(Grab a snack; this may take a while.)
Talking about Batman means walking a fine line. The more reverent or facile one’s tone, the less credible the arguments become. I mean, really: would you take me as seriously (assuming you do anyway) if I started out opining about how “The” Batman could/should/must assume his rightful place as a Serious Figure of Graphic Literature? By the same token, I have a pretty good idea of who reads these little weekly offerings, and I’m not going to pretend that there’s nothing worthwhile about the character.
While Batman has demonstrated a lighter side over the years, more often he’s come across as straight-laced, serious, and/or earnest. The Adam West series took this to hilarious extremes, of course; and in a different way, so did the ultra-grim, post-Frank-Miller Batman. Although fans embraced Miller’s Batman as a repudiation of West’s, the former was no less ripe for parody. It’s not that hard to connect the solitary, obsessed, socially inept superhero fan with the similarly single-minded Batman. Add in the aforementioned hope that Batman, like our stereotypical fan, flirts with lasting popular acceptance, and the fish in the barrel start pointing to their vulnerable spots. Therefore, to be taken seriously, Batman has to be in on the joke.
However, having been the dominant paradigm since the late 1980s, Post-Miller Batman has little room for laughter. One of its tenets holds that “Batman” is merely shorthand for the personality that took over Bruce Wayne after his parents’ murders. The public Bruce Wayne is just a disguise, not unlike old-school Clark Kent, which serves much the same purpose. Playboy Bruce and Nebbish Clark are/were the opposites of their true heroic selves. Accordingly, the fearsome figure of Batman ostensibly represents Bruce’s heart of darkness given terrible gothic form.
Well, I don’t buy it. Obviously Playboy Bruce is an act, but to a great extent so is Batman. Every iteration of the origin is capped by Bruce musing about how to put all of his training together, with the bat coming through the window in silent reply. Again, this is a great moment to parody — whatever comes through the window, Bruce treats as an omen — so for the bat-motif to work, it has to be plausible. Writers through the years have established that the “bat who came to dinner” probably lived in the future Batcave. The Dark Knight took this a step further, having Young Bruce fall into the cave and be frightened by a giant bat. Thus, Bruce and the Wayne Manor bat(s) are connected by his childhood experiences in a way that he and, say, the Wayne squirrels are not.
But I digress. The point, as dramatized in Batman Begins, is that Bruce chooses the bat-motif not because he has organized his training around it, but because it is a logical outgrowth of his training. As “Batman: Year One” relates, Bruce’s disastrous first patrol as Crazy-Vet-Man leads directly to his Bat-theatrics. This to me implies more control over “Batman” than the “driven, obsessed” paradigm seems to permit. The more control Bruce has over “Batman,” the less it is an expression of his inner demon. That’s a dangerous notion, because it gives Bruce an opportunity — however small — to stop being Batman … and if he can choose not to be Batman, why wouldn’t he?
This brings us to those two Bat-books mentioned above, All-Star Batman & Robin #5 (written by Frank Miller, pencilled by Jim Lee, inked by Scott Williams) and Batman #665 (written by Grant Morrison, pencilled by Andy Kubert, inked by Jesse Delperdang). ASB&R is, and has been, a collection of vignettes dedicated to the proposition that Bruce Wayne/Batman is the most alpha of alpha males. (“Alpha male plus,” as Morrison puts it in the other book.) This largely involves both building up Batman and poking gaping holes in all the potential alpha-male challengers. The police are corrupt, Superman is petulant, Green Lantern is ineffectual, and Plastic Man is a clown. Wonder Woman, whose raw power apparently makes her an honorary alpha-male in Miller’s eyes, is quickly subordinated to Superman; and I take it Black Canary and the promised Batgirl already work for Batman.
Because ASB&R isn’t too concerned with its overall plot yet (if it ever will be), it’s hard to see specifically where everything’s headed. My guess is that Miller and Batman want to convince Dick Grayson that he’s safest in Wayne Manor, and not with the so-called “authorities” or any of the other surrogate parents out there. It reminds me of a nature documentary, with Batman flaunting the most colorful plumage. However, he’s not putting on his particular show because of instinct, or deep-seated psychological needs created by the deaths of his parents. Instead, the show is a tool for furthering his crusade, which was born of those deep-seated psychological needs. “The goddamn Batman” is an affirmation, and therefore a bit of self-awareness that belies Bruce’s calculated approach to superheroics.
See, to my way of thinking, Bruce Wayne is not only a master strategist, he’s also a businessman. (In JLA’s “Rock of Ages,” Grant Morrison made him at least the equal of Lex Luthor.) That means marketing, and Batman does marketing to an extent that would embarrass McDonald’s. Not just the Bat-Signal, but Batarangs left everywhere, Batmobiles tearing through the streets and Batplanes slicing up the skies, and during “No Man’s Land,” Bat-graffiti. A story from 1953′s Batman #77 revealed that in the event of Batman’s death, a group of trusted replacements stood ready to take his place. I bet if that story were revisited today, the bulk of their time would be spent just being seen. (Maybe they’d drop little magnetic Bat-emblems for people to stick on their cars.) Similarly, Kingdom Come had giant Bat-Knights patrol its Gotham, and The Dark Knight had the Sons of the Bat. Again, all of this propaganda suggests an image that can be transferred — franchised out, as it were — and therefore diluted.
