Mark Twain, it is said, once remarked that there were only two things in life that can be completely relied upon. Death, and Taxes.
Twain clearly didn’t live in the DCU. If he had, he’d have known that like the Beatles, the only thing he had to worry about was taxman.
A long time ago now, Superman died at the hands of a slightly pointless created-entirely-for-the-purpose villain amidst a whirlwind of slightly hysterical real world publicity*. Shortly afterwards, in circumstances I now slightly cringe to think about, he got better.
A year or two earlier, shortly before I started reading comics seriously, a young lad called Jason Todd managed to get himself beaten to death and then blown up by The Joker. Although having read A lonely place of dying several times over the years I can’t help thinking that Jason might’ve been able to save himself but couldn’t live with being in such badly written twaddle and lost the will to live.** At least it took nearly two decades for him to get brought back to life – by Superboy punching the walls of reality or something similar.
Then there’s May Parker, a woman who clearly clings to this world one hell of a lot more tightly than her husband ever did. How many times has she been dead now? At least twice, I think, although it may be more because I don’t really read the Web-Head anymore. Hell, didn’t Peter Parker himself buy the farm at one point? I might be wrong about that actually, it’s been an awfully long time since the clone saga, and to be honest I wasn’t really paying attention at the time, although they’re apparently doing it to him again in the Ultimate Universe, and I don’t really believe that’s going to stick either.
The rule in comics, it seems, is that nobody is ever totally, irrevocably dead unless they’re Ben Parker.**** You can, generally speaking tell that a major character isn’t dead when their book doesn’t get cancelled – and that’s why I never really worried about the fate of Bruce Wayne. Basically, there is no way on God’s clean Earth that DC are going to permanently change the name of the man who wears the batsuit. None. They can’t afford to.
Batman has been around for a long time now – more than seventy years. This is the kind of heritage you simply can’t piss around with, no matter how much you might want to. Oh, you can kill him for a bit, but in the end you’re going to have to bring him back because nobody else can possibly be Batman. They almost got away with it when they replaced the Green Lantern, but even that wasn’t totally successful, even though part of the background of the character was that there was always supposed to be more than one. That kind of thing just doesn’t work with the Bat who is, in spite of all the “family” and hangers on is essentially one of a kind.
In fact, I’m going to go further. The whole Return of Bruce Wayne thing is fundamentally flawed. I’ll stick a health warning on this, in so far as I haven’t read the whole mini-series yet as the final three parts are sitting on my “to-read” pile awaiting this weekend’s comics binge. This means that I might be mistake about where it’s all going. But I’m not, am I?
You see, the aberrations of the nineteen fifties notwithstanding, all of this time-travel alternative universe stuff just doesn’t mesh with the Bat. In spite of the costume and the James Bond style gadgets, and definitely in spite of the TV series, The Batman is at his best when he is rooted firmly in the reality of here and now. The rationale behind the cape and cowl is, as a forerunner of his might’ve put it, to “strike fear into the hearts of men”. In a world where demons, aliens and time travelling futurenauts are commonplace I suspect your average ne’r-do-well would be unlikely to be phased by a bloke with a cape and fake pointy ears.
Even if that were not the case, Batman also has one of the purest origin stories in comics. The basics were set down right back in the early days – the death of the parents, the bat coming through the window, all that, but they were irrevocably defined by Frank Miller in Year One. So when we have Bruce Wayne founding tribes of bat worshippers in pre-history, and ploughing the seven seas as a Bat-Pirate and whatever else he’s been doing while he’s been trying to get back to his own timeline, littering the past with historical bat-signals, well, for me it cheapens the essential mythos.
Basically the point is very simple.
Do. Not. Mess. With. The. Bat.
Except, as I write this I’m transported back on my own little time travel adventure. Back to a room in the University of London buildings near Russell Square in the dying minutes of a UKCAC convention – probably ’96, but I could be wrong. I was in a fringe debate about exploitation in comics, listening incredulously to a wild eyed beardy bloke who was, frankly, ranting about the low quality of Spider-Man comics, and the fact that the proliferation of so many substandard spinoffs was costing him vast amounts of money.
It was suggested to him that if he really thought that the product was so poor, he should simply not buy it. “I HAVE TO!” he bellowed “I’M A SPIDER-MAN FAN!”
I thought he was an idiot at the time. Now I sort of see where he was coming from.
There is no character in the whole of comicdom that I love more than the Bat. There is much in the mess of Bat-Continuity that I find objectionable and ridiculous. There is much that I find compelling. In my head I know that since none of it is real all I have to do is read the stuff that I find to be good and ignore that which I find to be stupid. That which does not fit my personal view of the Batman I could quite simply ignore.
But somehow I can’t.
This both bothers me, and seems perfectly reasonable, perhaps because at some level I don’t quite believe that the Batman isn’t real. The rational part of my brain***** knows that this is nonsense, but the part of me that believes in stories, well, that part needs to know them all.
I guess I’m in no danger of reaching a conclusion here, although I’d welcome any thoughts you have on the subject. I’ll be back in seven, with more thoughts about unfitting stories and what it means to binge-read comics.
Until then, just keep reading!
*I’m not sure how crazy people went elsewhere in the world – this was in the days before the internet made such things easy to check – but not only did it manage to make the national press and the BBC news here in the UK, the news even made the front page of “War Cry”, the newspaper of the Salvation Army. Seriously, it was big news.
**That particular piece of crap remains the worst Batman story I’ve ever read***. I mean seriously? The Joker gets to be the UN representative for Iran – actual Iran mark you, not even some pseudo-fictional proxy like the much abused “Syraq” – and uses poison gas on the general assembly? Do please pull the other one, it hath bells on.
***Which when you think about it means it beat some seriously stiff competition…
****And even though bringing him back would piss all over Peter Parker’s reason for doing what he does at the end of the day I wouldn’t put it past them…
*****This is, I confess, a small part.