I’m a Batman snob. There, I’ve admitted it. And, I’ve been a Batman snob since I was a kid in the mid 1970s when I first became aware of the mythic superhero. And, though I don’t collect comics anymore (too time consuming and too money consuming), I have a fairly good collection of Batman, Green Lantern, and Hawkman comics going back thirty years or so.
Through the comics and graphic novels, in particular, I know the history of Batman and his associates fairly well, and I know the various iterations of the character—Batman as James Bond (international spy and playboy); Batman as King Arthur (Christian warrior); Batman as Sherlock Holmes (detective); Batman as Van Helsing (demon hunter); Batman as Thomas Edison (American genius), and Batman as Howard Hughes (millionaire eccentric). Over the last fifty years, many authors have ably focused on one aspect of Batman’s character. Only the very best of the best writers have ably brought all of these elements together in one person. Some of the best Batman writers include Denny O’Neill, Chuck Dixon, Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Matt Wagner, Jeph Loeb, and Frank Miller.
The Man, the Legend
The creation of New York born Robert Kahn (Bob Kane), the son of Eastern European immigrants, the iconic character first appeared in the May 1939 issue of Detective Comics. He was “The Bat-Man,” and he even carried a gun. The first series of Detective Comics, almost exclusively devoted to Batman over its long history, ended in the fall of 2011 with the last issue officially numbered 881 (it continues under a new numbering system). Enjoying an equal longevity, Batman comic #1 began in 1940 and, like its counterpart, ended in the fall of 2011 at number 713 (beginning again with a new numbering system). Several other titles have appeared around Batman, Batman’s allies, and Batman’s foes during the same years. Additionally, the Dark Knight has been the subject of movies, tv series (animated and live action), radio programs, and novels.
At his best, Batman’s real persona, Bruce Wayne, is a deeply scarred man, but he’s also more than willing to tap into his childhood trauma as an adult in order to defend the weak and the poor against the power-hungry and demonic.
A conservative libertarian or a libertarian conservative, Wayne is a republican aristocratic—what John Adams called a “Natural Aristocrat”—using his mind, his body, and his soul to defend a transcendent justice and reestablish an order that rapidly is decaying in urban America. He must never become an anarchist or a vigilante, but he walks as closely as he can to each belief. Sometimes he fails, but more often than not, he succeeds. Always, however, he must suffer an immense cost to himself and to those immediately around him. Through nearly inhuman strength of will, Wayne has honed every aspect of his being, but never for the benefit of self, always for the willingness to defend others.
As I’ve argued elsewhere in The Imaginative Conservative, the story of Batman, despite its very urban setting, is a deeply western story, rooted in Homer, Virgil, and Dante and in the medieval saints. I still believe this. Indeed, Batman is so western and his mythos so complex, that there exists nearly endless possibilities for his character as well as for the larger story of decaying life and the heroic figure struggling to hold everything together.
Despite the popular image of Batman as a lone warrior, however, Wayne almost always has a whole host of allies helping him. Wayne serves more as a captain of the most efficient militia possible when confronting problems in Gotham. He has his caretaker, Alfred; his warrior allies, Dick Grayson (Nightwing), Tim Drake (Robin), and a few others; and his friend in government, Jim Gordon, the flawed but noble police commissioner. The Oracle (Barbara Gordon) watches over the city, serving as the eyes and ears of the entire enterprise. Other characters, such as Selena Kyle, present a love interest to Wayne. Despite her loose morals on matters sexual, she’s as dedicated as possible when it comes to certain noble causes, and she and Wayne find themselves often in alliance with one another.
Much, if not all, of the impetus to do good comes from Wayne’s family background. The wealthiest of the wealthy, the Waynes are not an upstart family. They are one of the most established in all of the United States, and they feel a great sense of duty to the community, to America, and to western civilization. Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma, witnessing the murder of his parents, connects him even more to his family legacy, and, he is fully conscious of his duties to his family, past, present, and future.
While the Waynes are at the center of Gotham’s history and life (his fictional city; probably a conglomeration of Chicago and New York), Gotham is vital to the country and to civilization as a whole. By protecting itself, it protects the western world and what matters most in that world, the fundamental unit of the family.
In the larger Batman story, there are ever expanding and widening concentric circles of community and responsibility in an egalitarian-ish hierarchy that nicely parallels the Catholic teaching of subsidiarity.
Indeed, it is well established in the history of the Waynes that they are Roman Catholic. In one of the best story lines written about Batman, Chick Dixon establishes the Waynes in the line of Arthur, and, as it turns out, Bruce Wayne protects the Holy Grail in this modern day.
In some ways, it’s correct to think of Bruce Wayne as the personification of both charity and fortitude; Batman is the personification of justice and hope.
Live Action Batman
Never—in any way, shape, or form—should be Batman be funny or, even worse, campy. No “pows,” “ka-splats,” or shark repellents. No skating Batman and Robin, and no body armor should reveal too many body parts.
