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Why Bruce Wayne as Batman Should Rest in Peace

I’m not a comic book fan, I must admit. I own a few Absolute editions (Watchmen, Sandman, The Long Halloween) and a rare few prestige format books (The Green Lantern Archives and The Killing Joke), and I’m planning on bulk-buying Grant Morrison’s run on Batman in those nice hardcover editions to tide me over on my holiday this summer. So, what I’m about to say must be tempered with that little caveat. I’ve read relatively little of Batman lore, save what my parents would pick me up from the grocery store in Ghana when I was small (and – to further outline the differences between myself and your comics fan – I remember them merely for what they contained rather than by issue and series number; I fondly recall “the one where Swamp Thing meets Killer Croc” or “the retelling of The Riddler’s origin”). Still, on reading the coverage and preparing to jump headfirst into Grant Morrison’s magnum opus, one thought is running through my head: If they are threatening to end Bruce Wayne’s run as Batman, they should do it.
Na na na na na na, Batman!

Na na na na na na, Batman!

Don’t get me wrong. At least they’re being up front about it. Grant Morrison has all but confirmed his little “replacing Batman” arc is simply biding time until Bruce Wayne returns from the dawn of time. The writer went to great pains to give charcters two ambiguous non-deaths – a crashing helicopter in Batman RIP and a time warp in Final Crisis. Not withstanding that actually getting rid of the character outside the series titled with an R.I.P. is a little gimmicky, it still isn’t quite so irritating as The Death and Return of Superman arc, perhaps because everyone is being up front about the temporary nature of the change.

Still, that’s the problem. Death in comic books doesn’t mean anything. For over a decade, the one exception to that rule was from the Batman family – Jason Todd, the second Robin famously killed by phone-in vote. Of course, he’s back from the dead, due to a superpowered villian pounding on the walls of reality. Turns out the other Robin that died is also not really dead either.

What differentiates Batman from other superheroes is that he isn’t super. He’s just one very intense human being, with a large amount of money. This is the Batman that popular culture has embraced and accepted, the dogged hero who acheives not through birthright or genetics, but through sheer determination. People actually have discussions on whether you could actually be Batman, given the time and dedication. What makes the great adaptations of the mythos – the Burton films, the animated series, the Nolan films – so fantastic is that they realise that while Bruce Wayne is an ordinary man, he has crafted an extraordinary symbol that can and should endure.

The actual death of Bruce Wayne – or his retirement (though that seems unlikely given his character) – would be a massive step towards defining what Batman is. I love the idea that Morrison had of passing the mantle to Dick Grayson, helping him grow as a character and also suggesting that Batman is not so fixed a hero as Superman. Superman will always be an overgrown boyscout, but Batman has been an ironically ‘hip’ crimefighter, an adventurer, a vampire killer, a well-rounded and social-conscious billionaire and a paranoid loner. Sometimes more than one of these at any given moment. And through all of these he has been Bruce Wayne. There is no reason he could not transition again beyond his alter ego.

Bruce Wayne may be human, but the creature he created is more than that. The reason that so many people who scoff at Spiderman and Wonder Woman embrace the ridiculous-looking caped crusader is because he is simply one badass dude. We all know that badasses die. The legend may, as the clichéd tag line reminds us, live forever – but that’s meaningless if this whole saga simply returns us to status quo ante. It invalidates Neil Gaiman’s magical Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, just as it invalidates the growth that Dick Grayson will experience from putting on the cowl and taking a young Robin under his wing (it is a different growth from evolving into his own hero), and just as it weakens our investment in the world of Batman.

Batman is so awesome he's going to beat the information he wants out of that stone gargoyle...

Batman is so awesome he's going to beat the information he wants out of that stone gargoyle...

Sure, killing Bruce Wayne is risky – but surely not riskier than having such a densely-written and multi-layoured arc play out at the same time as Batman became the second-biggest box office earner of all time? Anyone picking up a comic after The Dark Knight would be left scratching their heads, at least if you buy the logic that comic book readers are stupid. Besides, only with real risk is progress actually made. It would go a long way towards demonstrating the artistic merit of a medium so dismissively written off as purely a crass commercial entity.

Part of the reason that audiences cheered so strongly for the hero of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight was because we knew that a single well-timed gunshot could put him to an end prematurely, just as we knew that he would do absolutely anything he could to protect the city that mattered most to him. One of the most powerful moments in The Dark Knight is relatively low-key – Bruce takes off his shirt revealing all manner of cuts and bruises earned in the line of duty. Going out there despite the risk is what makes his Batman a hero. Putting out such a ridiculous safety net simply makes him another superhero.

Batman & Robin – the fourth arc in Morrison’s carefully choreographed run – reached stored last week to rave reviews. Apparently it’s a fun ride. I’d just feel better if I knew it was going anywhere. I don’t know how long Bruce Wayne will be gone, but – speaking as someone who loves him dearly – I hope it’s a while.

As an aside, I may also pick up some of those Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams volumes for my away trips. From what I hear, that’s Batman at his best there.

One Response

  1. […] Finally, in superhero news, we pondered Mickey Rourke’s composite character in the new Iron Man film, discussed what happens if Christopher Nolan doesn’t return to Batman and got ourselves hyped about the upcoming Green Lantern film. We also hoped (vainly) that Bruce Wayne would remain dead. […]

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