Batman Beyond

Going to geek out a bit here, so skip to the next entry (whenever that comes) if that’s not your kind of thing.

There’s a good short piece by Allen Varney at The Escapist about some basic story-telling problems of the character Batman: Bruce Wayne’s weirdly repressed sexuality and closet misogyny, but also the mismatch between his motivations, his capabilities and his mission. It’s not impossible to tell a good story about the character that explores some of this schtick rather than takes it for granted.

When it’s played right, for example, the Wayne character’s rejection of real emotional and sexual intimacy reminds me of Patrick McGoohan’s take on super-spy John Drake, a kind of icy intellectual Catholicism that aims for mastery of the self through denial and reserve. There are some real-world historical individuals who might serve as models, but most of the examples I can think of were also obsessive, intense and arguably unbalanced.

The same goes for the contradictions of Batman’s war on crime. Here’s a character with massive financial resources and considerable technical and intellectual knowledge whose main response to crime is to dress up in a costume and beat up street-level thugs. From time to time, creative people working with the character try to think this through a bit more thoroughly, but whether it’s Sam Hamm or Christopher Nolan, that effort arrives at the same place: the character is a bit (or more than a bit) crazy.

That’s a very precarious position to maintain for a franchise that wants the character in Happy Meals as well as in the graphic novels section of

One of my consistent fascinations as a cultural historian is how a felt and intuitive knowledge of past cultural and social moments gets embedded inside of long-running or recycled cultural properties. Batman (and most other comic-book and pulp characters from the time of his original appearance) draws a lot of his basic storytelling and setting from a moment when middle-class and working-class Americans were enmeshed in a complex national encounter with crime, law enforcement, corruption and Prohibition: a helpless frustration that the state couldn’t control organized violence and illegal commerce combined with a thrill at the lurid spectacle of gangster criminality and in more than a few cases, direct participation in an illicit economy of leisure that exposed the ludicrousness of middle-class respectability. One of the commenters on the Varney article very incisively observes that the result is that the Batman character is forever trapped fighting “Italian-American gangsters in pinstripe suits and crazy circus folk”. Much as I think Spider-Man’s basic setting is more or less marked by a perpetual return to the way criminality and urban life were represented in popular media in New York during the late 1960s and 1970s.

So the real question is not, “How do you fix Batman”? You don’t. As a character, he is what he is, and he’s got more renewability and plasticity than many superheroic or pulp-fiction characters. My question is more, “When will we have a pulp character with a similarly catchy look and schtick, with a similarly generative storytelling engine, who is rooted in the national experience of early 21st criminality and corruption”?

Pulp vigilantes of the 1930s were all about countering the flamboyant spectacle of gangster criminality with equal extravagance on one hand, but also about the fantasy of an equal and opposite individual response to that criminality outside of the ponderous and frequently compromised apparatus of government law enforcement. In a way, they allowed readers to imagine an extra-historical moral position that didn’t require either feigning tight-lipped loyalty to temperance or naive trust in municipal police forces while also appreciating the allure of Dillinger or Capone.

So where is our contemporary Batman or Shadow or Doc Savage or Dick Tracy to counter Dennis Kozlowski, Kenneth Lay, or Joseph Cassano, our 21st Century Prunefaces and Jokers, a character born not from the trauma of a street crime mugging but of a family or town destroyed by unaccountable individuals and institutions? It’s time for a new cycle of mythmaking even as we continue to enjoy the recycling of old ones.

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12 Responses to Batman Beyond

  1. Roxie says:

    If Damages were a comic or a cartoon, I’d argue that Patty Hewes plays this role. She fights very 21st-century criminals — This season she’s up against a Bernie Madoff-style con artist, trying to get back some of the billions he stole from unsuspecting investors. The show is pretty pulpy, even without bat or cat costumes, I’d say. And Patty is, like Bruce Wayne, her own puzzling stew of psychic mysteries and moral ambiguities.

  2. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    hmm. How about Lenin? He is long dead, posseses an excellent iconography, and now that Marxism is intellectually bankrupt there is no messy doctrine to interpret or get in the way. Lots of opportunity for a crime-fighting, capitalist bashing, commie outsider to do some good.

  3. Western Dave says:

    What, Buffy doesn’t do it for you?

  4. MMGood says:

    I was going to say the same thing as Western Dave. Following what you say, Buffy was forced to become a hero by an unaccountable organization–the Council–which she followed but ultimately rebelled against. The character has proven protean–appearing in movies, TV, comics, books, and of course all across the internet.

  5. benjb says:

    So where is our contemporary Batman or Shadow or Doc Savage or Dick Tracy to counter Dennis Kozlowski, Kenneth Lay, or Joseph Cassano, our 21st Century Prunefaces and Jokers, a character born not from the trauma of a street crime mugging but of a family or town destroyed by unaccountable individuals and institutions?

    My first impulse is to point you to the opening of The Grapes of Wrath, where a man on a bulldozer faces down a man who is losing his farm and can’t decide who to shoot:

    “It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do. I’ll lose my job if I don’t do it. And look??uppose you kill me? They’ll just hang you, but long before you’re hung there’ll be another guy on the tractor, and he’ll bump the house down. You’re not killing the right guy.”

