Aesthetics and Aestheticism in the Batman Canon

This paper considers Batman as the prototypical sublime figure in modern fiction. Accepting the precept of Longinus, that fiction is the best (popularly available) means of transmitting and replicating a sublime experience, I consider the Dark Knight as a dualistic figure, both Bruce Wayne and Batman, the one a paragon of social virtue in a capitalistic and hierarchically divided society, and the latter who, in descending to the level of the criminals with whom he wages war, in fact raises himself to the status of moral paragon in the Kantian sense. Batman, more than this, also encompasses a Burkean understanding of the Sublime as an experience of terror, whether it’s enlightening or not. By eclipsing the system of laws and regulations which fails to enforce a social order that agrees with his conception of justice, Batman serves as an example to the people of the city of what is possible, and internalizes his own sublime experience of trauma, which I examine first in this paper, from which event he derives his moral compass, in a nod to the edification aspect of sublime experience in Kant’s understanding. From there, I consider the nature of Bruce Wayne/Batman’s dual identities and their implications for his embodiment of sublimity, before considering his relationship to the city and the urban sublime. In the final section, I close read the relationship between Batman and the Joker as a possible source of sublimity which ties them together in an eternal conflict which has literary precedents across human cultures.
1: The Traumatic Sublime – Origin Stories
An alley, a man, a gun, pearls, and a boy watching his mother and father die. This is the story of the Batman, told and re-told in every medium available. The angle on the event changes, the particulars, the narration, but the crux has remained the same since Bob Kane and Bill Finger set it to newsprint in Detective Comics issue 33 in 1939. Recoloured for the first issue of his self-titled series the following year, the event of Bruce Wayne’s parent’s murder proceeds in the space between panels to a candlelit image of Bruce, knelt in prayer at his bedside, described by the narrator as “a curious and strange scene,” swearing by the spirits of his parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of his life “warring on all criminals.” [see figs. 1-4]
In the original story, the inspiration for Batman’s winged namesake and inspiration doesn’t come until he is older, however in most subsequent versions, Bruce’s fixation on bats is prefigured by an earlier trauma, usually falling into an old well that leads to the caves beneath Wayne Manor. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the story is told in dream narrative, as Bruce, like Carroll’s Alice, chases a rabbit down a hole, and meets the force which will determine the course of his life thereafter. [fig. 5] Another, much more recent version of the story is told in Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Batman Damned. Again, told in dream narrative, the young Bruce confronts a demoness. Wide eyed, he is frozen as she holds a dead bat, wings spread, to his naked chest, bathed in moonlight. [fig. 6] Regardless of the storyteller’s individual choices the wealth of symbolism to be gleaned from Bruce’s chosen totem, remains a touchstone for much of the better work done with the character.
Typically, the soon-to-be broken family are emerging from a movie theater, and often the film they’ve been to see (whether they’ve left early or not) before they enter the fateful alley, is The Mask of Zorro. Whether it is the 1920 or the 1940 version, thereof, depends on the requirements of the broader story (Borsellino 138). Regardless, Batman’s chief creative force, Bob Kane, was a fan of the Douglas Fairbanks portrayal of the character, and used Fairbanks’ portrayal of Robin Hood for the inspiration of Batman’s boy wonder sidekick, and his trademark costume (Borsellino 138). The question of inspiration and appropriation in Batman is tricky, and only adds to the sublime nature of the character, able to exist not only as the double life of Bruce Wayne/Batman, but also able to exist in innumerable iterations, from camp to gritty, and to age, de-age, and remain frustratingly un-aged for decades. Even within his own mythos, the Batman inspires the Batman, with a notable instance in the early radio drama featuring a caped hero who inspires young Bruce, The Grey Ghost, voiced by none other than Adam West, who in 1966 would assume the role of Batman himself (Borsellino 138).
This relationship to the audience allows Batman to transcend the page and become meta-textually greater than a simple, branded, comic crime fighter. At its core, the Batman canon is deeply indebted to both the masked heroics of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and the The Shadow series of pulp novels (Steranko). Growing from this tradition, however, Batman has come to signify far more through his myriad contributors and iterations from comics, to film, tv, radio, novelizations, children’s media, and the relentless multinational marketing appetite for his signature image. In the endurance of his property in the cultural conscious alone, Batman should be considered a sublime figure.
