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.