Paris Hilton : Bruce Wayne :: Roosevelt : The Bat-Man

>> Monday, February 08, 2010

Timothy Burke's post on how characters who originated during a particular cultural moment in the first half of the Twentieth Century are incapable of escaping it is compelling:

Batman (and most other comic-book and pulp characters from the time of his original appearance) draws a lot of his basic storytelling and setting from a moment when middle-class and working-class Americans were enmeshed in a complex national encounter with crime, law enforcement, corruption and Prohibition: a helpless frustration that the state couldn’t control organized violence and illegal commerce combined with a thrill at the lurid spectacle of gangster criminality and in more than a few cases, direct participation in an illicit economy of leisure that exposed the ludicrousness of middle-class respectability. One of the commenters on the Varney article very incisively observes that the result is that the Batman character is forever trapped fighting “Italian-American gangsters in pinstripe suits and crazy circus folk.”

However, drawing on expertise I can't legitimately claim, I think it's wrong. "The Bat-Man" (as he was then called) first appeared in Detective Comics 27, published in May of 1939, six years after Prohibition had been repealed, but two years before military mobilization would help the American economy recover the losses of the Recession of 1937. The economic situation was bleak, but the violence associated with Prohibition had so abated that even Dick Tracy was being re-purposed to fight threats abroad. The pulp aesthetic still appealed to the popular imagination, but its villains had become more myth than menace, which is why I would argue the appeal of Bruce Wayne in 1939 had more to do with the "helpless frustration" created by the depressed economic climate. Wayne is, after all, introduced to the reader as that most pointless and contemptible of people:

He may be the dullest socialite ever, hanging out with Commissioner Gordon deep into the night, but he still represents the only upper-class figure commonly reviled by anyone with any political affiliation: the idle rich. Even the feigned ennui in these panels is designed to play upon a deep annoyance with people who have no cares and care about nothing:

Did the Bat-Man become a popular character because the largely middle-class children who read comics wanted to see a wealthy man beat up, down, and upon common criminals? Not really. I don't think we can underestimate the potential appeal of believing that the Paris Hiltons of the Great Depression secretly deserved the air they breathed. Roosevelt's popularity was due, in part, to the image of him as a patrician who cared. He could have weathered the Depression on the strength of his family's fortune, but he believed in social responsibility (or so the story went). The socialite-as-secret-hero narrative almost reads like a deliberate attempt to cure a literary-naturalist hangover: the robber barons and their idle children had been savaged for the better part of three decades, but with the Roosevelt's rise to national prominence, a new mode for what had become an archetypal villain became possible.

But something would have to motivate this rehabilitation, and in this case, that something was the scion of one set of villains being victimized by the figure of another: for these models to pass into history, they would have to be dispatched. So while Bruce Wayne's parents were shot by a gangster, we first learn of that in a brief flashback in Detective Comics 33, an issue in which the majority of the story concerns the Bat-Man destroying a laser-armed "Dirigible of Doom" that killed thousands of New Yorkers (i.e. one stock villain guns down another in order to cultivate narrative space for weaponized blimps). Five issues later, the Bat-Man acquires a Boy Wonder and begins his long descent into Adam West. The dark, brooding figure from the early issues would not return until Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams took over Detective Comics in January of 1970, so it seems strange to ascribe, as Timothy does, the 30 years of popularity enjoyed by the character's camp incarnation to "the lurid spectacle of gangster criminality."

In fact, the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne are, for long stretches, the only lurid spectacles associated with the character; but they are, I would argue, the enduring source of his appeal. Every time the franchise enters the doldrums, Thomas and Martha are dug up and shot down again, because their deaths are the Greek tragedy responsible for the character's malleability. Although we speak of the character in the singular, as Warren Ellis demonstrated via Planetary in 2000, doing so makes little sense. The only thing all these characters have in common is a pair of dead parents; other than that, each iteration is retrofitted to suit the particular needs of a particular historical context.

All of which is only to say that while the criminals he fights may still look like gangsters, they only do so superficially. As to Timothy's larger point:

So where is our contemporary Batman or Shadow or Doc Savage or Dick Tracy to counter Dennis Kozlowski, Kenneth Lay, or Joseph Cassano, our 21st Century Prunefaces and Jokers, a character born not from the trauma of a street crime mugging but of a family or town destroyed by unaccountable individuals and institutions? It’s time for a new cycle of mythmaking even as we continue to enjoy the recycling of old ones.
I think someone really needs to start watching Leverage.


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