Batman: Introducing the Bat-Bunch

Jul-10-08

We’ve been spending the last week or more talking about what makes the bad guys bad (and how to make them badder), so I thought it was about time to change the pace a bit. We were going to switch gears and talk about improving Batman’s supporting cast, but John and I came to the general conclusion that we approve of pretty much everyone the Dark Knight surrounds himself with…from Alfred to Oracle, Commissioner Gordon to the rest of the Gotham City PD. Hell, I even have nice things to say about Bat-Mite (I really don’t).

No, the problems we have aren’t with Team Batman themselves, but rather with the way Batman treats his supporting cast. And these problems will be explored in the next few posts as we cover everything from background players to love interests to the Bruce Wayne alter ego to our final hypothesis on “fixing” Batman.

So let’s get the ball rolling on the rest of the good guys. Let me see if I can drum up a rough timeline of Batman’s prominent bit players. Jim Gordon makes his first appearance in the same Detective Comics #27as Batman (interesting to note that Gordon’s early appearances put him in opposition to Batman while showing a friendship with Bruce Wayne…Gordon is also the only major Bat-confidante who doesn’t know his secret identity), Robin (Dick Grayson) shows up a year later followed by Catwoman (first as a villain), Alfred Pennyworth, Barbara Gordon (first as Batgirl…not to be confused with Bat-Girl), the second Robin (Jason Todd), Huntress (who later became the second Batgirl), another Robin (Tim Drake), Spoiler (who then became the fourth Robin) and finally a third Batgirl.

That was easy to follow, right? And, heck, I didn’t even include his former bodyguard (Sasha Bordeaux), his son (Damian) to the daughter of one of his archenemies, the violent weirdo who temporarily replaced him (Azrael), a friend who became a villain (Harvey Dent), an enemy who has become a tenuous ally (Riddler), an obsessed other-dimensional imp (Bat-Mite), or his domino-masked German Shepherd Ace the Bat-Hound.

So where do they all fit in? How do they all come together? And what the heck is Batman’s problem with teamwork? Let’s explain.

It’s funny that Batman is often considered the quintessential loner, when in actuality he has a larger supporting cast than almost any other hero I can name. We’ve spoken at length about the strength (and breadth) of his Rogues Gallery, but his allies are just as strong. These are some well rounded characters and they fill important roles in Batman’s universe. I wouldn’t say I don’t have a few minor quibbles (is there anything Alfred can’t do? He’s a boxer and can fight; he’s a medic and can do minor surgeries; he’s an actor and can fool anyone with his disguises; he’s enough of a mechanic to do some maintenance on the Bat-Toys; plus, he makes some great food, washes windows, and vacuums. The man is amazing.) with some of the cast, but overall, these are great characters. The biggest problem I have with them is Batman.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when Batman stopped being a Dark Knight and became an unofficial policeman who opened shopping malls, Batman treated everyone in his supporting cast as though they were his best friend (except the ladies, who enjoyed his condescension, but that was ok since they were girls). Words like “chum” and “pal” were liberally sprinkled throughout Batman’s dialogue, and the idea that anyone feared this man was ludicrous, since he was about as threatening as a hall monitor. When it became obvious that Batman had strayed too far from his core concept, and that he needed to become a Dark Knight once again, one of the first things they did was to push his supporting cast to arm’s length. Even Robin, who had been like a son to Bruce, got pushed away (all the way to college for some years). This wasn’t to say that Batman wouldn’t have allies; he just wouldn’t be quite as chummy with them.

I’m not sure that this was a bad decision. I am not the first one to point out that Batman would want to surround himself with allies, as he’s building himself a new family, to replace the one that was taken from him. However, I also agree that Batman is not particularly cuddly, and that he probably does keep most people at a distance. I certainly can live without ever seeing Batman call someone “chum” again. Unfortunately, starting in the early 90s, and just getting worse in the current decade, writers have gone too far and instead of simply maintaining a distance from his allies, Batman now treats most of them with utter contempt and disrespect. In short, Batman has become a prick, and its his allies on whom he takes out his anti-social tendencies.

