The Grand Unified Theory of Frank Miller’s Batman: Will, Hope and Tenderness
Writer Frank Miller is easily the most significant author to touch Batman since Bob Kane and Bill Finger came up with the character in the 1930s. Batman as we understand him today is derived in large part from Miller’s work, and that wouldn’t be true if here hadn’t struck gold in his interpretation of the Dark Knight.
Miller’s Batman is both well-rounded and believable character, and I only recently realized why that was true. Miller uses Thomas Wayne, Martha Wayne, and Dick Grayson to expose three vitally important things that make up the Batman we know and love: will, hope, and tenderness. Let’s look into how Frank Miller built a better Batman over the course of works like Batman: Year One, the definitive Batman origin story, The Dark Knight Returns, the story of Batman’s last ride, and his recent All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder.
In Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, Bruce Wayne’s father Thomas Wayne loomed large. His influence on Bruce is explicitly set up as the genesis of Bruce fighting crime as the Batman, rather than working an anonymous vigilante. When Bruce first attempts to fight crime on his own, he fails. He has the skills, but his disguise is weak, and he has no power over his prey. He gets stabbed, crawls home, and is ready to die. When the bat crashes through the window and sparks the idea of Batman in his head, Bruce Wayne’s first move is not to ring the bell to summon Alfred and save his own life. No, he chooses to speak to his father, saying, “…yes. Father. I shall become a bat.”
This scene positions Batman and his crusade as Wayne’s way of honoring his father. The relative lack of Martha Wayne in Year One — and over the course of the next twenty-five years of Bat-comics — suggests that inspiring heroism is something the men of the Wayne family do, a theme more recently resurrected in Grant Morrison’s time-spanning Batman tales in Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne. The Wayne men are following in the footsteps of their fathers, and their fathers before them. Thomas Wayne was a doctor who saved thousands of lives with his hands. Bruce Wayne is merely about his father’s business.
The impetus to be Batman, or perhaps to become Batman, comes directly and indirectly from Thomas Wayne. Batman, the persona, is a direct result of young Bruce Wayne’s viewing of The Mark Of Zorro. In All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, Alfred mentions that The Mark of Zorro was a movie that Thomas Wayne adored. The very last thing Bruce Wayne did with his family before they died was watch his father’s favorite film. It is the last thing Bruce sees as an innocent, and that’s key to the birth of Batman.
Don Diego (a.k.a. Zorro) was a man who believed in justice and protecting the downtrodden by night, and pretended to be an affable fop by day. He used a certain symbol as a calling card and to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies. A “Z” scratched into flesh or cloth was a warning and an admonishment. It’s simple and attractive, with a very clear idea of right and wrong, so it’s easy to see why the legend of Zorro would be attractive to a six year old kid who just watched his parents die. If Zorro represents justice, then the death of his parents represents injustice. They’re two sides of one coin.
By adapting Zorro and adopting his methods, Bruce is attempting to impress his father, like a son learning how to throw a perfect spiral or attending his father’s alma mater. Thomas Wayne instilled Bruce with a strong sense of justice and the idea that one man, given ways and means, can make a difference. Thomas was an expert doctor, a very down-to-earth type of hero, and his enjoyment of The Mark of Zorro suggests that he enjoyed the idea of larger-than-life action, too. The bat that comes out of the nighttime sky and into the study in Wayne Manor collides with Bruce’s idea of Zorro, entangling itself in Bruce’s life and creating the Batman. With the addition of that symbol, he’s ready to begin his war on crime.
Martha Wayne gets short shrift in the Batman mythos. Thomas Wayne is a vitally important figure and role model, but Martha is… what? A mother? Is that it? The Wayne men fought for freedom, freed slaves, fought monsters, and on and on, but the Wayne women? Well.
Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder is a shining spot in the catalog of Batman comics because Martha gets all the attention, barring a mention of The Mark of Zorro being Thomas’s favorite movie. For once, Thomas is on the sidelines. This a notable and surprising shift in focus in the discussion of Batman’s origins, and one that I missed on the first read.
Thomas Wayne is the steel in Bruce Wayne’s spine, the will that lets him stand up tall when battling the Joker. Martha, however, is the hope inside the Batman, the little voice that elevates him above the Punisher (driven by anger) or Spider-Man (driven by guilt). Yes, his quest is one of revenge against the nebulous idea of crime, but at the same time, he’s genuinely trying to protect others from his bogeyman. He doesn’t want other children or people to go through what he went through. There’s an altruistic element there, wrapped in a seriously personal, and possibly even selfish, crusade.
In All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, we get to see the immediate aftermath of Martha Wayne being shot. While reflecting on his mother’s death, Batman says, “I heard her cough her last and I pressed my hand against my mother’s breast just in case there was any hope at all and there wasn’t any heartbeat. No hope at all. Just her blood. On my hand. It’ll never wash off. Never.”
