In the lead-up to the impending release of The Dark Knight Rises, the popularity of the world’s greatest detective is currently at its peak. Just last month, a copy of the first issue of Batman (Batman no.1, 1940) was sold in Dallas for $850,000.* Two years ago, the comic book in which the character Batman first appeared (Detective Comics no.27, 1939) was sold for over $US1 million.** And only days earlier, the first issue of a comic in which Superman appeared (Action Comics no.1, 1938) sold for exactly $US1 million.
Aside from answering, once and for all – and forever – which hero is the greatest (psst: It’s Batman…), I think these extraordinary sales can be seen to say something of the significance that these characters have as legitimate social artefacts. And with The Avengers just Hulk-stomping the box-office in wholly unprecedented ways, it’s worth exploring why it is that these super heroic narratives are so embedded in modern cultural iconography.
When we think of comic books it is easy to be put off by the lesser, gratuitous works that can be seen to litter any medium: works of adolescent sensation where Lady Spandex and Captain Forearms fight the ferocious Explosion Monster (I’m copyrighting that by the way). But if you cast your mind back to the characters that have lasted – some for almost a century – who have been revived and re-contextualised with each generation, you can see some quite intriguing archetypes on display. Most obviously there are the early superhero characters that have their origins in Greek and Roman mythology: Wonder Woman is an Amazon; early artwork of The Flash depicted him as an exact replica of his mythical antecedent, Hermes (or Mercury) messenger of the gods; but the superhero genre as a whole is a modernisation of these ceaseless epic tales. These are Gods among humankind, warriors granted unearthly powers; and like myths in their time, which sought to rationalise the human experience through fantastic tales of morality and fatalism, these superhero narratives, and the heroes they gave rise to, often speak to the concerns of the modern world (with equal smatterings of violence).
Consequentially, there is inestimable pleasure to be had dissecting the many allegorical facets of these seemingly innocuous adventures. Like Gothic fiction before it, where social angst could be played out with the aid of invasive, inhuman vessels into which our paranoia’s might be poured – Dracula as the personification of our xenophobic terrors; Frankenstein’s monster as the scientific desecration of the natural; the Werewolf as our primal desires stirred alive to roam free – comics can likewise play out collective neurosis and escapist ideologies. Sure, we don’t see the Hulk stooped to recite Milton in the flickering of a fading fire, but he still speaks something of a retribution visited upon mankind for its foray into unnatural science (gamma radiation, wasn’t it?), or the id left unchecked to rage and destroy. Superman, often seen as the adolescent fantasy (the underestimated Kal-El hiding his true power under the awkward mask of bespectacled Clark Kent), is also the ultimate American immigrant magnified. … And in a cape. Spider-Man is puberty. The X-Men are (perhaps a little heavy-handedly) intolerance in all its forms. The Silver Surfer is… Well he’s… Okay, I don’t know what the hell he is. The dude is naked and surfs through space. That’s weird.
I assume that I am not the first to draw this comparison, but to me Batman is the modern Hamlet. Sure, he’s a little more proactive, is perhaps a little kinder to his sidekicks (he doesn’t send them off to get executed, at least), and doesn’t have quite as unnerving a fixation upon his mother, but the thematic similarities run deeper. Both are characters whose narratives are born in the death of their parents (Hamlet’s mother is just as lost to him in her debasement), both are Princes motivated by revenge to seek justice, both are contemplative, melancholy, and use artful deception (skirting the edges of madness) to bring their opponents down.
“That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Should don a cape and cowl and leotard,
Punch clowns and freaks and ne’er-do-wells,
drive a hellacious car and date a Cat…”
…Okay, so maybe I don’t want to stretch the comparison too far.
Perhaps most tellingly, however, is the parallel between their environments. Something is rotten in Denmark, and the entire state reeks of this corruption. The new King is morally poisoned; wise figures such as Polonius sink into drivelling inanities; dear friends like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betray and are betrayed; Ophelia is lost to insanity when she forgets to use a floatation device. The world is a manifestation of the turmoils within Hamlet’s mind, and the forces waging to tear his psyche apart. And in exactly the same manner, Gotham City is Bruce Wayne’s inner monologue projected outward on his urban sprawl.
The city is awash in lawlessness and vice, its colourful criminals manifestations of a perverted communal consciousness – indeed, there is profit in reading the entire Batman narrative as merely the elaborate delusions of a rich kid named Bruce lost in the haze of a dissociative disorder, sitting in his own Arkham Asylum cell. Thus, few of Batman major villains are superhuman. In most cases they are intriguing psychological tropes: Two-Face is the self-loathing schizophrenic; Joker is the psychotic unchecked by the superego; Poison Ivy is the environmental militant blinded by her convictions; Penguin is the social climber haunted by an inferiority complex; Riddler is the sad, self-sabotaging egomaniac. And king amongst them all is their antagonist, Batman, who nightly wages war on the excesses of these personal demons, never able to kill them, but outwitting them, beating them into submission, and returning them to the momentary quiet of the subconscious where they fester, waiting to spring forth again.
And so he occupies a unique space in the comic book pantheon. He is a terrifying figure, not noble and bright, but slinking through the shadows, almost Goya-esque, heroic not because he is granted super powers he is obliged to use, but a mortal man (now over seventy years old), battling against the neurosis that threatens to overtake us all, and haunted by the profoundly human realisation that his struggle can only end with death.