The Byronic Elements of Batman
Batman is a hero that can be instantly recognized within the confines of popular culture. The statement of Batman as a hero is necessary, as Batman is by no means a superhero. The definition of hero in terms of Batman is even a difficult classification, as the definitions of a hero either do not fit Batman, as he is a mortal lacking any sort of extraordinary power, as well as the ideas of valor, nobility, and admiration for deeds performed seems questionable in context with Batman. The only definition that holds any merit in regards to Batman, comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines a hero as “The man who forms the subject of an epic; the chief male personage in a poem, play, or story; he in whom the interest of the story or plot is centered.” This definition only works in its use of the term ‘epic,’ which often invokes a failing society, in this case Gotham City, and a person who rises to defeat the plague of corruption and evil, often times sacrificing themselves for the greater good. Batman is not a Beowulf type of hero, but he definitely mirrors an epic. The dark undertones of Batman’s character stem in conjunction with the role of a Byronic hero in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
The opening page of DKR shows an aged Bruce Wayne racing a car to the limit. This compensation for the lack of being Batman shows the Byronic trait of self-destruction. This attempt at self-destruction is one of the elements of a Byronic hero and the deep resentment Bruce Wayne feels for himself comes from the lack of meaning in his life and the missing persona of Batman. The obvious cause of this persona stems from Bruce Wayne’s remembrance of the random criminal killing of his parents. The event triggered a burning need in Bruce, so strong that it becomes his personal ‘holy war’ to fight against all crime, until he was forced to retire for reasons that are not completely clear to the reader. This can be seen in Superman’s statements on page 120, as Superman reflects on the past of the heroes since their golden age while he does the government’s dirty work: “The rest of us [heroes] have learned to cope. The rest of us recognized the danger—of the endless envy of those not blessed. Diana [Wonder Woman] went back to her people. Hal [The Green Lantern] went to the stars. And I have walked the Razor’s Edge for so long. But you, Bruce—you with your wild obsession.” Superman’s inclusion in the novel provides a sort of antithesis to what Batman stands for. Superman works in secret for the U.S. Government, while Batman comes out of retirement to continue his personal crusade against crime. Many of Superman’s statements act as a back story to the deeds of Batman; however, they also separate Batman from the other heroes. Batman is just a man, granted a well-trained and intelligent man, but still a man. James Olsen’s article “Truth To Power” acts as a precursor to the DKR and informs the reader of Batman’s disappearance, as it states: “But they never talk about the mean one. The cruel one. The one who couldn’t fly or bend steel in his bare hands. The one who scared the crap out of everybody and laughed at all the rest of us for being the envious cowards we were...Not a man among them wants to hear about Batman. Was he quietly assassinated? Or did he just decide we weren’t worth the grief?” (7). Batman is just a incarnation of Bruce Wayne’s vengeance and war for the vicious act that took his parents from him, an event which impassioned him to fight crime, yet a subtle hinting to his inclination towards a Byronic hero.
Bruce Wayne and Batman are one man, yet the dualistic tendency forces a sort of yin and yang between them both. Batman needs Bruce Wayne and Bruce Wayne needs Batman; however, not discerning between the two creates the difficulty of entanglement, so the Byronic properties of Bruce Wayne and Batman will be discussed separately and brought together intrinsically in their own right.
