Urban Legend . . . of the Dark Knight . . . and the Caped Crusader . . . and the World’s Greatest Detective . . . and . . .
This may be the last time you hear something like this from me—everything you’ve heard is true. Everything. Nothing is wrong. Nothing is extraneous. Nothing is exaggerated. No one lies. Everything you’ve heard is true.
That’s the way of urban legends.
Batman is unique in comics because, in a way, he is everything. His character embraces many facets at once, even when it seems that his personality or his actions would not. He is clearly a father figure to characters like Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, and Tim Drake. For Dick in particular, he’d said that he’d always be a friend and teacher… but never a father.
Today, we take it for granted that the police have the Bat at their beck and call with a signal on the roof of Gotham Central. However, there have been times when Batman was pursued, even hunted, by the police. Even worse, there were times when his very nature was in question—was this Bat-Man a seven foot tall hell-spawn monster, or just a guy who wore his undies on the outside of his pj’s?
In more recent years, law enforcement has taken a very different attitude towards the World’s Greatest Detective.
Note how in this example, the agents not only allow Batman to conduct his own investigation and collect clues on a closed crime scene, they actually pretend that he isn’t even there. Captain Boomerang’s son, scion to both perp and victim, can’t get in to see his father. Moreover, he’s told that there is no one investigating, even when he can see Batman with his own two eyes.
If the agents started acknowledging Batman’s presence, it would really hurt the urban legend angle . . . don’t you think?
Batman as urban legend goes a lot deeper than just plausible deniability. The way it works in Gotham City is that you can get your tail kicked by Batman without even knowing what’s hitting you. This is a guy who strikes From the Shadows. He wears black, knows all kinds of scary ways to hurt you, and uses fear as his most potent weapon. And what would be scarier than . . . getting beaten up by a girl?
In the opening pages of “No Man’s Land,” Bruce Wayne mistakenly thought that he could do more good for Gotham City as an important, civilian, public figure speaking before Congress. Wayne left Gotham without Batman, but his protégés filled in as best they could. In the above scene, Huntress is dressed in the costume that you probably recognize as Cassandra Cain’s. Huntress stepped up, took the mantle of the Bat, and used it to say, “Criminals beware.”
For my part, Batman is my favorite superhero and always has been. When I was a little kid, grown-ups thought that I was some sort of idiot because I couldn’t properly color the farmer’s straw hat, stay in the lines, or select the appropriate colors for gingham and denim with my Crayolas. In fact, I knew exactly what I was doing. Even then, I was trying to re-invent those useless coloring book outlines to be Batman. So, straw hats had pointy ears poking out the top and overalls had utility belts ground across their midsections in yellow wax. I loved Batman. I love Batman. Because Batman had a cape, I insisted that he—like that pantywaist Superman—could fly. I loved the Batman television show with Adam West and Burt Ward, and I’ll still watch it on TV Land in the middle of the night if I’m awake. A few months ago, Skaff Elias (a legend in the TCG community) tried to tell me that Burgess Meredith was one of the all-time movie tough guys. To me, Meredith seems no more dangerous than that pointy-nosed fop, the Penguin.
The Tim Burton/Joel Schumacker films I can take or leave. But for Brooding Batman, tough as a two dollar steak, give me the ’80s Frank Miller comics. Give me the millionaire kicking through a tree or the rusty old man shattering a street thug’s pelvis. Give me the spoiled playboy still afraid of the dark. Give me the white-haired guy with enough stones to put his cleats into the Last Son of Krypton’s face. I love that Batman about a hundred times more than the campy ’60s guy in the purple, short-eared cowl (and as I’ve said, I still have quite a fondness for West’s version).
Even the comics themselves wink and grin at the different looks. Superstar writer Warren Ellis devoted an entire Planetary Special to examining the various incarnations of the Bat:
More than either, however, I love the Paul Dini/Bruce Timm Batman from the ’90s cartoons. To me, Dini/Timm is Batman. To me, the cartoon Dick Grayson is Robin. To me, that well meaning, fresh faced redhead is Barbara. That lass from “Shadow of the Bat” and “Over the Edge” is the only Batgirl I need. This Batman is never silly like the ’60s version, but he is tender with Harley and both hard and loving towards Dick and Tim. He is kind, sympathetic, and ultimately vulnerable. He is harsh, too. You know why he’s scary. You know it’s time to start worrying when he narrows those white triangle eyeholes into thin slits (I do, anyway). Plus, the episodes themselves are so intelligent, particularly for afternoon cartoons supposedly aimed at little kids. Almost Got ’Im, Harley and Ivy, and Legends of the Dark Knight are almost too sophisticated for their genre.
He really is everything.
Batman is different from a lot of other DC heroes. Superman represents everything that we are not. He is the ultimate American—an immigrant from the middle-est part of the Bread Basket, after all—but Batman is everything that we can be. He doesn’t have any fancy super powers, but that doesn’t stop him from punching out the most powerful man on the planet.
“I want you to remember, Clark. In all the years to come, in your own private moments, I want you to remember my hand at your throat. I want you to remember the one man who beat you.”
-Batman, “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” #4