The Making of a Modern Myth

by Jeremy DeFatta

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the first appearance of Batman in Detective Comics #27 in 1939. And now, due to the New 52, the latest in a series of line-wide reboots in DC Comics’s main universe, we have a new Detective Comics #27 coming out this week. By the the time this post launches, it will likely already be available for purchase.

I can’t speak to its contents or quality yet, but I’m making it my recommendation for the week. Go out and give it a shot! It contains an immense amount of talent, including current writer Scott Snyder, Identity Crisis writer Brad Meltzer, and an alternate cover by indefatigable grump Frank Miller. See here for more details.ย Support your local comics shop! (On a side note, the DC in DC Comics stands as an homage to Detective Comics, which means their actual name is Detective Comics Comics … Hmm…).

Shameless plugs aside, I’d like my contributions to this blog to focus (at least early on) on Batman, his history, and his role in popular culture. In the weeks and months ahead, I’ll be examining not only Bruce Wayne, but other bearers of the mantle over the years, from Azrael, to Damian Wayne, to Terry McGinnis. As with the plug for Detective Comics #27, I will be laying out my recommendations for various comics each week, schedules permitting. With that said, let’s get this show on the road!

Why Batman? Well, why not Batman? It could be argued that Batman is the single most recognizable and financially successful figure to emerge from American comic books, but why is this? In an interview from the late 1980s published in The Many Lives of the Batman (Routledge, 1991), Frank Miller (of The Dark Knight Returns and Year One fame) establishes a theory that Batman’s popularity increases whenever times seem dark, bleak, or like things can’t possibly get better easily. As Miller says, Batman takes the darkness within himself and makes it work for the common good.

Batman is the product of violence and tragedy, and when we find ourselves seemingly surrounded by the same, we look to him for answers. This practice is in no way recentโ€”Batman, like most superheroes coming out of the 1930s and 40s, was created by Jewish writers and artists (in this case Bob Kane and Bill Finger) who were forced to sit idly by, not knowing what fates had befallen friends and family in Europe with the spread of Nazism. Their only recourse was to tell stories of heroes that would go on to become the basis for a new cultural mythology in the United States.

What does this say about subsequent upsurges in Batman’s popularity? Miller himself was one of a handful of people responsible for the 1980s reinvention of Batman into a troubled, violent force for justice in an unjust world constantly on the brink of destruction due to the apparently endless Cold War going on between the West and the Soviet Union. When those fears and predictions did not come true, though, we saw the dissolution of the 80s Batman into dark and campy parodies of himself in the 1990s, which we will discuss in a future entry.

For now, though, let’s focus on the present and the mostly-present. Why did Batman experience an upsurge in popularity over the last decade and a half? We can certainly look at the War on Terror and the 2008 financial crisis, but are there other reasons?

What darkness lingers in our cultural zeitgeist that might require Batman’s fist to sort it out? Please discuss below.

-Part 1 of a weekly series. Follow Jeremy on Twitter @quaintjeremy.

image: dc.wikia.com

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37 thoughts on “The Making of a Modern Myth

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  2. Some folks have (rightly) made the connection between the resurgence of the X-Men and the gay rights movement, though the Civil Rights movement seems to have been the preliminary catalyst for the social commentary in those. I wonder if something similar is happening with Batman-we’re at a crossroads as far as rights and privacy are concerned, where it’s easier to catalog everyone worldwide than it ever has been before, which makes us anxious-and probably rightly so-about what the government can learn about us, do to us, etc.

    There’s more to that, probably, but I’m still working it out.

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    • I am toying around with drawing a parallel between Batman and Odysseus, because so much of what the both do rely on guile, and they are each so representative of the cultures that produced them. I am thinking of the Odysseus chapter from that book The Fate of the Adventurer in the Modern World.

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    • I think I could start an entire other chain of posts about the X-Men one day. The mutant=gay idea was really driven home by Bryan Singer in his smattering of films in the franchise, but you’re correct in saying the original allegory (if I may) was mutant=black. Stan Lee often said Charles Xavier was his Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) was his Malcolm X.

      The connection between surveillance fears and Batman is an interesting one to draw, and I would say it is most at home in the Nolan film version of the character. You could certainly make that leap with the 80s version of the character, though, who Frank Miller reveals is seen as a threat by just about every level of government. This may be worth more thought, being as the 80s were a time when a lot of people were (rightly) becoming afraid of government surveillance.

      That aside, though, you see Batman as a champion of personal civil liberties? I like that. I’ll also reveal more of my views on the character, especially his early characterization, later in this series of posts.

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      • Yes, I think that, like many others, Singer rightly sees the two movements as analogous.

        And I do think that, similarly, Batman taps into concerns about surveillance, at least in our modern incarnations. I really haven’t done my research, so I’m still working that out, but the Miller and Nolan versions in particular address government corruption and modernized forms of tracking, hunting, and dealing with what the government considers a miscreant-sometimes the Bat himself.

        And yes, at least sort of, I see Batman as a champion of this stuff. Tra-la-la.

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  3. Nice article and nice introduction into what sounds like is going to be an exciting series on The Dark Knight. As a big Batman fan (and an all-around DC fan, with Supes being my favorite) I always liked the fact that when boiled down to his basest persona, Batman/ Bruce Wayne is human. Of course, trained to the extremes of human performance, but still human, who relied on his guile, cunning and determination to be a hero.
    I can’t wait for the other pieces in the series!

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    • Thank you for the read and the comment. I hope the subsequent parts of this series are as enjoyable for you. I agree with you; one of my favorite aspects of Batman as a character is that he is, effectively, the mortal man who walks among gods.