When he says “No hope at all,” that’s the big turning point for Bruce Wayne. That’s the moment his childhood shudders and snaps under the weight of his parents’ murder. There’s an element of guilt in the attention he pays to her blood on his hands, as well. It’s a symbol of the death of all hope, and the realization that his life is never going to get better. It will be different, sure, but he’s a child. This is the end of his world.
Miller and Lee attach hope to Martha, and there’s something there, isn’t there? They position her as a nurturing figure, as support and succor, and when his parents are killed, she’s the one Bruce goes to for comfort. She’s the one he goes to first. “Maybe they aren’t dead,” is what his actions are saying. But, no: They are. His mother is gone. And he is lost.
In All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, Alfred says that Martha never knew her son. He’s right. You can never tell how someone is going to turn out. A sweet kid could pull the wings off flies in private, and a bully might be an utter romantic with the right girl. Martha knew her son as a wild child, someone who would climb and crawl and fall. As she died, she watched her son “become a demon,” Alfred says. The murder knocked all of the innocence out of him like a punch to the stomach.
Tie Alfred’s statement together with the death of the Waynes. Bruce Wayne watches and hears his mother die. While that’s happening, she’s looking directly into his eyes. As she dies, as the last vestige of hope in his life slips away, he is lost, and she witnesses it. What’s left is the wildness, the darkness that haunted his childhood. It brings to mind a line from Dark Knight Returns: “My parents taught me a different lesson… lying on this street… shaking in deep shock… dying for no reason at all. They showed me that the world only makes sense when you force it to.” The cold, hard side of the world poisoned his childhood, and after witnessing the death of his mother, Bruce turned toward the strength of his father to survive.
Miller’s take in All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder ties the death of Martha and the idea of hope with Batman’s sadness and tenderness toward Robin. ASBAR takes place early in his career — year two to be exact — where Bruce is still playacting at being Batman. He’s got a Clint Eastwood growl that he creates by way of a razor held between his teeth. He laughs like a loon when diving in to fight crime. He’s building a persona, one which will be whittled down over the years into the platonic ideal of Batman.
When Batman is dealing with Robin, however, there are little bursts of sadness that erupt out of him in defiance of his carefully calculated “hard man in a hard world” persona. These bursts come when Martha slips in front of his Thomas Wayne facade. She creeps in around the edges of the cape and cowl, whispering that everything will be okay when his father tells him to buck up and stand tall. She’s a crack in Batman’s facade, but — that isn’t quite right. Martha’s influence isn’t a weakness. It’s what Batman needs in order to be a well-rounded crime fighter. He needs to be able to show genuine kindness to people and to believe in hope, otherwise he’s no different from the Punisher.
Bruce Wayne is a product of his upbringing, both the time he spent with his loving parents and witnessing their murder, and the result is a creature that’s initially torn between vengeance and hope, a monster who is so sure of what he believes in that he doesn’t think that grief is a valid option for new draftees in his war, or that acceptance is healthy. Later, he realizes the error of his ways and manages to reconcile the influences of Martha and Thomas on his methods. At this point in his career, he sees himself as a general in a war. He wants soldiers, not people or family.
This will change. It has to, really. Will alone can only keep you going for so far. Hope lets you bridge the gap.
So far, we have most of a Batman. We have the thirst for vengeance that birthed him, the will that powers him, and the rich inheritance that provides his means. We see hope creeping in around his edges, but it hasn’t become fully part of him yet. Right now, at this moment in Batman’s history, we have the makings of an urban legend and a night terror. Cops and criminals both know and fear him, as well they should, and the citizenry knows that there’s a dark angel waiting in the shadows to protect them. There is someone out there with a spine, and he is on our side.
This Batman gets the job done, but he’s far from pleasant. He’s a little too hard-edged, a little too happy about getting to do some damage, and to be a comic book superhero. He’s a shadow who lurks among shadows, and the problem with that is that there’s no difference between one shadow or another in the night. One shadow can hold pain or pleasure, and you won’t know which is which until it’s too late. While it’s clear that the Batman is a benevolent shadow, there’s nothing to suggest that he won’t become one of the other, darker shadows at some point in time.
The appeal of Robin is three-fold. He provides a character for young boys to relate to, a fact that is increasingly irrelevant to us in the real world as time goes on. He brightens and tempers Batman’s methods, turning him into a four-color hero instead of a bastard child of The Shadow. Finally, he provides a fix for Bruce Wayne, who wasn’t a victim of arrested development so much as was alternate development. As children, we played with toys and wore capes. He played detective and learned science. He isn’t stunted, not really. He’s just different.
It wasn’t the death of his parents that made Bruce Wayne antisocial; it was the quest that followed. He wanted to become the greatest detective slash crimefighter ever, and that quest left very little room for playtime or proms or the standard socializing everyone else does. Everything became either a tool for his war or irrelevant. This doesn’t preclude Bruce Wayne entirely from maintaining relationships, romantic or otherwise, but it’s clear that his deepest relationship is with Alfred. Poor Alfred, who was swept up in his quest and has merely managed to hang on for dear life while enabling his charge to pursue his goal.
