In my last column, I laid out my view that, while it’s a very good piece of work from a technical standpoint, and artistically on par with some of the most respected illustrators to tackle the Dark Knight in official “canon” publications, Moonhead Press’s The Deal ultimately fails to do the legend of Batman justice.
Partly this is because of the irrepressible pessimism of the piece. While the Bill Hicks quotation rounds out the story’s darkness, it doesn’t do a thing to address the actual events of the story, and the result is more than a little confusing. At the very least, the creators seem to be implying that some kind of yin-yang relationship exists between Batman and the Joker, adversarial but perhaps not quite antagonistic. What the Joker does, he does to help Batman. “I do the things I do because you asked me to do the things I do,” the Joker says. “You said it, Bruce, ’Break me.’ Your words, not mine.”
That’s all well and good, but what exactly is going on in The Deal, then? Dismembering Alfred and Robin certainly doesn’t help Batman—quite the contrary, it results in a chain of events that sends Gotham’s champion hurtling toward his death on the rooftops below, along with the Clown Prince of Crime, the yin to his supposed yang. One can easily point to some kind of Eastern mystical interpretation of these events, one that essentially says that life (or at least our western, linear perception of it) is an illusion, and that death is therefore inconsequential.
But, if that’s the point, then what is the Bill Hicks quote doing here? Hicks can go on about universal education and free health care all he likes, but if the worldview of The Deal is fundamentally one that devalues physical life, then what significance do education and health care have, in the creators’ view? If Alfred and Robin are expendable in the cosmic battle between lover-enemies Batman and the Joker, then human life is, by our measure, not what we understand it to be, and not worth nearly what Batman believes it to be. At his most fundamental level, Batman is driven to his crusade not to combat crime, but to save human life. If the implicit claim of the creators is that all this hubbub about good-versus-evil and the like is meaningless, then what good does it do to educate the poor and heal the sick?
Batman’s crusade is first and foremost a crusade for life. Accordingly, the claim that he could somehow represent the idea that life is an illusion is offensive to the character’s most basic underpinnings. Likewise, any idea that Batman means more dead than alive misses the point. In a place as hopeless as Gotham, the death of Batman would be just another victory for the criminal element, and therefore a victory for the dehumanizing, self-centered way of living that Hicks and, by proxy, the creators criticize. Batman is a symbol of hope, but only as long as he is alive—whether the face beneath the cowl is that of Bruce Wayne, Jean-Paul Valley, Dick Grayson, or someone else entirely.
That last sentence contains a bit of an unusual claim. After all, in the iconography of DC Comics superheroes it is often Superman, not the Caped Crusader, who is most closely identified with the concept of hope. Where Batman might be said to embody justice (or, as the DC Animated Universe might have it, vengeance), Superman is a symbol for more hopeful, positive ideals. The gulf between the two characters is, traditional wisdom tells us, as deep and wide as that between bright, prosperous Metropolis and dark, crime-ridden Gotham. But to get to the core of why I think Batman is at least as hopeful a character as the Man of Steel, it helps to turn to another unauthorized portrayal of Batman by independent comics creators.
Dean Trippe is a writer and an artist; he is also a survivor of child sexual abuse. In his short comic Something Terrible, Trippe gives us an abbreviated autobiography, detailing his struggles with guilt, shame, and fear of continuing the so-called “cycle of abuse,” a thankfully now-disproven notion that victims of sexual abuse are more likely to become abusers themselves.
At the core of Something Terrible lies the figure of Batman, standing tall in the childhood imagination. Rather than being transmuted by his traumatic experience into a perpetuator of evil, Bruce Wayne’s trauma catalyzes a reaction that results in the creation of Batman, a fully human hero who dedicates his life to the abolition of violence. In this equation, Batman offers us all a chance to change the world for the better; he offers—I think we can safely call it—hope.
Whether his creators have intended it or not, this idea of a hopeful Batman exists in the minds of readers like Dean Trippe. Contrast this with the Batman of Moonhead Press. In The Deal, we meet a character who, on closer examination, is everything the “real” Batman is not. Psychologically broken by the murders of Alfred and Robin, this Batman fully succumbs to trauma, and in his final conversation with the Joker we learn that he has been complicit in the murderous schemes of his greatest villain.
“Superman is the first superhero, and arguably Batman’s greatest ally,” Trippe said in an interview with Newsarama. “But Superman is an ideal being, this godlike figure raised as one of us. He’s very relatable, because everyone who grows up should learn how much more powerful they are than they realized as a kid, but we can never hope to be Superman. Batman is an option. Every day we choose not to dedicate [our lives] to helping others with the same fierce passion and drive Batman does, and that’s on us.”
As an undeniably human character, perhaps the least “super” of all the superheroes, Batman connects with readers in a way many other heroes don’t. No matter how fantastic the storyline or inhuman the characters he fights, there is a subtle but significant strand of realism that underlies everything Batman does. Money and technology are power in our world; we understand that implicitly, whether we verbalize the understanding or not. If anyone has the power to be a real-life superhero, it just might be a billionaire industrialist like Bruce Wayne.
It is this same realism that allowed Christopher Nolan to turn Batman into a billion-dollar trilogy of gritty, street-level action films. For Batman’s original audience, a generation familiar with the hardships of the Depression and the horrors of the Second World War, the Dark Knight was a character with powerful emotional resonance. Though society has changed, the ethos of Batman has remained the same: He is a man of means who, transformed by his parents’ death into nothing less than a legend, turns criminals’ greatest weapon—fear—against them.
It may be a stretch, the costume may be ridiculous, but no Kryptonian technology or Olympian magic is necessary to account for what Batman does. As crazy as it might be, there is a chance—hope—that someone like Batman can save us from great danger, and that someone is ourselves. Superman is an alien empowered with otherworldly abilities, but Batman is one of us, and he exists to tell us that we can save ourselves and our world, if we choose to do so. Batman is, as Dean Trippe says, an option.
In the third and final part of the series, I’ll discuss Moonhead’s Superman fan-comic God’s End, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, and just what words like “continuity” and “canon” really mean.