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  4. And just FWIW, this is not the first conversation I’ve had this week about superheroes as myths. I had a nice exchange on another blog a few days ago about it. I tried to find it again last night after I loaded Jeremy’s post, but it was so long ago now I couldn’t dig it back up. I was hoping to turn those folks on to this conversation.

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  5. Perhaps globalization is an issue here? I could easily see Batman as a manifestation of insecurity in general, but especially as a symbol of how we don’t know how to deal with this huge world and feel insignificant in the face of it. Batman is one of the few totally human people in a milieu of otherworldly “foreigners” who may or may not be trying to help “us.” (He also does a lot more globetrotting than he used to, deals with more international issues, not to mention Batman Inc. taking his operation to a global scale). He’s a symbol of becoming efficacious, and _known_, in a complicated, frightening, and often impersonal world. (This also plays into fears of terrorism, certainly).

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    • Wow, thanks for that ๐Ÿ™‚ That’s a dimension we haven’t explored very much. It does make a certain amount of sense, though. The two things that have always attracted me, personally, are his humanity and the fact that in most of his incarnations that I am familiar with, he operates according to a rigid, but personal, code of ethics. Which makes perfect sense in light of your comment.

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      • I hadn’t really thought about it until today, but it does make some sense. I’ve always been attracted to his hope and persistence, as well as his extreme competence, among other things. The fact that extreme competence is such a part of his character right now seems telling on many levels.

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        • couple of things. I was taught that globalization can be broken down into two components based on its effects: Interdependence and Fragmentation. Economies and National cultures are integrated, but Local cultures and sovereign political units are fragmented in really odd ways. That creates winners and losers, which causes conflict.

          All that adds up to a loss of control for the individual.

          Add to that the fact that the most powerful single country seems to have developed a knack for promoting incompetence, and well, what you said about Batman makes perfect sense.

          I’m hoping Jeremy will chime in on this thread eventually, I am not really up on the more recent Batman. Most of what I say is based on late 80s – early 90s Batman.

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          • Late 80s/early 90s Batman is such a good Batman, and so varied. He’s really several different characters at this point. Just look at the difference in tone from Frank Miller to Paul Dini and you’ll see what I mean (we won’t mention Tim Burton at this point). ๐Ÿ˜‰

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    • I can definitely see aspects of globalization in Batman and his adventures. I would hazard to say that I see a positive spin on American involvement globally in Batman, Inc. Certainly, a lot of problems have emerged from stepping on a lot of toes around the world, but the model of a Batman for each major city on the planet as a solution for rampant crime is a fascinating idea. And I can also see the negative side of this that your comment suggests, that Batman, through these actions, makes himself even more well known and invites reprisal from even more quarters than he normally would.

      I also like the idea of Batman as the mortal check-and-balance system in place on supposedly more powerful super beings in his world. As I said in reply to an earlier comment, one of my favorite aspects of Batman as a character is that he is the mortal man who walks among gods. The “foreigner” idea may get a little complicated, though–many of Batman’s colleagues are as American as he is, or as human as he is to take it more broadly. Or they were before gaining their powers, if you will. And who is more American than late-Golden Age Superman, I ask you? ๐Ÿ˜‰

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      • Why, no one! ๐Ÿ˜€ What’s interesting is how conversations I’ve had about Superman have been centered around Superman being alien and not counting as human. This might be a result of Man of Steel focusing on that and getting it into the public psyche, though. I can imagine there are a wide variety of appeals based on which Batman a person experiences. People who love the Nolan movies but aren’t familiar with the comics might be more concerned about government surveillance, while comic fans might be more concerned about criminal psychology or something. The “foreigner” issue is probably only apparent in comics, where Batman interacts with other superheroes. Many of them are American and technically human, but the humans in the comics don’t seem to see it that way (although to a lesser degree than the X-Men are perceived as not human). They have otherworldly, unexplainable powers and skills and thoughts. That’s what I was getting at. DC on the whole seems to perceive its heroes as more positive and more trustworthy than Marvel does, though…

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        • I like this conversation. And, to the Superman comment, it was probably my most favorite line of “Man of Steel” when he says, “I grew up in Kansas, general. I’m about as American as it gets.”

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        • I like where your thoughts are going with this. Does it complicate your view, though, that DC is pushing more toward the edgy, untrustworthy side with the New 52? I’m thinking of what’s effectively the first scene of the New 52 in Justice League #1: Batman and Hal Jordan running from the police while pursuing a parademon at the same time.

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          • Honestly I feel like the level of editorial oversight on the New 52 lines almost makes them not count, but I don’t see it is a complication anyway. Batman has been portrayed as untrustworthy plenty of times. It’s important to the character that he’s rich. In this particular allegory, it would be a case of Batman being associated with the US government. Either people don’t associate him with “us” anymore, or he’s one of “us” who’s being corrupted by power. The US government (and rich people) would be part of the globalization fear, the actors beyond the average person’s ken, not part of “us.”

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  6. Reblogged this on Things Matter and commented:
    To follow up on my post about Batman-as-myth, here’s a cool opening for discussion on Batman as a myth, and why people are attracted to the character during bleak times. I’d love to hear more thoughts!

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  7. First off, I’d like to thank you all for reading, thinking, and commenting. I’m very, very glad this went off as well as it did. I hope you all keep coming back each week for more thoughts on Batman and my random bonus comics posts.

    I’m seeing a lot of good discussion forming here, and I’d like to take on all of it if I can. I’m seeing social commentary, humanity versus mythic status, globalism, and a few other ideas percolating. I will try to return to these over the next couple of days once I’ve rested a bit and had time to think them over.

    Thanks again, everyone, for a good first day!

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    • Hi Jeremy ๐Ÿ™‚ If you reply to individual commenters, they’ll get notifications, so no hurry to answer all at once. I’m glad you stopped by.

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