Villains Make the Best Heroes: Batman vs Lex Luthor

Happy new book day, everyone! I hope you are all doing well this week. I am quickly closing in on the six month mark on this column, and for this entry I decided to look forward instead of backward. The first true big event of DC’s New 52, Forever Evil by Geoff Johns and David Finch, recently wrapped up, and I believe it has been out long enough to talk a bit about it here. Be forewarned, though, that this post contains spoilers if you haven’t read Forever Evil #7.

Forever Evil has been quite a treat for me to read. Its tagline, “Evil is Relative,” plays well with my growing belief that villains make the best heroes, and that small evil actions can be committed for the sake of larger good ones. Criminality and disposition aside, you cannot argue with the effectiveness of the methodologies of such characters as Lex Luthor and Sinestro, two of the characters featured as defenders of the earth in Forever Evil.

Why, then, is Batman featured as the sole active hero in this team of villains? Though he is initially hesitant to work with Lex Luthor’s team, it can be argued that Batman functions better with them than he does with the Justice League. I can write entire posts (and have, and will again) about the things that differentiate Batman from his fellow heroes, from his lack of superpowers to his personality.

I have previously raised the question of whether or not Batman may even be in the right fictional universe, and I now pose a new question: is Batman a villain who decided to fight for justice rather than personal gain? As I’ve pointed out before, Frank Miller wrote Batman from the perspective that the darkness in Batman is greater than the light, but he makes this darkness work for the benefit of everyone around him. I believe this thought is worth meditating upon for awhile.

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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. 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 recent—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.