Bruce Wayne is rich beyond all imagination and lives the life of a socialite. While this socialite life is faked to keep the identity of Batman a secret, it is still a characteristic of the Byronic hero. Furthermore, the Byronic hero often times feels like he must hide his true identity from the world due to fears of being misunderstood, such as in the original Byronic story Childe Harolde’s Pilgramage. Bruce Wayne’s discussion with police chief James Gordon, one of the few people who know of Bruce’s persona of Batman, tells some of Wayne’s earlier attempts to hide the true identity of Batman: “To Batman. It’s good that he retired—isn’t it? I’m grateful he survived retiring. He didn’t, but Bruce Wayne is...alive and well...Remember the old days, Bruce? That playboy routine...You with your Ginger Ale, pretending it was champagne, fooling everybody—almost” (12). The ‘playboy routine’ that Bruce Wayne was forced to act out leads him to be exiled among his own socialite status, another characteristic of the Byronic hero. Furthermore, the fact that Bruce Wayne is viewed as a sexual and social icon, whether by his choice or not, brings further light to him as a Byronic hero. The hesitant tone Wayne uses in his conversation with Gordon shows that he truly cannot give up his secret persona, as Batman is a part of who he is. This is made evident by Gordon’s statement that Wayne has “certainly learned to drink” (12). This dependency on alcohol is a self-destructive behavior that Wayne uses to cope with the burden of withdrawing from his secondary persona of Batman, arguably in some senses, his true identity. Throughout DKR the perception of the duality of the Bruce Wayne/Batman dynamic begins shifting into Bruce Wayne giving up on his socialite persona and withdrawing more and more into the persona of Batman, as he deems it necessary for the prevailing of justice. This is seen clearly in the events of Bruce Wayne’s faked death and rebuilding of the Batcave on pages 198 and 199.
As mentioned above, the death of Bruce Wayne is both a literal and symbolic event. The death is literal in the sense that Wayne does kill himself to allow him to rebuild and go into hiding. The symbolic death of Bruce Wayne allows him to accept his darker persona of a Byronic hero fighting for justice in Gotham City. Often times, a Byronic hero has some dualistic conflict that they are battling with internally. The dualistic notion between Batman and Bruce Wayne is obvious, yet even with the eventual domineering factor of Batman winning out over Bruce Wayne, Batman still keeps some of Bruce’s characteristics alive, especially the complete refusal to kill. This does not make Batman a ‘neutral’ attacker, he rather enjoys hurting the criminals he fights against, as shown on page 39, “I play the shadows, forcing the hood to come close. He makes less noise than a truck. There are seven working defenses from this position. Three of them disarm with minimal contact. Three of them kill. The other-- HURTS” (39). The thin line that Batman walks on, that of retribution without capital punishment, creates a conflict in Batman, as while for the most part he keeps this rule to keep himself from completely overstepping the thin boundary that would make him criminal. As a contrast, Superman does not enjoy the physicality of attacking and uses a neutral attack when possible. Furthermore, he discusses the ‘roughness’ of Batman and his enjoyment during his monologue on page 135, as he recollects, “You were the one they used against us Bruce. The one who played it rough. When the noise started from the parents groups and the subcommittees calling us in for questioning—you were the one who laughed...that scary laugh of yours. ‘Sure we’re criminals,’ you said. ‘We’ve always been criminals.’ ‘We have to be criminals’” (135). Batman recognizes the dark motives he needs to have in order to pursuit criminals, yet the thin line of capital punishment causes him great distress, especially in the battle against his archenemy, The Joker.
The Joker acts as a foil to Batman, a reminder of the thin line that separates Batman from renegade mass murder to just a redemptive vigilante; regardless of the definition of right and wrong. The Joker is a definite archetype of chaos, as shown in the doctors discussion of whether or not to allow him to be interviewed on television: “But I’m not talking about a full release. This will be a controlled environment and it would be so good for him’ [Dr. Wolper]. ‘Him I’m not worried about [Glen]. ‘Come now Glen! He’s been nearly comotose for more than a decade. If you’d just talk with him for five minutes, Glen...’ ‘I don’t know there’s something...well...something supernatural about that one’ [Glen]” (86). The defining of The Joker as ‘supernatural’ leads to the previous definition of him as an ‘archetypal’ figure. The Joker is a direct reflection of Batman in a distorted, extremist, form. The Joker has been said to kill about “600” people, yet he states that he “doesn’t keep count,” while also killing the other talk show guest and stating that “we must not restrain ourselves” (126). His lack of restraint in killing and blasé attitude to the number of people he has murdered certainly separates him from Batman. Yet, The Joker needs Batman in order to function, as e has been comatose since Batman’s retirement, a direct correlation to his need to act in defiance of Batman. The bizarre dualism between The Joker and Batman fuel Batman’s characteristics as a Byronic hero. Furthermore, this chapter is filled with descriptions of Batman counting the dead, a resonance that sticks with him during the resurgence of The Joker.