What lies at the root of this sublimity is trauma. As Dr. Michael Brody, a psychotherapist suggests, the “individuality of each superhero” is rooted in the sequela of trauma (105). Each hero confronts their own traumatic source: Superman his destroyed planet, Wonder Woman the death of her lover, Steve Trevor, Flash the deaths of his parents. That trauma lies at the heart of their resolve to be super-heroic. In this sense, as Brody puts it, Batman did not “choose his life’s work–it chose him!” (105). If we look at Batman’s beginning as the precise moment of his parents’ deaths, we can see how the senselessness of the violence would instill a resolve to do good, but it is hard to imagine it precipitating the kind of resolve which costumed heroics would seem to require. For this reason, many later iterations of his origin suggest that young Bruce already harbored a strong sense of right and wrong which was galvanized, rather than created, by his parents’ murders. Bruce’s grief for his loved ones did not drive him mad or result in many of the symptoms associated with childhood trauma, Dr. Brody notes, because “external traumas can be converted into internal ones if they connect with fulfillment of either deep-seated anxieties or wishes” (107). Precisely because Bruce, as Frank Miller portrays him, went into the fateful showing of Zorro, already a swashbuckling, justice minded, child, precisely because the moment of violence occurred after both the earlier incident of meeting the bat in the cave, and the immediate sight of a bat against the moon before the arrival of the mugger, the reader is forced to conclude that the potentiality of Bruce’s assumption of the Batman cowl, was already present. [fig. 7]
The question of trauma as the motivator for Batman’s actions is interesting, however, because his method of coping is not, as many have suggested both in the fictional world and our own, because Bruce is demonstrably insane. Robin S. Rosenberg conducts an extensive review of medical diagnoses which Batman/Bruce Wayne might fit the criteria of, concluding that the closest match, and that an incomplete one, would be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and that unlikely because his flashbacks are memories normally retrieved rather than the result of sensory stimuli (see the sequence of word association in Morrison and McKean’s Arkham Asylum) (149). As he elaborates, “Memories, flashbacks, dreams, or nightmares are all ways that a traumatic situation can be re-experienced. For this criterion, however, these re-experiences must be persistent, distressing, and intrusive,” and in Bruce’s case, they are not. (149) Moreover, because the risk of PTSD is dramatically lowered in situations wherein trauma can be rationalized according to one’s experience of the world, Bruce is less likely to experience PTSD than most because he consciously derives meaning from the traumatic event and incorporates it into his sense of being and life’s purpose (Rosenberg 153). Perhaps Bruce suffers from what Brody terms death guilt, but this is unlikely because he could not reasonably conclude that he would have been able to save his parents except by altering the choices which led them to the alley (108). Brody goes on to suggest that “Bruce’s premorbid personality was intact enough to bear any blow, and hence his quick recovery,” however the overwrought nature of his eventual resolve to war on criminals suggests that his reaction is compensatory (109). The adult Batman identifies with the criminal element and usurps its position of power through similar, but altered means, namely his no-kill moral code (110).
Another interesting aspect of Batman’s traumatic sublimity is its close association with omens and the symbolism of the bat. Dr. Brody talks about a number of patients whose traumatic experiences gave them a super-heightened sensitivity to symbolism associated with it. This could include details like seating arrangement prior to the moment or a mother’s failure to kiss the survivor goodbye right before. These associations became points of compulsive obsession linked intrinsically in the patients’ minds with the moment of trauma to the point of superstition. It is interesting to note Batman’s characterization of criminals as a superstitious and cowardly lot, when his own desire to manipulate events through pseudo-foreknowledge is the basis for his costumed identity in many stories (Brody 112).
In any case Batman’s sublime nature is rooted in trauma. Perhaps, as Tim Drake, the third Robin comes to think when his own parents are murdered, trauma is the price of entry for anyone wishing to become super-heroic (Borsellino 142). If anything could serve as evidence in the world of Batman, however, it would be the fact of his first sidekick, Dick Grayson, having a near identical origin story, his parents murdered by a thug before his eyes. The key difference in this case, of course, is the addition of Batman as a surrogate parent to help him channel his grief into a super-hero career. Even the arrangement of Grayson’s parents’ bodies, in most instances, is consciously rendered to evoke the same instance in Bruce’s past. [fig. 8 and 9]
In confronting “the chaotic, violent, and seemingly inexplicable natural world,” Whitney Borup argues that young Bruce’s “powers of reason begin to detect the limitations of his sensible knowledge.” (92). From this experience, he constructs a view of the world in which by physical and mental prowess, he can exert control over the external war. Borup talks about how “shadows illustrate a conception of knowledge common in the Enlightenment era, depicting the natural world as the darkness that threatens to overpower the light of human reason.” (92). She relates this to Burke’s claims about how in darkness it is impossible to gauge the extent to which one is safe or imperiled. Bruce’s experience, as illustrated graphically in the first iteration of his origin story, shows him drawn out of the world he inhabits; after his parents are murdered, the cityscape giving way to blocks of solid colour accentuating the anguished look on Bruce’s face. That he becomes Batman and takes on the role of protector of Gotham, Borup argues, far from tying him to the community, “instead, isolates him” (Borup 93). While I argue that he ties himself to the physicality of the city, if not the populace, Batman’s war on crime contorts his moral code into an obsession which in its monopolization of his life allows him to become a sublime embodiment of the antithesis to the chaos of the world. His methods, however, are those of the criminal underground, such that, as Borup argues, “Bruce’s rational method for vengeance guarantees his permanent association with criminality” (93).
