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Why the World Needs Batman
Batman is a mirror reflecting society's darkness and thirst for justice
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2008-07-01 06:32 (KST)   
This article was only lightly edited.  <Editor's Note>

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The dark is a sinister and dangerous place. Have you dared to be alone in that place, and unafraid? Because out there, in the cesspool that is the city, the mobs are growing, the filth begins to stick to the jeweled skyscrapers, tarring them, turning them to black. While apathy and blame infects the common citizens, crime begins to breed, like a black flame engulfing the timbers of good men.

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Every day the poor and the weak cry out against the growing sweep of darkness, but their lamb-like bleats are choked by bear-like roars and the maniacal cackling of a screwed up world losing its mind. Will you go alone into the dark, and make a difference? Will you help us?

Instead of altruism there is only an aging, ineffectual population heading towards decrepitude. When more and more people are made to become poor and desperate, more and more become criminals. Somewhere in the darkness are hints of the dissolution of America, cracks appearing on the mighty machine-heart that drives commerce in our world. Will faceless technology save us from a dark dystopia? Are there really such big differences between men?

The setting becomes increasingly bleak, the shadows lengthen, and the only way to make sense of it all is to compartmentalize some of the madness. Now that inner conflict begins, and starts to cause a schism. That is all. Just a small schism, a small incision, in the inner psyche and its echoes and so the whispers of another an inner disassociated dialogue is born.

Mad World

When skyscrapers are reduced to dust, when people begin to burn around you -- can we still pretend that anything makes sense?

"That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day."
--Batman: The Killing Joke, 1988

Bad Day

For Batman, that bad day takes place when Bruce Wayne is a small child. Tragedy strikes when the little boy sees his parents gunned down in Gotham's "Crime Alley." Thomas Wayne's testimony against a gangster provokes the killing services of Jo Chill. Chill, recruited by a crime lord, is a petty thief suffering in the growing economic depression that is gripping Gotham's streets. There and then the child vows "by the spirits of my parents [I will] avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals."

Formative Years

Six years after the death of his parents, Bruce travels to Europe. He visits Cambridge, spends time at the Sorbonne in Paris and studies at the Berlin School of Science. He also experiences the hard life on the streets, where he gets to understand to some extent the plight of the poor as petty criminals. He also spends time in a jail in the Orient. Some stories include a season at the Federal Bureau of Investigation before Bruce finally returns to Wayne Manor to begin to fulfilling his dark destiny.

In Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Bruce joins a League of Shadows and is trained in martial arts. When he defects he returns home (despite having been officially pronounced dead) and begins to place an extension of himself in mutual opposition to this underworld force, which is something like a highly organized terrorist force. It can be argued that Batman's methods of tackling one crime lord at a time are something like America's idealistic (but ineffectual) vigilantism against evil/terrorists in Iraq.

Batman and Uncle Sam

Batman and Bruce Wayne (and the USA) might have been more effective in their fight against crime (terrorism) by adopting a less confrontational strategy, and instead focusing on strategic philanthropic investments. Efforts to uplift, efforts to support charities and NGO's working to educate, enable and empower communities. It is possible that Bruce Wayne's charities do this, but Batman is required as an additional force to curb the spread of violence directly -- which is extreme in Gotham; there are rampaging gangs and mobs running amuck through the streets.

The comic books understandably focus on a violent struggle against these criminal groups and their manic leaders, but as such, Batman's involvement leads to an escalation of violence and of villain. Batman's motivations may be to work himself out of a job, but instead his efforts require, eventually, his undivided attentions as Batman.


Is Batman motivated solely by revenge? If so, surely killing the killers of his parents would have given him the satisfaction he was seeking. In the June/July 1948 Chill in Batman #47, the child's resolve is put to the test. Batman seizes Chill, but Chill's own men kill their leader, having found out that he was the cause for Batman's ruinous crusade against crime.

Frank Miller's version has a young Bruce Wayne waiting outside the courtroom with a gun, but an assassin hired by the mobster Falcone gets to Chill first. Later Bruce Wayne meets Falcone, who informs Bruce that Chill and he were cellmates once, and that Chill bragged that Thomas Wayne "begged like a dog" before his death. Falcone manufactures this epithet to intimidate the young Bruce Wayne. Instead of shallow motivations based on vengeance, Batman's purpose becomes deeper and braver, and one we can empathize with: he is attempting to prevent anyone else from ever experiencing what he had to go through as a child.

The tragedy in the alley -- it is now abundantly clear -- leads to a Damascus Moment. The child's decision shapes the entire life to follow, and the simple stories that follow involve the battles of good against the evil that are seen to permeate society.

In her article "Postmodernism and the Batman Phenomenon," Monica Hafer writes: "To survive, the times demanded a righteous sense of us vs. them. In Batman's world as well, the demarcation line between good and evil was clearly drawn."

