Batman fans must avoid thinking about many things. Some are thuddingly obvious, like how one guy can’t possibly be the world’s greatest detective and an unbeatable martial artist and a master of disguise and know every square foot of downtown Gotham City and run a multi-billion dollar megacorporation and – yeah, whatever, bored now. Nobody questions Batman’s ludicrously comprehensive skill set because it’s beside the point. That’s what we want Batman to be, so he just is, okay?
The really unthinkable ideas aren’t merely conventions of the superhero genre, either. Consider masks: In comics, if you wear a mask, nobody can tell who you are. Real-world masks don’t work that well, but if you don’t assume that convention, the whole premise falls apart. Likewise, Batman comics have been published for 71 years; he fought Nazi spies in World War II, yet Bruce Wayne is still about 35 (albeit currently dead). So what? Might as well complain people in a fight wouldn’t have time to speak all the text in their word balloons.
Longtime Batman fans may suspect “unthinkable” refers to the goofball Golden Age stories featuring Bat-Woman and Bat-Dog and the other-dimensional imp Bat-Mite – the era when the Caped Crusader dodged giant Lincoln pennies and robot tyrannosaurs, fought on colossal typewriters, visited other planets and traveled through time. Nope! Far from shunning those lovably corny yarns, some Batman writers today still find them inspiring. Grant Morrison, Serious-est of All Serious British Comics Writers, wrote a 2008 “R. I. P.” storyline that inventively refashioned Bat-Mite and the silly 1958 “Zur-En-Arrh” idea, and he’s planning a time-travel storyline, “The Return of Bruce Wayne,” inspired by other ’50s madness. Bring it on.
(A friend who read a draft of this piece suspected I meant the cliché of homoerotic tensions between Batman and his current Boy Wonder – a notion that also dates from the 1950s, in Frederic Wertham’s notorious anti-comics tract Seduction of the Innocent. In all honesty, this never crossed my mind because – news flash – it’s stu-u-u-pid, completely unsupported by the evidence.)
No, the truly unthinkable thoughts – the ones that annoy fans viscerally – arise from the Batman character premise taken on its own terms, in full faith and respect, with the best and most charitable will.
1. Bruce Wayne, Party Animal
Think of Bruce, impeccably playing the society airhead. He’s always attending swanky Gotham charity balls (never mind that super-villains have raided so many of these affairs that people would soon stop attending). He’s a male Paris Hilton – which is a genuinely brilliant disguise, by the way. Would you believe Paris Hilton fights crime?
At these parties, Bruce makes empty-headed gossip until he’s convinced everyone he’s an idiot. How does he come up with this chatter? Obviously, he has to study it. Though we’re never shown this, he must have a clipping service prepare dossiers of pop-culture events, which he skims in the limo as Alfred drives him to the party. The Darknight Detective, as part of his holy war against Gotham’s underworld, reads all about society debs and Jay Leno and American Idol. His bat-computer tracks Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Batman, sitting in the Batcave, diligently memorizing this month’s Playboy Party Jokes – you don’t want to picture that, do you?
2. Bruce the Playboy
At the party Bruce invites at least one beautiful starlet to go back with him to Wayne Manor. In a 1980s interview published in a Batman comic, longtime writer/editor Denny O’Neil explained what happens next: Bruce lets all the paparazzi take his picture with the lady hanging on his arm, escorts her to his limo, has Alfred drive them a few blocks, then pleads a headache. He makes his apologies, gets the gorgeous babe a cab, goes off to fight crime and never thinks about her again. Night after night after night. As O’Neil put it, “Bruce Wayne gets a lot of headaches.”
Bruce Wayne’s social life is a continual exercise in seduction, arousal and dismissal. He charms a sexy woman into going home with him, hugs and caresses her publicly. She’s agog, about to spend the night with a handsome billionaire … then bam! Out on the sidewalk, see you later. This is Bruce’s most common interaction with women. Creepy.
What strikes us isn’t the routine, callous manipulation; Batman is all about callous manipulation. And anyway, starlets? Who cares? Nor do we dread the prospect these socialites would realistically compare notes and start speculating publicly about Wayne’s sexuality. They never will because, again, that’s just another story convention.
No, what’s creepy is a healthy, athletic heterosexual man who persuades entire job-lots of Gotham City’s most desirable women to fall on their back, then walks away, repeatedly, unconsummated. It explains how he sustains the rage to keep beating up muggers.
3. The Mission
Many oddities of Batman’s methods arise not from genre conventions but from sensible commercial motives. Though it’s heroic that Batman never kills Two-Face, this mercy also lets the writers bring Two-Face back in later issues. Batman wears his ridiculous costume so DC Comics can trademark his distinctive likeness. He can safely let a Boy Wonder charge headlong into gunfire because DC’s licensing department needs Robin alive. (Well, one Robin or another, anyway. They’re on number four or five now, depending on how you count them.) Bruce Wayne could spend a small fraction of his fortune to buy off all the crooks in Gotham, set them up in nice apartments with a monthly stipend and make the streets safe overnight – or he could pop up to the Fortress of Solitude and say “Clark, mind tackling this little problem?” – but then (duh!) there’d be no more Batman stories.
Similarly, many readers, and even some Batman writers, have speculated the Bat’s very existence prompts crazed criminals to take on outlandish identities and commit ever more bizarre crimes. (See, for instance, EcoComics on “Game Theory, Signaling and Comic Book Crime.“) If this is true, isn’t he part of the problem? This is fun brain-candy, but again, Batman’s true purpose isn’t fighting crime – it’s starring in more and better Batman stories. Fair enough so far.
Yet even recognizing corporate intellectual-property imperatives, a sympathetic reader must still avoid close scrutiny of Batman’s motives and methods. This genius psychologist and criminologist, who has repeatedly out-thought every other superhero in the DC Universe, still can’t get past the decades-old trauma of his parents’ murder. And though he could neutralize most opponents harmlessly, he instead terrifies and assaults them. Does this approach work, even in the comics? Seems like all it does, best-case, is drive the crooks out of Gotham, offloading the crime problem onto other cities. Still, we accept all this because we want Batman to be obsessive and sadistic.
The unthinkable thought, though – the damning observation – is his choice of targets. When he’s not foiling some super-villain’s plot to turn everyone in Gotham bright blue, Batman fights muggers, hit men, drug gangs – minor-league hoods all – and the occasional crimelord. This is small-scale retail crimefighting, penny-ante stuff. Why no Wall Street derivatives traders? Directors of tobacco companies? Corrupt Treasury officials? Fraudulent researchers for Big Pharma or the chemicals industry? These individuals create misery on a scale the Joker has never imagined. Trouble is, these villains represent, or serve, multinational corporations – and Batman is wholly owned by the world’s largest entertainment conglomerate, Time Warner, Inc.
Here’s a billionaire crouching all night in a dark, stinking tenement hallway, waiting to beat the crap out of some nameless junkie. Is there a better metaphor for class conflict? In that war, make no mistake: Batman works for the other side.
Let’s not think about it, though. After all, there’s plenty of other comic absurdities to ponder. For example, if Wonder Woman has a villain in her magic lasso so he’s compelled to speak truth, why doesn’t she interrogate him about other villains’ plans? If Zatanna casts magic by speaking her spells backwards, are guys named Bob and Otto immune? And the Flash – don’t get me started on the Flash!