Category Archives: Pop Culture

Batman #44 and Why White Allies Aren’t Heroes

Rick Quinn lives in Nashville, TN where he writes and is part of the core team for The Encounter@Edgehill, a multi-racial movement of authentic community in the city fostering vital conversations, compassionate community, and life-giving action. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School where he earned his Masters in Divinity and pursued graduate studies in theology at Vanderbilt University School of Religion. Rick has served as a director of Christian Education at the local church level, in the non-profit social service realm, and has taught in adjunct and visiting professor roles at Perkins School of Theology at SMU, Trevecca Nazarene University, and Fisk University. He blogs at RickTQuinn and can be found on Twitter @apophatic1

Even before seeing it, I think I have always resonated with the self-affirmation meme “Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.” Batman is my favorite comic book hero. He is the pulpy, ink and pencil incarnation of a dominant American mythology. Bereft of super powers, Batman is nonetheless exceptional. The exemplary solitary individual, he transfigures his trauma into rigorous discipline, an unwavering passion for justice, and honor. Guided by his code, Batman confronts a violent world with measured violence; he will not under any circumstance take a life. He relies on his keen mind, his disciplined physical prowess, and always true moral compass in the service of redeeming Gotham City from the evil that plagues its streets. Never a victim, he is the noble hero who rises phoenix like from the ashes of tragedy to restore order to a disorderly world. Beaten back at times, he is never bowed.

He is America.

He is also white.

And he is enormously wealthy.

What I am proposing is that the Batman mythology coincides neatly with aspects of a certain American mythology. Mythology is the story we tell about ourselves to situate our lives and experiences within the wider world and to provide sense and meaning. It is an interpretive act and a fictive act. In his 75 year history as a pop culture character, Batman has embodied several traits endemic to the story we tell about ourselves. He is a self-made man. His enormous wealth is used only in the service of good. While prone to injury, he is, for all practical purposes, invulnerable. He doles out fierce, brutal punishment (always deserved) but never takes a life. What might look like torture or excessive force is really necessary enhanced interrogation. He is a vigilante but a real threat only to the criminal element. His extrajudicial activities have the tacit approval of the police powers. His interventions and preemptive strikes are seen as necessary excursions around red tape in the service of justice. His wealth affords him technological powers of surveillance, an electronic incarnational symbol of towering gaze from a perch on one of Gotham’s skyscrapers. He embodies our faith in the raw power of the solitary hero (or nation state).

Of course this is a sweeping overview. In recent decades pieces of this general mythology have been d troubled within the Dark Knight’s corpus. Various stories have toyed with the question of whether the appearance of Batman is a deterrent to crime or if his unilateral interventions unintentionally create more extreme villainous responses. Scott Snyder’s recent run as writer for the Batman title has sought to present a more human, conflicted origin myth where we see a hero in process and the process is often messy and gray. Co-written with Brian Azzarello, the most recent issue, while not breaking continuity, is a stand alone story. But packed within this stand alone piece is a powerful primer on the deeply interconnected causal threads of most social situations and a warning that many situations do not need the usual intervention of outside “heroes.”

Titled “A Simple Case,” it is anything but. It begins with the Dark Knight alone, investigating a dead body in the marshes on the outskirts of Gotham. The young victim has been shot multiple times but the puzzling cause of his death is injuries sustained after a catastrophic fall from enormous heights. The unnamed narrator delivers the comforting promise that faith in this powerful hero and his self-assured sense of justice will reward: “He will catch someone for this. He will punish the one who did it, and stop it from happening again.” This is comic book mythology 101. It is the driving narrative of our most precious myths and the common theme of most hero stories. Yet, it is this promissory note that Azzarello’s and Snyder’s story will deconstruct throughout this incredible book for the purpose of encouraging more substantive and sustained action rather than promoting cynicism.

This deconstruction is performed by a narrative mirroring as Batman learns bit by bit the story behind the death of Peter Duggio, the young black male shot multiple times who mysteriously fell from the sky. He is a kid from “The Narrows,” a neighborhood in Gotham blighted by urban decay. Like Bruce Wayne’s, Peter’s actions are spurred by a family crisis and impending loss. He takes the situation into his own hands and seeks to carve a solution through ingenuity, power plays and bargains. His tragic end could be written off as another unfortunate but expected occasion in a neighborhood gone to seed. Or, mirroring the narrative character shading that too often occurs in establishment media to young, black victims of violence, Peter’s story could have been “explained” by his poor choices and associations (he does reach out to the Penguin, after all) even though he is shot unjustifiably by a reactionary police officer. Instead, Snyder and Azzarello use Peter’s story to tell the story of “The Narrows” which is a story of Gotham, its white power structure and the deep interweaving of the narratives of systemic racism, redlining, urban decay and exploitation. It is unfortunately an all too American story.

