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Celebrating the Death of the Dark Knight – and His Rebirth

With the recent passing of Bruce Wayne, can the Batman character escape the tragedy of Bruce Wayne's life that originally birthed it?

Batman holds a place in the popular mind so strongly, it might seem that the character emerged out of the mythological ether of the Olympians without beginning or end; never born and never to die. Like Baudrillard’s simulacra, it is easy when considering icons such as Batman to forget that they are the products of human imagination and therefore not mere copies of, in this case, the archetypal that have no existence apart from their presence in the pages as the millions images sold in comics. With so strong a resonance to the popular culture, for all intents and purposes, Batman is not merely a simulacrum: Batman lives.

While the character has evolved since he first appeared in the pages of Detective Comics #27 in May 1939, created by Bob Kane and the uncredited Bill Finger, to filmic and televised incarnations such as Adam West’s campy 1960s version of the Bat, to Tim Burton’s brooding auteur vision of Gotham and Christopher Nolan’s 21st century re-iteration of filmic Batmania, the character has always served a central psychological purpose to the culture; that of filtering our darkest impulses for revenge into a framework for justice.

Indeed, it is vital never to forget Batman’s ever-present darkness while he triumphs over evil. He’s not friendly and not meant to be your friendly neighborhood crimefighter. Like darkside rocker Jim Morrison, who often invoked the rock star as shaman-who-harnesses-the-dark-powers motif, Batman has always had a shamanic or even demonic streak that sees him presented at times like an incarnation of the supernatural, like some version of Fate come to exact vengeance. Batman is darkness and justice that has, since the character’s inception, flowed through the blood stream of the popular culture from the pages of comics to the big screen while maintaining the integrity of his initial creation as a pulp superhero.

Evolving over time, Batman first emerges as a Golden Age superhero that captured the popular mind. Like many others, in 1954 the character came under criticism in the book Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham for the alleged homosexual subtext of the storyline. While the book helped lead to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, Batman survived along with his youthful sidekick Robin and the additions of new characters such as Batgirl in 1961. Despite the popularity of the Adam West television series in the psychedelic 1960s, the early part of that decade presented perhaps the nadir of Batman’s popularity in the world of comics. By decades end, writers such as Denny O’Neill hoped to bring the character back to his vigilante roots and, from 1969 on, the world of comics saw a stark distinction between the televised man-in-tights and the caped crusader appearing in the pages of DC Comics.

For most current readers, the Batman strand picks up again with the rebirth of the character in two powerful storylines; that of The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (1986) and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore (1988). Both storylines presented a darker, grittier and far more disturbing version of Batman than ever before and paved the way for Tim Burton’s creepy cinematic version released in 1989 (creating Batmania for a new generation of moviegoers and comics readers). 1988 also saw DC Comics give readers the chance to vote on whether or not the, then, current Robin embodied by the character Jason Todd should die. Their answer? Yes. The same year’s Batman: A Death in the Family saw the caped-crusader lose the second Robin and emerge violent and volatile into the 1990s.

The world of Batman remained strong throughout the '90s most notably with storylines such as 1998’s “Cataclysm” which finds Gotham City the victim of an earthquake and cut off from Federal Aid. The presaging of the botched Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is almost uncanny. While spin-offs of Time Burton’s two Batman films continued throughout the decade they, once again, began to devolve into the realm of parody, most notably in Batman and Robin (1997) which, effectively, ended the Batman film franchise for almost a decade until the release of Christopher Nolan’s Batman re-boot Batman Begins in 2005. While both the characters of Batman and Superman, for instance, have seen ebbs and flows in their popularity and depictions over the decades both in print and on screen, each character has maintained a place in the pantheon of modern mythology.

