Sunday, May 07, 2006

# Posted 9:48 AM by Patrick Porter  

THOUGHTS ON THE DARK KNIGHT: Batman to me is the only interesting comic-book hero. Comic-book afficionados out there will have their views. And while I have only read a tiny fraction of the stories, I can't help dissecting why as a grown man, he is the only cartoon character I would ever spend money on.

Originally created partly to counter the appealing Superman of DC comics, Batman is the negation of many of Superman's qualities. He is human rather than super-human, and certainly can't deflect a bullet with his flesh or leap over a building with a single bound. He is nocturnal and emerges from shadows, whereas Superman bursts gloriously out of a clear blue sky. He has no magic abilities, in fact. His motives are all too human, to avenge his murdered parents, easily becoming dark and destructive. He has a pretty dazzling arsenal of gadgets and weapons, but they only take him to the limits of human possibility.

But the most compelling thing about Batman to me is the quality accentuated in his more recent reincarnations: his vigilantism. I think I'm right in saying that this also contrasts him with the man of steel, who is far more fastidious in doing things by the book, in line with the rule of law (this may not always be the case, however).

This is certainly the case in Frank Miller's haunting and gripping graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, which revived Batman in the mid-80's. In this one, Bruce Wayne as a middle-aged alcoholic tempted by suicide returns as a complex and alienated figure, a seriously violent vigilante, both feared and needed by Gotham city, which is disintegrating into anarchy and corruption.

He makes his own rules, breaking the legs and arms of opponents, terrorising them into co-operating, that sort of thing. The new mayor wants to arrest him, and daytime tv is devoted to audiences furiously debating whether he is a threat or a saviour.

There are echoes of debates about civil liberties in the war on terror, only the situation is far more extreme. The police are almost helpless in the wave of gang warfare and crime, the federal government doesn't want to get its hands dirty in Gotham (which is a loose surrogate for a futuristic New York as it might have been imagined in the 1980's). In this story, Superman is the lawful tool of the state, and obediently agrees to fight against Batman. Which is fitting enough, given that one of the commercial motives for creating Batman was to rival Superman's marketability.

So the dilemma is posed: when is it permissible to allow vigilantism to erode the rule of law, in order to restore order? And, of course, his outfit is cool.
(5) opinions -- Add your opinion

Everything you've laid out about Batman is why he's king of the fraction of comic fanboydom that I indulge in. His Jeckyll and Hyde dichotomy was always far more engaging than good guy Clark Kent turning into SuperGoodGuy Superman.

One of my absolute all-time favorite Batman comics is Arkham Asylum. It details the gruesome family history behind the creation of Arkham, while paralleling Batman's own quest into the asylum to quell an inmate uprising. Batman is locked inside, and the Joker says to him, "Welcome home." (PS - the art by Dave McKean in this graphic novel is haunting and amazing)

And it's the truth for Bruce Wayne, whose psyche and motives are as fractured and complex as any you can hope to find in the comics, and often play out much moreso like a novel.

And Patrick, you're right about Dark Knight returns - total master storytelling.

This leads me finally to vigilantism. I would say that for any normal person to find it within themselves to do such things, there has to be a touch of madness involved, whether it's temporary, or more long term. Anyone that consciously, willingly puts him/herself outside or above the law, even to perform a greater good, has rejected the rule of law.

Locke would say then, that once a man has rejected the contract he has entered by choosing to live in a state of government, that man has reentered the state of nature. The state of nature is such that we may only take what we need without hurting another. We step out of this natural state once we injure another, regardless of motive, and have entered a state of war. A vigilante, unfortunately regardless of his motive, is in a state of war with the rule of law. Thus he need not necessarily be given the due process which comes from living in the citizen/government contract.

So I guess, by nature of logic, a vigilante is subject to be put down.

But screw Locke. Nobody should kill Batman.

And it's not like they could anyway.
RE: Vigilantism and Locke

One of the issues with the arguement is there is no state of law in Batman's enviroment. In essence, he is trying to reduce the state of nature his opponents are in to the state of law, allowing "normal" society to re-assert itself.

But what do I know, I'm just another undergrad.
RE: the vigilantism when the organized law refuses to or is incapable of doing its job; you should watch Boondock Saints if you haven't seen it already. Good movie.
hey interesting article about why you like batman more than superman.
I have to agree with you batman is definitely cooler than superman. He has more flaws than a being who is not from earth and can fly and who's only poison is kryptonite. It is my first time reading your journal. I never thought oxford students had these thoughts about comic book characters.
It seems to me that Batman, while technically a vigilante, is mostly trying to enforce the laws that Gotham's corrupt law enforcement cannot or will not. Batman originally started his career tackling the organized crime that operated hand in hand with Gotham's government and law enforcement [see "Year One" also by Frank Miller]. The latter day Batman more or less confines himself to tackling the meta-criminals that the regular police are not equipped to. If it is purely a regular detective case, Batman will leave it to the police or, more likely, work in tandem with them.

As an interesting tangent, there was a good story arc that centred around the bat-signal a few years back. It is well known that the bat-signal had been turned on by police commissioner Gordon whenever they needed Batman's help. However, a captured criminal was acquitted due to the logical conclusion that this made Batman a de facto agent of the police, but he did not follow police procedure (Miranda and such). So, in recent years [best shown in the now finished "Gotham Central" comic (a Batman comic with almost no Batman, centred on a detective squad in Gotham)] there has been a temp employee, who is not an official employee of the city, who is the only person allowed to even touch the bat-signal. The police deny any partnership with Batman and even publicly call his existance into question. In a sense, this is simply an attemp to validate his label of "vigilante" even though it is hardly accurate anymore.

Batman was a vigilante when the system was so rife with corruption that the laws were not being enforced. He since has become become a quasi-officer of the law who merely operates and is funded independantly. It is my firm belief that one can only take the law into one's own hands when the law is wrong or not being enforced by the proper authorities.

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