Ask Chris #212: The Many Loves Of Batman
Q: What's the deal with Batman's non-Catwoman, non-justice love interests? Vicki Vale, Zatanna, Wonder Woman, etc? -- @superseth64
A: Just a few days ago, I was talking to Greg Rucka and he mentioned Denny O'Neil's rule about Batman not sleeping with anyone, because if he does, then he sleeps with everyone. It's an interesting way to put that, and I'm inclined to agree with O'Neil on that point, but you can't deny that over the past 75 years, the Caped Crusader has had plenty of romantic entanglements, almost all of which, as you might expect, have ended in a spectacularly awful fashion.
But the thing is, as much as they don't work from a romantic perspective, which is the nature of dramatic tension, they don't really work from a storytelling perspective, either.
See, the thing about American superheroes is that virtually everything about them filters down from Superman in one way or another, especially in the Golden Age. Regardless of how the formula was tweaked -- and regardless of Bob Kane's easily debunked claims about solely creating Batman in 1935 that appeared in that insulting work of ghostwritten fiction that he called an autobiography -- the Golden Age was a mad rush to match the sales that National was racking up with Action Comics, and a lot of that just came down to the formula. What worked for Superman should work for somebody else, right? I mean, Captain Marvel Adventures was selling in the millions, and that dude was close enough to Superman that they even had him tossing around a car on the cover of his first appearance.
So in theory, if Superman has Lois Lane, then a character like Batman should probably have a girlfriend (or "Girl Friend," as they were prone to putting it) of his own, right? Somebody at National certainly thought so, and that's how you end up getting characters like Julie Madison and Vicki Vale in the Golden Age. Unfortunately, Julie didn't have much of a character to speak of -- she was little more than a damsel in distress most of the time -- and Vicki's a particularly shameless knockoff. Seriously, she's a photojournalist who's always trying to prove Bruce Wayne is secretly Batman so that they can get married, and she generally makes a nuisance of herself in the process.
But that's the problem.
As much as the superheroic tradition comes down from Superman, and as much as it might make sense to try to lift successful elements to graft them onto another hero, those two characters are just different enough that it doesn't work -- that it can't work. I think part of it is that even though Superman sets the tone, the characters are still drawing on different sources and working towards different aims.
Siegel and Shuster were clearly fans of Dr. Clark "Doc" Savage (and one Ask Chris reader noted that his famous code against killing was likely lifted from the Lone Ranger) while Bill Finger and that other guy started out doing a pretty direct riff on The Shadow. But it's when they start to evolve and become characters in their own right that the changes really hit.
Lois Lane is great for Superman. I mean, she's great in general, but her role in Superman's story is amazingly important, and is the easiest way to show how he actually works. The core idea at the heart of Superman is humanity -- he's an alien with unfathomable power, but at heart, he's one of us. He's going to use his powers exclusively to help people, not because he considers himself superior, not because he looks at us as pets, but because that's what people who can help others should do. He's human, and so he has the most human emotion of all: He's in love. That's one of the reasons it can only ever be Lois -- her humanity is what reflects his humanity, and when you lose that, you lose the biggest piece of the character.
Batman, on the other hand, is built differently. There's that panel that gets passed around a lot of all the Justice League standing around thinking about their wives and girlfriends and Batman's thinking about Robin, ha ha ha, but really, that's pretty accurate. The core idea of Batman is all about family -- he's motivated by the loss of one as a child, and as an adult, he starts building a new one. And that's something that starts very early. As much as people like to think of Batman as a grim loner fighting a one-man war on crime, it's really important to remember that he's created in 1939, and Robin shows up in 1940.
So right away, you have Superman and Batman fitting into different roles with how they relate to their supporting cast. Superman becomes the romantic with Lois, and Batman becomes the father with Robin, and they very rarely get out of those roles. It works both ways, too: Superman's not really good with sidekicks. As much as I love Silver Age Supergirl and '90s Superboy as a characters, they don't really work that well when they're with Superman, taking orders and playing second fiddle. They work fine on their own, and they work best when you can see Superman treating them as equals -- the same way he treats Lois. It's one of the reasons I really like Steel; he's a guy that's clearly following Superman's legacy, but doing it in his own way, with his own skills, and being treated as a partner rather than a sidekick.
