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Batman: “He was too big…”

First, a summary of the URL-retrievable texts relevant to this post…

Eve Tushnet inspired the comics blogging community with a thoughtful essay on Watchmen, “Oh, How the Ghost of you Clings!”.

Jim Henley considered the question of what to do with post-Watchmen superheroes other than perform autopsies on the supposed corpse of the genre and proposes the idea of a “literature of ethics”:

  1. “I Watches the Watchmen”
  2. “I Watches the Watchmen II”
  3. “Literature of Ethics Blogging”

David Fiore took his Eve-inspired rereading of Watchmen as an opportunity to clarify his interpretation of certain texts in the superhero genre:

  1. “The Moore Method: ‘I will give you bodies…’”
  2. “Watchmen: For real this time”
  3. “Rorschach Quest”
  4. “Watchmen IV (I think he fights the Russian guy in that one!)”
  5. “Watchmen: The Wind-up”
  6. “Unwinding”

Todd Murray claimed in his own contribution to the saga of Watchmen blogging that “Dark Knight is about getting older in a media culture, where the assumptions are always changing… What happens to values and beliefs when the only rule is change or die.”

Finally, Vaughan wrote a (tragically superficial) essay on insanity, psychology and psychoanalysis in Batman comics, Madness in Gotham, arguing that “madness and badness are often linked in Gotham” and that the origin of “madness” in Batman characters is often connected to “the influence of traumatic experience and pursuit of ‘forbidden knowledge’.”

I think that about covers it. Now, the point is, reading all of that stuff has helped me clarify my thinking about Watchmen’s grim ‘n’ gritty partner in crime, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. As with my New X-Men blogging, I plan to write a series of mini-essays on The Dark Knight Returns, on whatever specific topics I happen to think of.

The Dark Knight Returns is not about placing Batman in political or psychological contexts. OK, but there’s tons of politics and psychology in the text, right? Well, yes, but let’s see just how much Batman is profoundly, permanently and non-transiently affected by attempts to politicize and psychologize him.

Let’s look at those attempts:

  • Lana Lang, practically Batman’s only supporter other than Police Commissioners Jim Gordon and, eventually (and reluctantly and almost only implicitly), Ellen Yindel, is all about Batman as a symbol of empowerment and resistance for victims “of fear, of violence, of social impotence” (p. 66). If due process and civil rights are trampled in the process of the symbol’s creation, too bad.
  • Dr. Bartholomew Wolper gives us Batman as “social disease” (p. 66). The Joker and Two-Face aren’t responsible for their crimes, Batman is—his superhero persona is like a black hole of ego, devouring otherwise innocent, but weak-willed and mentally unstable, people who try to validate their pathetic lives by opposing Batman. (All of the psychoanalyses of the “hero”/”villain” relationship offered by characters in DKR assume that Batman is responsible for his actions while his rogues gallery is not responsible.)
  • The political/power establishment, as represented by Ronald Reagan and enforced by Superman, don’t like Batman because he refuses to play along with them—his only concern is justice, and no law or political reality will get in the way of his pursuing it.

That last point gets at the core of the psychological/political problem with Batman. >Superman says

When the noise started from the parents’ groups and the sub-committee called us in for questioning—you were the one who laughed… that scary laugh of yours… “Sure we’re criminals,” you said. “We’ve always been criminals. We have to be criminals.” (p. 135)

This is important—Batman does not care about fighting crime (if he did, he probably wouldn’t be calling himself a criminal), he cares only for justice. (His thirst for justice is an internalization and abstraction of the experience of the murder of his parents, memorialized obsessively and conflated in his mind with all injustice [p. 24].) This in itself places him beyond the reach of politics.

At any rate, politics and psychology are impotent against Batman. The psychologist characters don’t even try to treat Batman as anything but the corporeal manifestation of others’ psychoses (as I said, Batman is apparently considered mentally stable and responsible for his actions—all characters accept without question that Batman himself is a political problem, that psychology may at best explain his “victims’” responses to him). Representatives of the poltical establishment don’t fare much better. Certainly they eventually manage to drive Batman underground into hiding, but this is hardly a defeat for Batman. He arrives at the narrative’s end no longer obligated to maintain a connection to the socio-political world through his “playboy Bruce Wayne” identity, so he is disconnected from—thus unbeholden to—that socio-political world. He finds himself with a newly acquired army eager to join Batman’s war for justice, which will now be a guerilla war. Most importantly, he seems at peace with himself for the first time.

