A bit of a thought experiment here: quickly name, off the top of your head, the most compelling characters in American literature, film, and television. Here’s what I came up with in about three minutes of thinking: Ahab, Huck Finn, Scout Finch, Charles Foster “Citizen” Kane, Ellen Ripley, Lucy Ricardo, Don Draper, Holden Caulfield, Rocky Balboa, Kunta Kinte, Tony Soprano, Natty Bumppo, and Nancy Drew. You’ll probably come up with a better list. Nevertheless, all of these characters are fantastic and iconic for reasons that don’t need mentioning. I’m sure I missed a bunch of great characters (it’s certainly not all that multicultural of a list, either), but none of them compare to America’s most quintessential creation: Batman.
A major advantage Batman holds over his rivals is that his origin and subsequent character explorations primarily exist in an artistic medium that is serially open-ended: the comic book. Comic books are one of the most unique methods of storytelling to ever exist, and the medium is one of the most genius forms of American entertainment, certainly on par with the likes of rock and roll and baseball. The characters born in novels and film certainly can’t compete with the quasi-eternal narrative arc that comics possess; television can come close, but even the best dramas, and the characters therein, tend to wane in their capacity to entertain after a half-dozen or so seasons. Being that comics are serial and mostly open-ended in their narrative scope, the characters that inhabit their pages must constantly evolve in order to cater to the demanding needs of their audience. Such considerations are a brutal proving ground; characters that don’t compel and satiate a publisher’s demands are, for better or worse, swallowed by a gluttonous (and overloaded) comic oblivion. Hundreds of new characters are introduced every year, only a few are granted their own titles, and only a select few of those have issues that persist longer than a year. Batman has not only survived this savage environment, he has thrived in it. But “thrive” doesn’t adequately describe Batman’s thumbprint on the comic book megaverse. Batman dominates the megaverse.
In June of 2014, Batman outsold the next closest competitor (The Amazing Spider-Man) by more than 20,000 (!) issues. His titles account for the vast majority of DC’s sales (I didn’t do all the math, but a quick eyeballing of comic sales has to be over 60%). And this doesn’t account for Batman’s cross-cultural forays, a leap no other comic character has ever attempted, much less been successful with. There’s the long-running Batman television series that starred Adam West and Burt Ward, the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher film iterations (of varying quality) starting in 1989 (the first Burton film is still the most monumental pop-culture event that has taken place in my lifetime), and the excellent trilogy of critical and commercially successful films by Christopher Nolan. And I still haven’t talked about Batman: The Animated Series, a show so aesthetically pleasing that it was a hit on prime-time television. What about his super-heroic peers? The demi-god outsider Superman? The “everyman” pathos of Spider-Man? They don’t even rate. Although both have fantastic arcs and are compelling characters in the right hands, neither can hope to equal the epic scope of a character grounded in relatable verisimilitude. Batman’s limitations and lack of super-powers are a storytelling advantage; he does more with less. The middling critical and commercial successes of Superman and Spider-Man in their cross-media ventures are a damning proclamation of their inability to compare to Batman’s conquering wave. The numbers and range of media triumphs tell a definitive story: Batman is a comic icon without peer.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Sure, Batman reigns supreme in his own realm, but how does he stack up against characters across the spectrum of American entertainment? Let’s return to comics, television, and film for a second to ask another important question: what are the elements that make Batman so compelling? So compelling, in fact, that we have to return to him thousands, even tens of thousands, of times in various forms of media? Why, after seventy-five years of his story, does he still fascinate so many? Because he is human. Not only is Batman human, he is the manifestation of conflicting philosophies made flesh. There’s his use of unlawful violence to stop crime, his spurning of authority while simultaneously working with it, his thirst for control that continually damages needed relationships. In essence, he is the perfect vessel for dramatic exploration.
We all know the origin: Bruce Wayne’s parents were gunned down in Crime Alley and Batman would eventually rise from the ashes of that urban nightmare. An easy dramatic path would be that Batman eventually finds the killer of his parents and there would be some type of cathartic closure (some arcs, much to the detriment of the overall Batman narrative, name the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents as Joe Chill or even the Joker; admittedly, these arcs significantly weaken the strength of Batman’s character and his quest). The best arcs and the overall continuity of Batman, however, work best when the killers of his parents are two abstract metaphors: crime and injustice, both born from the dark interstices of urbanized civilization. The abstraction of these metaphors is the cradle for Batman’s tragic, and most compelling, dramatic conflict. Batman isn’t fighting a singular person or a villain or an underworld crime syndicate. He’s fighting an idea. And Batman will never win that fight.