With Batman, my theory on this basically just breaks down to "you don't really want to think too hard about your father figure having sex."
It's worth noting that the characters I think of as Batman's two most successful romances (in storytelling terms), Catwoman and Talia, are romance that can never really happen. The compelling drama in both of those comes from the idea that they're on opposite sides of the law. Catwoman is the more enduring, but it's exactly the kind of star-crossed love that's doomed to fail in the most entertaining way possible. At her worst, Catwoman's an arch-criminal, but at her best, she's still Robin Hood, and Batman's firmly on the side of the law. The friction is what makes it fun. Er, so to speak.
But that never stopped anyone from trying to make it work over the years, and you get some interesting stuff out of it. The original Batwoman, Kathy Kane, brings a pretty interesting ideas to the table since she's also operating as a vigilante, but those stories are often skew towards some really regressive "Oh, that silly woman, trying to fight crime! I told you to stop this, Kathy!" storytelling that's not exactly romantic. For my money, the first really compelling love interest (aside from Catwoman) to come into Batman's life is Silver St. Cloud.
Originally created by Steve Englehart and Mike Gold, Silver was really fleshed out once Marshall Rogers took over art duties for the rest of Englehart's run, and she's basically exactly what movies want Batman's girlfriend to be. She's smart and inquisitive enough to discover Batman's identity on her own by following the clues and seeing the Dark Knight in action, and like Catwoman and Talia, she ends up being exactly the sort of relationship that can't ever happen.
The difference is, she's the one who makes that call. She's the one who realizes that Bruce Wayne is never going to give up crimefighting; that he's always going to dedicate his life to this higher calling. She understands this, and as a result, she dumps him. It's really fun stuff, and it gives her an interesting distinction on the rare occasions that she makes a return appearance, like Englehart and Rogers' own Dark Detective. Unfortunately, she's also in the worst Batman comic ever printed, but, y'know, that's gonna happen sometimes.
Batman's relationship with Zatanna is, I believe, entirely the invention of Paul Dini for Batman: The Animated Series, and while he'd later bring it into the core continuity of the comics, it never really worked as well as it did on the show. The simple idea of having her represent a love from his training, a time when he could've walked away from becoming Batman and actually been happy but chose not to, who then comes back to remind him of everything he's given up, works really well in the context of the show. Applied to a larger DC Universe (even the one seen in Justice League Unlimited), I don't think it works quite as well. Bringing her into the superhero community changes the dynamic, and you run into all the same problems.
The romance with Wonder Woman is one of those ideas that sounds great in theory. It makes perfect sense, right? They're teammates on the Justice League, they're both equally dedicated to the neverending battle against evil, and if that's the case, they're both people who can very easily understand the drive and motivations of the other. They should compliment each other, right?
In practice, it's generally pretty terrible. The obvious problem is that when you tangle those two characters up romantically, the sheer practical nature of the characters' popularity means that Wonder Woman's going to become the back half of "Batman And." You're always going to end up subordinating Wonder Woman to Batman -- a love interest is almost always a supporting character -- and if there's anyone who shouldn't be a supporting character, it's Wonder Woman. She should be cultivating a supporting cast in her own right. Plus, platonic friendships between men and women are rare enough in media that taking away a friendship that actually works a heck of a lot better isn't worth it.
So those are, I believe, the major relationships all accounted for. There are a few others, of course, like Jezebel Jet (Silver St. Cloud but eeeeevil), Vesper Fairchild (unsurprisingly murdered) and Shondra Kinsolving (used her psychic powers to heal Batman's broken back and ended up being institutionalized with "the mind of a five year-old" as a result, yeesh), but it's like I said. They always tend to end in spectacular failures.
Which is why the only Lady in Batman's life... is Lady Justice.