Last month the comic book iteration of the ongoing Batman saga suffered a savage blow when the most recent incarnation of Batman’s protégé, Robin, was killed in action. In this current version of the narrative, the boy wonder was Bruce Wayne’s own son, Damian Wayne (his mother was Talia al Ghul) – thus his death marks not only the loss of Batman’s partner in his crusade for vengeance, but also the devastating personal tragedy of losing a child.*
DC comics decided to symbolically acknowledge the enormity of Wayne’s grief by stripping away some of the primary narrative devices with which the comic book medium communicates. Written by Peter J. Tomasi and illustrated by Patrick Gleason, Batman and Robin #18 (the first in that series set after the murder of his son) was an issue that made the bold choice to be conveyed entirely in silence.
Gone were speech bubbles and narration. The cacophony of internal monologues and explosions and fisticuffs fell away. Batman was depicted alone in a sorrowful quietude, trying to fill the numb, yawning hush that enveloped him by beating down a gauntlet of thugs, using them to tangibly manifest his rage and self-loathing, and brutalising himself for the selfish folly of adding another victim to the altar of his quest for vigilante justice.
It is a powerful vignette in the history of Batman, a reminder of the familial trauma that first set Wayne on his subversively heroic path – inspiring him to remake himself into a symbol of fear – and offering new proof of the ultimately sacrificial nature of this Sisyphean quest. Damian is, of course, not the first loss that Batman has faced in his expansive, multifaceted career. Indeed, another Robin – hot-headed street kid Jason Todd, had already similarly been killed, savagely beaten down by the Joker (only to be subsequently brought back from the dead)**; Batgirl was gunned down and paralysed, also by the Joker (although she appears to be currently healed); and one-time ill-fated Batman replacement Jean-Paul Valley, or Azrael, eventually gave his life in the pursuit of justice (Joker wasn’t involved as far as I know, so maybe that one will stick). But even with the tragic evidence for Batman’s ruinous journey continuing to stack up, Wayne still finds himself surrounded by those who choose to join him in his fight.
It is also a tale that (silently) speaks directly to a strange incongruity at the centre of Bruce Wayne’s psyche: his justified fear in endangering those dearest to him, and his irrational longing to nonetheless share a fundamentally solitary calling. And it is this repeating pattern, this seemingly unavoidable gravitational pull toward creating a makeshift crime-fighting (sometimes literally) family, that reveals a wonderfully complex and irrational contradiction at the heart of the Batman mythos…
Because when one thinks of the image of Batman, the picture that springs to mind is often the lone vigilante, waging a one-man war on crime – a stark, solitary silhouette cutting the skyline from his perch above, and abstracted from, the human community he seeks to protect.
He works alone. Solitary. One man against the cold unfeeling void…
And yet… There’s Alfred. And there’s Robin. And Nightwing. And Batgirl too. And Oracle. And Azrael. And Red Robin. And Huntress. And both Commissioner Gordon and his moustache. And the Birds of Prey. And Catwoman, sometimes. Even Superman gets a guernsey on occasion. …Indeed, from what I understand, the storyline in which Damian died was actually part of a continuity where Wayne has effectively corporatized the Batman identity, turning the urban legend of ‘The Batman’ into a worldwide, crime-fighting industry with a sprawling staff.***
Even in the most recent Nolan film – part of a brooding trilogy that depicts Wayne as a broken, sorrowful figure, alone on an introspective quest for peace that is literalised in the disquiet of Gotham’s criminal underworld – Batman still manages to pick up a sidekick. In the figure of John Blake (real name ‘Robin’), a devoted police officer who becomes disenfranchised by the bureaucratic restraints and deceit of a corrupted legal system, who decides to follow in the wake of the resurrected Batman, eventually, perhaps, going on to take up his mantle…
Likewise in Frank Miller’s acerbic take on the dénouement of the Batman saga, The Dark Knight Returns (1986), the colourful sprite fighting alongside the Goya shadow is an integral, unavoidable part of the equation. Just as the gristled, alcoholic, almost burnt-out Wayne is reconditioning himself to reclaim the cape and cowl, he is soon training Carrie Kelley, the tenacious thirteen year old, to likewise take up her predecessors’ tragic mantle as the new Robin.
