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Rest in Peace, Batman…

Batman – or at least Bruce Wayne – has been ‘dead’ for about a year now. He was famously killed off by Grant Morrison through some weird timey-wimey thing I don’t even want to get into. Anyway, it has been a year, and a year since the release of The Dark Knight and seventy years since the Caped Crusader first appeared. He’s come a long way since then and I thought it might be interesting to think about what his obituary might look like, if it were run in a news paper like The Guardian. Sure he’s coming back, but from what we saw last summer, The Gotham Times are all about publishing the premature obituaries. Anyway, here’s what I think it might look like…

Who says he never embraced the camp side of his life? And I bet he has all the accessories too...

Who says he never embraced the camp side of his life? And I bet he has all the accessories too...

Bruce Wayne, also known as Batman, passed away last year. Apparently despite surviving a fairly large helicopter crash, he managed to kill some sort of cosmic god who had always really been a foe of Superman before being sapped back in time to relive any number of more depressing and downbeat lifetimes until the end of time itself. The Joker is not taking the news well.

Bruce is known around the world for dressing up like a bat and scaring the bejaysus out of criminals, while using his millions to engage on a personal war on crime in his home city. One can only imagine that the millions he spent on his hobby could have easily gone into all manner of social projects aimed at tackling the causes of crime, but that wouldn’t really be that much fun.

Of his origin, most accounts agree that Bruce lost both parents at a young age. They were killed in a routine hold up outside a theatre. The gunman is most frequently identified as Joe Chill, but it has been speculated it could also have been the Joker – to create a very blunt symmetry between the two men and then to beat the audience over the head with it. The original, sparse tale suggests that Bruce, in desperate need of a girlfriend or a hobby was reading in his study one night when a bat flew in his window. Rather than removing the vermin from the room and then closing the window, Bruce got the idea to dress up as bat and scare criminals because they are “a superstitious and cowardly lot”. Other sources suggest that the bat motif was an amalgamation of his own fear of the creatures, the opera his parents attended before being killed and a life-long pursuit of vengeance. Some versions of the story seem to suggest he was just nuts and always would be. Some, all or none of the accounts may do justice to the origin of the hero.

Not many people know that in his early adventures, Bruce carried a gun. His strong pulp atmosphere saw him encounter many of his trademark rogues (including Catwoman, The Joker, Clayface and The Penguin) quite early – much earlier than the other major costumed hero who emerged about the same time (Superman wouldn’t even encounter the Luthor we know today for about a decade). He also wasn’t particularly concerned about killing criminals (though most of them deserved it). For some reason (some would cynically suggest that this is because he stands to inherit the entire Wayne estate if Bruce dies childless), his family’s faithful and loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth has become somewhat of an enabler in this one man war-on-crime.

Still, there’s nothing like having a kid to mellow you out. He took a young acrobat under his wing and trained him as Robin. Depending on what version of the tale you accept as the truth, this disturbing on a subtextual level or… well, just disturbing. Bruce Wayne let Dick Grayson move in as his ward, although it didn’t take too long for people to start gossiping about the reclusive old billionaire living with the young acrobat. No one can imagine what they’d have to say about the fact he took the character out into gunfights and near-fatal situations.

Times change, and times changed for Bruce and his alias as well. The dark tales of criminal double-cross and suspense gave way to a more bright and colourful style of adventure – the kind that would be safe for kids. Elaborate deathtraps (that were never fatal) and more gimmicky villains were the order of the day. This trend continued through the fifties and into the sixties, when Batman became a very public symbol of authority (or ‘the man’) and ironically square figure who thwarted any number of ridiculous adversaries, riding high on the era of Batmania. It was also the era in which Batman traveled to other planets (possibly inside his own mind – a lot of people were experimenting at the time).

Many of those interested in the life and legacy of the Caped Crusader look back and frown on this period of his life, where he carried around a “Bat Shark Repellent” aerosol on his belt and even had a made up dance. But it propelled him to the mainstream and kept him in the public eye for a brief moment. Then he faded and retired. The sixties were brief. Many of his villains, such as Egghead and King Tut seem to have disappeared around that time, possibly as a result of bad acid trips, but it’s also possible they decided to get out the game before things got too dark and depressing. Rumours abound that both are happily married and have started families while looking back at the good times and laughing at the fact Maxie Zeus hasn’t copped on yet.

