A Fervent Bat-Wish For The New Year

I think about Batman a lot. Too much, probably.

But the guy has been a huge part of my life. Starting with Adam West in 1966…

…and on up through to today. In fact, we spent New Year’s Eve screening the wonderful Batman vs. Two-Face, which kind of brought me full circle to something that’s been bugging me for a while now.

Sure, it was Adam West, it was played for laughs in a lot of places… but the core was still there, the things about Batman that I fell in love with in the first place were present in that story. And it reminded me how many of them are absent in the current comics.

Here’s the thing. Even Adam West’s Batman, as silly as he got at times, was still a BADASS. He might have been stiff and square and overly polite but by God he still scared the hell out of criminals and fought tigers.

Seriously. TIGERS.

No matter what version of the character you are talking about, that idea has to be at the center of it. As our friend Pol Rua puts it, “Batman’s real superpower is BEING AWESOME.”

Whether it’s fighting rhinos in the Golden Age…

…taking on the Hulk in the Bronze Age…

(Yeah, the Hulk, straight hand-to-hand– TWICE in one story!)

…or outsmarting the world’s greatest fighter in the modern age.


The awesome. That’s what we’re there for.

The trouble is, I never get to see that guy in the comics any more. Today it’s all dour sad stuff built on the idea that Batman is angry and miserable all the time. Like that’s the DEFAULT setting.

This has been something that has been percolating in Batman stories since the success of the big-screen Dark Knight movies, and it’s really getting out of control since DC’s Rebirth.

The latest spin on it is that Batman can’t BE Batman if he’s happy. At all.

No. That’s the last straw. That is flatly horseshit and there’s at least seventy years’ worth of Bat stories backing me up on this.

First of all, let’s get the main thing straight. Batman should not be constantly miserable.

Why would he be? He’s doing exactly what he wants to be doing, he has fulfilled his every childhood goal. Bruce Wayne moping about whether or not he is fulfilled is absurd because many, MANY writers have established, over and over, that BEING BATMAN is what fulfills him. What makes Bruce Wayne happy is taking criminals down and seeing justice done.

Moreover, unlike all the rest of us, Batman doesn’t ever need to hold back. Some poor schlub working retail has to hold it in and be nice when injustice happens and customers piss him off. But Bruce Wayne only has to hold back long enough to get into costume. Then that hostility gets vented.

On top of all that, he’s filthy rich and he has the coolest car in the world.

It’s not that he’s not serious. Batman’s not happy-go-lucky, no. But he is, above all, a creature of reason.

Batman’s mission is calculated, he dresses and operates the way he does for effect. Scaring the shit out of criminals is his primary tactic. It’s to mess with them, throw them off.


And there is considerable textual evidence that he enjoys doing it.

He’s perfectly capable of amusing himself at his enemies’ expense.

For the longest time, Batman’s windup to taking down the bad guys often included a wisecrack or two. This started in the Golden Age, before Robin even showed up.

When Batman got his seventies makeover into THE Batman, he was still capable of a smartass remark.

Even post-Miller, grm-n-gritty 1990s Batman threw off a one-liner once in a while.

In fact, I think one of the best bits from the Bruce Timm take on the character was Batman making fun of the Joker.

Why shouldn’t Batman make a joke once in a while? It unsettles the crooks and throws them off as much as the scary outfit and the ruthless combat moves do.

The trouble is that people conflate the idea of “serious” with “humorless.” Which is not to say you can’t have some fun with Batman’s scary image…


And it makes Batman more fun when he’s willing to kid around with his posse.

Snarking off with Alfred…

…a brief aside with the JLA….

…kidding Robin…

…these lighter moments ADD to Batman’s coolness, they don’t take away from it. When the approach to the character is measured and capable of changes in tone, moments like this one land harder.

So all this goes to my point. I could go on. I’ve got a whole thing about how the World’s Greatest Detective should actually do a little deductive reasoning once in a while–he USED to– but the important part is that even then, you gotta bring the awesome. Here’s a sequence that illustrates everything I’m getting at, in two pages.




Yeah. That’s what I’m talking about, folks.

My hope for Batman in the coming year, and all the years to follow… is that he lightens up a little. “Serious” is not “mopey.” The mission statement should be adventure, not humorless tragedy. Let the Dark Knight have a little swash in his buckle. You don’t have to give up maturity in approach or technique to have that.

Wishing all of you, and especially the Caped Crusader, a happier New Year.

Back next week with something cool.

