I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why You Couldn't Be Batman, Part Four: Crime Alley

Part One: Introduction can be viewed here.
Part Two: Those Wonderful Toys can be viewed here.
Part Three: Of Fists and Feet can be viewed here.

A really big thing happened within the last couple of weeks. DC rebooted its entire universe and released fifty-two brand new issue ones, fifty-two ongoing series restarted from scratch. Of course, "from scratch" isn't exactly accurate. All of the Superman books, as well as Wonder Woman and Aquaman, it seems, have been completely re-imagined, but some of the other, more successful books, have been rebooted in a different way. The series Batman and Robin begins after the events of Grant Morrison's ever-so-long run on the series. This reboot is more subtle, but in ways it is more profound. Throughout the narrative of Batman and Robin #1, Bruce Wayne / Batman describes to his son Damian that he will no longer return to crime alley in order to mourn, that the entire community is about to be transformed. Batman will no longer dwell on the past or the present, on the sadness and the anger and the need for vengeance. Instead, he will focus on hope, on life. In other words, he will emerge from the darkness.

Of course, if you're not a huge Batman fan, this takes a little bit of context to understand. The reason Batman has been known as the Dark Knight is that something horrible happened in his past. The reason he was offered a Sinestro Corps ring for his ability to strike fear was because he experienced a moment of great fear when he was only a child, a moment that is only now potentially ending. When Bruce Wayne was young, his parents took him to see "The Mask of Zorro" at a theater in the district that was once called Park Row. As Bruce and his parents exited the theater, a petty thief with a gun, a man named Joe Chill, attempted to rob the wealthy family. When his father Thomas showed courage and stood up to the thug, both parents were shot, leaving orphaned Bruce Wayne to cry over their dead bodies. As a result of this incident, Park Row was transformed into Crime Alley. As for the boy Bruce Wayne, he was transformed into something else entirely.

The DC reboot also brought us Nightwing #1, which features Dick Grayson as Nightwing, protecting the streets of Gotham after the destruction of Bludhaven and the completion of his time as Batman due to Bruce Wayne's "death." In this issue, we are given an interesting perspective into what happened to Bruce Wayne after the death of his parents. Dick Grayson reflects on his time as Batman by saying how different it was to maintain Bruce's two personae. What he suggests is that both Batman and the public image of Bruce Wayne are masks that Bruce Wayne wears, and that both require work to stay up. After Bruce's parents were shot down in front of him, it seems like his identity disappeared. An angry boy, amorphous and ever changing, left Gotham City in order to learn how best to protect her. He returned with a mask, a banner for justice but also a dark avenger, and this Batman that he created became wed to Gotham, in sickness and in health until death do them part. But also, in order to protect the Batman and free him to do the most good for the sake of his bride, Bruce Wayne put on the mask of the playboy millionaire. He became exactly what everyone always expected a spoiled millionaire to become. Though he had found his destiny, it seems like any real identity was completely sublimated. He had no person any more. All he had was a spouse and a duty.

This pushes us directly into the question that ought to be asked, "Is Batman crazy?" If crazy is defined by acting against the status quo of society, Batman is certainly crazy. If crazy is defined as taking risks in order to accomplish something that, for all intents and purposes, can never be completely accomplished, then yes, Batman is crazy. If crazy is defined as a mental aberration, then we have an interesting discussion. Batman certainly could be crazy. All of the ingredients are in the right place in order to cause a mental instability. He witnessed the brutal murder of his parents. He left the rules and confines of society and trusted only the voices and images inside of his head (including a terrifying bat that has haunted him since childhood). He continues to risk his life on a nightly basis. He wears a costume and lives a life entirely composed of pretending. His second sidekick, Jason Todd, was murdered by The Joker. And on that note, Batman is surrounded by the criminally insane. He is not just kicking and punching them daily and bringing them back to Arkham Asylum. He engages in games with them, conversations. He is pushed by them. And in the end, there is a serious question of whether or not their insanity and criminality is merely an extension of his insanity. Would there have been a Joker if there had never been a Batman? Are they two sides of the same coin? (Yes, that was a blatant reference to Two-Face. Harvey Dent ought always to be thought of when it comes to Batman and insanity.)

In the end, perhaps we need only read Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, where it is suggested that insanity is just one bad day away. The Joker may not know who Batman is or what created him, but he does know that Batman had a bad day once.

Even if we decide that Batman is certainly insane, the discussion does not end there. There is now the question of whether Bruce Wayne merely suffers from psychological issues or whether there is something more, some metaphysical / spiritual entity in Gotham that has chosen him, that has haunted him and even possessed him. There are many sources that refer to some evil bat entity existing in the thoughts and dreams of residents of Gotham. The Arkham family, famous for making the Arkham Asylum in order to treat the criminally insane, have a taint of insanity in the blood, and they speak of some ancient bat beast. It is entirely possible that Arkham Asylum itself houses this spirit and others in much the same way that the Overlook hotel in The Shining housed so many psychic impressions. Scarecrow, the fearmonger scientist, has also been haunted by the bat, and if what I mentioned above is true, such is also the case for every villain Batman has ever sent to Arkham.

In the end, however, it is hard to tell whether Batman is insane or merely dedicated. I believe that sanity and insanity are always in tension in the mind of Batman. Neither truly takes complete hold over his mind. Both are needed. Both are also detriments. I want to believe that the good in Batman will win, and I believe that it has time and again, but I also do not believe that the issue will ever be settled.

If you still want to be Batman, then you had better be ready to have your loved ones taken from you and to be haunted, either by memories or by real ghosts, for the entirety of your life. Perhaps you may not be affected for your entire life. After all, it seems that the new 52's Batman has turned over a new leaf, but at the same time he is already completely broken. It is unlikely that he can gain any personal advantage from changing his life at this point. Of course, I believe that this change is not for the sake of Bruce Wayne. It is for the sake of trying to give Damian Wayne a better life than Bruce Wayne enjoyed. Damian was an orphan too, once, after Bruce Wayne was "killed." But that's the cool thing about comic books. Bruce Wayne / Batman is back, and he has a second chance at life. He is a broken man trying to unbreak the world. It's foolish and admirable, and it is ultimately doomed. And that is who you'll have to be if you're going to be Batman.

In the end, the reason that you can't be Batman is because you want to be Batman. In order to be Batman you have to have tragedy thrust upon you, against your will. You have to exist in a state of mental disrepair that pushes you into believing that you either become Batman or you become The Joker. You are the lesser of two evils, and you exist for a purpose. You do not get to have a life, but you are necessary for the sake of the lives of others. If these things happen to you, I feel sorry for you. It looks like you can be Batman. May God have mercy on your soul.

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