Batman's Traumatic Origins

Batman provided Kane with the opportunity, in fantasy, to take revenge repeatedly—and for the entire span of his career—on the hoodlums of the world. Instead of the defeated, helpless, terrorized victim Kane felt that night in the lumberyard, Batman is the master who strikes terror in others. “Zorro” was not sufficient to defeat the Vultures, but Batman would have no problem.

Batman not only reenacts Kane’s trauma by repeatedly fighting bad guys; he does so in a manner inspired by Kane’s night in the lumberyard. Just as Kane used a grappling hook to ward off his attackers, one of Batman’s earliest and most frequently used weapons is a grappling hook.

As I mentioned before, trauma scholars describe post-traumatic play as having three qualities: It is long-lasting, repetitive, and grim. Here we have 75 years of exploits in more than 4000 comic books, which certainly qualifies as long-lasting and repetitive. As for grim, consider this admission by Kane: “Had my early humorous strips been as successful as ‘Batman,’ I would have stayed with that style because, frankly, I received more pleasure from drawing them than I ever did from drawing ‘Batman.’” Even when Kane intended to create what he called a “gag strip” a year before the birth of Batman, he could not fully avoid what appear to be the echoes of trauma. Published in Circus Comics, the strip was called Sidestreets of New York and featured a mild-mannered boy who is accosted by the Gas House Gang and pushed into the river with his clothes on.

In reminiscing about the attack by the Vultures, Kane displayed another common symptom of trauma victims—finding reasons why he should have known in advance about the danger or suspected that something bad would occur. Psychologists refer to this as omen formation. Here’s how Kane took responsibility for his encounter with the Vultures: “I must confess that taking up the violin was a drastic mistake that almost altered my life. ... I should have known better than to be seen carrying a violin through the rough neighborhoods of the Bronx.” So, according to Kane, the beating he suffered was not because he had the ill fortune to be accosted by a gang of hoodlums. It was something he could have predicted. It was in his control all the time. He simply made a mistake. He chose the wrong instrument. This explanation, I believe, is Kane’s defense against the terror of being helpless.

Post-Traumatic Resonance: The Dark Knight Returns

Of course, we can only speculate about whether Kane’s life-threatening encounter with the Vultures on a dark night in a Bronx lumberyard inspired his creation of Batman. But regardless, the Batman myth, as originally conceived and as elaborated in contemporary interpretations, leaves no doubt that Bruce Wayne’s trauma is the raison d’être and driving force behind his life’s drama—or the reason why he endures.

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.

Presented by

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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