As a hero, Batman “experiences and then embodies the sublime” ( Borup 87). By confronting the irrational violence which was visited not only upon his parents but which has been repeated again and again, in the lives of those he knows and in the city at large, Batman comes to enact that sublime moment, and this enactment thus “affirms his rational power to arrange nature according to his ideas of justice” (Borup 87). Batman comes to rationalize his use of violence against the criminal elements in Gotham as an opposition to the chaos represented by irrational violence. It is “Batman’s rationality, not his physical body, that constitutes his effectiveness as a hero” (Borup 87). The”sublime logic” which Batman represents, allows Batman’s writers and artists to play with the moral ambiguity of his actions (Borup 88).
Batman embodies the sublime, too, in the way he physically presents himself. He may, as Borup suggests, feel, “as Kant says,” his superiority to nature within [himself], and hence
also to nature outside [him]” (97). By assuming the appearance of his totemic self, he strikes terror into the hearts of those who would inspire terror. He is described often, even in early comics as “avenger of evil,” “cowled shadow,” “eerie,” “strange,” and a “weird figure of the dark” (Borup 97). What is sublime in his assumption of this role is that he usurps the position of the darkness and turns it to a force for relative good.
2: The Picture Of Bruce Wayne – Duality and the Dark Knight
The duality of Batman’s identity makes for a fascinating character study. In Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy, Batman concentrates those aspects of himself he most reviles, namely his shallow romantic urges, his privileged excesses, his self-directed interest, and, most importantly, his simple humanity, namely those parts of his identity which fall short of the standard he sets for Batman. Quite often this duality creates situations in which Batman and Bruce Wayne must actually be at odds with one another. In a recent story, Tom King, in Cold Days, has Bruce Wayne selected for the jury of Mr. Freeze, who is on trial with only evidence provided by Batman to convict him. The story, coming on the heels of Batman’s aborted marriage to Catwoman, suggests that Batman’s grief led him to a hasty and unfair conclusion which Bruce, his other self, has come to regret. The story, told in the style of 12 Angry Men, pits Bruce as Juror #8 against fellow jurors more than willing to accept the facts of Batman’s evidence on their face. This dualism in Batman’s self has allowed for a number of such intriguing stories, and in its complication of the Dorian Gray plot, turning the portrait into an identity and making it impossible to tell which self is the true one, Batman is able to suggest not only an alternate identity, but an entirely alternative self.
In some storylines this drama plays out psychically as an opposition between Bruce and Batman. In Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Bruce seems to consciously wrestle with a separate entity which chastises him as “puny” “small” and “nothing–a hollow shell, a rusty trap that cannot hold me.” [fig. 10] This is the pivotal moment in Batman’s return to the city after a decade of retirement, and just beyond the windows, rendered as eight of the panels in the sixteen panel grid structure which Miller uses throughout the series, a storm cloud bursts into the margins along with the tail of Bruce’s dressing gown. He topples a statue in a rush to the shower, which itself suggests the nascent rains from the clouds dominating the top of the page. In a more literal rendering of this conflict, Batman Damned, shows Bruce pursued by the grasping suit, animate of itself. [fig. 11 and 12] The open portion of the cowl, devoid of its inhabitant, contorts into a birdlike gaping mouth, the nose piece suggesting the beak of a bird of prey, the kind which eats bats, and the extended hand is claw-like. The next page, a splash, shows Bruce bowed at the feet of the suit which is set into an alcove suggesting a sarcophagus. The suit is bathed in blue light from below, and red from above, lighting the cowl in a devilish hue, complete with ears that take on the appearance of horns.
Much like Milton’s Lucifer, “light bringer” and chief of the seraphic host, Bruce Wayne is a paragon, born into and made by both luxury and (as a product of their deaths before the ascent of his reasoning faculties) the unimpeachable nature of his parents’ character as benefactors of Gotham. In descending to the level of the criminals who claimed his parents’ lives, Batman becomes a kind of inverse of Milton’s Satan in that his “fall” from grace is made, rather, a means of ascent not to the vagaries of old monied self-righteousness, but to the super-heroics of Nietzsche’s imagination, even becoming the sole human (excepting the alien enhanced Hal Jordan, of earth as Green Lantern) in the original roster of the Justice League. It’s interesting to speculate, as street names are often used to honor comics professionals and influences within the pages of D.C. books, about the significance in Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Earth One origin story for Batman, of a street called Milton, which given its disaffected prostitute and porn shop, suggest a relationship to the Hell, if not the poetry, of Milton. [fig. 18] Ross Chiasson, too, notices this connection between Batman and the sublimity of the unholy forces which, by casting Gotham as a hell in need of harrowing, he allies himself with. Certainly these allegories are present in the above moments of Damned, and in Bruce’s candlelit declaration of war from 1939. These implication will be further explored in section four.