The graphic medium utilizes its intertextual power to the fullest. Artist Jock along with color artist Lee Loughridge and Letterer Deron Bennett give life to Snyder’s and Azzarello’s complex story and social criticism in a way which only the medium of comics could allow. The color scheme is mostly gray, metaphorically critiquing Batman’s pursuit of the simple answer and solitary culprit to be brought to justice. Primary colors are shaded in certain panels with powerful effect like yellow, red, or blue filtering on black and white film. The narrative dialogue boxes and illustrations are overlaid at certain points by the inclusion of pieces of news clippings from Gotham’s history. These fragments, out of context with words obscured, serve as archaeological fragments that trouble any simple narrative rendering of this story. They are echos of the Penguin’s mocking observation to Batman’s black and white approach, “You..really don’t know anything about this city, do you?”

Through these snippets we piece together a powerful counter narrative of redlining, systemic denial of access to public goods and services, civil rights movements and the fierce response from the powers that be, police brutality combined with lack of training and disconnect between the police force and the neighborhood, and the not so benign effects of the paternalistic “benevolence” of gentrification.

Piece by piece as the story of Peter Duggio is put together, Batman’s mythology is called into question. Like white Americans (myself included) who rush into the battle against racism with a burning sense of justice and, if we are honest, a paternalistic messiah fantasy, we quickly find ourselves implicated in that which we seek to fight. Along with Batman we discover that our crystal clear sense of what counts for justice and ethical behavior is wrapped in privilege. Our judgments of others is blind to the complexities of their condition and our implication in these conditions through passive acquiescence. As the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates observed in a recent television interview, much of the pathology we identify with oppressed communities is a direct result of the “boot upon their neck.” To address the pathology is impossible without removing the boot on the neck. In this comic, Batman/Bruce experiences the painfully necessary discovery of the outline of his foot within that collective boot.

Like any truly honest narrative, there is no neat resolution to the story. There is no single villain whose tracking, pummeling, and capture can serve as the ceremonial scapegoat for our complicity. In a last brilliant ironic gesture, the writers and artists place the title of the comic, “A Simple Case,” on the last panel as an ironic critique of the tendency to ignore complex social situations. Batman though, decides to stay in the midst of The Narrows, but not as the hero. “Because he got it all wrong.” He stays to listen. Even if in that listening he is implicated and his mythology is decentered. In that sense, perhaps he demonstrates that white allies are not nor should not aspire to be heroes. In embodying that very lesson perhaps he is, to paraphrase Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, not the hero white America wants, but the example that it needs.

Take Me to Church: Easter, Identity Politics, & Damien Wayne

What does Easter Sunday, Batman vs. Robin, and the Civil Rights Movement all have in common? Well to start with all three were integral parts of my weekend. I guess because I religiously identify with Christianity Easter weekend would inevitably be linked in with whatever I did last weekend. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that the new DCAU film Batman vs. Robin was officially uploaded to one of my favorite anime websites. I took the opportunity to view it on Friday night (highly recommended). As for the Civil Rights Movement, much of my life the last several weeks has been devoted to better understanding the Civil Rights Movement since my trip across the Mississippi Delta and to Tennessee. As I have tried to analyze all three with respect to each other, admittedly a daunting task, I have come to a realization. Batman vs. Robin, The Civil Rights Movement, and Easter Sunday are all connected by the theme of identity politics.

I will preface this section by divulging one bias and one disclaimer about the animated film Batman vs. Robin. This section may contain spoilers, and the film has quickly made its ranks into one of my top favorite DCAU films. For starters as I reflect on the film it should be more aptly titled Damian Wayne vs the voices in his head. For those who do not know Batman vs. Robin is the follow up to Damian’s film debut in Son of Batman. Damian Wayne is the newest addition to the list of Robins, which has included Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, and Tim Drake. The 10 year old batmanprotégé has a complicated past to say the least. He was raised by his biological grandfather Ras al Ghul to be the next head of the League of Assassins. He is also the current ward of his biological father Bruce Wayne who is…well Bruce Wayne. Batman has worked incessantly to reverse the psychological influence of Ras al Ghul. Damian constantly hears the voice of Batman telling him “justice not vengeance.” However, this mantra becomes complicated when he meets the mysterious Talon. Talon seems to strongly resemble batman with the exception that he does the one thing that Batman does not…KILL.

Talon’s influence creates yet another voice in the head of the young Wayne heir. Throughout the entire film both Damian and Bruce Wayne must answer challenging questions. For example, are biological similarities enough to create a father and son? However, the biggest questions that Damian faces are questions of his identity. His relationship with Bruce Wayne is complicated by the fact that he must keep it a secret that he is Bruce’s biological son. Tired of the restrictions placed on him by Batman he becomes the protégé of Talon. Even then he does not find a resolution to his crisis because he does not fully agree with Talon’s methods. Simultaneously, Damian wrestles with his training from his grandfather Ras al Ghul. Thus although Damian Wayne takes on the identity of Robin he does not truly know who lies behind the mask. Unfortunately, for Damian by the end of the film he still has no answer, rather he is even more resolved about finding himself and discovering his true identity.