Somehow, despite himself, this character, wracked with inconsolable sorrow and introverted rage, inevitably amasses a family of likeminded misfits, inspired to follow him on his impossible journey to curb the felonious extremes of the social order….
In Batman and Me (California: Eclipse, 1989), Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, recalls the conception of the Robin character, remembering the intentional contrast, both aesthetically and emotionally, that the inclusion of this companion would provide:
‘The brightness of Robin’s costume also served to brighten up the visuals and served as a counterpoint to Batman’s sombre costume. More significantly, the addition of Robin gave Batman a permanent relationship, someone to care for, and made him into a fatherly big brother rather than a lone avenger’ (p.46).
Robin (and arguably all those other companions that have followed in his wake) allowed other aspects of Bruce Wayne’s personality to be refracted and revealed through their interactions. Batman consequentially grew in complexity and purpose, and his solitary vigil, ironically, was granted dimension by being shared.
Sure Batman is badass, and sure, some of the heroes he peripherally inspires simply want to ride alongside the smart guy in the sweet car with the nifty gadgets, but the true faithfuls, the ones who not only fight with him, but invest enough in his mission to emblazon themselves with his insignias – the Robins, the Batgirls, the Batwomans, the Nightwings (okay there’s only one of him) – those who, in the case of Dick Grayson and John Blake, are even willing to literally take on his mantle if need be; these figures are drawn to the man behind the mask, which informs and deepens the sacrificial poetry of his purpose. And so, even in Frank Miller’s cynical vision, when the aged Bruce Wayne is walled up in his mansion like a psychotic Howard Hughes, we still see him travelling with the flash of bright colour that is the new Robin, her vibrancy and hopefulness still invading his world to offer a stark relief to his plight.
Even more than the contrast that such a character evokes, Kane foresaw that Robin would provide a compelling imaginative invitation for readers, a window through which the audience could project themselves into the Batman legend:
‘young boys reading about Batman’s exploits would project their own images into the story and daydream about fighting alongside the caped crusader as junior Batmen. I thought that every young boy would want to be like Robin’ (p.46)
We were able to ride along with this tortured icon, to aid him in his fight, even if we could not truly share his pain.
Again and again it appears that Batman presents a flame to which his cadre of vigilante moths (and the audience that they embody) are inexorably drawn – inspired by his mission statement, no doubt, but ultimately stirred by the man himself, by his tenacity and purpose. Whenever people get near Bruce Wayne they see a man so broken, so torn up with grief that his only means of profitably controlling that emotional maelstrom is to funnel it into an ultimately self-destructive altruism. They, and we, feel compelled to help him, to try and save him just as he longs to save others. But he’s certainly not going to see a psychiatrist, and his moral code is so engrained that any chance of taking solace in a healthier ‘normal life’ seems to him to be a betrayal of his social responsibility. So instead – ultimately buying into the beneficial role that he serves – we join him in scampering across rooftops and helping kick bad guys in the face, resigning ourselves to an abstracted hope: if we can’t beat those personal demons, we’ll just facilitate smacking around some physical ones and hope that the metaphor eventually sinks in…
And so, this recent killing of Robin operates on a curiously self-reflexive and disturbingly experiential manner: the narrative itself is grieving the absence of the audience’s own invested point of view, both their unique perspective upon the depicted events and the sounding board that they would usually provide to the experience.
Both literally and metatextually, in the aftermath of this killing, Batman is left with no one to talk to – a fundamental dialogue between reader and text egregiously fractured. Thus Bruce Wayne is left wordless, fighting through a silent void in the wake of his loss.
* I apologise that I do not know the finer details of the ongoing story arc, but I am reliably informed that he was killed by an adult, cloned version of himself (?!) Man, comic books love them some surreal dramatic irony…
** And there is a tragic foreshadowing, perhaps, in Damian’s decision to steal Jason Todd’s costume to begin fighting crime against his father’s initial wishes.
*** Even Bat-Mite pops in from time to time to spread anarchy in his sycophantic emulation of the Dark Knight.
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