There are characters in the comic world that are set apart from the rest. Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Spider-man, etc. These characters for some reason have the ability to carry a company. DC and Marvel have lived and died on these characters because they are special, set apart from all the rest. This piece (and others like it) will explore my opinions on what makes these characters special.
Let me start by stating the point that lies at the heart of this article. Batman is special, and he is special because of Bruce Wayne. This may seem obvious, or even applicable to other characters, but Batman is different because Bruce Wayne is broken. Everything about Batman and what he stands for comes from a man who is irreparably fractured. That’s not to say I do not like Dick Grayson as Batman, or even Terry McGinnis. I love them both! But they only exist because Batman exists, and Batman in turn only exists because Bruce Wayne is broken. And Batman is huge; he is a city, an ideal, a model for both heroes and villains alike. Even after DC’s latest reboot, Batman and his family own the show. If you don’t believe me, just look at the numbers. The Batman Family has eleven dedicated to it. Compare that to the Superman Family and all seven corps of Lanterns, who get four titles each. And all of this is because at Batman’s core lies Bruce Wayne, broken, crazy and vengeful. He uses Gotham to meet his ends, and in turn the city has become an extension of Batman. He is the closest friend to one of the greatest boy scouts of them all, and yet they are one step away from being enemies. And his villains, they are especially wonderful because they are manifestations of his broken psyche. They are all part of what makes him dark and on the edge of sanity, but they are also what make him a great hero, and that only further sets him apart.
At one point in time, Gotham City was meant to be a fictionalized version of New York City. Now, New York plays predominantly in other DC books, but let me just say that if Gotham was real in any fashion, I would never go near the place. The city itself is a character, and in any other context it would be a villain. But when it comes to Batman, everyone is a vigilante, even Gotham. Gotham is a dark and dirty place, and while in the beginning I think DC’s intent was to portray it as a place of crime and debauchery, I think now it has become a giant bat-cave. The city’s dark oppressive atmosphere plays into Batman’s use of fear. Imagine as a petty criminal in a place where you literally never know when a guy in a bat suit is going to jump out and beat you to a pulp. Let’s face it, the cost benefit is just not worth it, like in any industry you need to go where the money and opportunity is. Coast City is bright and shiny, and its everyday hero is normally gallivanting around the galaxy. Same thing with Metropolis. Yes, Superman is… well… super, but he is all over the globe and does not always have time to deal with petty crooks. However, Batman takes those same petty crimes personally. He hates crime with every fiber of his being. Having watched his parents murder at the hands of Joe Chill (a small-time crook) over a set of pearls he asked his mother to wear, he sees that in every punk he gets his hands on. And I, for one, would not want to be living and stealing in a city whose hero would love nothing more than to put me in a hospital. Remember, Bruce is broken, and everything is an extension of that. Would it not then make sense that the very city he prowls would be just as broken as he is? A place whose dark presence serves both to build the darkest criminals in the world, and also as the weapon of its hero. It is a city on the edge, perfectly suited to a hero on the edge.
Now let’s talk about Kal-El for a moment. Superman is great for a lot of reasons, many of which I will cover in a piece dedicated to him, but above all else he is the ultimate representation of good. Take a nerd moment and imagine an all out war between the characters of every fairy tale, comic, movie, video game, etc. Good vs. Evil in the showdown to end all showdowns, and I guarantee you standing on the side of good, right there on the front line would be Superman, cape billowing in the wind and prepared to take on the forces of evil. Now imagine that group in the middle that is not easily identifiable with either side, yup there he is in the back, Bruce Wayne. Don’t get me wrong, Bruce is a good guy, but heroism and villainy are often determined by intent. Batman is not out for the betterment of the world, he is out for revenge. He is trying to fill a bottomless pit of hate and despair that can only be satisfied with the complete decimation of the criminal element. This is why when Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne get together there is a fair amount of awkwardness. They just can’t relate to one another. Clark wants picket fences and golden retrievers for everyone, whereas Bruce wants to hurt as many criminals as the day will allow. Now, I think Clark at one point felt that he could help Bruce, but ultimately they balance each other. At the end of the day Superman is still an insanely powerful alien, and Bruce is a mistrustful psychopath, but there is your balance. Think of all the characters in the DC universe, are there any more similar than Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor? Hell, I would even say that most of the time Lex’s reasoning is more logical, but still Bruce and Clark find a way to not only co-exist, but to be greater because of one another.
And then there are the rogues: Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler, Two-Face and the Joker. They are as identifiable as any set of villains, perhaps even more so, and each are simply paths not taken. Penguin is Bruce Wayne if he chose to be a petulant child instead of taking his parent’s deaths to heart. Catwoman is the care free Bruce Wayne using his skills for thrills instead of a mission. Riddler is that logical, deductive mind finally broken. Harvey Dent represents the two sides of Batman, Bruce and the bat. And then there is the Joker. Joker is both a figurative and literal creation of Batman. The original Red Hood’s fall into that vat of chemicals was Bruce’s first and largest mistake. He blames everything Joker has ever done on himself, and at the heart of it I think he knows why. No one knows who the Joker really is, and we may never know. But whoever he was before, what he represents now is a Bruce Wayne who has gone completely off the rails. The Joker is Bruce after he finally gives into all of his anger at what happened that night outside the theatre. See, the Joker is always craziest when he feels like Bruce is not playing his game with him. He becomes angry and depressed, willing to go after anyone in his way. Now imagine Bruce Wayne with no mission. Imagine all of that anger and rage boiling over. The Joker is frightening because there is no reason behind his actions, no method to his madness, just killing for the sake of watching the world burn. Is this not what Bruce would do to the criminal element if he had the opportunity? Watch it burn until there was nothing left? That is why the world needs the Joker, because what would Batman be without his mission? Who might he become? It is Batman’s ultimate question.
Now I know there have been times when everything I said has been less true, and times when it has been more true. Frank Miller’s Batman is everything I’ve described and a whole lot that I haven’t. But at the core, this is who Bruce Wayne is. He is someone who feels so connected to one night, one incident, one moment, that even in his happiest times, he is still a slave to the memory. Batman #1 was fantastic, and throughout the new books we have seen Bruce in his many different personalities, the crazy one coming at the end of Catwoman, but I, like many of you, am just waiting. Waiting for the day when it will all come crashing down around him. Waiting for the guilt and brooding to finally overcome him. Waiting for the day that last thread of sanity breaks. And when that day comes, I will watch him find his way out of the dark, because that, the ability to live and breathe in the shadows, to know the villain and understand the villain, but not become the villain, that my friends is Bruce Wayne’s superpower. That is what sets him apart.