Now let’s take a short break to see what David Fiore has to say about Rorschach in Watchmen and his relationship to Spider-Man (or, as David later says would be a more appropriate character for comparison, Dr. Strange):

Take Peter Parker, for instance. When we first meet him he’s an ostracized nerd–a nonentity. In more realistic fiction, this type of character only has two options open to him: either he continues to endure social oppression, or he becomes a “somebody” by “standing up for himself”, thus altering the power dynamic in his community. In the actual event–he does neither, thanks to the spider bite. Throughout Ditko’s run, at least, Parker remains the same bookish nerd he’s always been. And yet, his newfound indifference to the power structure that so determined his life before his “conversion experience” enables him to develop actual relationships with other characters… His “adventures in morality”, as Spider-Man, ground him.

But what if that adventure consumed his entire life? Wouldn’t that “grounding” then become something akin to a burial? Parker’s activities as Spider-Man enable him to lead a more genuine life–but those activities themselves are most emphatically not “life”. Web-swinging is more like meditation, or an exorcism–it’s not Peter’s “true self” unleashed. And if he got trapped in that condition, he wouldn’t be a “free spirit”, he’d be more like a wrathful ghost. He’d be like Rorschach, in fact.

Oh, lovely! Compare with The Dark Knight Returns, in which the “burial” that results from allowing your “superhero” identity to consume your “real life” identity becomes literal, as Batman “dies,” is buried, and is “resurrected” as “a wrathful ghost.”

Rose has a theory that superheroes can’t have complete Oedipal trajectories, and I think David alludes to that idea when he talks about “static—or, at least, anti-teleological—narratives” in superhero comics. He also says that Spider-Man (and superheroes in general) needn’t reject the possibility of romantic relationships (which are necessary for the completion of the Oedipal trajectory, obviously) “in order to protect the purity of his ‘mission’–it’s not supposed to be an either/or proposition!” Which is to say, superheroes’ inability to complete the Oedipal trajectory is not caused by an obligation to avoid marriage (or an equivalently committed sexual relationship) for the sake of a “mission.” Rather, it’s caused by the eternally unresolved oscillation between “real life” and “being a superhero” (see, again, David’s quote above). Batman seems to have found a way to complete the Oedipal trajectory, though. Admittedly he’s not particularly married (the closest thing he has is his quasi-sexualized relationship with Robin, which I may analyze more later). Still, it does seem that he’s come to a point of resolution and closure in his life as he thinks, “This will be a good life… good enough” (p. 199).

Well, this barely scratches the surface, but it’s almost 3:00 am here and time for sleep. Next topic: If politicians and psychologists are impotent to judge or do anything about Batman, is there anybody who isn’t impotent?



  1. David Fiore says:

    “is there anybody who isn’t impotent?”

    not if the Viagra e-mail lists are to be taken seriously Steven!

    On Dark Knight: this is interesting stuff, and I’m eager to see where you’re going with it… I think I’ll re-read the book next week and chime in with my reactions. I was not a fan in the eighties–and I’m generally down on Miller–but I think it’s a bout time I revisited the scene of the crime!

    — 9 February 2004 at 3:59 pm (Permalink)

  2. Steven says:

    I like DKR a lot every time I read it, but there are always things I find annoying. This time I found a way to read the ending that fits the rest of the narrative, but I’m still working on some other stuff. As a preview, I’m pretty sure the only characters who are “allowed” to judge Batman are the Joker and Two-Face (and eventually Robin). I’m not sure what to make of that, but these mini-essays are as much about my process of deciding what I think as they are about saying what I think. Any ideas would be welcome, of course!

    — 10 February 2004 at 4:09 am (Permalink)

  3. The Things You Leave Behind v5.01 says:

    Let’s wear jackets with patched elbows and smoke pipes
    Well, now that the fervor is passing, I can provide a single link as a resource… hot on the heels of my Watchmen jab, here’s a new resource: a series of lit-crit essays of “Watchmen” from the blogosphere, just from…

    — 10 February 2004 at 10:28 am (Permalink)

  4. The Forager says:

    Miller vs. Moore: Over at Last
    (Editor’s note: Before reading this abbreviated, tacked-on ending to my series of posts pitting the work of Alan Moore vs. that of Frank Miller, read this introduction and apology. The first two installments of this series are here and here.)…

    — 17 February 2004 at 9:29 pm (Permalink)