Into the Batcave
There is a scene late in Batman: The Long Halloween in which the title character must neutralize a single room containing more than half a dozen super-villains—each one able to match, and in some cases exceed, some aspect of Batman’s own incredible physical prowess and mental acumen. As the hero plunges the room into darkness with a smoke grenade and descends from a concealed air duct, an instinctual voice cries out from within the reader: “Turn back! You’re only one man!” Yet, a very different voice commands the Caped Crusader as he artfully dismantles his foes across the deftly-choreographed sequence of images. Through every juke, throw, and punch, Batman recites the following to himself, as if possessed:
‘When faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem your only option is to act swiftly, some might even say, irrationally. Remove the most dangerous elements first and methodically attacking each subsequent challenge in a separate, but deliberate manner.’ He was referring to surgery. (Loeb, 348-49)
He is, or was, Thomas Wayne: wealthy industrialist, doctor, and deceased father to Bruce Wayne, a man who now dons a mask and cape while he fights crime. For this brief moment of unimpeded wrath, father and son are a single, effortless entity, and among the shadows, smoke, and broken bones, a young man is temporarily at peace. He is performing surgery, removing cancer from the suffering patient that is Gotham City. Brutality is his ballet, but before he is able to land his last step, before he can demand a standing ovation, the smoke settles. The one villain left standing, Two-Face, shoots a man twice in the head before Batman can reach him.
The Long Halloween is a seminal graphic novel written by Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Tim Sale which chronicles a yearlong period just after Bruce Wayne takes up the mantle of Gotham’s Dark Knight. The central storyline revolves around the mystery of an unidentified killer dubbed Holiday, an elusive villain who murders roughly once a month in conjunction with major holidays. In addition to being well-regarded for the consistent, high quality of its writing and visual style, The Long Halloween is renowned as a definitive account of a crucial period of transition for this modern myth. As the novel unfolds, the character of Batman rises in status from an obscure vigilante to a trusted ally of Lieutenant James Gordon and the Gotham Police Department. District Attorney Harvey Dent transforms from a noble, uncorrupted force of justice into the murderous villain Two-Face. Universally, crime in the city escalates from a stereotypical mafia presence to a rogue’s gallery of bizarre super-villains including the popular Catwoman, Joker, and Scarecrow characters.
The depth of characterization granted to Batman within the context of these other characters, the larger storyline, and the gothic imagery of the text, provides an unprecedented opportunity to evaluate the true motivations for and consequences of his strictly-disciplined life of vigilantism in pursuit of justice. More specifically, one is forced to question not only whether Batman’s presence in Gotham is a deterrent or accelerant for criminal activity, but more importantly, whether his quest for vengeance yields a positive or negative effect for the man beneath the cowl, Bruce Wayne.
In order to assess whether Bruce Wayne’s pursuit of justice is one borne of careful consideration and years of preparation or borderline sociopathic mania, one must gain familiarity not only with how he functions, but with what his deepest origins are as a crime fighter. In short, Batman operates:
…out of a secret subterranean base under his family estate […] During the day he played the part of bored playboy Bruce Wayne, but at night he prowled the streets of Gotham in his Batmobile […] He used his incredible physical prowess, keen intellect, and exotic gadgets to fight criminals ranging from mob goons to grotesque villains. Significantly, Batman shuns firearms and does not use lethal force. (Campbell)
Common to virtually all of the popular mythology concerning Batman, including The Long Halloween, the hero adopts this code of conduct in the wake of witnessing his parents’ murder at the hands of a street thug somewhere between the ages of eight and ten years old. The timing of this tragedy is obviously significant, as the “killing occurs at a critical stage of psychological development, when Bruce is resolving his oedipal crisis by repressing his hostility towards his father and his sexual desires towards his mother” (Campbell). Not only does the random and sudden nature of the loss of his parents deprive him of his most important socializing forces at a critical juncture, Bruce is left to resolve his Oedipal impulses on his own at a time just before he would have naturally confronted them under more common circumstances. An important line of questions and possibilities follows, principal among which is defining what core issue drives Bruce’s perpetual state of mourning.
