I’ve written about Batman a lot. And a lot. And a lot. I’ve ruminated on the Dark Knight and have attempted to dissect and analyze and ascertain why exactly I’m enamored of the character. The trappings of the Caped Crusader are pretty spiffy, to be sure: As a kid catching episodes of Superfriends, this dude prancing around in his long underwear, rubbing elbows with folks like Superman and Wonder Woman, essentially gods, had a certain appeal to him. Hundreds of articles have been penned on how we could all be Batman if we trained hard enough, exerted enough sheet force of will, and had mad ducats at our disposal like perpetual playboy Bruce Wayne. And maybe all of that’s true. But, as I’ve gotten older and the realities of the world and the weight of age start to press on my shoulders, I respect more and more what Batman means beyond his detective skills, his batmobile, his cape and cowl.
Batman is a character that has persisted and burrowed into our collective consciousness because he’s transcended from character to myth. The Dark Knight has been interpreted and reinterpreted and reinterpreted again so many times that we all have an idea of who the Batman is, but I’d bet good money that my image of Batman is different than yours, is different than your friend’s. Bill Finger and Bob Kane created a character that can and will survive whatever trappings and reimaginings that a creator wants to throw on him. As long as the heart of the character endures, as long as the Idea with a capital I is still in the mix, then it doesn’t matter if Batman is Adam West or a dark vigilante or chums with Superman or punching Superman in the face or being a loner unto self-exile or relies on an extended family of comrades. It doesn’t matter. The Caped Crusader can be all things to all people as long as he retains the essence of who he is.
Ultimately, on the micro and macro levels, at the meta and the literal, that’s why so many people love the Batman. Bruce Wayne and his mission and his love for humanity speaks to the crux of who we are and our desire for self-reinvention to become the best versions of ourselves we can possibly be. Batman is a character we can relate to on some level because of that desire to better ourselves, but also a character we can aspire to be because he is a man who willed himself into Myth.
That’s why it was little surprise that when DC Comics wanted to tell a tale of the death of the Batman, the company recruited writing superstar Neil Gaiman to usher the Caped Crusader into the hereafter. Not only is Gaiman a nimble writer, but he’s explored the themes of myth and humanity and how they’re necessarily intermingled in his work on Sandman, The Books of Magic, and American Gods. Who better to talk about a character who is both myth and man and what happens when the man falls in the service of the myth?
In Gaiman’s tale, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, the Batman is disoriented and finds himself in Gotham City, in Crime Alley, where his parents were gunned down in front of his eyes as a small boy. A figure draped in shadow guides Bruce to a dilapidated building where a funeral is being held, attended by many of Batman’s greatest friends and foes. However, the Caped Crusader is shocked when he discovers that it’s his body in the casket. As he watches the proceedings, a string of the attendees say a few words about the Dark Knight, each recounting a different tale of how Bruce departed this mortal coil.
While every version of Batman’s death—from Catwoman’s to the Joker’s to Superman’s—is different, each one is correct on some level and rings true: Each is about a man who experienced tragedy after tragedy and pressed on to make sense of that tragedy, turning it into a positive and become a force for good. That’s what most people don’t understand about the character and get absolutely wrong: Batman isn’t about revenge. It’s not a revenge fantasy. It’s about seeing the world as a good but broken place and using every ounce of grit and courage to repair that good place. And each story about how Batman met his end in Gaiman’s story speaks to that fundamental truth.
Of all the Batman stories that have been told, and there have been plenty of good and bad, Gaiman is the writer who seems to understand this basic truth the most. But no other places in the book does he demonstrate that understanding so well as in two vignettes involving Clayface and Batwoman.
As Clayface, a pitiful man-thing who battled the Batman time and again, stands in front of the assembled mourners and scorners, he can barely tell his personal experience of the Dark Knight’s death, the words stopping and starting as they fall out of his mouth.
He died… sssaving the city…
No, that’s not true… He sssaved the city, yes… but he died ssssaving me.
I ssssaid, “I’m not worth it.”
He said, “Everyone’s worth it.”
Meanwhile, Batwoman describes her last moments with the Detective, recounting how she was with Batman as he holds onto a bomb that’s about to go off and destroy the city. She remembers telling the Caped Crusader
If you take your hand off the lever, the bomb blows right now.
If you don’t, it blows in a minute, takin’ half of Gotham with it.
Ain’t nothin’ you can do.
To which Batman replies, before jumping into Gotham Harbor,
There’s always something you can do.
“Everyone’s worth it.” “There’s always something you can do.” Gaiman gets it. In those two sentences, he has encapsulated everything that the Batman is about and everything you need to know about him. The character is a man who sees the value in everyone to such an extent that he’ll pick up the work of his father and mother, who were slaughtered by the worst of Gotham City, and devote his life to saving it. Much like his father was a physician who wanted to mend the sick, Bruce Wayne sees an opportunity to fix a city that’s dying and restore it to health. Why? Because no matter how diseased and awful a human spirit might be, from a maniacal supervillain to a desperate thief killing his parents, Batman sees the intrinsic worth in everyone. Everyone.
And, to that end, the hero thinks that there’s always something we can do to help our fellow man. We might not be billionaires with refined reflexes and nerves of steel, but we have it in our power to be loving and charitable to our fellow men and women. A kind word. A smile. A small donation to a charity. For as dedicated and as determined as Bruce is, he knows that he can’t save Gotham alone. It takes everyone providing what they can to add to the overall psychic and spiritual well-being of his city. Extrapolate that out to the larger world, and the lesson of the Batman is that we all can save the world in our own way, no matter the magnitude of the action.
To pull that thread just a little more, the lesson also becomes that we are the only limit to ourselves. Circumstance can stymie us along the way, true, but we have within our power, if we are determined enough, to keep pushing forward. If we acknowledge that each one of us is worth it, then we know there’s always something we can do to make ourselves better. And as we do that, we gain the ability and insight to better our world, and maybe in the process reveal to others the power they have inside themselves, too. We can, in effect, all be Batman.
Go forth. Be Batman. Better yet, be you.