Sunday, August 11, 2013

Daily Panel | It is the Bat-Man!

I'm fascinated by Batman and Superman's different methods of motivating people. Superman inspires positively through hope, where Batman uses the negative tactic of fear. It's also interesting to me that Superman had to grow into his role, but Batman was a symbol of terror from the get-go, as seen in this panel by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. It's Batman's very first appearance in costume from Detective Comics #27.

I suspect that both characters chose fear early on (though Batman more explicitly so) because it's the easier, more intuitive approach. Take parenting, for example. The quickest, easiest way to get a child to behave a certain way is to threaten and terrify him. But it's not the best way, or the most rewarding, and it doesn't yield long-term results. Eventually the child will grow to the point where she can rebel. That probably explains the differences between the iconic depictions of Metropolis and Gotham. Metropolis is a shining, progressive city, while Gotham is still a crime-ridden slimehole.

I used to think that the difference between the cities was about power. Superman has the power to make everyone behave, while poor, powerless Batman has to scrape by any way he can. That theory doesn't hold up though. For one thing, Superman explicitly doesn't use his power to tyrannically control Metropolis. For another, Batman actually does have a great deal of power in his wealth and fame. He could be using those advantages to change Gotham, but he's not. In fact, he undermines his own ability to do it that way by pretending to be a lazy, hedonistic bastard.

This isn't to say that I hate Batman. I like him a lot precisely because he's a dark, terrifying figure. And since we're always attracted to things that frighten us (as long as they're not too scary), that makes Batman cool. We also probably need Batman as much as we need Superman. If Superman represents what humanity should strive to achieve, Batman represents what we should be running away from.

There are some interesting twists on this though where exceptions prove the rule. One is the campy Batman of the '60s where Batman is portrayed as inspirational. It's especially obvious in the Adam West show where Batman constantly and explicitly tells Robin and others how to be a good citizen. Appropriately, the beautiful, fair city of Gotham reflects that.

Another exception is the Christopher Nolan trilogy. Batman tries to serve as an inspirational hero in Batman Begins, decides he can't in The Dark Knight, then finally figures out how in The Dark Knight Rises. The irony though is that he decides the only way to make Batman an inspirational symbol is to kill him and not be him any more. Bruce Wayne can't figure out how to make Batman a living, active icon of hope, so he retires. We're left wondering if Robin might have more luck, but the message of the trilogy isn't optimistic about that.

In spite of Batman's being a negative, ineffective figure, most people I know would rather be him than Superman. That's because we can relate to him more. We'll never have all the power that Superman does and it's really hard to be as good as what he represents. But Batman... we think we can do that. If we gather enough wealth and enough human power, we're pretty sure we can get what we want. And gathering wealth and power is a lot more immediately satisfying than trying to be better people. So yeah, I understand the attraction. The thing we have to remember though is that it doesn't work.


Paxton said...

Holy crap, Michael. Well said. You explain the differences between Supes and the Bat perfectly.

Michael May said...



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