The battle between The Joker and Batman begins during the county fair. The Joker states: “They could put me in a helicopter and fly me up into the air and line the bodies head to toe on the ground in delightful geometric patterns like an endless June Taylor dancers routine. --And it still would never be enough. No, I don’t keep count. But you do. And I love you for it” (140). The Joker’s feigned affection for the Batman is to show the reflection of what Batman could become if it weren’t for the humanity of Bruce Wayne. The Joker knows that Batman will never kill him, causing him to act as a demon, darker than the burden of the bat, that forces him to confront the paradoxical dualism of his war against crime. On page 142, the reader gets a sense that Batman has come to terms with killing The Joker, as he states: “Can you see it Joker? Feels to me...like its written all over my face. I’ve lain awake nights planning it...Picturing it...Endless nights...Considering every possible method...Treasuring every moment...From the beginning I knew...That there’s nothing wrong with you...that I can’t fix...with my hands” (142). From this passage, the reader gets the sense that this is the final showdown between The Joker and Batman, yet, The Joker takes away any chance of Batman breaking his rule by taking his own life. This is truly The Joker’s last joke, as Batman is framed for a murder he is innocent of, leading the dualistic battle between Bruce Wayne and Batman to take a darker turn; leading to the persona of Batman dominating the humanity of Bruce Wayne.
The rising conflict between Batman and Superman is discussed; however, both don their opposite personas, meeting as Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent respectively. There is an obvious showdown being built between Batman and Superman, as Clark states: “These aren’t the old days, Bruce...World’s got no room for...It’s like this Bruce---Sooner or later, somebody’s going to order me to bring you in. Somebody with authority. When that happens.. ‘When that happens, Clark—may the best man win” (119). The setup for this is like a formal duel, as Superman works and stands for everything that Batman is against. The interesting imagery in the panel where Superman talks (2nd panel) shows a hawk catching a mouse, invoking the fact that Superman is near invincible in comparison to Batman, a hero who relies on wits, symbolism, and stealth rather than superpowers. Batman knows that Superman will be weakened by his dealings with the nuclear bomb, something made clear on pages 178-179, by the fact that his text-box becomes fainter and fainter. Batman’s knowledge of Superman and the setup he uses to defeat him shows the intelligence that he holds, a characteristic of the Byronic hero. Batman’s dislike of Superman stems from his association with those that rule, another characteristic of the Byronic hero, yet this battle is more than just Batman exhibiting Byronic characteristics, it is Bruce Wayne assimilating his identity into the role of the Dark Knight; the quintessential Byronic hero. During the battle Bruce Wayne states: “You sold us out Clark. You have them—the power—that should have been ours. Just like your parents taught you to. My parents..taught me a different lesson...--Lying on the street—shaking in deep shock—dying for no reason at all—they showed me that the world only makes sense when you for it to” (192). The lesson that Bruce’s parents taught him has grown malignant in his mind ever since, causing him to take on the persona of the Batman little by little, until he fakes his death and reemerges as the Dark Knight, with little to no resonance of Bruce Wayne’s identity left.
The assimilation of Bruce Wayne into the Dark Knight, the ultimate form of Batman, allows for him to fully assimilate into the archetype of the Byronic hero. Through his battle with the inner demon of Batman, unappeasable thrill for danger, and conflicts with both The Joker and Superman lead him to shed away his accepted social identity for his darker one. TDKR is an epic in the Batman trilogy, as it shows the growing of Bruce Wayne into his darker persona and his eventual identity as the Dark Knight.