Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The wrath of God disincarnate

Although Batman has always been my fave comic book character, I've never fully understood let alone agreed with a certain aspect of the character, viz. his desire to bring criminals such as murderers to rehab in Arkham Asylum rather than killing them. (Well, apart from the obvious fact that the Batman comic books might not sell as well if there had to be a new enemy every issue!)

Take Batman's frequent dealings with his archenemy, the Joker. Oftentimes the plot unfolds with Batman hunting for the Joker, the Joker killing scores of innocent people, and, eventually, Batman finding himself in a position to rid Gotham of the Joker once and for all but instead Bats' "conscience" gets the best of him and he arrests the Joker. The Joker is then sent off to the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane for remediation. Inevitably, however, the Joker escapes only to go on another murder spree, wherein we come full circle with the Batman hunting for the Joker again.

Now, Batman could've saved a lot more lives if he didn't believe in rehab for murderers but rather believed in capital punishment. What's more, since he was in a position to stop the Joker from murdering others by killing the Joker, and he didn't kill the Joker, then I'd think Batman is culpable to a degree for the deaths of the people the Joker killed afterwards.

In addition, this aspect of the Batman stories seems to contradict his core character as the Batman.

On the one hand, I think Batman represents vigilante justice. He's doing for society what society can't do for itself because society is constrained by its current deficient laws from meting out the proper punishment, from carrying out true justice. As such, Batman is an agent of justice where justice has failed. He's the wrath of God incarnate.

On the other hand, Batman as envisioned in our society with its many slipshod beliefs and values doesn't represent righteous vengeance but rather represents a tormented, conflicted soul struggling but failing to do the right thing. It's more about gut-wrenching angst than righteous anger.

I think one of the preeminent virtues in our society is "understanding." As played out in the Batman comics, this would mean above all else Batman ought to "understand" the Joker. Indeed that's what often happens. Batman comes to understand how he and the Joker are not so different from one another after all but rather are cut from the same cloth. They're flip sides of the same coin (granted, this metaphor would better apply to Two-Face).

What our society and culture seems to love is not so much "black and white" but "shades of gray." We love it when there are reversals such as when the hero of the movie turns out in the end to be the villain and the villain turns out to be the hero. We love heroes and anti-heroes. We love it when we can't tell the difference between the hero or the villain. Maybe something along the lines of what George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm: "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

That's well and good to an extent since it reflects how fallen, sinful people are in reality and how living in a fallen world truly is.

But it often goes too far. That is, we often take it to mean that, because we can't tell the difference between the two, then there's moral equivalence between the two. Neither is better or worse than the other. Hence the moral lesson to be drawn is that we should tolerate one another, no matter what. A prime example of this is Steven Spielberg's Munich.

(This is a self-perpetuating circle as well. Or if it's meant to be logical, it's a linear diagram with several feedback loops which loop back into the original pathway.)

So Bats is at heart a "black and white" character, I believe. But the problem is he's being written and illustrated by "shades of gray" people. The problem is that we seem to think it's more significant that Bats wrestles with his inner demons than that he actually carries out justice.

Among other problems, this is self-centered. Again, I happen to think Batman was originally meant to be an agent of justice. As such, Batman is not paramount. Rather justice is what's paramount. Batman ought to be nothing more or less than a vehicle for justice. But Batman's wrestlings with right and wrong resulting in moral ambiguity and unsettled, unresolved questions are way too Batman-focused. Bats has gone batty! It cuts him down to the size of an adolescent. From Batman to Batboy.

Worse, this victimizes the victims. If Batman keeps letting the Joker live another day to commit more heinous crimes, then where will that leave the Joker's victims? What about the girl left paralyzed because of the Joker - Barbara Gordon? What about the boy the Joker killed - Jason Todd?

Ah, but killing the Joker would be too easy. Moral ambiguity is considered erudite and sophisticated in our society and culture, whereas moral certainty is scoffed at as naive and simple-minded.

But just retribution in killing the Joker would actually accomplish what years of guilt-ridden angst and so forth will not. For one thing, it'd actually recompense, to a degree, the slaying of Bruce Wayne's parents at the hands of the Joker.

On a related note, I wonder if this doesn't perhaps reflect our society's aversion to clear, distinct, certain categories like good and evil, right and wrong, heaven and hell. (For example, is a 24 week old fetus fully "human"?) Or anything which smacks of certainty and finality. We'd rather say that the only thing we're sure of is that we're not sure. Agnosticism reigns in many places: chief among them, perhaps, our hearts.


  1. Very nice post Patrick.

    I think you're spot-on in your diagnosis.

  2. I thought for a minute I was at the Christian Comic Arts chat forum when I saw this topic. Some good insights about Batman, and if you're looking for an interesting read about that character distinction of mercy vs. execution, check out Chuck Dixon's "Punisher/Batman" title that came out a few years ago. The comic features a sequence in which the Punisher more or less corners the Joker and plans to kill him, and ironically Batman is the one to save/spare Joker. Its an interesting character parallel throughout the book, and Dixon's story with John Romita Jrs art make for an excellent combination.

  3. Batman is good. My favorite character is perhaps one of the most black and white were he not the man of bronze: Doc Savage. And unless today's writers completely change his character, he will continue to be as unequivocally black-and-white as he was originally created to be.

  4. Thanks for your comments, guys.

  5. I thought for a minute I was at the Christian Comic Arts chat forum when I saw this topic.

    If only I had the talent to be a comic book writer and illustrator...

  6. You probably already know this but in the late 1930s when he first appeared Batman remorselessly killed all sorts of people. Robin, in HIS first appearance, clearly and obviously kills something like three people. An editorial decision was made early on that if these comics were being sold to children and the brand was going to survive the Code (to paint with a rather broad narrative brush) Batman had to have a principle against killing. One of the first and most important ret-cons in superhero history, as the phrase goes.

  7. A lot of the points you make about Batman are more true of the comics than Batman as he is depicted in the cartoons helmed by Paul Dini. One of the problems with Batman as a character is there are a lot of people who want to write "adult" Batman stories and so that means they want to introduce moral ambiguity. It's not that a writer couldn't explain why Batman refuses to kill the Joker (after all, Batman could refuse to kill because that's the one crime whose effect can't be undone and he doesn't want to be that kind of criminal) but that writers are too busy wanting to show how the two characters are somehow mirrored twins. Attempting to impose yin and yang on a fundamentally WASPy character and his narrative world goes predictably soft.

  8. When Dark Knight screened, it was widely described as a parable of the war on al-Qaeda. I did not one ironic reversal: in the real world, it's generally considered permissible to kill al-Qaeda/ Taliban fighters in battle, but it's very controversial (to say the least) to torture them. On the other hand, Batman regularly tortures his enemies (beating the Joker, hanging Carmine over a balcony) but they know that he won't kill them.

  9. Good comments. Thanks, guys.