To illustrate this point, let’s go back to the early 90s (1993, to be exact) and look at one of the biggest storylines in Batman’s post-Crisis history, Knightfall. In this story, a new enemy named Bane stages a massive breakout at Arkham Asylum, releasing all of Batman’s enemies at once. After Batman has managed to defeat these enemies, but when he’s still tired from the battles, Bane then attacks Batman and breaks his back, paralyzing him. Bruce Wayne decides that someone needs to continue to be Batman, and he chooses as that person….Azrael. Um, who? Yeah, just some character that Batman barely knew, someone who had been shown to be mentally unstable, someone Batman had known for less than a year. He chose that person over Dick Grayson, someone who is like a son to him, someone he’d known for over a decade, and someone he should trust implicitly. And, to make matters worse, when he was questioned on that decision by other allies, Batman blew those allies off.

Fast forward to another huge Batman crossover called No Man’s Land. I’ve referred to it before (rarely kindly) and will refer to it again, since there are so many huge, underlying problems with this storyline. However, in the context of this discussion, we can again see Batman treating his associates with contempt. When Gotham City is declared to be no longer part of the United States (don’t get me started) and it’s citizens are ordered by the federal government to leave by a certain time, since after that time anyone attempting to enter or exit the city will be attacked by federal troops (I said don’t get me started), Batman disappears. Certain of his allies remain behind in Gotham City (Gordon and Oracle foremost among them) and some leave the city (like Robin), but Batman doesn’t tell any of them that he’s leaving, and he doesn’t tell them where he’s going. For three months he simply disappears, with no word to anyone. When he finally returns, he expects things to be as they were before, but many of his allies are upset at the way they’ve been treated. To which I say, it’s about bloody time.

My point is this: I do not believe that Batman feels the utter contempt that he so often shows to his allies, and while I agree that he would not be having tea with Oracle or playing Call of Duty 4 on his PS3 with Robin, I do believe that he would show them respect. Being somewhat isolated from others does not mean that you treat them like dirt. It is very possible to keep your own counsel while still respecting those around you. This, to me, is the biggest problem with Batman and his allies; the way he treats them, and the fact that they so rarely object and that they continue to follow him. I would have gone to work with Blue Beetle years ago.

Could you imagine the holy hell that would rain down if Batman was in a high-speed chase with some of Black Mask’s henchmen and he buzzed Oracle to have her redirect some traffic signals and she told him to “Hold your horses. I’m bit-torrenting last week’s Desperate Housewives.”? That’s how I like to put things in perspective. Just flip the tables on Batman and see if he’d like to be treated the way he treats his associates.

I agree that Alfred is one helluva Jack-of-all-Trades. I believe he has even impersonated Batman himself on numerous occasions. And yet I can’t recall a single time that he’s been thanked for his work. Bruce must have set him up with one monster of a retirement plan for him to stick around so faithfully.

The Bane thing blows my mind as well, which brings into focus the current “Batman R.I.P.” storyline and the whispers of “who’s going to replace Bruce Wayne as Batman this time?” The way he’s been operating lately, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pull some random dude off the street and stuff the suit with crumpled up newspaper to make it seem realistic. At this point, it would almost be a slap in the face to hand the duties over to Nightwing or Robin…like he didn’t want to have anything to do with them before, but fully expects them to step up when he beckons them now. Kneel down and kiss my ring, peons!

The dynamic with Gordon has always interested me. I know he’s had his valiant moments and has faced down a ton of corruption within his own department, but Jim Gordon has always come across as some exasperated schlub to me. He’s just a figurehead at this point. There’s absolutely nothing he can do to control Batman, instead he just has to pretty much stand by whatever Batman decides is best. The line between lawful pursuit of crime and crazy man in colorful pajamas yelling from the rooftops should never be as slim as it truly is in Gotham City. But that’s a whole other topic to pursue.