Bruce was also a keen team player, despite his privacy. He’s had a tumultuous relationship with Superman, with the two initially best friends forever but not above being total dicks to each other for no apparant reason. Later, he grew to mistrust the alien, making sure he had the capacity to defeat him should he ever be mind-controlled and used against the human race. It happened more often than you may think. He also worked as one of the only major members of the Justice League without superpowers (along with similarly-bored-billionaire-playboy-with-nothing-better-to-be-doing Green Arrow), managing to consistently prove himself as bad ass as his team mates. He could total kick all their asses, and he did once, but not intentionally. Somebody stole his playbook.

Over the seventies, evidently tired of patiently humouring these hippies, Batman began a gradual return to his roots. His adventures became pulpy and just a shade darker. It helped that the Joker had decided to shave off that god awful moustache under his makeup and actually kill some people. A lot of people see this Batman as the best of all possible Batman, a Bruce Wayne in his stride. It was a fine line, and maybe it was too easy to cross. It’s a slippery slope from “dark and gritty” to “paranoid loner”.

The eighties were not a good time to be Batman. His young colleague left him to become his own man. Except no one seemed to really care about what Dick Grayson did when he wasn’t Robin. Unwilling to accept that he’d been quite lucky the first time, Bruce took another ward under his cape. Of course, times had changed. Jason Todd was killed in the line of duty by the Joker… except he wasn’t really, but we’re not sure why not, anyway, he’s back now. There was some hope that this had hammered home the potential risk of using orphans as pawns in a war against crime. Also around this time, he managed to dominate popular culture yet again, despite the fact that some people worried he looked like that comedian from Beetlejuice. Anyway, things got a lot darker a lot quicker, and Bruce’s life became a bit of a trainwreck, but it was the nineties, so it was happening to everyone. At least he didn’t massacre an intergalactic police force, right?

He had his back broken by a musclebound South American wrestler, then he helped Gotham City survive a catestrophic earthquake. He also helped suppress a violent ebola varient released in the city. At no point did he wonder why anybody still lives in the city instead of moving to the nice countryside. His villains also began to get richer and deeper backstories, which added a tragic hint to them. The Joker couldn’t decide which of his own histories he preferred. Bruce adopted yet another few young ones into his family. Timothy Drake worked out quite well, but Cassandra Cain suffered a particularly nasty almost-death and the hands of a power drill. But it was alright in the end. This was almost as terrible as that time around about this phase in his history when his tragic opponent Mr. Freeze developed a mysterious Austrian accent and a taste for punning. Almost.

Understandably, this may have contributed to his declining mental health. What probably didn’t help was the fact that his close colleagues at the Justice League wiped his memories when he refused to go along with a particularly hairbrained scheme of theirs. When he found out his memories had been wiped by his closest friends, he became (understandably) dickish about it. Bruce became quite the paranoid loner. With a very strong supporting cast.

He mellowed out a bit lately. Significantly. Before his death the public were offered a fairly definitive exploration of his formative years and his early years as a Gotham crime fighter. He appeared to have come to terms more-or-less completely with all the absolutely crazy and warped and insane stuff within his varied and rich history. He also discovered that he had a son, who eventually continued the long and rich tradition of children living in Wayne Manor fighting crime and dodging bullets while working long hours. Batman evidently doesn’t need to follow child labour laws.

He’s grown and changed a lot over the years, and lived a long and varied life. He’s been a jewel in the pop culture crown, but also a camp embarrassment. He’s always been defined by his humanity and his strength of will. Batman is the character who endures, who never gives up. A lot of people claim to know the real Batman, or try to define him based upon a particular era of his long life time. It isn’t quite that simple. Bruce Wayne was all of the above and more. He will be sorly missed, but never forgotten.

I hope that didn’t come across to pithy and snarky, but the character is an interesting, complex and sometime contradictory one. He’s also probably one of the most interesting and varied popular creation in the past century. So ends our week of coverage on the Dark Knight and the Caped Crusader.

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This is one of a series of articles being published to celebrate the anniversary of the release of The Dark Knight and the seventieth birthday of the character. There will be one-a-day for the week – but don’t worry, it won’t interrupt our other coverage of pop culture happenings.

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