Damian Wayne’s quest for identity, however, is not a new phenomenon. In fact, I contend that the Civil Rights Movement can be better understood if we examine it as a quest for identity, or rather the reclamation of an identity that was forcefully taken away from a group through variously reinforced methods of hegemony and oppression. In fact, even the name Civil Rights Movement can be problematic in helping to fully articulate what exactly the movement stood for and what it was up against. Charles Payne takes up this argument in Debating the Long Civil Rights Movement. He argues what has been termed “civil rights” came to be a summary term for the struggle of the African Americans after World War II that culminated with the Black Power Movement of the late 60’s and 70’s. Payne maintains that after seminal civil rights legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 certain parts of society (namely white America) could not understand why so many blacks were still angry about their collective status. Many stated the mantra “you have your civil rights, so what’s the problem?” Here in lies the problem.

The notion of civil rights undermined the larger struggle that many African American were fighting for. The real struggle for African Americans was to reclaim a place and identity for themselves in a society that had tried everything to prevent this. Forging a pathway to claim natural rights to a shared humanity was the true essence of the movement. Ascertaining public accommodations through protests and courts rulings served as only as the tip of the iceberg. To do this by achieving civil rights could only be a starting point. Economic participation and self-assertion were the bigger aims of the movement. Protection from homelessness, equal chances at economic opportunity, adequate medical coverage, and food for starving minds, bodies and souls, have always been at the core of the movement. The language of “civil rights” is inadequate in that that the work of activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, Ella Baker, and Annie Divine was about helping blacks obtain their “civil rights,” which they did not have. However, these women strongly believe that the movement struggle was about expanding American democratic sensibilities to a much larger audience. It is in this expansion that many were able to find their voice and identity. Native Americans, Chicanos, women, prisoners and various other groups were able proudly assert their identity and fight for human dignity and respect in all aspects of their lives. Thus the movement can be understood also as a quest to reclaim identity in the midst of forces that vehemently opposed this struggle.

Reflecting on the history of the Civil Rights movement leads to a further analysis of our everyday context. In this case it forces an analysis of what it means to celebrate the Easter holiday and all of its festivities. I am not one tousually to embrace any holiday, but I do like tracking the emotions and feelings of those who choose to do so. As I scrolled through Facebook pages I noticed that many of my friends made reference to Easter or pointed out a particular message from an Easter service. As I was in church on Sunday I could not help but notice how much fuller the service was compared to other Sundays. I realized this trend was not particular to the church I chose to attend, but rather was indicative of what happens to many churches on Easter Sunday. I could not help but wonder why so many people concern themselves with paying special attention to what happens on Easter Sunday? I believe that the answer is that Easter has become a symbol which many Christians can feel the most free to exert their Christian identity. The triumph of the Crucified God over the forces of evil speaks hope to believers all over the globe. Is there any other narrative more central to typical conceptions of the Christian faith?

Just as Damian Wayne and movement leaders found out, discovering one’s identity is no easy task. In a religious context, Christians depend on Christ for our identity. In a world where what it means to be Christian changes from denomination to denomination and even from congregation to congregation, how does one find their Christian identity amidst Christianities? In Batman Vs Robin, I noted above that Damien Wayne felt connected with Batman (the drive for justice) and Talon/Ra’s Al Ghul (the drive for revenge). Damien is committed to the League of Assassins as a community just as much as he has committed himself to the BatFamily although they have what seems to be conflicting values. Who is Damien held accountable to? Whose voice does Damien listen to? For Christians, we strive to listen to Christ, yet do we listen to Christ who healed the sick and lived in solidarity with poor? Or do we prefer to sing of a Triumphalist Christianity? It is critical to question the dominant Resurrection narrative that is a staple of Easter sermons and the entire Easter weekend festivities. What must also be emphasized are other qualities that allow one to identify as Christian, namely the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ identity does not solely lie within the realm of a Resurrected savior but also as a socio-political revolutionary. He was someone who took up the divine call to be committed to justice and equality. Easter weekend should be a time to embrace these aspects of Jesus’ narrative as well. How different would an Easter service look when the message from the pulpit to the pews embraces a divine call for social and economic justice for all? Situating Christian identity is far more complex and nuanced than what can be written in this piece. However, this conversation can be started by expanding narratives from which Christian identity is approached particularly during those rituals and festivities that many Christians find most filling such as the Lenten/ Easter season.

Photo Description: From Amazon.com, Batman & Robin Volume 1: Batman Reborn, photo has Batman and Robin on the cover in front of a red and green car. Damian Wayne is Robin.