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 Amazon.com.
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.