One possible motive for Bruce’s inception of the Batman is actually an underlying desire to punish Gotham’s criminal element for achieving something he could never do during his punctuated Oedipal stage: kill his father. From young Bruce’s perspective, “his unacceptable wishes were manifested on the night of the murder – the death wish against his father was fulfilled by a faceless criminal” (Campbell). An obsession with this emasculating defeat translates well to Batman’s philosophy to punish and brutalize criminals just short of killing them. Perhaps Bruce’s inability to use lethal force was actually spurred by that initial failure to kill his father, exacerbated by the highly-emotional process of losing his parents. By not allowing himself to ever succeed, Bruce punishes himself for that earlier failure and punishes his father for abandoning him. In effect, Bruce, “punishes [himself] as a means of taking revenge on the lost other” (Clewell, 60). It is unclear, however, whether Bruce’s narcissistic impulses were developed enough at the time of the tragedy to act out of such a deep, selfish desire.
Under more traditional circumstances, “the loss of a love object is understood as a temporary disruption of the mourner’s narcissism” (Clewell, 46). Without having fully formed his concept of narcissism or resolved his Oedipal impulses, Bruce’s inward focus is disrupted more permanently. In general “the mourner, by comparing the memories of the other with actual reality, comes to an objective determination that the lost object no longer exists…the Freudian grief work seeks, then, to convert loving remembrances into a futureless memory” (Clewell, 44). If Bruce had already reconciled his own, more inwardly-defined identity with his parents’ through the resolution of his Oedipal urges, he would be more equipped to eventually rationalize his loss and move on as an independent entity. Yet, confronting the loss head-on is impossible for Bruce. Doing so would “force the grieving subject to recognize the full extent of what has been lost, namely, an irrecoverable attribute of the self necessary to the mourner’s sense of coherent identity” (Clewell, 47). Through a natural grieving period, Bruce would come to revere his parents as a set of memories, rather than as an inseparable component of himself which must be somehow brought back to life.
Nowhere is this inability for Bruce to separate his life from his parents’ legacy more evident in The Long Halloween than in the characterization of Wayne Manor, the family estate. Visually, the place is portrayed as a gothic museum; a stone, churchlike monument to Thomas and Martha Wayne. Its vast, cavernous grey- and burgundy-toned rooms are largely unadorned, the only vestiges of décor held over from before their deaths, some twenty years before the text’s present day. Even the estate butler, Alfred, the man who more or less stepped in as Bruce’s father figure, is a vestige of that bygone era. He serves as a constant reminder of Thomas’ absence, inadvertently reopening many of the wounds Bruce may otherwise have closed on his own. Alfred seems aware of this predicament, wondering aloud, “Had I been a different sort of father to you, how better your life might be” (Loeb, 246). Alfred seems to feel partly responsible for Bruce’s continued mourning, perhaps because he is a living embodiment of his father’s legacy. In one scene, as an adult Bruce collapses on his staircase on the verge of tears, Alfred offers to Bruce that he is “very much [his] father’s son” (Loeb, 247). These are meant as words of comfort, but in context, they only highlight how possessed by his father’s memory Bruce truly is. The phrasing of Alfred’s dialogue connotes an intense state of belonging—that even after Thomas’ death, everything in his life, down to his own son, is still inexorably tied to him.
On several occasions, Bruce refers to Wayne Manor in terms of his father’s identity, still unable to take ownership for what is rightfully and lawfully his. “I have lived here nearly as long as he did. And yet, I find myself still thinking of it as my father’s house” (Loeb, 254). This kind of contemplation hints that Bruce is at least somewhat aware of his condition as a perpetual melancholic, and he is either unwilling or unable to address it. He wonders, “What WOULD it take to let go?” (Loeb, 255). Perhaps that question doesn’t have a straightforward answer, especially if a genius like Bruce Wayne can’t even figure it out. However, exploring the elements which conspire to prevent him from resolving his Oedipal complex and embracing his narcissistic tendencies is certainly a worthwhile endeavor.
