There is a man who dresses in a giant bat costume and adopts children to fight in a never ending war against some of the worst criminals on Earth.
From that description, one would not assume that that man is also one of the most enduring, well known and influential heroes in the history of pop culture.
Therein lies the incredible oxymoron that is Bruce Wayne.
He owns a manor yet spends his time in a cave. Maybe the best place for this so-called Batman is with the other costumed freaks in Arkham Asylum.
It’s a subject that has been brought up by The Joker multiple times over the years – Batman is more like his enemies than he would ever care to admit. Behind his powerful sense of justice lies decades of anger, underneath the cowl lies a scared boy who longs for his parents. Fear and anger sound more like the motivations of a serial killer than a tried and true superhero.
To quote Yoda: Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering. A Jedi Knight, Bruce Wayne is not.
A key element to the character is that he is able to turn these negative emotions in to positive reinforcements. A young Bruce Wayne had a fear of bats and in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One we see the moment where he decides to harness that childhood fear, turn it on its head and strengthen himself against the villains of Gotham.
Since then he has become more than a man; an almost mythical symbol of justice, instantly striking fear in to the heart of any street thug. He is fear incarnate.
Batman’s obsessive compulsive nature is something that is both a good and bad thing.
Regularly going for days without sleep is not healthy for anyone, let alone a man who literally has a target on his chest from every super villain in town. Lack of sleep is known to cause delusions and paranoia that can gravely affect the brain even after a normal sleeping pattern is restored. Bruce’s complete and total paranoia is perhaps best displayed in Mark Waid’s JLA: Tower of Babel. Batman’s archnemesis Ra’s Al Ghul steals files from the Bat computer that allow the ancient immortal villain to eliminate the Justice League of America, one by one. That’s right, Batman is so paranoid, he created contingency plans for the entire JLA, in case they ever turn rogue. These plans are executed by the Al Ghul family and the story arc climaxes with Batman’s expulsion from the League.
However, this compulsion also compliments his attention to detail and detective skills. Perhaps a man can only become The World’s Greatest Detective if he is abnormally dedicated to his work?
This trait is seen in other similar fictional characters, from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to CSI‘s Gill Grissom. Anyone who has become the best in the world at something has made great sacrifices in the name of their work. This is true for athletes, writers, scientists and Batman. Maybe it’s not an unhealthy characteristic, it may be the only way to become truly brilliant.
In an interview with BBC’s Comics Britannia, Alan Moore described his iconic Watchmen character Rorschach (real name Walter Kovacs) as a real world interpretation of Batman – a revenge fueled vigilante. Rorschach is driven to a fault, being the only non-government-sanctioned costumed “hero” who had refused to hang it up at the beginning of Watchmen. His sense of justice is also amplified as he brutally punishes any perpetrator he encounters.
While he may not take it to the right-wing extremes of Walter Kovacs, Bruce Wayne is compelled to clean up every street of DC’s most infamous city.
Both characters’ unstable mental states stem from traumatic childhoods. Bruce saw his parents gunned down in front of him and the combination of Rorschach’s abusive mother & his witness of the two brutal murders of Kitty Genovese and Blair Roche.
So the question is, if Batman existed in the real world, would he be the man he is or end up more like Rorschach?
Another of Batman’s defining traits, and one that very much separates him from characters like Rorschach, is his considerable supporting cast. In contrast to much of his antisocial tendencies, Batman has created and established an astonishing number of relationships with a wide variety of people. As previously mentioned, people who strive to become the best often have to make significant sacrifices in other aspects of their life and one of the more common things to sacrifice is a social life. Aforementioned Batman-like characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Gill Grissom have been shown to have poor social skills and have great difficulty maintaining relationships with their peers and allies. Yet Bruce Wayne has some of the most enduring and long term relationships in all of comics, with characters such as Alfred and Dick Grayson. Mr Wayne’s ability to build and inspire friendships is almost unmatched. For example, over the years, there have been five Robins. Does this show that Batman is an inspiring leader and father figure or does it show that he is willing take young children into the war he is waging on Gotham’s criminals? He has almost certainly improved their lives after taking them on as his proteges, yet he’s endangered their lives multiple times (and in the case of Jason Todd, actually gotten them killed). Bruce Wayne, however, has never been able to hold down a romantic relationship. Perhaps that is his sacrifice, maybe love is something he will never truly achieve.
So, is Batman the great hero we know and love or is he a dangerous madman in a costume who should be locked away in Gotham’s notorious psychiatric hospital? Only one man is convinced that he knows the answer. But then again, everything’s a joke to him.