3: Gothic Gotham – Batman and the Urban Sublime
But what of Batman’s aesthetic considerations. His sublimity is rooted, as it must be, in something beyond the pictorial, however the conscious inclusion and evocation of the classic gothic aesthetic, even into the name of the city, Gotham, points to an influence that requires address. That the city, rather than nature, becomes the sight of sublimity, Pramod Nayar alleges, is because “Twentieth century versions of the Gothic have relocated many of these atmospheric conditions of emptiness, threatening settings and dangerous creatures to the city, as exemplified in numerous filmic and literary urban Gothic works (from thrillers like Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho to the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson and films such as Blade Runner or
Terminator)”(39). As Borup notes, in his first appearance in Detective Comics issue 27, the first two pages play as a boilerplate detective story setup, complete with gentlemen, Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon, smoking in a luxurious drawing room. Batman doesn’t appear until the third page of the story, and his arrival is signalled by a sudden darkening of the palette. He stands “static, arms folded, waiting for the two criminals that share his panel to notice him” and the narration describes him as “a third menacing figure standing behind them” suggesting, as Borup says, that he is aligned, at least in some way, with the criminals he wars against (89-90). The trope of appearing from the shadows or out of nowhere is seminally gothic, the origin, too, of the modern jump scare in horror films. Kane drew on the popular pulps of the day, like The Shadow, in his creation of the character, and as Jules Feiffer says, made conscious and quasi-cinematic use of wide angle shots and long shadows in his storytelling (Brody 115).
Some artists, like Kelley Jones, have made the conscious decision to render Batman in strict accordance with Gothic aesthetics, giving him near literal wings that have the pretense of a cape, earpieces devilishly elongated, and a build and physique like a grotesque to complement the gargoyles he often perches from to observe the city below. [fig. 13] A number of artists, Jones included, as well as Tim Sale, and Frank Miller draw Batman in poses which require the articulation, not of a human, but of literal bats or birds of prey. He is defined by his shadow, often foretold by its appearance before his real form is revealed, making him heavily indebted to Burke’s conception of the sublime, in which Batman, like Milton’s Death, seems a creature without proportion, colossal and incorporeal even as he is, in Miller’s representation, a creature of brute, earthy physicality, composed more of veins and sinew than of flesh and blood. Miller’s Batman is all gritted teeth and out of proportion musculature, and one anecdote, the source of which I’ve long since forgotten, had it that an art professor flew into a near apoplectic rage upon the release of The Dark Knight Returns, and hastily sketched a near photorealistic horse, proclaiming angrily that “this is what a horse looks like” in abject consternation at Miller’s flagrant disregard for “natural” proportion.
Tim Sale’s Batman hews closer to Jones’ albeit with a far more subdued palatte and a delicate inking process that allows for more gradations of black to further obscure and manipulate the proportions of Batman and the city. Sale plays into the long trope of Batman’s sudden appearances and disappearances, generally to the consternation of his friends. [fig. 14, 15, 20] Miller and Jim Lee also have fun with this trope, having Batman in their All Star run, sneak up on Green Lantern while he’s shining a ring into the sky and eating fast food while looking preternaturally dim. [fig. 17] Sale evokes Jones, and Gothic art more generally, too, in a sequence in which we see a large bat fly over the garden party of one of Gotham’s mafioso, Carmine Falcone. Only the narration boxes tell the reader that this is, of course, Batman himself. [fig. 16]
The city’s architecture, too, teems with Gothic reference, from the Gargoyle studded building, against which the bat-signal is projected in The Dark Knight Returns [fig. 21], to the Gargoyle he straddles while scoping out an assault on Two Face [fig. 22] to Lee Bermejo’s sumptuously illustrated leap into a city of red tinged smog from the heads of two gargoyles, suggesting his willing descent into this Hell on earth [fig. 23]. Because Batman’s heroic ability is so concentrated in his physical prowess, physicality and aesthetics become his most defining characteristics. The emphasis on shadows to hide both Batman and the mask to hide Bruce Wayne, layer his subterfuge. His ability to be both present and absent in this way, allows him, as Borup suggests, to disseminate “his presence into the criminal underground of Gotham” such that, though, “bodiless, the idea of Batman continues to fight crime even when Batman does not appear in the frame” (86). This “ability to transcend materiality” is what she argues lies at the heart of Batman’s embodiment of the sublime aesthetic (Borup 86).