You almost have to feel bad for the Robin legacy. Here’s a character that is embroiled in just as much danger and backlash as Batman, but never gets the recognition from either the public or Batman himself. The work is just expected of him. And even when a Robin does break free of the Bat-Nest, he’s constantly compared to his mentor yet never really given the chance to live up to or surpass his iconic status. At least Flash, Green Arrow, Atom and Green Lantern have some sort of legacy behind their public images…the name stays the same while the person behind the mask evolves. Behind the scenes you’re faced with living up to your predecessor, but outwardly you follow the same path and gain the same accolades because their identity is now your identity. Robin is just an eternal sidekick, even when he’s no longer Robin (just look at how ravenous the DC brass is in their drive to rid the world of Dick Grayson).

I had forgotten about all the references to “old chum” and “dear friend” that were peppered throughout the Batman mythos for years. Hilarious when you think of the current media portrayal of the “Dark Knight.” Obviously, the character took a wrong turn which justified Frank Miller’s near-parodic skewering of such in Dark Knight Returns. However, to then continue to use “grim and gritty” as your basis for every decision and every reaction a character makes for the next 25 years is equally idiotic and DC should be diligently working to backtrack on that demeanor. I thought they were headed in that direction with the One Year Later scenario of Bruce, Dick and Tim touring the world by freighter. Alas, the whole OYL deal fell apart pretty quickly in the midst of 52 and then Countdown that hardly anyone even remembers what the plan was to begin with.

So Batman’s “Family” is treated like enlisted grunts in a wartime military. They have orders barked at them and are expected to respond with quickness and with little individual thought. No one dares question the orders and no one dares defy their leader. But forced respect often brings resentment, anger and a growing desire for mutiny. Now wouldn’t that be an interesting storyline?

I agree that it would be a fascinating storyline, and it’s one that needs to be addressed. It’s enough for the Bat-Family to have an intervention and sit the Dark Knight down and say, “Stop being such a prick.” Something has to happen to bring things to head.

I believe it could come from one of two directions: either Batman himself realizes he needs to stop treating those around him with such disregard, or his supporting cast need to stand up and say that enough is enough. If you go the first option, then I think you’re talking about something traumatic happening to either Batman himself, or someone close to him. Perhaps Batman could come close to death, and in so doing (perhaps in a moment of delirium) he realizes the value of his extended family. However, that seems hokey, and not very satisfying. It might be better for his revelation to occur because someone in that extended family leaves the family; either through their own choice or through circumstance. I kind of like the idea of one of the Bat-Family saying that they’ve just had enough, and getting the heck out of there. I think that Oracle might be the best one for this; she’s very close, but isn’t actually part of the family (if Dick Grayson hasn’t told Bruce Wayne off yet, he’s never going to) and she has so much else going on that she could believably become fed up and just walk (um, so to speak). Your example of Batman contacting her for work and her blowing him off actually reads true to me, and perhaps if something like that happened, it would wake Bruce up to the way he treats people. Of course, there’s a danger with such a storyline as well; if Bruce contacts Oracle for help in a case, and she refuses, and as a result someone is injured and killed, then she looks like a total tool, and Batman comes out looking like a victim. That would be bad. So it would have to be a very carefully crafted story.

Or perhaps there’s a better way to do this. Do you even think it needs to be addressed? The comics have danced around this issue on more than one ocassion, but after a little bit of actual emotion from Bruce, he goes back to being a jerk. What can we do to change that?

I do remember the situation being addressed to some extent in the “Bruce Wayne: Murderer?/Bruce Wayne: Fugitive” storylines that preceded “Hush.” Oracle, Robin, and Nightwing all confronted Bruce about his aloofness, but I don’t remember what the ultimate solution was…either that or I just gave up out of boredom before the arc finished.

I think the core of the question surrounding his interaction with his supporting cast is: how do we revamp Batman so he isn’t such a big jerk? And I think we’ll be confronting that issue in our Batman: Broken? post later this week…

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