The hero triumphing over obvious evil addresses society's deep seated fears which were particularly manifest when Batman was first introduced (1939 presented the combat theatre's opening skirmishes before the Second World War) and later, when Batman's star rose to successive Zenith's (the first Persian Gulf War in the early '90s and the present Persian Gulf War, which started in 2003). Happier times saw comics in general struggle, but two fared better than most because Batman and Superman were able to change as times changed.

Camp Phase

One of the happiest and most tricky periods for Batman was the '60s. In order to avoid termination, Batman endured the ignominy of camp. Alfred was killed off, Aunt Harriet was shipped in as a motherly replacement, sidekicks were added (Robin, Batwoman and Batgirl) and the mythos was made lighter, happier and more family-oriented. It was not Batman, but the mainstream loved it.

"There's no escape. It is all over the place. Madness! Supermadness! The entertainment world offers it on all sides, and the public gobbles it up. Batman conquers TV. Kids swing Batman capes in the backyard, and Bat products are everywhere."
--Life magazine, March 11

"When the spacecraft Gemini 8, with astronauts Neil Armstrong and David Scott aboard, was forced to make an emergency landing [in 1966], ABC interrupted "Batman" to cover the unfolding news story. The interruption caused public outrage from viewers Telephones in New York and Los Angeles were flooded for hours with complaints.
--Trivia Library.com


Toward the end of the Vietnam War, this light-hearted camp style became a dead end for the Batman franchise, and Batman once again was re-invented, but this time, he became a darker character, with many of the original elements brought back, and reinforced. Robin, by popular vote, was killed off. The evolution culminated in Frank Miller's Batman, which brought a 55-year -old Batman out of retirement in The Dark Knight Returns (1986); this was seven difficult years after the Iranian Revolution in real time. Miller's Bruce Wayne decides to "turn fear against those who prey on the fearful" (Batman Begins). Interestingly, for a man dedicated to fighting crime, Batman does not carry a gun, or lethal weapons of any kind. But the weapon he does employ, and in fact embodies, is the instrument of fear. It is no accident then that Batman should enjoy his most popular support when the world is unusually gripped by fearful insecurities.

How do people respond to fear? The boy that becomes Batman has a simple yet profound response to the death of his parents: a powerful sense of duty that manifests as both consequence and causality, something not often seen in comics and seldom espoused as part of our contemporary culture. The boy turns the tragic death of his parents into a life's work, the way some people decide to become doctors, teachers or professional tennis players. Bruce becomes a forensic detective, and obviously, a whole lot more.

Bruce Wayne's mission to save the city is Christ-like in some ways, but it is also a bloodier, more violent version of his father's work. This crucial departure from his father's philanthropy has unsettling consequences, not least of all, for the Dark Knight himself.

"O wild and wondrous midnight, There is a might in thee."
--James Russell Lowell, "Midnight"

Discordant Reality

When the line between good and evil blurs what we are left with is dark, often discordant reality. Bruce Wayne deals with the dark's blurry dissonance by getting into a costume, a dark shape with pointed ears and jagged lines, and mirroring the violence of the perpetrators he pursues. It bothers some that this man dresses like a bat. Batman's schizophrenia may stem from the fact that he was created by two men, and there is a legacy of one, Bill Kane, denying the other credit. Did the same thing happen between Batman and Bruce? Or did Batman make up his mind as a child, and has been trapped by childish wishes for power and control over others ever since? Worse, are we childish to be fascinated by him?

Batman Mythos

The writer of Batman: Detective Comics, Chuck Dixon interprets the Batman mythos as follows: "I think that, because he suffered his great trauma as a child, he reacted as a child. Putting on a costume, fighting crime at night in the guise of an animal -- that is part of what makes him so enduring, but it is such a simple, childish reaction to what happened to him. He responded in that horrible moment and it set the course for his life: I will not be afraid; I will become scarier than they are. It was the wish of a child."

The fact that Batman's gadgets, his over-the-top batmobile, batboat, and batwing, are sometimes referred to as his "toys" (especially by the Joker), reinforce this image of a dark, intimidating child-man.

At first glance we might applaud Bruce's application of justice-vigilantism through his alter ego. Except that the playboy and the philanthropist remains troubled throughout his life. Does his dabbling with the darkness of Batman become a cage for all the conflicted feelings of his youth? Or does Batman allow those feelings to be released?

The postmodern mind attempts to deal with a world that is fragmenting, disassembling and disconnecting either by doubting reality or by conveniently employing disassociating or compartmentalizing cognitive processes. Compartmentalizing is a defense mechanism. It allows the mind to function by shutting off certain processes (and memories). We do this every day, by blocking out bad news.

The incontrovertible result is a perception of reality that becomes dualistic. It could be this, but then again, it could also be that. Compartmentalizing and disassociating interrupts the process of causality and consequence, and even accountability and responsibility. Hence, postmodern men might feel untroubled by habitual anti-social behaviors -- such as consuming hardcore porn -- and next finding themselves behaving like perfect gentlemen with their girlfriends.

