order to stop people dressed as clowns from bombing orphanages.
There are so many other stories like this, especially in recent years, where Batman is a compromised figure who offers an alternative to his serial-killer opponents which is barely worth it. Unemotional, grim, brooding, and with every success marred by endless amounts of personal compromise. Expendable friend and allies; and gravestones filling the manor’s gardens. Comics have found more and new reasons to make Batman’s mission pointless in recent years, making his crusade for justice and fairness in Gotham a pathetic goal of a sad and damaged young boy.
But this seems to miss the entire point of Batman’s nature as a power fantasy for readers. We’re not meant to see Batman as the broken billionaire who punishes his enemies rather than offer them financial reform and structural rebuilding. The murderous Batman of the most recent movies; the uncaring Batman of the Arkham Asylum games; the hopelessly beaten-down Batman of the comics… none of these are what Batman is meant to be. At his heart, the fantasy world and idyllic idea of the Batman is:
Batman is a billionaire who actually cares about other people.
That’s the power fantasy within the character, and the optimistic and hopeful – perhaps naive, but that’s the point of a power fantasy – core of what the character could mean for readers. In DC’s comics, there are so many regular people like Alfred, Lois Lane or Jimmy White who could be dwarfed by the near-godlike figures of heroes like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman. But they never stand in the cold shadow of the heroes, because at heart the heroes are heroes. Superman is the strongest force on Earth and Batman is the richest man in America: and they’re both fundamentally decent people who want things to be good; and want things to be better. That’s what the power fantasy is meant to be, no matter how twisted it may have become at various points in time.
It’s a product of the person writing these stories, but Batman doesn’t always have to fall into a singular power fantasy time and time again.
In some comics, the power fantasy has found a better way of expressing itself as decades and society progress onwards. What is the X-Men’s island home of Krakoa other than an expression of the thought: wouldn’t it be nice if marginalised people could simply be allowed to be for a while? Oppression is such a daily part of existence that hey, maybe it would be nice if the X-Men comics could just take their hated and feared mutants and put them in a poetic and creative utopia. Somewhere where they can be free to be themselves, no distractions, and make a life for themselves?
It’s also arguably why there’s such disappointment that this current era doesn’t seem to find room for actualisation of queerness within existing characters: this is a period of time where characters can be themselves, and someone within Marvel’s highest reaches doesn’t want that to mean something for queer readers. No borders, no boundaries… other than those set by editorial.
On the other hand, Batman’s recent years have seen the friendly, positive, and socially conscious character who could appear be replaced by a single-minded force of masculine nature who wants to break skulls and then sit in his fancy mansion and feel sad about it all. The common refrain on social media is “why doesn’t Batman use his money to help people” and the answer is meant to be: because Gotham isn’t meant to be so damn oppressive that money is more important than human kindness and respect. And yet it has become worse and worse over time, as writer after writer has made Batman less of a human and more of a force of nature; a symbolic figure struggling against an endless darkness which will never defeat him, no matter how much it crushes him.
Which is a different sort of power fantasy, I suppose. That repressing bad experiences for long enough will harden you into a force which nothing can shatter.
Maybe that’s just who Batman is and will always be, now. But wouldn’t it be nice to have that not be the only version of Batman we have to experience nowadays? Why does he have to shut out his friends and family all the time, and centralise all his trauma in each and every story he appears in? Batman’s best friend is the nicest man in the world: why can’t Bruce have a tragic backstory as well as a caring and rewarding present-day existence?
Batman #12: I Am Suicide
Written by Tom King
Drawn by Mikel Janin
Inked by Mikel Janin and Hugo Petrus
Coloured by June Chung
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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