21 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Oh, so that’s how the idea of a Batman-Catwoman marriage got sabotaged? I remember thinking – back when I saw some of the online fanfare announcing the wedding – yeah, that’ll last for about 5 minutes…
    (In my head canon, Bruce and Selina always eventually end up together; and years ago, back in the early 1980s, in arguably the best Batman story ever, Alan Brennert showed how it could be done.)

    Otherwise, I agree with everything said here, esp. the part about Batman occasionally letting his sense of humor pop up. In that regard, one of my favorite scenes is in that Two-Face story by O’Neil and Adams from the early 1970s, when he scares the mayor in Commissioner Gordon’s office by saying ‘boo!’

  2. “Batman’s mission is calculated, he dresses and operates the way he does for effect. ” Alan Brennert compared “put on a costume to avenge your parents and stop people dying” to “found MADD because your child was killed by a drunk driver.”
    I think the Joker has the same problem you mention. He’s become little more than a generic serial killer with no sense of humor and no real style (it started before Heath Ledger but I think he cemented that view). But Scott Snyder (and now, it seems King) do love giving Joker pretentious speeches about how he truly knows Batman — I do not find these an adequate substitute.
    One of the weird things reading the Golden Age Batman (I’m working through Omnibus Four) is that while he’s definitely very, very formidable it’s well within human parameters; even as late as the Bronze Age, one crook with a lucky punch can take him down. That doesn’t contradict your post (he’s still bringing the awesome) but along with the problems you point out, I really hate the overpowered 21st century Batman (like when it turns out he has a battlesuit that can take down the entire JLA).

    1. I think the Joker has the same problem you mention. He’s become little more than a generic serial killer with no sense of humor and no real style (it started before Heath Ledger but I think he cemented that view). But Scott Snyder (and now, it seems King) do love giving Joker pretentious speeches about how he truly knows Batman — I do not find these an adequate substitute.

      It was bad before but Snyder escalated the Joker to the point where he rendered him useless for any further Batman stories. Now we are at a place where anyone who killed the Joker not only wouldn’t do time but probably would get a parade. Because they keep ramping him up. The current status quo is such that it makes Batman look selfish and stupid not to use lethal force.

      The fallacy is that the Joker has first place in the Gotham rogues gallery so he has to be the WORST. Worse than Szasz, worse than Abbatoir, worse than…whoever all the other serial killer guys are. Plus he has to think bigger than Ra’s Al Ghul, be crazier than Two-Face, more brilliant than Hugo Strange…. etc.

      No. That’s all wrong. The way to approach the villains of Gotham is to think about TONE. They are visualizations of how to tell different kinds of crime and mystery stories. The Riddler is the guy you use to tell fair-play puzzle mysteries. The Penguin and Catwoman are for heists and lighthearted caper things. Two-Face is dark character-driven gangster stuff. Ra’s Al Ghul is for international James Bond-style action thrillers.

      And the Joker is for pitch-black Grand Guignol comedy, something that makes you laugh and shudder at the same time (“The Laughing Fish” is probably the Platonic ideal of that.) He doesn’t CARE about Batman except as a playtoy. The Joker is a textbook malignant narcissist. He’s not interested in getting to know anyone else because he is endlessly fascinated by himself and what he might do next to amuse himself.

      You get the idea. It’s not as clear-cut as I’m making it but there ought to be some thought given to what villain is appropriate to what kind of story. The lazy Bat-writers just figure they are all crazy and they all go to Arkham. They’re NOT all crazy, but they are all driven and damaged, and you can riff on those ideas. But in the last decade or so, more and more weight has been given to the idea that Batman must be damaged too, and that is what irritates me so much. Batman has shaped himself into the kind of weapon it takes to put these guys DOWN. They are too much for regular policemen and so it takes Batman to stop them. Not because he’s their damaged mirror image or something but because he has made himself into the ultimate policeman. He’s the personification of justice in the same way that the Riddler is about puzzles or Ra’s Al Ghul is about world domination or the Joker is about murderous craziness.

      They are COMIC BOOK creations, pulp adventure characters. You get all carried away doing stories that are psycho-case studies on them, then sooner or later you have to JUSTIFY them and you really can’t, because the world they live in is this insanely exaggerated stylized place. Then you try to make it all ‘realistic’ and get into the snake eating its own tail where Batman is plagued with doubt and his sidekicks are scolding him for being too dark and obsessed and so on. The more that happens, the further away you get from the engine that drives the thing– the urban Zorro, the pulp adventurer who is awesome enough to do what no ordinary man can.

      That’s what we show up for. Even the jaded old guys like me. People pay their admission, you have an obligation to play the hits.