Coping Strategy

How does Bruce cope? He is antisocial, he keeps up some measure of appearances as a gracious host, but it is obvious that he prefers his own company in order to brood. Did Bruce disassociate to such an extent that he developed a dual personality? In virtually all the recent Batman movies, we see Bruce experiencing flashbacks. He is still obviously troubled by the long ago barbs of the past. Is this a sign of a mental disorder?

Sure enough, Batman's creators saw fit to add Arkham Asylum into the mythos, a place where not only the insane but the criminally insane end up (and often escape). Arkham Asylum's alter ego is Wayne Manor. And even the manor itself is built on dark and hollow foundations; the site is condemned by the municipal authorities for its chronic sinkhole problems.

And like many men, Bruce Wayne spends inordinate amounts of time down there, in his cave sunk below ground, below what we can see, and this transforms him. How? Revenge has taken over his whole life. It cannot be healthy when dark obsessions consume a man. This does not convey heroism, but a mental disorder.

Letting Go

Why did Bruce Wayne not simply let go of the pain he endured? Instead, he allowed it to consume him, overcoming his whole life. Is this failure to let go his undoing? Our fascination with this fatal flaw reveals the extent of Batman's darkness in us. Some 1.2 percent (or 3.2 million) of the US population are suffering from bipolar disorder. The disorder is characterized by:

1. Increased energy and restlessness.
2. Being easily distracted.
3. Little sleep needed.
4. Unrealistic beliefs in one's abilities and powers.
5. Poor judgment.
6. Spending sprees.
7. A lasting period of behavior that is different from usual.
8. Increased sexual drive.
9. Abuse of drugs, particularly cocaine, alcohol, and sleeping medications.
10. Provocative, intrusive, or aggressive behavior.
11. Denial that anything is wrong.

While some points explain Batman's behavior, arguably, many do not.

The Most Heroic Superhero

Alan Grant, a creative contributor for Batman: Shadow of the Bat calls Batman one of the most heroic characters ever created. Batman has no superhuman skills; he is a mortal man trying to address the problems on his community. Grant says he is perhaps the only genuine hero amongst all of them. People say Batman is this dark, vengeance-driven, obsessed character, but that's not Batman in my eyes. That is just the fuel that drives Batman but what makes him Batman is a decision. He took a decision to be a good guy. He is a self-made character. He did not get superpowers, he is not a cyborg; he made a choice to be what he is. What defines his character is his decision to do something.

"He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster."
--Friedrich Nietzsche

And so how does a mortal man become a superhero, or a monster? It is not just the mask and the fear factor that give Batman his advantage. His suitably armored costume reflects a society's penchant for high-tech state of the art gadgets. These sophisticated weapons systems are based on Bruce Wayne's scientific intellect and access to the world's most secret military weapons (Wayne Industries sells armaments to the US Department of Defense).

Batman's weaponry -- gas capsules, a rebreather, monofilament cord jumplines, batarangs and grapnels -- are docked in his utility harness. His points-weighted cape and the suit are lined with triple-weave Kevlar, and both are covered in fire-resistant Nomex. He has a radio link to the Batcave and night vision inserted in his cowl. And once Batman is prepped and in uniform, he enters the bleak and menacing backdrop of Gotham's shadow world, with its cathedrals, tall sparkling spires and labyrinthine alleyways. Batman's modus operandi is to scare the bejesus out of his opponents, and when he engages with them, he often cripples or disfigures them for life.

The Dark Drug

For Bruce Wayne, Batman is a drug, a fiery being that consumes him, as Monica Hafer explains. "The pressure to take action against the social chaos is unbearable. [Bruce] says of his Batman identity, 'He tricks me when the night is long and my will is weak. He struggles, relentlessly, hatefully, to be free."

And Bruce is addressed directly in the comic by his Batman persona, who says to him, "You are nothing -- a hollow shell, a rusty trap that cannot hold me -- smoldering, I burn you -- burning you, I flare, hot and bright and beautiful -- you cannot stop me -- not with wine or vows or the weight of age -- you cannot stop me but still you try -- still you run" Only an adult mind could truly appreciate those feelings of age and of the longing that is expressed here for the vigor of youth.

Why the World Needs Batman

The world needs Batman because it shares the deep black bruises of a painful past. We are voyeurs in his violent vigilantism. We dwell in dark fantasies where fears of the future are bullied into the shadows. But it is our very failure to let go of past pain that lie beneath our fears of the future. If Batman epitomizes fear, then surely there is nothing to fear but Batman -- in fact, what we fear to face in ourselves. And what do we fear except the painful past.

Batman is not the champion of fear that he pretends to be; rather he is the victim of his failure to deal with personal pain. A painful experience as a child became an all-consuming obsession. And as the world becomes more fearful, Batman's darkness spreads deeper into each of us. We cannot let go of what has happened to us, and in the dark of our hearts, anger and fear and unforgiveness start their shadowy journey into the streets of the world.
For more about the writer, visit www.nickvanderleek.com.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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