Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Breaking Down the Bat: The Appeal of the Caped Crusader and Dynamic Duo

I won't lie to you, Internet. I struggled with this week's topic. Like really struggled. Like it was 4AM on the night before I was supposed to write this before I finally figured out what I was going to write. It's not like I wasn't trying to work it out all week, either; this one seriously evaded me.

But it's here now. Right in Front of you. And damnit, I'm proud of it. I'm not even going to do some bullshit about "here's some cool links I found this week" or something like that, I'm just going to jump straight the hell into it because this demands your attention. First though; Batman hates Ice Cream.

Just...thought that was worth mentioning.
Okay, it's time now. Here we go.

The Appeal of the Caped Crusader and Dynamic Duo

So let me first say that I haven't yet seen Dark Knight Rises as of this writing. It's not that I don't want to, just that I haven't been able to get around to it yet because life is a conscious entity who occasionally hates me. This in mind, that particular film won't play into any sort of analysis here and, in fact, I'm going to mostly try to avoid continuity-specific references on the whole, favoring instead the broader Batman mythos.

Now that that's taken care of...

So, I love Batman.

Like, a lot. 

A lot a lot.

My first exposure to Batman was the 90's animated series and it more or less shaped and cemented how I see Batman and all subsequent characters therein. Kevin Conroy will always be Batman to me, just like Mark Hamill will always be the Joker and I'd be lying if I didn't say that their names are the first thing I check for on any Batman-related project. To this day, I have that entire series on my computer, ready to access at a moment's notice and a box set is on my list of things to buy once I have money to spend on such things. It joins Pokemon in the sense that it's one of those things I hope to never outgrow, so long as I continue to be a living, breathing human being. 

As I have grown up, the series bridged me into other various forms of Bat-media; movies, games, more cartoons, and especially comics. These comics bridged me into other comics and now they get their own shelf. It's a large shelf, but it's beginning to buckle under the weight and I'll be needing a new one, soon.

So, in essence, Batman is responsible for a large chunk of me loving what I love today. I owe him a lot and that's why I was completely taken aback when I was unable to answer a simple question about him; "What about Batman makes you like him so much?"


Quick! Change the topic to Spider-man! He's much easier to analyze!
I did actually have an answer; being in the major I'm in means always having an answer, even if I just made it up on the spot. The answer in question was "Batman's not a superhero; he's just a regular guy. He worked hard to get where he is and that makes him way more relatable." and that got a considered nod of agreement and we started talking about the kind of man it took to name everything he owned after a theme animal. 

My answer niggled at me, though. It niggled all through the conversation and it niggled every time after that when Batman was brought up and it's niggled at me ever since until just a little while ago when I came to an answer. The answer I came up with?

Because he's fucking crazy. 

Not like Joker crazy, or at least not that kind of crazy. He's crazy like someone who experienced severe childhood trauma, but never developed a healthy coping mechanism or solid support structure. To better understand this, let's look at his arch-nemesis, the Joker. 

The Joker's another of of those characters that everyone loves but no one can really put an exact finger on why. Answers range from "Because he just wants to see the world burn" "Because he loves being crazy so much" and "Because he has a deeper layer of unstable self-hate we rarely get to see, but drives his every action." Really. I got that once. Actually, if you're reading Brian Azzarello's Joker, then you're not far off, but that's another matter entirely. Answers for why the Joker is such a popular character range and for good reason; we are almost never given a clear perspective on exactly why the Joker's just the way that he is. We'll occasionally get a version of it in any number of continuities and there's even a Joker origin that's most broadly accepted but in many cases, how he came to be is a total mystery, as if he simply materialized from the ether as an agent of Chaos (Another answer I got, once). Because of this, we get to do something that is popular to do in storytelling, but difficult to do successfully sometimes; we rationalize his character. Because the Joker has no fixed past, we fill in the blanks for what we think would bring a man to that point or, to a greater or lesser extent, what would bring us to that point. 

These things are about all it takes before I start pumping a room full of poison. I don't get invited to New Years parties anymore. 
To this end, we take ownership of the character, almost as much as the person/people who wrote it in the first place. When the Joker kidnaps a bus full of school children in order to crash it into a dildo factory, murdering everyone in the most embarrassing yet no doubt educational way possible, it means more to us because we've essentially been tricked into psychologically investing ourselves in his character. It excites us to be so close to the narrative, especially when, it the Joker's own words, "All it takes to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy is one bad day. That's how far the world is from where I am. One bad day."

There's another concept in writing called foil. A foil is a character which is entirely opposite in nearly every way to another character, usually the protagonist. If it helps, just imagine taking the foil off of chocolate coins; if you did it carefully, the design on the coin remained imprinted in the foil with a reverse or negative of the design on the opposite side. 