      1. “The current status quo is such that it makes Batman look selfish and stupid not to use lethal force. ”
        For that matter, it’s hard to believe the police have never shot the Joker “trying to escape.” Particularly given he killed Sarah Essen because as I think we all know, cop killers are not beloved by law enforcement.
        I agree with your thoughts about tone. The trouble is, creators have become increasingly convinced the only tone is dark, the only suitable villain is a psycho. The recent “War of Jokes and Riddles” for example tries to make the Riddler as big a psycho as the Joker. I don’t see anything gained by that (it was also stupid as shit).
        The endless stories that climax with Gotham In Flames are another example of how stupidly dark they’re getting. Apparently nobody’s a worthy villain if they’re not bringing the apocalypse.

    2. Greg Burgas

      I would argue that the terrible Joker is a Frank Miller creation – he’s a dull serial killer in DKR, with the veneer of androgyny so that no one notices it. Ever since Miller, the Joker has gotten worse and worse. Some writers have still done a good one, but ever since 1986, he’s become more and more “Frank Miller’s Joker,” and Ledger was just an example of this, not the cause. In my humble opinion. 🙂

      1. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

        But, of course, Miller’s Joker was also actively trying to commit suicide-by-Bat in DKR.

        He was consciously going all the way over the top, so that Bats would have no choice but to stop him permanently.

  3. You may be right about Miller as the source. I agree it predates Ledger (the story where the Joker wants to murder every baby in Gotham just to be mean is a classic example) but I think his turn reinforced it.
    God knows what Johns’ three Jokers origin will do (nothing good, I suspect).

  4. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

    I will say that you’re mis-characterizing King’s take on “can Batman be happy.”

    The story isn’t “Batman can’t be happy.” It’s “Bane sabatoges Batman’s wedding by convincing Selina that Batman can’t be both Batman and happy.”

    The first 50 issues were dedicated to showing that he can be effective, even when happy.

  5. Louis Bright-Raven

    frasersherman writes, “I think the Joker has the same problem you mention. He’s become little more than a generic serial killer with no sense of humor and no real style (it started before Heath Ledger but I think he cemented that view).”

    It was cemented long before that. While Miller’s Joker from DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (1986) likely played some part of it as Greg Burgas suggests, I would say that transition actually started a couple of years later, with the Joker killing the Jason Todd Robin (Death In The Family, 1988), and even more effectively with Alan Moore’s THE KILLING JOKE (also 1988), as those stories were canon and DKR was supposed to be an Elseworlds alternate reality. Regardless, after these stories, it’s largely been the case that the modern Joker really hasn’t exhibited a sense of humor. Instead he has distinctively exhibited more of a failed sense of humor or a pronounced lack of humor. There’s a difference between having a psychopath who exhibits a dark, ghoulish balance of Grand Guignol comedy (which is what Joker was pre-Crisis, and how he is presented when it’s the BTAS version, largely because they were paying homage to the “Dark Knight Detective” era of the late 1960s and 1970s), and a failed comedian who apparently never really understood comedy to begin with who had a horrific situation occur to him and now he thinks the world is one sick joke and he’s bound and determined to make everyone else the punch line as he feels he was / is, which is largely how the character seems to be perceived and presented by modern DC Editorial / modern writers post KILLING JOKE.

    “One of the weird things reading the Golden Age Batman (I’m working through Omnibus Four) is that while he’s definitely very, very formidable it’s well within human parameters; even as late as the Bronze Age, one crook with a lucky punch can take him down.”

    And that’s a big part of what made the character cool back then. He WAS well within human parameters. He COULD be outwitted (even if only temporarily), he COULD be overpowered in a fight by sheer numbers, or get taken down by the right blow from a single opponent. Post-Bronze Age, however, he somehow became Gary Stu Wayne the Unbeatable Who Is Unbearably Sad Because Nobody Is As Cool As He Is, AKA The Goddamn Batman, for short.

    But where DC has really lost the character over the years, to my mind, is in the point that so many of them don’t seem to know how to write or don’t WANT to write Bruce Wayne. They tend to write Bruce as though he’s the mask, and Batman is the real person, instead of understanding that Bruce is the real person, and Batman is just a persona. They write him as though he is mentally off and belongs in Arkham like all of his opponents, instead of understanding that the persona of Batman is Bruce’s means of channeling all of his inner demons and pain and anger into a positive force so that he CAN have a normal life (and be happy) someday, and so that hopefully nobody else will have to suffer the losses he did and potentially break. Conversely, what the Rogues Gallery represents isn’t just aspects of different crimes / mysteries for the character to solve (though Hatcher is absolutely correct in that regard), they also often represent different types of reflections of where Bruce could have gone had he lost himself to his grief and rage. This is why it’s so sad when these writers all ‘want to write Batman’ because they want to write the Rogues. They don’t seem to get the dynamic at all. As a result, the villains largely become one dimensional – chaos and destruction at such an escalated level as to overwhelm everyone – instead of unique characters unto themselves.