One key aspect of Bruce’s endless mourning is, specifically, how he viewed his parents when they died. “Bruce’s ego ideal is based on his idealized childhood view of his parents as perfect beings” (Campbell). Bruce had not yet reached the age when his wealthy, socially-powerful, and philanthropically-inclined parents were revealed to have flaws. His only concept of his parents is derived from his natural childhood state of awe and the general public’s reverence for them as symbols of financial prosperity and champions of community welfare. Thomas, especially, “is never ‘desublimated’ into a ‘simple man’, but remains a moral exemplar—indeed he is the representative of Law as such, who must be avenged but who can never be equaled” (Fisher).
As he recalls an incident in which his father inadvertently saved the life of a notorious criminal by operating on him at Wayne Manor, Bruce remarks: “I had never seen my father work. It was like magic” (Loeb, 230). Not only does this reverence for his father’s work set the thematic tone for Batman’s dedication to surgical precision tactically, it endows his father’s work with an otherworldly quality that becomes evident in Bruce’s adoption of the “magical” symbol of the bat. In order to become or replace his father, Batman must inspire the same sense of awe in grown, jaded citizens and criminals that his father was able to inspire in his young son. That magical ability to “fix” things becomes an integral part of the Dark Knight. Bruce creates a Batman that would “not rest until Gotham City was washed clean of the evil that took [his parents’] lives” (Loeb, 37).
The never-ending quest for absolute justice in Gotham requires a Batman who sublimates any personal impulse he has, “so his ego has focused on a strategy of delayed gratification…in order for him to fulfill the goals of his ego ideal and obey the dictates of his guilty, controlling conscience” (Campbell). As a result, a young Bruce places the impossible ideal on himself, requiring that he honor his parents, avenge their deaths, and also possess everything that his father had claim to. Rather than act self-destructively in light of this guilt, he is driven to unendingly better himself. Bruce becomes educated and cultivates an intellect on the magnitude of genius and trains his body to the point of Olympic perfection, adopting the “twin strategies of asceticism and intellectualism in order to deal with his dangerous resurgence of oedipal emotions” (Campbell). While his physical health and intellectual capability expand to near-superhuman levels, Bruce’s social interactions remain limited and largely awkward.
His “normal” socializing as Bruce Wayne actually becomes secondary, with Batman’s interactions with law enforcement officials and criminals alike taking on more of a sense of reality. Batman repeatedly refers to Lieutenant Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent as “friends,” while any friends of Bruce’s remain suspiciously absent from the text. As the story progresses, Bruce becomes more and more of a caricature designed to carry out Batman’s daytime bidding. When mob boss Carmine Falcone, a figure heavily implicated in the Holiday killings, attempts to convince Gotham’s banking committee to essentially launder his dirty money, Bruce steps in and uses his public prominence to intimidate Falcone and prevent the deal from happening. At more than one point, the aforementioned “friends” from law enforcement mount an investigation against Wayne in order to trace his connections to Falcone. Two sets of polar-opposite relationships shared with the same pair of people, one as Bruce and one as Batman, highlight the difficulty of defining which entity, if either, makes up the real Bruce/Batman.
Harvey Dent, one of those key “friends” Batman refers to, serves as a foil in many ways to the incorruptible Batman figure. Harvey enjoys a position of power as District Attorney of Gotham, and pursues more traditional social norms such as starting a family with his wife, Gilda. Over the course of the story, the relentless pursuit of the Holiday killer strains his home life and at one point places his wife’s life in jeopardy. Perhaps due to a seemingly more natural upbringing, he is more prone to base emotions such as temptation and rage. Eventually, Harvey loses control of his narcissistic impulses when he is physically attacked and deformed—becoming the murderous villain Two-Face. Where Batman represents a superego-driven character who feeds on the endless pursuit of crime, Dent is an agent of the id and ego. He is pursuing the same goal, yet that pursuit drains, rather than sustains him. His id propels him to steal from the mob and kill other villains in order to eliminate criminality, and his ego begins to rationalize this method of thinking due to how much of his life is negatively impacted by the rampant crime in Gotham.