Adam West, Michael Keaton, George Clooney, and Val Kilmer failed in portraying this most intense of characters. Indeed, only two living actors can really be Batman. First, and perhaps best, is the animated Batman, voiced by Kevin Conroy. Conroy’s voice is Batman’s voice and, to my mind, always will be. Second is Christian Bale. In Batman Begins, he had the right look and the almost-right voice. Not Conroy’s voice, but still quite good.
But, I’m such a snob about Batman that I’ve only made it through the second Christian Bale movie once—and that only after three or four painful false starts—and I’ve not even seen a scene of the third one.
The Dark Knight focused on the Joker, missing the point of Batman, to my way of thinking. The great thing about Batman is not his many abilities, but his struggle to maintain justice while not losing himself to the unremittingly violent. The Dark Knight preoccupied itself with examining the motivations of the Joker, leaving the Batman only as a side character. Just as with any TV sit-com that focuses almost exclusively on sex, any movie that focuses on evil reveals its absence of creativity. Focusing on the bad guy is a cop out; a cheap way to make something look interesting. The real challenge comes in the ethical struggle of the hero. But, it’s much harder to make good interesting. It’s much easier to paint a man (granted, a very able actor, may he rest in peace, in the The Dark Knight) as a demented clown and have him blow things up.
But, the first Christian Bale film, Batman Begins? Now, this is a movie. Acting, cinematography, incredible bad guys (who scare without stealing the show), purpose, philosophy. Everything works wonderfully and in harmony for this movie. It is, essentially, opera and myth on the Silver Screen. I might even go so far as to name it one of the best Hollywood movies ever.
Not surprisingly, Batman has fared the best in animated series. The last two decades have seen an overwhelming number of shows: Batman: The Animated Series; Batman Beyond; The Batman; Batman Brave and the Bold; and, most recently, Beware the Batman.
By far the best of these is Batman: The Animated Series, the beginning of what is often described as the DCAU (Detective Comics Animated Universe). After this series came Superman: The Animated Series; Batman Beyond; Justice League; and Justice League Unlimited. Guided by a true master of story telling, Bruce Timm, the DCAU pulled together all of the elements necessary for an excellent show: top notch writers and animators, mythic events, character development, and a mythos to hold together this universe that lasted from 1992 through 2006, always improving. Though I’m not an avid TV watcher, I have seen every episode of this universe, and I applaud Bruce Timm for being one of the most underrated artists of our age. The man never shies away from promoting virtue, the good, and the true in his stories. There are lines of black and white, and the good fight for the Good, no matter the cost to themselves. How Timm could make the potential sacrifice of each of his heroes seem plausible week after week for fourteen years is beyond my ability to understand, but he did.
Sure, there are knock-down drag out fights. Some episodes are just lots of guys (and gals) beating the snot out of each other. But, there’s absolutely nothing in any of these shows that any reader of The Imaginative Conservative wouldn’t appreciate. Mad scientists are bad; the government is increasingly intrusive and out of control; and self-sacrifice is, ultimately, what rules the fate of humanity. I proudly have allowed my children to watch every episode, and there’s not an episode (at least that I remember) that did not teach them about western citizens in the line of the greats of our tradition. I have no idea if Timm meant for his show to be so utterly protective of western virtues and so very Kirkian, but it is. The heroism is raw and true.
There are even brilliant lines of dialogue from time to time. The first time the Greek demi-goddess, known here as Wonder Woman, enters a mall, for example, she asks in all earnestness if it’s a temple dedicated to the worship of wealth.
Timm brings in the entire line of DC heroes—The Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, etc.—over time, but he is always best with his central figure, the Batman. Batman does everything from combat mobsters and consult priests to fighting interstellar invaders and descending into the pits of Hell. Timm, more than any writer, gets every aspect of Bruce Wayne and Batman.
I’ve debated for a while whether or not to write this post. I’m rarely shy about my loves, but I’ve never been entirely sure how the The Imaginative Conservative audience might respond to a post just about a superhero. When Stratford Caldecott admitted his love for things Marvel, I thought, well, if he can do it, it’s acceptable.
Let me offer three final thoughts, some of which I’ve offered in a variety of posts over the last several years at The Imaginative Conservative.
First, as members of a civilization in free fall, we have to accept our heroes where and when they arrive. Yes, it might be better to have a society enraptured by the tales of Odysseus or Aeneas, Bran the Blessed, or Boniface. We don’t have that society anymore. We haven’t for a very long time. We have, however, the elements of what make greatness in our comics. Strange, isn’t it? But, true. The ancients had the gods, the medievals had the saints, and we moderns and post-moderns have our superheroes.
Second, it’s not a bad thing that our children learn from comic-book superheroes. Indeed, I wished our adults learned as much. Bruce Wayne offers every single thing he has as a man for the common good of society. Wayne is the leader, essentially, of a Marine platoon. Earned, never given.
Third, we often (especially those on the conservative side of things) laugh dismissively at comic books. Yet, for those of us who are liturgical, let’s look around our churches. Just at the liturgy brought an illiterate people into the Mass, so comic books have the power to bring a similar power to our culture. For those of us who are Christian, why would we ever fear the word and the image being presented as one?
This post is dedicated to the genius and imagination of Bruce Timm, who brought virtue alive to my children.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.