Of course, Batman is not only shadowed, he is monstrous too, or grotesque. The latter word comes from the same root as “grotto” suggesting a cave dweller not unlike Batman whom Miller especially associates with the subterranean. Miller’s Batman is dirty, even fighting one villain in a mud puddle in a landfill, and in his All Star series, Batman’s cave is the subject of an eight page gatefold which encompasses some third of the book’s length and contains no story elements save Jim Lee’s dynamic pencilling of the myriad souvenirs Batman keeps in his lair. [fig. 24] Miller’s Batman, Geoff Klock argues, is grotesque in Miller’s work “in order that he may dismiss his history as souvenirs and find the will to continue” (42). Batman has to be able to reject past successes in pursuit of the long term and unreachable goal, a goal which in Miller and later in Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated, he realizes he cannot reach alone. To this end, in both he hires help, in the form of the former gang members he press-ganged into subduing chaos during the brief nuclear Winter in The Dark Knight Returns and by franchising the Batman identity and distributing Wayne Corp. funds to prospective Batmen, in Batman Incorporated.
Batman’s monstrosity, is also linked the gothic aesthetic, according to Sergio Lopez Jr.
“While gothic monstrosity concerns itself with revealing internally hidden borders, I instead frame monstrosity as beginning from the outside while its influences move inward to create monsters. Monstrosity is created through revealing what is not considered ‘normal’ through borders from dominant culture, only by establishing what is ‘normal’ can monstrosity be formed. This process of monstrosity through outside influences allows for Batman’s transformation into a gothic monster. The asylum itself changes Batman into a monster through revealing his Otherness, his relationship with sexuality and the way in which he becomes a double for Amadeus Arkham. As the environment engages him, Batman loses his humanity and the ability to be a hero as he is forced to come to terms with his place as a monster.” (Lopez Jr. 4)
Lopez here refers to Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum, a story in which Batman’s face is never seen, and in which McKean explicitly exaggerates Batman’s proportions and sets him in the background of his own tale, as he moves deeper into the mad-house which Joker has overtaken. The narrative, much like Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, sets the Joker up as a figure arguing in favour of madness as a means of living in the world. Here he argues with Batman, that his entry to the asylum is not a mission to save the doctors left there, but rather an embrace of his true, mad, self. From the first pages of the graphic novel, the reader is given a Batman with wide-set shoulders and Jones-esque pointed ears. He is first shown in complete silhouette, and remains so throughout nearly the entire story. [fig. 25 and 26] The Joker is also somewhat distanced from the reader by the garishness of his face, something like what the baby of Mr. Punch and a deformed Geisha in clown school might look like. His dialogue, as it often is in Batman comics, is diegetic to begin with, but at remove, here through a telephone, as it was through a news broadcast in his first appearance. Batman’s realization that he will have to go to the asylum, is accompanied by the Joker’s trademark ha ha has filling the lower part of the page in bloody red font. [fig. 27] This recalls a number of Joker encounters, but none more eerily than in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Death of the Family arc, wherein a chemical trace of Joker toxin, chemical symbol “Ha” is framed and reframed on the page to accentuate the taunt it represents and a fly circles in, suggesting that the Joker has been in the cave, because flies have been a motif throughout, because he’s had his severed face crudely sewn back on and the flies have swarmed to the rotting flesh below. [fig. 28]
Lopez points, also, to Batman’s relationship to Amadeus Arkham, in the Morrison/McKean story. In this comic, Arkham is driven to madness by the deaths of his own loved ones at the hands of a patient he had attempted to cure, and whose recovery formed the crux of his desire to open an asylum for the treatment of the criminally insane. As it’s revealed in the comic’s final pages, Arkham was, in fact, mad all along, and had murdered his ailing mother under the influence of a perceived psychic force that took the form of a bat. Wearing Arkham’s mother’s wedding dress, as the maddened Arkham had once, a doctor in the facility is shown to have orchestrated the inmates’ takeover in order to lure Batman in and kill the source of the madness in Gotham once and for all. [fig. 41 and 42] Other hints at connections between Batman and Arkham abound, particularly the appearance of a Tunnel of Love ride in Arkham’s memory, an oblique reference to the finale of The Dark Knight Returns, in which the climactic battle between Batman and the Joker takes place after an altercation in a funhouse filled with mirrors, another recurring motif in Arkham’s memories, here tied also to the second of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. [fig. 29] Morrison often utilizes such references to complicate his stories, and draws, too, on Frank Miller’s oft