Batman and the Joker are nearly perfect foils of one another, seemingly completely by accident. The Joker is Malicious and Murderous, Batman is, ideally, benevolent and refuses to kill, the Joker makes up his own rules as he goes, if he bothers to make them up at all while Batman adheres to a strict ethical code and an intensively methodical daily regimen, the Joker will find a reason to laugh at anything while Batman isn't thought to even possess the ability to smile, let alone the inclination to. Even the way they dress is completely polarized from their counterpart; the Joker taking on a symbol of joy and laughter, satirizing it with his own heinous crimes and Batman using a symbol of fear and darkness as a force of justice and, indeed, hope.

There's one major aspect of their foil that gets overlooked though; the reversal of mystery surrounding their respective characters. We already discussed how the origin of Joker is largely left in mystery but that doesn't mean he stays inconspicuous; obviously he's loud and there to be seen, but is also known to wear his character on his sleeve. The Joker is pure, unfiltered id; who he was becomes overshadowed by who he is and you never have to wonder who the Joker is because, well, there he is.

No, really, there he is. Oh God! Run!
Likewise, Batman mirrors this; his origin is widely known, both in the real world and in Gotham City; even people who are almost wholly unfamiliar with Batman could probably give you at least a rough rundown of how he came to be and within the fiction itself, the death of his parents was widely publicized among Gotham as the death of two of it's greatest philanthropists. As a direct result of these traumatic deaths, he went into seclusion; Bruce Wayne becoming aloof and rarely seen while Batman makes his living in the shadows. From the audience's standpoint, Batman is very emotionally distant; quiet, curt, methodical, and not at all interested in introspection. Any narration in the comics rarely focuses on anything besides the details of the mystery at hand and any character traits are revealed not through his interaction, but lack thereof. Just as the Joker's past was a mystery and this allowed us to invest in him, Batman keeps his present emotional and psychological state a relative mystery, allowing us to see him as we would most like to.

It has been argued before that Batman is a boring character; a silent, brooding template for all the other silent, brooding characters out there for use when the author hopes we'll mistake his inability to write something interesting for a dark past and I would be inclined to agree; by himself, Batman is a completely boring character. Alone, what does Batman do? He solves crimes, beats up bad guys, and somehow narrows the eye holes in his cowl. That's great and all, but it doesn't exactly lend itself to character development. So let me pose a hypothetical to you; if someone had a psychologically damaging childhood and decided to work around it rather than through it; what would be the one thing stopping them from just acting out in an endless cycle of destructive and only tenuously connected motions? Answer; the people who love them and want to see them heal.

Batman by himself is pretty flat, but Batman and Alfred Pennyworth as a stand-in father figure is all the sudden a quiet dynamic with conflicting interests and a bevy of regrets played out in the sidebars of every conversation between them. Batman and his one thing approaching a friendship with Commissioner Gordon is suddenly The Fox and the Hound plus gangsters where no one is ever quite sure who should be fighting who. More than all of them though; the most revealing and most important relationship Batman has is with his oft-maligned, seldom-pantsed sidekick Robin.

These shorts give a much more flexible range of motion and a far superior view of that sweet, sweet ass. 
Now, I'll be the first to admit that the introduction of Robin was really mostly a marketing thing over a narrative thing; editors wanted more kids to pick up the comic, so what did they do? They put a kid in it. Their way of saying "Hey kids! Show off those supple legs and you too could be in the employ of a reclusive, psychologically-damaged manchild!"

To date, if any fan of Batman is unhappy with Batman, as a continuity, it's probably because of the inclusion of Robin. It's not hard to see why, either; he totally flies in the face of any sense of brooding or seriousness with his one-liners and spritely acrobatics, his costume and name seem to be an afterthought, and the pedophilic connotations of the entire relationship, while unintended, are just so obviously right there that even I have a hard time snatching some of its low-hanging fruit. All of these things are completely true, and it could be successfully argued that, because of these things, Robin takes away from Batman as a character and I'd say you're only half right. If Robin really did make Batman a weaker, more nonsensical character, then he very likely would have been removed already; simply axed like so many of the crazy ideas from that period, not unlike Bat-Mite. Like the Joker, however, Robin was reworked from a silly idea to crux of characterization; these factors do rob Batman of some of his intended dark punch (of darkness) but these very same factors bring to light a person, a real human being, underneath the persona of Batman which Bruce Wayne worked so hard to create.

For the uninitiated; a brief backstory of Robin. Robin's real name is Dick Grayson, youngest and only son of a family of acrobats. Unfortunately, their circus owed the mob money (Because hey, Gotham is kind of a shit hole, after all) and decided to punish the circus for not paying by sabotaging the Flying Grayson's act, killing both of Dick's parents. Bruce Wayne, being a reasonable, well-balanced adult, decided that the best thing to do would be to adopt this young boy he'd never met before, train him up to be a vigilante as well and have him join Batman in his fight against crime. Thus; Robin.