Batman has always represented Superman’s Jungian Shadow -- a dark, vigilante counter-force to the shining light of truth, justice and the American way. The Dark Knight has also always represented our own shadows, our desire for vengeance and justice at times in our lives when the normative codes of society would not suffice. While his non-superhero alter-ego Bruce Wayne would always face the day as a symbol of conventional success-overcoming-tragedy, Batman would be Wayne’s true face; the tortured soul with whom we could identify and sympathize, the orphaned child made superhero seeking justice beyond the bounds of the social order. For generations, readers have reveled in Batman’s mythological archetype of the dark hero, indeed, one who nurtured others such as Dick Grayson (the world’s original Robin) while remaining a loner with total devotion to his self-imposed mission. A world without a Batman is unbalanced and out of control. It’s a world without a shadow, a world without an archetypal symbol for us to indentify and through whom to feed our darker impulses for a moral retribution. Yes, the world needs a Batman. And now, after decades in print and in the popular mind Bruce Wayne -- the world’s Batman -- is dead.

Yet, after a brief period of private mourning and jockeying for position among an array of contenders the world has a new Batman in the form of Dick Grayson, the original boy wonder turned Nightwing joined by Damian Wayne, Bruce’s son, as the Dark Knight’s latest sidekick in the reboot series Batman and Robin, written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely; a series that seems poised to finally evoke a new and vital aspect of the Batman mythos.

Dick Grayson assuming the Batman mantle represents a strong mythological theme replete throughout history; that of the son killing the father to assume his rightful place in the cosmos or, in this case, the more benign motif of the son taking over for the father in Grayson’s assuming the cowl. Add to that Bruce Wayne’s biological son as the new Robin and there’s an undeniable mythological progression occurring here along with an unstated question: What happens when the sons replace the father?

And it is this concept of the generational shift that has broader cultural implications for all of us. If the world needs a Batman and ‘Batman’ is dead, there must be someone to carry on his vigilante tradition. Each of us has faced or will face this same dark, frightening and potentially liberating theme: how do we take the tragedy of loss and ascend to our rightful place in the world? How do we honor the past and our loved ones while making this new world our own?

Morrison depicts Grayson as tentative and uncomfortable with his newfound epic responsibility. He cannot be Bruce Wayne’s Batman, he can only somehow try to become his own. Meanwhile, Damian Wayne is an impetuous, undisciplined, nearly malign, sidekick who is adolescent and out-of-control -- putting missions and life at risk. In his own mind, in the arrogance of youth, he himself is ready to become Batman. Meanwhile, Grayson cannot take the place of, or be, a father-figure to him. This is not a Batman Redux. This is the story of two sons learning to live within the legacy of their father while also transcending it and live with each other. For readers, it is also the story of learning how to live with loss, step into themselves and live their destinies.

It would be easy to simply dismiss the Death/Rebirth of Batman story arc as a mere marketing ploy meant to boost sales, but that would diminish the profound importance of this shift in the mythos of the Dark Knight. The tortured inner world of Bruce Wayne has always been the central motivating factor behind the character of Batman. While Dick Grayson was also orphaned, he has undergone transformations from Robin to Nightwing and now to Batman, completing a seemingly pre-destined arc. However, the psychology of Bruce Wayne is not the psychology of Dick Grayson. Nor is Grayson’s that of Damian Wayne. While each character faces, or has faced, pain in their origin story Grayson is a slightly less Dark Knight than Wayne. He is seemingly less shadow and more light. He serves a different mythological function than Bruce Wayne. He may, in fact, be Batman as redeemer both of Bruce Wayne’s legacy -- threatened by the many false heirs to the throne -- and of the petulant Damian. Will Bruce Wayne return? Perhaps. But, the new mythology of Batman will remain.

In the hands of Morrison and Quitely this rebirth of Batman and Robin (and, yes, the title itself is significant because the two characters are joined together both in their shared mission for justice and shared loss of their father) there is a strong chance that the mythology of Batman will emerge permanently changed. And this is as it should be. No longer will Batman only be the Jungian shadow to society, he will now be us as we search for our path and for ourselves in a world that, all too often, seems wrong.

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