quoted description of the Batman/Joker relationship in The Dark Knight Returns that the two are a “homoerotic nightmare” an observation Morrison alludes to when the Joker repeatedly, as in Miller, refers to Batman with pet-names and even fondles Batman’s buttock, impelling him to “loosen up, Tight Ass!” [fig. 30] Joker also teases Batman during the administering, by one of the two remaining doctors, of a Rorschach test. Batman sees a bat but refuses to acknowledge this, and Joker remonstrates with him, asking if he at least sees a “cute little long-legged boy in swimming trunks” clearly alluding to the homoerotic subtext which influential psychologist, Frederic Wertham read into the character in his book Seduction of the Innocent and his congressional testimony on juvenile delinquency which led to the introduction of the comics code. [fig. 31] Arkham’s connection to Batman is also alluded to by the classic villain Mad Hatter, who sits puffing on a hookah like Carroll’s caterpillar, and describes Arkham (the asylum), but also, subtextually, the man, as a looking glass with Batman gazing in, and those inside, looking back. [fig. 32]
Batman’s relationship to the city is also of symbolic importance, because in a number of his stories, Batman sees himself reflected in the city, in its potential and its iniquity. Arkham may be a microcosm of the city, and of Batman, too, but Batman operates on the scale of the city. In Snyder and Capullo’s run on the series, the first issue is set to a running narration of Batman discussing a column in a Gotham newspaper entitled “Gotham is” in which readers send in pithy metaphors for the city as a whole. Some send in Batman, others Joker, or Two Face, and Snyder’s Batman dissects the psychological reasons for all of these answers. Batman believes, at the start of the Court of Owls story, that he knows Gotham, and is forced to conclude by the end, that he does not, that he cannot. The Court of Owls are a group of super-wealthy citizens who have controlled Gotham from the shadows since time immemorial and whose existence Batman denies until he is faced with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, the presence of their hideouts in buildings throughout the city, all built by Bruce’s own grandfather. Snyder plays with the imagery, here, because Owls eat bats and often make nests in the homes of their prey. At a masterclass I attended personally, Snyder explained the genesis for his conception of Batman’s uneasy and complex relationship with Gotham, in the context of his own school days in New York City, during which the city, as he saw it, seemed to shift and change even as he turned his back, old restaurants closing and new dry-cleaners popping up. The relationship to Batman, of course, Snyder found in Batman’s knee-jerk refusal to accept that Gotham is multifarious and while knowable, is constantly changing, so that the Batman must change as well. This is meta-textually evident too, because the character has gone through so many disparate iterations in his near eighty year history.
This relationship to Gotham is also made much of in Tom King’s first story arc, I Am Gotham, about Batman reckoning with his place in the city after the arrival of two new heroes with Superman-like power-sets. Riding a Plane he’s prevented from crashing into the Gotham harbor, he harkens back to Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and his repeated mention of what would be “a good death”. King’s Batman asks Alfred over the coms, whether dying to save the plane would be a good death, and Alfred concurs. Danny Finch zooms out, showing the plane, with the minuscule Batman astride it, crashing, flaming, into the bay, and then in a two shot, zooms back in, showing just the nose dip into the water before rising again in the subsequent half panel. The reader doesn’t get to watch Batman’s final resolve to a good death melt away as the plane suddenly lifts, only the perfunctory word balloon “Clark?”. [fig. 19] Faced with the two new heroes who bear the city’s name and effectively order Batman into retirement, he is faced with a sudden conflict as he is no longer able, for the moment, to be the sole costumed embodiment of Gotham, and he’s forced to ask, too, whether Gotham deserves heroes more like Superman who represent their best, rather than their dark side.
4: Ragnarök – Are Batman and the Joker Destined to Do this Forever.
We turn now, to the relationship between Batman and the Joker, which requires the preface that Batman’s rogues gallery is perhaps unique in superhero comics because its villains function as studies in human nature. As he has developed, Batman has gotten further away from the generic gun toting thug and nazi fighting antics of WWII era heroism, in part initiating the vogue for costumed villainy to match costumed heroics, which became the stock and trade of the superhero genre. Batman’s rogues gallery is composed of figures, like himself, who are embodiments of contradictory human impetuses. Two Face is Batman’s obverse, a fallen man of justice turned to either an outright villain or a morally ambiguous psychopath whose decisions are based, not on principle, but on luck. The Joker, when he is given a backstory, is similarly fallen, press-ganged into a failed robbery from which his egress is into a vat of chemicals which reform him from failed comedian into a clown prince of crime.
