Caped Fear


Dear Detective Comics,

My name is David, and I have come to America from Israel four months ago. My father was invited to work here for two years. Back in Israel, and now here, I love your comics a lot, and I wonder why don’t you send Batman to Israel to solve the Palestinian-Israeli problems. Believe me, we need someone like Batman in the Middle East. Thank you very much. —David

I have a confession.

And no, my name’s not secretly David. I found this letter printed in the back of Detective Comics, late-June ’93 edition, while doing some Batman “research.” Despite its disarming naïveté, I’m not sure that the Middle East needs more obsessive, cave-dwelling vigilantes consumed with vengeance. Nevertheless, David will belatedly get his wish when the fifth film in the comic-book franchise, Batman Begins, starts its international theatrical run. But I know how he felt: I could’ve used a Separation Wall when I was a kid.

Oh, right, my confession:

There were no girls sitting at my eighth-grade lunchroom table. Not that there would’ve been room for any. Or for lunch, come to think of it. Instead, tattered sheets of notebook paper covered the green Formica. That these flimsy pages were filled with half-baked but painstakingly rendered (16 lines tall, son!) comic-book sketches fresh from my dizzy head made it easier to ignore the impact of aluminum foil balls on the back of my skull. Unless, of course, those neophyte marksmen left their bread crusts crumpled inside. Then it kinda hurt. Hence the need for a barrier, or at least a clearly marked demilitarized zone.

This was 1993—a dismal time for bookish young fantasists, and not merely because of the dangers inherent in cafeteria critiques. You could hardly flip a page without finding a beaten, bloodied pulp depiction of your favorite superhero. Doomsday bells tolled for even the most famous of all caped crusaders, Superman, in the guise of an overmuscled, sub-eloquent beast named, well, Doomsday. Some cried sacrilege. I collected multiple copies.

But what chilled every pitiless, capitalist bone in my body was the literal breaking of the Batman in the pages of DC Comics. In that year’s story arc,”Knightfall,” Batman fell victim to the machinations of Bane, a philosophical, drug-addled supervillain who loosed every criminal from Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum, forcing Bats to round up all his old collars—Joker, Two-Face, Riddler, and others—before the final fight. Having watched Batman devote his life to inspiring fear in his prey, I blanched to see him go limp with terror at Bane’s discovery of his dual identity. Bane broke Batman’s back with all the grace and ease of Bo Jackson snapping his baseball bat. And with it, what some might call my childlike innocence.

Let me explain.

I’ve always been Batman. Or rather, I was always a Bat-freak. Nearly everyone has pledged allegiance to a superhero at one time or another. My father was an Aquaman-Antman kind of guy, and my uncle was partial to the enveloping aura of Mr. Fantastic. I took after their closest cousin, Dan, with whom I share an affinity for certain winged mammals and men who dress like them. In much the same way that fans claim a favorite superhero, those devoted enough to one in particular can surely state their fave from among the hero’s many renderings. And few superheroes have had more iterations than Batman.

“My theory is that there have been about five Batmans,” said longtime Batman editor Denny O’Neil in a 1991 interview, “and I don’t have any quarrel with any one of them. They were all right for their time, for the sensibility of the audience—or the perceived sensibility of the audience.” There’s the ur-Bat: Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s May 1939 co-creation, then but one in a line of archetyped idealistic aristocrats (like Zorro and the Shadow) who deigned to protect the ordinary by solving crimes and busting perps while wearing flattering tights. But Bruce Wayne’s traumatic backstory (he witnessed the murder of his parents at a young age) wasn’t an original element; Finger added it six months later, articulating Batman’s vigilante quest with psychological pathos and Sisyphean resolve. Birthed from a miasma of pain and fear, Batman sought to inflict both on Gotham’s criminal populace.

