Batman's Traumatic Origins

As of this month, Batman has entertained fans for the past 75 years. He is now the only comic book superhero who has remained continuously in print since the Golden Age of comics, outlasting even his most famous colleague, Superman, who disappeared in 1992 but was then resurrected.

There are many reasons for Batman’s popularity. Here I want to focus only on the role of trauma in his enduring appeal. I am particularly interested in the talented children who were so drawn to Batman that they grew up to become the writers and illustrators who inherited the character and now perpetuate the legend. Which aspects of Batman lore do they perpetuate? Often, it’s the dark effects of his traumatic origins.

After a period of encounters with spacemen and silly characters, culminating in the camp comic Batman many still remember from the ‘60s TV show, the early 1970s saw the lifting of rigid restrictions on comic-book content. Liberated from those restraints, the Batman legend was free to evolve in whichever direction best expressed what psychoanalyst Jacob Arlow called “the communal myth.” What has evolved—and what we can take as the essential myth of Batman—is true to Kane’s original conception: Batman as a dark, foreboding, brooding, obsessed victim.

Batman’s return to his Dark Knight roots was led by writer and editor Dennis O’Neil. He envisioned Batman as a Darknight Detective “whose parents were killed by a thief in the night in front of his eyes, and who grew up with a kind of schizoid paranoia that made him believe it was his role in life to track down—at times even maim—the villains of the world.” Batman editor Robert Greenberger noted: “Superman has always been a light, positive hero, Batman has been grim and possessed.”

Batman’s world matches his mood. “Not the sunny place most superheroes are accustomed to,” observed Vaz. “Batman’s world is a place where capricious fate can deal out sudden death to innocents.” It is, according to Vaz, a world that emulates a particular genre in literature and film:

The word noir ... has come to stand for a dark, fatal vision ... . Even when the hero of a noir piece emerges triumphant, some price, usually the early loss of a loved one, has been paid. The Batman mythos has been steeped in such noir traditions from the very beginning. ... This noir menace is the glue that holds the whole of the Batman oeuvre together. ... Despite the risks and the air of menace (perhaps because of them), fans for fifty years have been plunging into the darkness with the Batman.

Vaz’s parenthetical guess is right on the mark: It is precisely the air of menace that draws readers to Batman.

In his essay, “Why I Chose Batman,” Stephen King elaborated the theme of Batman as a scary figure. After discussing how Superman’s superpowers, including the ability to fly, made it difficult to identify with him, the author wrote:

Maybe the real reason that Batman appealed to me more than the other guy.

There was something sinister about him.

That’s right. You heard me.

Sinister.

... Batman was a creature of the night. ...

In those Batman-busts-in panels, you almost always saw a horrid species of fear on the faces of the hoods he was about to flush down the toilet ... Yeah, I thought ... that’s right, they should look scared, I’d sure be scared if something like that busted in on me. I’d be scared even if I wasn’t doing something wrong.

DC / Frank Miller

Another reader who thought the illustrations looked scary was an eight-year-old boy named Frank, who was destined to play a major role in shaping the Batman myth. Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novella, The Dark Knight Returns, is generally credited with creating a resurgence of interest in Batman; newspapers and magazines heralded its release as the coming of age for comic books.

Here is Miller’s vision of Batman: “Do you know who I am, punk? I’m the worst nightmare you ever had. Kind that made you wake up screaming for your mother.” This is the sort of terror that occupies the world of Stephen King, who praised Frank Miller’s vision as “the finest piece of comic art ever to be published in a popular edition.”

Contemporary interpretations of Batman repeatedly emphasize Bruce Wayne’s trauma. Vaz believes, “This hero called the Dark Knight would probably have a very different place in comics history if not for that brutal origin, the memories of which are always lurking in the shadows of his mind and in the background of the mythos. ... It’s what haunts him, drives him, makes him the hero he is.”

In Batman: Year One, another Frank Miller story, Bruce Wayne describes the trauma as the night “all sense left my life.” This is the changed attitude about life that is a hallmark of traumatized children. That attitude is evident whenever Batman’s thoughts turn to the tragic event that occurred in what has become known as “Crime Alley.”

Batman has other symptoms of psychic trauma. A 1989 story, “Blind Justice,” written by Sam Hamm, depicts Batman as being plagued by anguish, nightmares, and wracking guilt. Hamm, who also wrote the screenplay to the 1989 Batman film, recalled Batman as being “very dark and ominous and quirky. That really makes the strongest impression on you when you’re a kid. ... Batman is a mysterious guy; he’s essentially a vigilante, and he’s a fairly disturbed character. His whole gimmick is, he wants to be menacing, he wants to be frightening, he wants to be shadowy.”

Roger Ebert had trouble with this “gimmick” as portrayed in the 1989 movie Batman: “There was something off-putting about the anger beneath the movie’s violence,” he wrote. “This is a hostile, mean-spirited movie about ugly, evil people, and it doesn’t generate the liberating euphoria of the ‘Superman’ or ‘Indiana Jones’ pictures. It’s rated PG-13, but it’s not for kids.” Recall that post-traumatic play is grim. Ebert recognized this quality and for him it was the obvious drawback of the movie—a movie that Bob Kane said kept him “spellbound.” In a critique that strikes at the heart of the film’s resonance with Kane’s traumatic vision, Ebert complained: “The movie's problem is that no one seemed to have any fun watching it. It’s a depressing experience. Is the opposite of comic book ‘tragic book’?”

Let me offer one final example of post-traumatic resonance. The essence of psychic trauma is the experience of a sudden, unexpected turn of events—the rug being pulled out from under, plunging the victim into a nightmare that remains etched in memory.

A 1989 elaboration of the origin of Batman captures this aspect of trauma with a simple metaphor. At some unspecified time before the murder of his parents, young Bruce fell into a hole, an old cave, filled with bats. The experienced was terrifying. Reminiscing about this earlier trauma Batman thinks, “You're walking along and you fall through a hole. You never stop falling.” This, of course, is exactly what it means to be traumatized.

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Richard A. Warshak is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He is the author of Divorce Poison: How To Protect Your Family From Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing.

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