The inability to stamp Batman’s “holy war” against crime and injustice with any kind of finality ratchets the intensity of his character to an otherworldly degree. This is the reason why Batman is, and always will be, such a compelling figure. He’s obsessive to the point of insanity. No matter how many times he punches the Joker or foils Two Face, his parents aren’t coming back. He will never be whole; he will never just be billionaire-playboy Bruce Wayne. Crime and injustice will still soak the blotter. And yet he continues to rage against a set of circumstances that is akin to the drama in Albert Camus’s The Stranger. One side of Batman, like The Stranger, functions as an exploration of how the earth is a random collection of variables and that our want to define it with an ordered classification, with a higher “meaning,” is ultimately futile. Batman’s developed concepts and ethical concerns (such as his refusal to kill and use guns) are just grist for an all-devouring mill, a force that is indefinable and uncaring. He’s pathetic and quixotic and consumed and still we watch a man who has taken genius and obsession to such macro-levels of efficiency and artifice. So why do we watch? Because the other side of him still thinks, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he can win. Batman’s hubris in the face of entropic abstraction is noble. Overreaching and foolish, yes, but still noble. Of course, it’s also tragic. And tragedy is the essence of what it means to be human. We wait for the comeuppance, the final encounter that spells his downfall. Because, despite his qualification as a “superhero,” he’s a human in over his head (and this runs counter to the airs he presents to other super-heroic peers). He’s going to lose; he’s going to die. But when?
These questions of the tragic/temporal sort naturally lead to discussions about character longevity and ultimate canonical importance. There are two reasons why Batman outshines other American creations: universality and malleability. Although Batman carries with him traits that define many of the above-mentioned characters of American entertainment (a conquering self-determination, an affinity for the underdog, engaging in philanthropic gestures, etc.), he isn’t tied down by a particular context, historical era, or set of cultural mores. He even manages to (mostly) transcend Joseph Campbell’s idea of the archetypical hero in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in that his identity isn’t defined by a mythological, religious, or overtly moralistic scaffolding. Batman simply is. Gotham City and the urban horrors it possesses could just as easily be Old Testament Babylon or 17th century London or feudal Tokyo or Renaissance Milan; the only thing Batman needs to exist is a place where crime and some form of human proximity meet (i.e. pretty much anywhere in the world at any time). Sure, maybe Ahab could hunt mastodons in prehistoric Eurasia and maybe Scout would be at home during apartheid-era South Africa, but their character traits (fantastic though they may be) are mostly tied to very specific period concerns and the dramatic contexts that are contained therein. Ahab needs a specific and overwhelming quarry, plenty of space to chase it, and a highly developed and dismissive civilization in order to shine; Scout needs a society where racial inequality is at a crossroad while she’s burdened with the albatross that is coming-of-age. Batman doesn’t need such intricacies. His psychology is rooted in primal obsession and its tragic consequences. He is universal but clearly defined.
It’s this clear definition that creates Batman’s intrinsic malleability. What I mean by “malleability” is that Batman is whatever the audience wants him to be. It’s one of the reasons why I loved him at the age of four and still love him to this day. To the young, he’s a costumed do-gooder, a flashy hero who rights wrongs in wide swaths of black and white. He’s an active and clearly rendered “good guy.” To the older, more refined audiences, he is the tortured soul, an anti-hero and vigilante perpetually awash in shades of gray. His tragic epic is Shakespearean in breadth and scope. Show a four-year old the exploits of Tony Soprano and they’ll be confused and disturbed. A grade-schooler will find the exploits of Holden Caulfield and Hester Prynne downright boring. And college-age readers will roll their cynical eyes at the clean-cut adventures of Nancy Drew and her Hardy Boy compatriots. But Batman has the potential to entrance all of these demographics. It is not hyperbole to say that Batman is in the same league as Achilles, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and Robin Hood. This is why you can go to pretty much any corner of the globe and people will know who Batman is. And it’s not the monoculture created by America (and its allies in a “World Economy”) that is responsible for the phenomenon that is Batman’s universal popularity. Don Draper and Huck Finn are far too saturated in cultural nuance to be fully understood by a person in Pakistan or Brazil. But they can grasp Batman. Not because the audiences are unsophisticated or the character’s simple (Batman’s anything but), but because his bare essence of obsession and tragedy is easily translatable. Such malleability is why Batman will exist as long as people tell stories.
In the final chapter of Cosmic Odyssey, Batman battles a reanimated minion of Darkseid in order to save the planet. Batman is bloodied and nearly beaten. Seconds tick off a bomb that will rupture planet Earth and replace it with Anti-Life. The reanimated minion, an alien “dog soldier” possessing supernatural strength and speed, says to a prone Batman, “Why do you persist in these futile efforts, mortal?” But Batman gets up. He says to himself, “‘No way’ is a term I long ago learned had no meaning. As long as there’s life and hope, there’s a way.” It’s the human condition in a nutshell. And guess what happened? The DC Universe still stands. But how much longer can Batman win? I will be reading with the rest of you to find out.
Check back soon for Life and Death in Increments of Iron!!!!!!!!!! It’s about lifting weights (and soooooo much more)!