As such, an easy reading of the relationship between Batman and the Joker would be of the Messiah and the Devil, however, as we’ve noted already, Batman has his own satanic aspects. In many ways, as the Mad Hatter suggests all his villains do in Arkham Asylum, Batman and the Joker are mirrors of one another, a parallelism that Eric Doise reads heavily into The Killing Joke. Obviously this trope has played out in a number of comics, as well as in the films, particularly The Dark Knight, on which Doise quotes Slavoj Žižek saying “he [the Joker] is not a man without a mask, but, on the contrary, a man fully identified with his mask, a man who is his mask–there is nothing, no ‘ordinary guy,’ beneath it” (7). Joker represents, in his own mind, the possibility of what “one bad day” can do to a person, an effect he tries to replicate in The Killing Joke with Jim Gordon, by stripping and photographing the comatose and paralysed Barbara Gordon before subjecting him to a sexually disturbing Carnival ride through the images while Gordon is handled by what appear to be deformed munchkins in drag. [fig. 33-35] That the end result of this carnival of horrors is not, as Joker suspects, a surrender to madness on Gordon’s part, but, rather, the command he gives to Batman not to kill the Joker and show him that their method, Gordon’s and Batman’s, of living in the world can work, points to the differences as well as the similarities between them. Batman is unique in his understanding of the Joker and, the Joker at least, sees his existence as contingent with Batman’s, even lapsing into a decade long period of somnolence in the wake of his retirement in The Dark Knight Returns. Joker’s motivation is to beat the Batman at what he perceives to be his game. As Borup notes, “When Batman taunts the Joker, his taunts directly inspire the Joker to commit intricate, damaging criminal acts. (102)” The Joker, she argues
knows that threatening Batman’s reputation will be more damaging to the hero than any physical confrontation could be (“Shooting him would only make him more of a hero, a martyr!”) so he manipulates Batman’s audience. Were the Joker to discredit Batman’s powers of reason, he would undermine the basic structure of Batman’s authority, denying Batman access to the sublime logic that upholds heroic power. (102)
By performing elaborate crimes that publicly challenge Batman’s ability, the Joker invites the public to treat his genocidal acts as spectacle, and to root for Batman and be disappointed by his failures, as much as they rejoice in his successes. He seeks, in effect, to turn the Batman’s war on crime into a tawdry performance in order to reveal the true extent of human iniquity. Having no option to take a break from his secondary identity, having fully been subsumed by the Joker, he is alternately jealous and angry at Batman for his dual life, often taunting that he wants to see under the mask, but unable to bring himself to do so for fear of losing his drive in life. In Azzarello and Bermejo’s Joker, the title character taunts, questioning Batman as to why he longs to be seen as a monster but leaves a window to his mouth, showing “not the jaw, the mouth of a monster” and Batman replies with a smile, for once, to Joker’s grimace, “to mock you.” [fig. 36 and 37]
Chris Gaveler sees the conflict between Joker and Batman in light of an insight borrowed from his father that, the Biblical story, outlined in Revelation and passed down orally through Catholic liturgy, of Saint Michael doing Battle with Satan in the form of the dragon (26). Morrison references the story directly in Arkham Asylum wherein Amadeus Arkham placed a statue of Michael doing battle with the Dragon atop the asylum “an image of the triumph of Reason over the irrational.” [fig. 38] The narration returns, referring to the story and overlaid over Batman’s battle with Killer Croc, near the story’s close. [fig. 39] Batman is thrown from a window of the house, his fall set alongside Arkham’s narration of his own encounter with the sublime, with the reality of his madness and the image of the bat which has plagued him all along. Arkham says he has “no anchor” as Batman grasps a ledge, and Arkham “panic-stricken” flees as Batman, his cape seeming to stretch out like mighty wings pulls himself onto the ledge and perches, birdlike before the gaping mouth of a bird grotesque. [fig. 40] As it turns out the Joker didn’t orchestrate the entire plot, Batman quips to the maddened doctor, “I…I’m just a man” to which the doctor replies, that Arkham wasn’t mad, knowing instinctively that only magic could contain the bat, only the asylum with all its secrets and sorrows. [fig. 42] In one of the few moments where we do see Batman not as silhouette, but with some semblance of humanity, an unshadowed jaw, the reader is shown Batman alongside a picture of Jesus of Nazareth, suggesting, again, some amount of divine embodiment to counter the monstrous sublimity which his costume presents, even, earlier on the same page, seeming to stretch yet more, the shoulders to curl, the ears to lengthen, and the forearm blades to protrude like demonic appendages.