Another important relationship which complements the Bruce/Batman characterization is his connection to Selina Kyle/Catwoman. She similarly leads a double life, alternating between Bruce Wayne’s sometime girlfriend and Batman’s sometime enemy. While she is a criminal, usually a petty thief, Selina displays a much more traditional social drive than Bruce does. Interestingly, her relationship as Catwoman interacting with Batman is portrayed as much more sensual than her “real-world” relationship with Bruce. In one especially close scene between the two, it appears as though Batman might engage in some level of heterosexual intimacy; in the end, Batman is only using the proximity to earn Catwoman’s trust. Their exchange ends thusly:
Batman: Do you want to help?
Catwoman: That’s not what I had in mind. Your loss.
Batman: No. The price of independence. (Loeb, 271-272)
What Catwoman has in mind is pretty clearly a physical relationship with Batman, and though he is clearly tempted, he is yet again unwilling or unable to do so. It is unclear if this aversion to intimacy is a direct result of his asceticism as Batman, or if its deeper cause in his unresolved Oedipal impulses has compounded itself. Without knowing the depths of Selina and Bruce’s physical relationship, it is difficult to compare the two circumstances. It is certainly worth highlighting, though, that the Batman/Catwoman conversations are much more complex than the Bruce/Selina conversations, which are largely superficial, and often centered around common dating tropes, such as buying roses on Valentine’s Day. It seems as though Bruce keeps the Selina relationship going as a signal of normalcy to the outside world, while avoiding emotional and sexual entanglements as Batman allows him the true “independence” he refers to. Unfortunately, focusing his sense of independence within a largely symbolic personality only further perpetuates Bruce’s inability to develop as a separate human being and move past the natural grieving stage.
It is unclear on which of these levels, if any, the author and artist directly connected with the core Batman character. To some extent, audiences “must separate writers who, like the ancient writers of epics and tragedies, take over their material ready-made” (Freud, 440). More than identifying with Bruce Wayne’s great and complex loss at an early age because he suffered a similar incident, it is likely that Loeb was attracted to the universal themes inherent in the mythical Batman. Themes such as honoring one’s family, pursuing justice, bettering oneself, etc. are all presented in extreme terms within a “superhero”-based text such as this. Graphic novels, in fact, are about as close to classical mythology as modern storytelling comes. Of course, “myths…are distorted vestiges of the wishful phantasies of whole nations” (Freud, 442). Loeb capitalizes on the popular medium of graphic novels by seizing a pre-existing, easily-relatable story to explore a deeply troubled, and therefore intrinsically human hero. Loeb elevates what can oftentimes be a disposable, pulpy medium to the realm of sophisticated literature, using the Bruce Wayne/Batman dynamic to ask how everyday people define themselves.
Campbell, David. “Shadow of the Bat - Batman From a Freudian/Jungian Perspective.” Dave’s Long Box. 05 Apr. 2005. Web. 03 Apr. 2011. <http://daveslongbox.blogspot.com/2005/04/shadow-of-bat-batman-from.html>.
Clewell, Tammy. “Mourning beyond Melancholia: Freud’s Psychoanalysis of Loss.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 52.1 (2004). Print.
Fisher, Mark. “Gothic Oedipus: subjectivity and Capitalism in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.” ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. 2.2 (2006). Dept of English, University of Florida. 03 Apr 2011. <http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v2_2/fisher/>.
Freud, Sigmund. “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming.” The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985. Print.
Loeb, Jeph, Tim Sale, and Bob Kane. Batman: The Long Halloween. New York, NY: DC Comics, 1998. Print.
August 10 2013