There are some people whose social media I joyously follow, not just because I so often agree with them–but because our disagreements cast the issues into such strong relief.
Today was one of those days when we disagreed. His take on the Batman mythos is not at all uncommon amongst my fellow Comic Geeks, but it is one that I have always disagreed with. To be fair to the author, I am just going to quote the comments and arguments that were made on his Wall in full, without altering them, before I attempt any “rebuttal”.
“There are about a million problems with Batman, most of which don’t matter. Robin is one of them. In any individual story, the presence of a Robin is just something Batman does.
The parade of Robins since Dick Grayson graduated from the role, a story element that has included the violent deaths of three of them — and a revenge homicide taking out the normal-guy father of another — makes Batman look like what we would consider him a real life: a guy who recruits impressionable children for his personal vendetta, gets them killed, and then goes right back to doing it.”
Steven Barnes: that’s why Kick Ass was so sick–we could really see how twisted it was to indoctrinate a child into such behavior.
“It’s a trope better off unexamined, and the key problem with it nowadays is that comics are written for an older demographic and cannot help examine it. On my shelf I have a collection of Simon and Kirby’s FIGHTING AMERICAN comics from the fifties, in which that character and his pre-teen sidekick don’t just live together but also sleep in the same bed. It is impossible for an adut today to look at that and not feel queasy, but it is also impossible to believe Simon and Kirby had the evil implication in mind.”
Respectfully, I must disagree with Adam-Troy Castro that there is a problem with Batman.
I would posit instead that there is a problem with us. Our society has a fetish for victimizing children, for reducing their humanity and agency and treating them as objects. We choose to view kids under a certain age as helpless ciphers. In our fiction, far too often, we drag them around and treat them like vapid dolls, who exist only to be hurt.
In the best Batman stories…Batman does not do this.
I believe that Castro and others who criticize the Batman corpus in this vein are being colossally unfair. To characterize most of the kids who have become Robin or joined the Bat Family generally as “impressionable children”…is to miss the point by a country mile.
Batman did not kill the parents of these kids. Batman did not turn them out onto the streets to hustle and turn tricks. Batman did not rip away their childhoods and make them old before their time. Batman did not introduce them to grim reality and throw them by the scruff of the neck into the struggle to survive.
Those kids were already there.
Batman does not recruit his “interns” from cozy suburban homes where Everything Is Jim Fucking Dandy. He does not chickenhawk his proteges out of happy households untouched by crime and pain. He doesn’t work with kids who have two viable parents or even one solid place of safety and love that they can call their own. You want to see what happens to the hard-working, bright-spirited kid who still has someone who loves and looks out for him? Read Captain Marvel. Billy Batson doesn’t need Batman. He’s going to walk a brighter path.
This Is What a Kid Hero with a Functional Family Looks Like in Comics. Any Questions?
Batman also does not take on the kids who have experienced tragedy, abuse, or harsh reality and simply crumbled into a heap, the way an ordinary child would. He chooses the ones who have been burned and show a core of steel. He chooses the ones who are in real danger of being consumed by rage, of being twisted by their pain, their loneliness, their poverty into a blade pointed at the world’s neck.
Batman does not take on a child, in other words, who does not remind him of himself. The person he is trying to rescue, the life he is trying to change, is the life of the boy who once knelt screaming in that alley over his mother’s corpse. The story he wants to re-write, the history he wants to revise, is his own.
Bad Things Happen.
He cannot go back in time to do that. So he goes forward, and fights for the souls of children in whom he sees some reflection of himself.
And when Batman is written by writers of real ability and understanding…he succeeds. Over and over. Live or die, the lives of the children who have been his disciples are better than they would have been without him. They make a difference in the world. They learn what it feels like to risk their lives to save others. To face their fears and emerge victorious. To challenge the darkness and win.
What the children of the infamous “Bat Family” seem to regain, which the young Bruce Wayne did not have, is the ability to laugh. To hope. When the books are written well, these children grow into men and women with sharp minds and limitless inner resources, an undying fire to serve their fellow human beings.
I agree that it would be wrong for Batman to take the majority of children and drag them into his world. But I disagree totally that he has ever done this. On the contrary, the more light there is in a child’s life, the more he resists and rejects their candidacy. He only works willingly with children who are already lost in the dark–children who have already lost the innocence that we treasure, the sense that God is in His Heaven and All is Right With the World. And he gives them power.
He does not victimize them—he lets them re-define themselves as something OTHER than victims.
Not every kid who escapes into the comics is going to be sitting in a cozy suburban room and living out a comfy suburban childhood. Some of the kids who turn to comics are going to be coming from a dark place–living in a dark place, every day. The adults in their lives have failed them. They have not been sheltered, protected from the darkness. They’re in it, and they need to find some way to navigate that darkness rather than being consumed.
Batman is there for his wards when Mommy and Daddy are not. And Batman does not tell them they are weak. Batman does not tell them that there is anything they cannot do. He does not “recruit children to pursue a personal vendetta”. He empowers children and gives their lives meaning and purpose. He leads by example and gives them education, resources, identity.
Do some of them die violent deaths? Yes. And those stories are horribly painful and tragic, and we can certainly debate whether they should be told, or whether such a story can ever be told well. The first of those deaths rocked the comics industry for 20 years, and my feelings on the event are more than a little mixed, and always will be.
I cannot resolve that issue, but I can say this: you do not have to be a child hero to be a child who dies violently. The world is full of shallow graves in which the fragile bones of children lie mouldering. When I was studying forensic anthropology, I saw more of those bones than I wanted to.
Real children are killed in the real world every day. Those kids aren’t wearing costumes. Those kids are never given a chance to fight back. Those kids don’t get the chance to define themselves as heroes, rather than lambs to be slaughtered.
Robin is the fantasy that a child can have power, that a child can battle the darkness and win. And I am still able to understand and applaud that fantasy, and the people who grow out of it.
Survivors. Plain and simple.