From then on, Bats contained multitudes. His solemnity was lightened by the arrival of hi s gymnastically inclined companion Robin, which—holler if you hear me, Messrs. SquarePants and starfish—sent conservative-minded gaydar ludicrously haywire. Dr. Frederic Wertham, the psychiatrist so expertly rebuked by critic Robert Warshow, called Batman and Robin ‘s relationship a “wish dream” of homosexuality in 1954, a charge which, though leveled in the pejorative sense, actually sounds kinda nice. Regardless, for a brief period in the late ’50s and early ’60s, a gentler Batman tripped the light intergalactic, fighting an array of bizarre sci-fi baddies (in pulp camp stories like “The Valley of the Giant Bees” and “The Caveman Batman”). Necessitated by the establishment of the censorious, legally inert Comics Code Authority, this credibility-stretching move came partly as a response to Wertham’s crusade, which doomed urban-detective story lines. The fundamental change to Batman’s bleak nature was reflected in the KAPOW!erfully campy TV series—watching villains like Frank Gorshin’s Riddler was more irresistible to me than mainlining Fun Dip. O’Neil and Neal Adams finally returned Batman to his grim glory in the 1970s.

But Batman literally ends and begins with Frank Miller. His 1986 The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One—the DC-sanctioned omega and alpha of Bat stories—redefined not only the “grim and gritty” nature of Gotham’s volunteer vigilante but the comic form itself. Miller, while savagely satirizing Reagan-era America, eerily radicalized Batman’s vengeful quest: In Dark Knight, even Superman called Batman’s anti-crime crusade “a holy war.”

Now, eight years after Joel Schumacher’s Gay-Glo movie bomb Batman & Robin, Christopher Nolan has undertaken chiropteran directorial duties. If there’s a Bat for every time, as O’Neil suggests, what does ours look like?

Let’s see . . . a wastrel with bottomless bags of cash, tormented by the desire to honor his family legacy, out to change the world through stubborn force of will by utilizing the power of fear to distort, disorient, and thus control his enemies? Sounds like B . . . ruce Wayne to me! (Jaws may drop when Rutger Hauer tells lil’ Brucie, “We’ll be watching the empire. When you grow up, it’ll be waiting for you.”) In all seriousness, fearmongering has always been an attractive part of the Batman ethos. Attractive because it wasn’t just fear itself but an iconographic idea of fear that Batman used to scare the shit out of criminals, “a superstitious and cowardly lot.” Attractive because we’re always looking through the cowl—we’re behind the mask with him.

But what happens when we’re the ones stricken with fear—when we’re the superstitious and cowardly lot?

Fear, and the power to control it, is the leitmotif of Nolan’s Batman Begins, but also of The Power of Nightmares—a three-hour BBC documentary delineating the similarities between Islamic fundamentalists and American neo-conservatives’ promotion of fear, directed by another Brit, Adam Curtis. In the picture Curtis paints, both neocons and Islamists cook up powerful, easily digestible myths—images of absolute evil—as eternal foils against which they must set their own philosophies, lest they collapse under the weight of their own radicalism. Here again, it is the idea itself, whether depraved Western liberalism, devious Communism, or a shadowy global network of terror cells poised to strike, that poses the fantastical threat.

Holy insidious mythmaking, Batman!

A recurring line of narration in Curtis’s film runs, “Those with the darkest nightmares become most powerful,” a cautionary proverb fit for Batman Begins as well, particularly suited for delivery by Liam Neeson’s Wayne trainer Henri Ducard. Neeson’s character is rich with such dark gems: “Theatricality and deception are powerful opponents. . . . Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding. . . . To conquer fear you must bask in the fears of other men.” The most chilling line comes late, courtesy of the leader of the film’s ancient terrorist organization, who threatens that, as with Rome, “every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence,” they are there to hit the restart button.

Culture versus anarchy. Know anybody else who wants to set this decadent, imperialist civilization back to zero?

Hmm . . . maybe it’s time I write a letter . . .

Pete L’Official was born in New York, and has written for The Village Voice, Salon, and The Brooklyn Rail.