Mar 3, 2012

What can Batman teach you about writing? Part 1

Cover of Batman #676, 2008

Batman is our fear of the dark. But wait, there’s more. He defies the old tyranny of fear and darkness by descending to the underworld every night. Down there, he deals punishment to the deserving and disrupts the schemes of drug barons.

At sunup he goes home to Wayne Mansion, puts on a suit and pretends to run multi-million dollar companies, drive vintage Porsches and date Croatian supermodels.

Judging by their schedule, neither Batman nor Bruce get any sleep.

Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, two New Yorkers of Jewish parentage, born within a year of each other. Though Bob Kane gets much lip service for creating Batman almost single-handed, Kane’s original concept included

reddish tights, I believe, with boots ... no gloves, no gauntlets ... with a small domino mask, swinging on a rope. He had two stiff wings that were sticking out, looking like bat wings.
-- Bill Finger

You can be thankful that Bill Finger suggested losing the red parts of the costume, then adding a cape and cowl.

So, what can Batman teach you about writing a novel, story or play? What are the truths that this character embodies?

Batman is not about justice.

Never was. Batman is about restoring a broken self by dealing pain to others. Batman will never stop fighting because the trauma of witnessing his parents’ death has, in fact, rewritten his personality. The wound runs too deep.

Constant pain burdens the Batman. He allays it by doling out more pain, by protecting shadows of the little boy he was. Because he will never be able to avenge the death of his father and mother, Bruce will go on fighting until the day he dies. This isn’t justice. It’s retribution.

Cover illustration for Batman: Year 100

No-Parent Families

Growing up with a surrogate parent, Alfred Pennyworth, can’t have been beneficial. The family butler is hardly the most qualified person to raise little boy Bruce. After all, the child is Pennyworth’s boss.

Robin & Nightwing
To Bruce, Alfred is a familiar presence, but not necessarily an authority figure. Bruce sees him as an asset. What’s that you say? Alfred is Bruce’s dearest friend? I don’t deny that. But it’s plain to see who owns the dominant role in their friendship. Alfred is a devoted servant and a would-be parent.

Much as Alfred may have taught and guided Bruce, Batman doesn’t see him as an equal. Bruce is often brusque or dismissive around Alfred, to which Alfred responds with jaded cynicism.

What can one say of the ‘Batman family’ that’s become so prominent in comics recently, and Grant Morrison’s “Batman Inc.”? The Batman family is a loose coalition of orphans and battered children who’ve taken arms against abuse.

Batman is an overdeveloped protective shell

Batman choked Bruce to death. He is a machine. A black hole. All of his pursuits are functional and he leaves nothing to chance. Bruce Wayne is an act, a useful and necessary mask, but no more than a mask. Batman enjoys charades; Wayne is just a guise among many.

The Right Man for the Job

Gotham City as portrayed in Batman: The Animated Series

Bruce Wayne’s pockets are so deep you’d need cave-diving gear to find the bottom. Yet Wayne’s immense fortune and manifold charities don’t seem to be doing much for Gotham. The city has ever been a strange sort of apple, one that rots forever. A self-sustaining ruin that never sees the light of day.

Sure, many stories shed light on Bruce’s charitable efforts. But why is there never closure? Employment figures should go up. Crime rates should go down. Yet the need for a Batman remains.

In a city of perpetual darkness, where white becomes gray, Batman is unafraid to face the shadows. As he tells his antimatter counterpart, Owlman, “We’ve both stared into the abyss. The difference is, when the abyss stared back, you blinked.”

What Can I Learn from Batman?

Batman: Year One
You can’t lose sight of one fact: Batman is owned by a large corporation, DC. And he makes them a lot of money. As long as Batman rhymes with sales, the character will go on. There will be books and film adaptations, toys and lunchboxes and PVC busts and who knows what else. Maybe holograms.

When a popular figure is written by dozens of different people, consistency is hard to maintain. Batman is a fascistic brawler to some, a subversive to others. Frank Miller’s Batman is a harried old gunslinger without guns, whereas the one Mark Millar created for Superman: Red Son may be the most inventive and daring version of the character -- so far.*
*Second only to Darren Aronofsky’s proposed movie adaptation, which never saw the light of day.  

Another major problem is verisimilitude, or just plain common sense, if you like. Obviously, becoming a real-life Batman is no easy task.  

Not to mention that most people who feel heroic impulses are channeled toward specialist activities, such as fire-fighting, law enforcement or healthcare. Responsibility does not flow from angelic mites in your hair, it is something that you must learn. It requires training.

Under normal circumstances, someone as powerful and competent as Batman would be considered a loose cannon. There’s no way he’d be tolerated by any police force on Earth. But there’s worse than pissed-off beat cops. Flesh-and-blood gangsters don’t know that you’re a hero. To them, a masked vigilante is either a nut or a nuisance and they won’t be impressed with theatrics.

So if you want to come up with a vigilante protagonist, choose your audience carefully. The problem with superheroes is that most of them can fly, and the moment they take off, logic shoots out the window cackling like mad.

Not every age group is ready or willing to suspend disbelief.

Continue reading: Part 2, where we examine the villains who plague Batman.

Batman: Year One

Other posts you might like:
Calvin & Hobbes
Darth Vader

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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