The Conservative Bat-Myth

Is Batman the ONLY comic book hero worthy of philosophical examination?

Another week, another half-baked political writer trying to bump their hit count by talking about Batman.

On the heels of the success of The Dark Knight Rises, as well as the tragic events in Aurora, every writer from Washington to San Francisco is trying to get in on the action.

Today, it was Weekly Standard writer Jonathan V Last, who waded into the waters of geekdom with his piece entitled “A One Man Department of Justice.” The bent of the article and the lack of credibility on the part of its author should be easily established by this odious statement:

[Batman] is the only pulp hero worth considering on a philosophical level. He has something to say about the human experience.
    Excuse me?
    Let’s forget for a moment that there have been dozens of books which have delved into the subject of super hero philosophy, what heroes teach us about ourselves and our societies, and look at that statement on its face. To say that Batman is the “only” hero whose adventures touch on issues that relate to the human experience is so patently false as to be offensive to anyone who has ever picked up a comic book. It ignores the decades of populist exploration in Spider-Man, Tony Stark’s well-documented struggles with arrogance and alcoholism, Green Lantern’s conquest of fear, and countless others who have, in their brightly colored pages, explored what it means to be human through the lens of someone who has the power to do anything but is limited or enabled by his or her basic humanity.
    Last is simply the latest mainstream writer to try and cash in on the growing public fascination with superheroes, and not even the most offensive, but his willingness to play fast and loose with the details of comic book history should offend casual readers as well as long-time comic book fans.
    Last gives only passing mention to the exploration of Nietzsche in the pages of early Superman stories and points to the jingoistic patriotism that birthed Captain America, then proceeds to completely jump off the deck of the good ship Reality.
    He names The Falcon, a longtime Marvel character, as “the first African-American superhero.” Let’s hear it for shoddy research. The first African-American superhero was The Black Panther, who first appeared in 1966, three years before Sam Wilson donned his wings. Now, it’s no surprise that Last would omit King T’Challa from his article, as the audience for the The Weekly Standard probably doesn’t have much interest in the king of a technologically advanced African nation who shares a code-name with the organization that the American right-wing has spent decades vilifying.
    Last uses this horribly flawed understanding of superhero mythology to couch his argument that the central theme of Batman is a critique of the effectiveness of liberalism in defending itself:
But Batman is different. He is not an avatar for a particular political argument or idea. Batman is about the liberal order itself​—​specifically about the durability of classical liberalism in the face of modernity.
    Last (whose knowledge of superheroes appears to begin and end with the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy) latches onto the now-popular theme that The Dark Knight Rises is Christopher Nolan’s rousing defense of conservatism and individualism over the inherent weakness and evil of liberalism. He readily associates Bane with the likes of Stalin and Robespierre, with Batman playing the role of the lone resister to the tide of liberal threats to his city’s social order.
    While there is an argument to be made that these themes do present themselves in the Nolan film, those films are neither the beginning nor the end of Batman as a character, and to consider them the definition of Batman does a tremendous disservice to a character with over seventy years of history and stories that range in subject matter from pulp-noir crime to explorations of mental illness.
    In his piece “Superman and Batman,” author Cliff Jacobs looks at how Batman’s trials have often been a parallel of man’s own struggle against “essential forces” as represented by foes such as Poison Ivy, Mister Freeze, and others.
    In “Superman on the Couch,” longtime comics professional Danny Fingeroth explores the meaning of Batman as an avatar for orphans and his place in the vast array of orphaned heroes.
    What’s the point of bringing up these alternate explorations of the character? It is to remind readers that there is vastly more societal analysis in comic books than simple attacks on or defenses of liberalism or conservatism. While Mr. Last may want to simplify a diverse art form into this simple left/right dynamic in order to pander to his readership, the comic fan community should not let such an offense pass lightly, particularly when it rides in on the wings of one of comics’ most enduring icons.
    When it comes to the movies themselves, Last is just as quick to ignore all of the elements that do not fit his assertion that Batman is the ultimate conservative hero, and the sole effective defender of all that is good in the world (even the liberals):
The question The Dark Knight asks is, Can liberalism defend itself from illiberal threats? And the verdict it renders is, No. Throughout The Dark Knight, Gotham City’s institutions​—​the police, the courts, the mayoralty, the citizenry​—​prove incapable of answering the Joker’s assaults.
    If there is a question being asked in The Dark Knight, it is whether one man has the right or ability to impose his will on society if he has the means. If the film provides any answer, it is a resounding No. It is not Bruce Wayne’s heroics that allow the police to capture the Joker, but Gordon’s clever scheme. It is not Batman’s pummeling of the Joker that saves the citizens on the boats, but the sound decisions of the citizens in deciding not to blow each other up. In other words, while Batman’s conservatism provides a great deal of flash and bang for the moviegoer’s titillation, it is the decisions of ordinary people deciding to trust each other that save the day.
    In the end, it is clear that Last is attempting to boil down a character with a complex and layered history into an avatar for his particular political ideology. To him, I would say just this: there is more in comic books than is dreamt of in your philosphy, Mr. Last. Next time you want to write about a comic book character, try reading a book or two first. I guarantee they’re better than the movie.

Josh Epstein

Josh Epstein is the Publisher for the Capeless Crusader website. He’s a lifelong comic nerd, and “Superman” is the first word he ever read aloud. He is also an actor, singer, and resident of a real-world Smallville.

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