Bruce Wayne grew up, but he didn’t grow up like we did. You can see it in the romantic relationships he pursues as an adult (which generally have built-in trapdoors like “she’s a villain” or “i can never tell her my secret”) or his treatment of Jezebel Jet in Grant Morrison’s Batman (where he appears to have turned love into a weapon). He has used a long string of starlets and debutantes as cover for his mission -– beards, essentially –- without a care for how they would feel about it. They, like everyone else, are tools. His company Wayne Enterprises is a tool, too, something that exists so that he can fight his war. Everything is either a weapon, a threat, or not worthy of attention.
Robin is what changes that. Early in All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, Batman refers to grief as “the enemy.” He goes on to say that “there’s no time for grief. There’s no room for grief. Grief turns into acceptance. Forgiveness. Grief forgives what can never be forgiven.” Batman doesn’t think that there’s any room for acceptance in his war. He’s driven by anger at the unfairness of life. If he’d taken time to accept what happened, to understand and move on, then he wouldn’t have the edge that has made him so successful. He’s a child lashing out after being hurt. It’s just that his way of lashing out is stretched out over a long period of time than a thrown punch or pitched fit. Crime hurt Bruce Wayne, and he’s going to hurt it right back.
As a result, though, he pushed Dick Grayson, a twelve-year-old kid, too far, too soon. If you don’t address your grief and anger, they’ll rot and fester inside of you. Batman had years to work through his issues, with the help of Alfred and the dozens of masters he learned his craft from. He didn’t not-grieve; he just grieved in a different way than most people would. He accepted that his parents were gone when he began fighting his war to ensure that no one else’s parents would die that way.
Robin didn’t have that advantage. Batman spent weeks training him, but that’s the Cliff’s Notes equivalent to spending your formative years walking the world. As a result, Robin nearly killed Green Lantern in what should have been a simple intimidation move. The anger and poison was bubbling just below the surface of Robin’s heart, and when pressed, it spilled over. You have to release negative emotions somehow, and Batman’s mistake was assuming that what worked for him would work for someone else. More than that, Batman’s mistake was thinking that what worked for him actually worked for him.
After saving Green Lantern’s life, Batman drives Robin to his parents’ grave and tells him, “Find them. Say goodbye.” Put differently: “Grieve.” Robin hits the gravestone, a stand-in for the idea of the death of his parents, and collapses in despair. Batman’s hand drops on his shoulder and they both cry in the rain, next to Robin’s parents. “We mourn lives lost,” Batman’s monologue says, “including our own.” They’re damned, and there’s no going back from here.
This is the moment when Bruce Wayne turns from the Bat-Man, a fearsome creature of the night, to Batman, a superhero with a cheerful kid sidekick. This forces Bruce into the role of nurturer, as well as avenger. He can’t proceed along his path any more. It may not be self-destructive, but it is definitely damaging to a third party that’s as close as Robin. He has to change and adjust, because otherwise he damned this child for nothing.
This is when Bruce Wayne opens his Batman persona to include Martha. The heroism stops being something that only the male half of the Wayne family does and becomes a true family affair. Without Martha’s hope, without her nurturing nature, Batman would’ve continued on in his mission as a general, rather than a man. Batman has to be able to bend, otherwise he’s just a monster. He has to learn kindness, and it took Robin to do it.
Now, Batman has to become a father, instead of just a Dark Knight, and that means that the hope that his mother provided to him as a child is going to play a bigger and bigger part in his life. It shifts his quest from pure vengeance into something more. It’s a splash of love, a love that he’d been keeping at a distance to keep his sword sharp, in a war that sorely needed it. Robin pulls Batman out of the shell he’d built around himself and into normal humanity. Robin is the secret to building a better Batman.
It’s interesting how easily all of this falls into place, and how much sense it makes. There’s nothing in this that contradicts the idea of the Batman. You can see him reverting to his old ways when he pushes his friends and family away during stories like Bruce Wayne: Fugitive or War Games. And we see his new ways, too, in more positive examples like his slow crawl back to full mobility after Bane broke his back during Knightfall. Bruce’s quick acceptance of Cassandra Cain, formerly Batgirl, and Damian Wayne, both of whom were raised by terrorists, shows the depths of the hope that Martha instilled in him. He doesn’t believe that things can be better. He knows that things can be better, and if he has his way, things will be better.
You can see Robin’s influence on Batman in how he interacts with his surrogate family. The coy disappearing act he plays with Jim Gordon, the acrobatics and banter with Dick Grayson, and the devilish grin he gets after carving a Z in Lex Luthor’s face in Dark Knight Strikes Again all speak to the happiness that Robin brought to his life. That loosening up, that kindness, lets him open up and genuinely enjoy his lot in life and his family.
At the heart of Frank Miller’s Batman is a guy who goes home after a busy night out, kicks up his feet, reclines in his chair, and says “Striking terror. Best part of the job.” He’s satisfied, and without all three of these influences, he wouldn’t be.