A fully mature Batman can give birth to up to four sidekicks every spawning season.
Now, let's look at this critically. If you were someone who suffered a traumatizing childhood incident for which you held yourself personally responsible and avoided trying to right your own guilt by punching your guilt out of the world at large, what would you do if you witnessed a young boy lose his parents in a manner strikingly similar to how you lost yours? You'd help him in whatever way you could. That being said, how you helped him depends entirely on how much of the above paragraph holds true for you. Bruce Wayne could have seen to it that Dick got adopted into a loving, supportive foster family, gotten a great education, and, as Batman, seen to it that Dick's parents didn't die in vain. Had that happened, He may well have turned out to become a perfectly normal, happy individual who could live the life Bruce never had.

Instead, Batman did the only thing he knew how to do; taught him to channel his inexpressible grief and loss into a simmering vengeance to weaponize in a never-ending crusade on crime, ensuring that he'd never have another shot at a normal, productive life. It's like watching someone who grew up with an abusive dad resort to beating their kids because it's all they ever knew. Batman is like a plumber trying to fix a leaky pipe with a hacksaw; it won't help no matter what he does with the saw, but it's all he's got so damnit, he's going to use it. He wants to "Fix" Dick but his inability to come to terms with his own issues prohibits that and this shapes just about everything not only about Robin, but about Batman's relationship with him.

Those points we covered earlier that take away from Batman's mystique? They all point towards someone who never emotionally matured to the point of psychopathy; it doesn't matter that robins have almost nothing to do with bats; they're close enough to a kid with similarly developed creative faculties. The fact that he's got a ten-year-old boy doing advanced gymnastics in a speedo doesn't strike him as strange because he never developed sexually, nor the social skills to recognize socially inappropriate situations. It  doesn't matter that Robin's not as brooding or serious as Batman because now he's got someone else to help him rationalize his lifestyle, never mind that someone is basically a kid who thinks this is the best game ever. Essentially, Robin is walking catharsis.

"Uh oh, Robin, it's the police! Time for hide and seek!"
Needless to say, the "Fixing" portion of their relationship is entirely one-sided. Batman constantly pushes Robin to be better; chiding him for carelessness when he fails to live up to his sometimes herculean standards. Robin let's Batman keep up the illusion that he's doing a normal, reasonable thing and in exchange, all Robin has to do is train tirelessly, work the oddest of hours, and devote his life to a crusade for justice he likely would never have entered into had a strange man not told him it was the right thing to do at age ten. Emotionally, Batman is using Robin, not unlike how a psychopath uses people to get their way. This is especially apparent when Dick grows up, moves to Bl├╝dhaven, downriver, and starts going by a new pseudonym, Nightwing. Batman, no longer able to utilize Robin for rationalization, stops returning his calls, offers little to no support, and, to top it all off, goes out and finds a new Robin in Jason Todd, with whom the cycle continued.

And then Jason Todd died.

And then he found a new Robin. Again. Seriously.

Jason Todd's death was kind of a landmark moment for Batman for two reasons; one, it was a story decision decided by readers voting whether or not to have him killed off (overwhelmingly yes) and two, it was the first time Batman appeared to visibly care about anyone other than his dead parents. That doesn't seem to fit his profile so far though, does it? The one I've spent the last few thousand words building up about him using everyone around him to perpetuate a sort of dream world where he can fix everything by punching bad guys, committing embezzlement to buy sweet gadgets, and emotionally abusing his loved ones to justify it all. Consider this; Batman let's Jason's death hang over him in the very same way his parents deaths did; it's his fault, he wasn't good enough. He tried to fix Jason and only ended up breaking him.

While a normal, balanced individual would look at Jason's death and think "Look at what I've done, I need to hang up the cowl, this is getting people hurt and killed" he thinks "Look at what I've done, now I have to be Batman harder" He uses Jason's death as further justification to continue on; effectively cutting the need for a physical Robin out of the equation (not like that stops him).

So in short; why do we love Batman? We love him because he is a deeply, deeply flawed character who does everything he possibly can to hide those flaws, just as we would. We love the Joker because he mirrors those flaws, crystallizes and antagonizes them. We love Robin and the rest of the supporting cast because they expose, traverse, and drown in those flaws. Thus is the secret catharsis of Batman.

Thank you, Goodnight.

Before we go, I'd like to point out that this analyzes strictly the darker, post-Burton Batman and hardly at all touches on the goofier original Batman. That's just about a whole 'nother post. 

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