Indeed, we see the multiple-Batmen theme playing out in Grant Morrison’s take on the flagship title. So far, Morrison has introduced (or has promised) Ninja Man-Bats, Damian as both Robin and Batman, and a cadre of corrupt Bat-policemen. He will also revisit the Club of Heroes, a/k/a the Batmen of Many Nations. Still, Morrison, like Miller, must keep Bruce the alpha male, so that “Batman” won’t be diluted. This cries out for a “precious bodily fluids” joke, but Morrison’s already there. Following his defeat in issue #664, the current issue finds Bruce smearing himself with his own sweat, both so Bat-Bane won’t smell his fear again and as a subliminal reminder of who leads this pack. Morrison’s Bruce also isn’t entirely humble after his year of spiritual purging, reminding Tim, Alfred, and us that he’s “beaten up Superman.”
He’s definitely not “the goddamn Batman,” though, especially after the last issue’s utter beatdown. While Batman does defeat Bat-Bane in #665, it’s not single-handedly, but with Robin’s help and the Batmobile’s weaponry. Morrison’s Batman is more self-aware, including being more aware of his limitations. He and the Goddamn Batman are both “in on the joke,” but in different ways. Morrison’s Batman comes at his crusade from the perspective of experience, having determined what works and what doesn’t through trial, error, and planning.
The Goddamn Batman, on the other hand, is fueled by the costume’s empowering rush, and exults in his ability to steamroll over people with the force of his amplified personality. Even so, I think the GDBM knows that it’s all an act, which makes his triumphs that much sweeter. He enjoys scaring the bad guys and inspiring the rest. His hazing of Dick Grayson falls somewhere in between.
Still, the GDBM is an alpha poser in a world of posers, as much a parody of the character as the worst of the brooding Batmen of the ‘90s. His bravado foreshadows that of the back-in-action Batman from the first parts of The Dark Knight; but that Batman eventually had to regroup following a humiliating defeat, and Miller doesn’t seem interested in giving the GDBM any weaknesses. By this point it’s clear that ASB&R isn’t supposed to be a template for How Batman Would Work. Instead, it’s a fantasy of a fantasy. The GDBM is so devoted to being preposterous, the rest of the world has little choice but to take him seriously. This makes ASB&R of a piece with The Dark Knight Strikes Again and those “The rain on my chest is a baptism” scenes of The Dark Knight: an ode to the visceral appeal of imagery and its effect on the fight-or-flight response.
It’s hard to say that such things don’t belong in a Batman book, because they’re at the heart of the character’s appeal. Since Batman is the bogeyman who’s on your side, his scaring of crooks isn’t just expected, it’s anticipated; and the GDBM is the Miller Batman distilled to its purity of essence. If Brooding Batman could be so easily linked with alienated fanboys, the cackling GDBM may even be Miller’s commentary on how those fanboys have become the alpha males of the direct market.
Whatever Miller’s trying to say with ASB&R, it’s obvious the GDBM enjoys his work. Ironically, this is anathema to the Post-Miller Batman, whose psychological underpinnings dictate that he must honor his murdered parents through grim dedication to his crusade. The GDBM explodes this idea, working through his personal torments through the thrill of scaring criminals.
Where the GDBM assails Batman’s great stone face, Grant Morrison seeks to reintroduce many of the fantastic stories and other elements the Post-Miller Batman eschewed. Morrison had already opened the Sci-Fi Closet, a vault in the Batcave housing a spaceship and other advanced weapons. The name “Zur-En-Arrh,” referring to a planet visited by the 1950s Batman, has already appeared in graffiti form throughout Morrison’s run. Now, in the current Batman, Bruce and Alfred have recalled the “Black Casebook,” cases involving “vampires, flying saucers, time travel … all the things we’d seen that didn’t fit and couldn’t be explained.” Letting these otherworldly elements back into the Batman title represents a serious crack in the facade of “realism” the books had tried to maintain over the past two decades. It’s tantamount to admitting that these are just superhero comics, not blueprints for urban adventuring or Tom Clancy novels with capes and pictures. The post-Miller paradigm holds that Batman is a realistic character who had the misfortune of being born into an unrealistic world.
This may be Batman’s central dichotomy: while his appeal depends on this real-world grounding, upon closer inspection his foundation of “reality” is a carefully constructed, cherry-picked framework that’s more fragile than it appears. It’s dangerous to acknowledge this structural flaw, because it can turn Batman from a Serious Figure of Literature into Adam West quicker than you can say Bat-Mite.
However, I believe that by making that acknowledgment, and working with it, Batman can be Batman unapologetically. I’m all for throwing off the shackles of continuity and “realism” in the name of expanding storytelling possibilities. The GDBM might be the alpha peacock in a fairly baffling experiment, but it’s not indefensible. Morrison’s run is more appealing to me, in part because I can’t wait to see how he justifies all the Black Casebook material. Neither of their Batmen are as sullen as we’re used to, but that’s a small price to pay.