    Now part of that is probably due to all the horrible things that have gone on in the world and in this country in real life over the past 30-35 years, from terrorist bombings to mass shootings… I’m sure in some ways it seems to them that they have to ‘raise the stakes’ to make the villains seem worthy enough to be taken seriously. But is that what we as an audience need or want? Assuming you agree with Hatcher, it’s not what audiences want.

    But since when does DC give a crap what we want?

    1. “They tend to write Bruce as though he’s the mask, and Batman is the real person, instead of understanding that Bruce is the real person, and Batman is just a persona.”
      I thought Alan Brennert’s Batman/Catwoman story (Earth 2 versions) in B&B many years back got it right: Bruce is real but he’s never able to show it. To hide his identity he’s been playing the foppish wastrel for most of his life and only a few people, like Alfred and Dick, know the real man.

      I think another contributing factor re: the Joker is the decision to make him insane. It worked perfectly in Joker’s Five-Way Revenge or “Laughing Fish” but too many writers think it absolves them of having his goals or objective show even a twisted sort of rationality. He’s the Joker! He does crazy shit because he’s crazy! He’ll do anything we want!

      1. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

        Personally, I think the single most inspired choice Conroy makes in BTAS is that Bruce uses his “Batman Voice” when he’s alone, or with people who know his identity, and unmasked.

        Batman essentially wears two masks: there’s “I am Vengeance. I am The Night!” with criminals, and then there’s “Bruce Wayne, playboy” with society.

        The “real” Bruce, whom only Alfred, the boys and maybe Clark know, is different than either.

  6. Louis Bright-Raven

    “I thought Alan Brennert’s Batman/Catwoman story (Earth 2 versions) in B&B many years back got it right: Bruce is real but he’s never able to show it. To hide his identity he’s been playing the foppish wastrel for most of his life and only a few people, like Alfred and Dick, know the real man.”

    Well, there’s the goofy playboy Bruce Wayne he presents publicly (another adopted persona), and the private Bruce Wayne that Alfred, Dick, Lucius Fox, Leslie Thompkins, and others truly close to him know, sure. I think it’s reasonable to assume that Jim Gordon knows Bruce Wayne on a more private level than has really been presented, because of the nature of their relationship and how Gordon has to keep some distance for ‘plausible deniability’ of knowing the identities of the various vigilantes running around his city.

  7. Le Messor

    I LOL’d at the JLU meme.

    I notice that most of the comics you showed were Neal Adams (probably Denny O’Neal Adams). There’s a reason they’re some of the definitive stories.

    For the record, I don’t even consider Ledger in TDK the Joker. Oh, he’s a great villain, sure, maybe a Szasz – but he’s no Joker. He just doesn’t have… ‘it’.

    The only thing I’d disagree with about all the comments above is that they’re narrowed down to one character. I’ve been saying this about most comics for years. It’s why I’m not reading as many as I used to, and those I do read are often aimed at children.

    Maybe, also, I actually like the ‘Batman is real, Bruce is the mask’ take on the character. But I haven’t read it in the too-serious very recent issues.

    That said, I think the general trend is slowing and reversing.

        1. Yes, we’re definitely a minority view.

          and from Greg’s earlier comment: ” He doesn’t CARE about Batman except as a playtoy. ” A good example of that was “Where Were You the Night Batman Was Killed?” The Joker kills Bats (apparently) and doesn’t have any interest in unmasking him. Instead he dissolves his features chemically so he’ll die as unknown as he lived.

    1. I really do think Denny O’Neil did the best version, even though his became grimmer over the years. The Batman of his novel Helltown is miles away from the one shown in these pages, even Shaman. Englehart/Rogers and Moench/Newton/Colan are my ideal, with Len Wein’s a close second. But they are building on the O’Neil blueprint, he’s the one that laid it all out.

      So yeah, I’m a child of the Bronze Age. But I could have used other examples from different eras to make the point. There are quite a few from the Golden Age, and even a few from the ‘campy’ sixties era. Adam West’s TV version — WE aren’t scared of him, but the villains sure are, and the fistfights were just joyous mayhem, cathartic in a way that the Burton movies never managed. In fact, we didn’t SEE that in live action again until Christian Bale. Grant Morrison mostly nailed it in his JLA through I think he lost the thread of it in his solo run.

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