Batman’s sublimity can also be secular, specifically, Michael Nichols suggests in his paper on Batman’s relationship to the Joker, it can harken back to ancient weather deities. He says “the perennial appeal of Batman and the Joker may lie in its redeployment of ancient religious paradigms” (2). He goes on to suggest that the endurance of Batman as a modern myth lies, as with all successfully transmitted stories, in its reinvention of classic paradigms like the combat myth touched on by Gaveler, to “specifically American situations” although I would argue the profusion of British writers with seminal runs on the character points, rather, to a broader appeal to the English speaking world (2). That such a dynamic is in play, is certainly suggested by the seminal encounter between Batman and what turns out to be a Joker decoy in Arkham Asylum in Moore and Bolland’s Killing Joke, during which Batman implores him to cease their endless battle in which, inevitably Batman believes, one of them will have to kill the other. This speech was the basis for the one at the climax of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, paraphrased for the title of this section. Summarizing the combat myth, Nichols outlines four stages
First, a monster–frequently a dragon or other reptilian creature somehow associated
with water–arises to threaten the established cosmological and societal order. Second, a
hero/god, often associated with the sky and storms, confronts the monster and defends the imperiled order. (8) Third, the god defeats the monster, which is either dismembered or pushed back to its watery realm, reestablishing order. Fourth, as conveyed by the
corresponding ritual traditions in each of the cultures mentioned above, the monster returns or there is a perpetual fear that it will. (Nichols 2)
Nichols goes on to articulate various ways in which battles between Batman and the Joker have evoked these tropes, and I will supplement them here. The most notable treatments are those of Frank Miller, the cover to whose The Dark Knight Returns issue 1 shows Batman, iconically silhouetted in controlled leap before a bolt of lightning. [fig. 47] Miller often allies Batman to oncoming storms, particularly when he first returns and the city which has been in a heat wave finally sees the clouds burst just as Batman bursts through a window to halt his first crime. [fig. 43] Miller uses the trope again several times in All Star, where Batman runs in the fore as red lightning strikes behind and calls it a hunter’s night. [fig. 45] This refers back to a moment in the final chapter of The Dark Knight Returns, where Carrie, the Robin of the hour, says “only feels like there’s a storm coming. It’s just his voice.” [fig. 48] The lightning recurs in All Star too, when Alfred, holding the punching bag as Bruce trains, thinks back to the night of the Waynes’ murders, imagining Martha see “him become a demon.” [fig. 46] And again, the lightning flashes blue behind a windblown and fearful Robin and weeping Batman who realizes that he’s pushed the boy too hard. [fig. 44] The monster that the storm god Batman must fight, of course, is Joker, who while you could reduce him to the merely satanic, seems to fit, as Nichols argues, broader trends in water associated demons throughout cultural history. Remarking on Joker’s similarity to other monsters from history, including Grendel, Tiamat, and Vritra, all of whom emerge from water, Nichols suggests water is the ideal element to represent chaos, tying them to the dragon of Revelation who emerges from and slinks back into the sea, as does the anti-christ in the same book (5). Nichols questions whether Batman’s numerous creative forces have been aware of the tropes from which they draw, and I would argue the answer is a resounding yes, certainly in the case of his most recent writers, most of whom both college educated and avowedly voracious readers and students of many disciplines. Moore, for example, is a practicing magician, as is Morrison. Golden age creators like Gardner Fox were also polymathic by inclination. That the Joker is tied to water as in the tradition Nichols lays out, is inarguable if one glances but briefly over the character’s history. His plots often involve the introduction of poison to Gotham’s water supply. His origin, when he has one, is to have fallen into a chemical vat and to emerge in Gotham’s river, only fully understanding the transformation he has undergone when he sees his face and laughs his first Joker laugh. And in a remarkable page from Snyder and Capullo’s run on the series, the Joker emerges from the waters of the Bat-cave looking as deformed and mad as Grendel. [fig. 49] The source, in Snyder and Capullo, of Joker’s longevity and constant return even from the brink of death, is tied to his discovery of a chemically saturated supply of water which has fused with him to make him nigh immortal.
Which brings us to the final condition of the combat myth as outlined by Nichols, namely that the villain must return again and again, or at least be feared to do so. That this is the case is self-evident in the character’s almost 80 year history of returning to menace the Batman. To an extent, then, the sublime nature which many have found Batman emblematic of, is intimately tied to his greatest foe, The Joker. The two lend one another the quasi mythic status of immortals, returning again and again to battle and retreat like the departed warriors of the Norse Valhalla, with no hope of their ever being a final Ragnarök.
As this paper demonstrates, Batman is doubtless a modern example of sublimity in fiction, in the Longinian sense. The cadence of his best stories is endlessly repeated even in the poorest stories from his eighty year publication history. Like Homeric poetry, Batman has evolved and changed orally, and been translated, not only into other languages, but other media, and other versions of himself, all of which have influenced the others in a complex way. Stan Lee and Will Eisner are alike in seeing sequential narrative as the medium for contemporary myth, and the former’s collaboration with Jack Kirby on the Thor comics, should at least suggest that the view isn’t poorly founded. Batman, to borrow from the Beatles, is probably more uniformly understood and beloved than the Christian God, and I would bet money he’s had more shirts printed and eclipsed the box office of any religious film. In part, this is because Batman has had both time and page space to appropriate those tropes of classical storytelling and religion which most adhere to society’s consciousness, and to inculcate them into a figure of popular entertainment. If this paper demonstrates nothing else, Batman is sublime for being able to assume these elements and symbols and produce new stories from them, though this writer may, admittedly, be biased as one of the millions, perhaps billions of children whose personal cosmology has formed around the Batman.
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