    “That’s so,” the tenant said. “Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him. He’s the one to kill.”

    “You’re wrong. He got orders from the bank. The bank told him, ‘Clear those people out or it’s your job.'”

    “Well, there’s a president of the bank. There’s a board of directors. I’ll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank.”

    The driver said, “Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, ‘Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up.'”

    “But where does it stop? Who can we shoot?”

    Put that way, 1939 sounds a lot like what you’re pointing to in 2009, right? Certainly I think you’re right about Batman’s war on crime filling the desire for an extra-state solution that’s still on the state’s side while using the extravagant methods of the anti-state actors–but today, that sounds like a description of black-site torture in the defense of democracy. Given that, I wonder if interest in a new cycle of mythmaking might be difficult.

    Or maybe it points us to where certain contemporary mythic heroes might be found: Jack Bauer. But Jack Bauer isn’t just a heroic guy (although he’s that, too)–he’s a member of a team. (OK, so I’ve never seen 24, so if I’m wrong, I’ll have to change this.) And if we look not so much for superheroes, but for superhero teams, I think we find several on the air right now: non-state actors fighting evil using occasionally non-state means; I’m thinking about Leverage; the new Human Target, in some ways; maybe even the upcoming A-Team movie?

  6. Cosma says:

    So where is our contemporary Batman or Shadow or Doc Savage or Dick Tracy to counter Dennis Kozlowski, Kenneth Lay, or Joseph Cassano, our 21st Century Prunefaces and Jokes, a character born not from the trauma of a street crime mugging but of a family or town destroyed by unaccountable individuals and institutions? It?? time for a new cycle of mythmaking even as we continue to enjoy the recycling of old ones.

    I would in all seriousness suggest Leverage as at least a beginning to this, including the fact that the vigilante is an ad-hoc group.

  7. Bill McNeill says:

    They’re not superheroes per se, but Krik, Spock, et al. are 1960s characters who appear to fit the bill. The original TV series embodied a idealistic liberal militarism that now seems very much of its moment (or least very much of the Kennedy administration that came a few years before), but the Star Trek universe has endured long past this era and lent itself to extensive reinvention.

  8. G. Weaire says:

    If Bill McNeill can throw in Kirk and Spock, I’ll throw in the Doctor in his revived version since 2005. The Doctor more-or-less is a superhero, especially nowadays – the most fantastic superpower of all would be the ability to have, under any circumstances, exactly the right piece of knowledge.

    One of the more prominent recurrent themes of the new series, especially the first two years, has been the shabby, morally compromising, effects of “business as usual”, especially in powerful institutions (but at its most bleak, in ordinary life itself).

  9. withywindle says:

    As noted above, malefactors of great wealth have been hate figures to those of a certain political inclination for generations, or centuries; they tend to make dull villains, certainly for a mass audience. What resonates today? V for Vendetta has some legs — got filmed and all — and anarchist revolt lends itself to a popular audience both left and right. I’m not sure I would expect new pulp archetypes to emerge once an initial generation has achieved brand dominance: easier to reinvent the old characters, and no less artistry is involved. (“Improvisation on a theme,” not “recycling.” Comics are jazz. Or the Matter of Britain, which “recycled” the Arthurian characters for centuries, after all, not devoid of artistry.) As for concentrating on street-level thugs: if comics ever ended, Batman would work his way up to some notable higher up, a DC Kingpin, and take him out in a satisfying conclusion. But comics never end, the Kingpin is always back out of jail, so you’re always at the beginning of the story, catching thugs. Seems to me this reflects comic book genre conventions more than the Batman character.

    And when you say “where is our contemporary pulp,” you sound as if the world has been declining! – surely a myth, as I recollect some previous post of yours. I vaguely suspect some sort of pulpy niftiness exists out there. Wouldn’t know just what it is; I’m busy reading Wolf Hall.

  10. bruce says:

    >repressed sexuality

    Really? Just because the old Comics Code didn’t like showing the Bat-Cock in various orifices?

    >and closet misogyny

    Why ‘closet’? He’s a billionaire, he can rent milk cheaper than giving half his fortune to a cow; he’s openly misogynist enough to do it.

    As for the ‘unreality’ of a rich guy fighting crime, well, how’s a working man hire master martial artist coaches? Pay doctor bills? Buy Bat-widgets? Tell his boss he’s taking a year off to track down the Joker?

  11. zeroreference says:

    a bump on an old post, but I would argue for the cyberpunk hero. Hackers.

    Perhaps this is the anti-hero? However it seems like ‘Neuromancer’ and ‘The Matrix’ both tackle a more contemporary imagination of villainy. Then there is ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.’ Another hacker. Who else (besides reporters played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) informs the masses of secret, malicious acts perpetrated by the byzantine institutions of modernity?

    I’m not sure if there is a singular character out there who has growth potential compared to the classic superheroes.

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