Ask Chris #265: The Untold Urban Legend Of The Batman
Q: Why do people cling to the idea of Batman as the urban legend, even though it doesn't make sense? -- @discord_ink
A: I need to be honest with you right up front: I am definitely one of those people who loves the idea of the people in the DC Universe thinking of Batman as an urban legend. It's one of the few Modern Age additions that actually feels like it's embracing the inherent strangeness of the character rather than trying to make him more "realistic," and it does it in a way that still pushes him a little further into darkness and sets a contrast with the other heroes of the DC Universe. It's something that's cool, an element that can add to the grand mystery of a character who demands that kind of atmosphere.
That said, you're absolutely right: It doesn't make a bit of sense. But that doesn't mean it's not great.
I'll freely admit that like so many things, my affection for that idea is rooted in the fact that it's part of the DC Universe that I grew up with. It's one of those little wrinkles of the '90s DCU that would come up occasionally, those interesting ideas that were never really the focus of major stories, but that helped flesh out the universe by showing us how the people who lived there thought of the stories we were reading every month. There are more of those than you might think, like the idea that the Martian Manhunter was the most well-known superhero in the world outside of the United States, or that the public at large --- including Lex Luthor --- just assumed that Superman was Superman all the time, and didn't even have a secret identity.
That one in particular is one that I've always liked, because of the simple fact that there's no reason to assume that he would. We do, of course, because we're familiar with the secret identity trope and, and "mild-mannered reporter" ranks right behind "faster than a speeding bullet" and "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound" on the list of phrases that come to mind when you're describing Superman.
But if you were actually living in that universe, if you saw him on the news doing all those spectacular things and helping people, it's difficult to believe that you'd look at him and think that he was hiding his identity. He doesn't wear a mask or gloves or present himself in any way as someone with a secret, and if you were the kind of person who really went looking for information, you'd already know that his "real name" was Kal-El and that he lived in a Fortress of Solitude at the North Pole. That stuff's all common knowledge in the DC Universe, thanks to a couple of reporters that he always hangs around with, and really, it's a pretty satisfactory answer if you go looking.
Bits and pieces like that tend to debut within the stories themselves --- the Superman thing, for instance, has its roots in John Byrne's Superman #2, and Martian Manhunter's worldwide fame was brought up in the Ostrander/Mandrake series --- but they later crop up in unusual places, like that time they did a fake issue of Newstime, the DC Universe's news magazine, to commemorate the Death of Superman.
But for Batman's status as an urban legend, it was just sort of assumed.
Like a lot of ideas about Batman that came to prominence in the '80s and '90s, I'm pretty sure you can trace this one back to Frank Miller. In the introduction to the paperback of The Dark Knight Returns --- the same introduction where he wrote about how the entire project was motivated by the sudden realization that he had become older than Batman when he turned 30 --- Miller wrote about how much he hated the idea of Batman being deputized and working with the police instead of outside of the law.
Finding out that Miller wasn't a fan of that idea wasn't exactly a surprise --- although as a teenager, that was my first clue that DKR was really just his dark and gritty ending to Batman '66 --- but you kind of have to admit that he has a point.
While the relationship with Commissioner Gordon goes all the way back to Detective Comics #27, the idea that Batman was essentially a cop in a cape was very much a product of the Comics Code and its strict rules about presenting the forces of law and order as supreme and infallible. If you were going to have a hero who specialized in taking down bank robbers, then he pretty much had to be a policeman, even if it was an extremely unconventional kind of cop.
And really, that idea doesn't make a whole lot of sense either. It's a weird bit of having one's cake and eating it, too, in that you get to obey the letter of the law by making him a cop, but skirt completely around the spirit by making him a cop who wears a Dracula suit, lives in a cave, and apprehends murder clowns by bonking them on the head with boomerangs.
It starts to go away as early as the '70s, but that, I think, is probably the reason that Miller and David Mazzucchelli set up the antagonistic relationship with the police --- and Gordon's, too --- right at the beginning in Year One.
From there, you can see the pendulum swinging back in the opposite direction. Batman in the '80s and '90s --- and even big chunks of the '70s --- was defined almost entirely in opposition to the '50s and '60s. It happened in almost every aspect of the character, from his former best-friendship with Superman becoming an uneasy and frequently untrusting alliance, to a tighter focus on Gotham City itself and urban crime that had way more to do with mass murders than thematic bank robberies, and the Urban Legend stuff was all part of that. Since he'd been an officially sanctioned public figure who sometimes even used to go out in daylight, the swing back to the extreme made him the exact opposite of a public figure: Something that nobody even wanted to admit existed.
And I kind of love that.
Again, it's something that plays on the idea of separating what we know as readers from what people in the universe know as characters, and at its purest form, it comes from the idea that they don't know that Batman's just a normal human in a costume.
It's another one of those things we take for granted that nobody in that universe would have any reason to assume --- if you can look out your window and see an actual alien flying around and lifting cars, or a guy with a magic ring from space making huge glowing boxing gloves, or a literal Greek Goddess tying people up with a lasso spun from gold, then would you have any reason to think that Batman was just a guy with a lot of money and a cool car? The very idea is preposterous.
And when you start taking that to its logical conclusion --- when you emphasize that Batman operates at night, preying on fear and striking from the shadows --- you get to the point where you can see how easy it would be for people to assume that he wasn't human at all.
There's a really fun issue of Ed Brubaker and Scott McDaniel's run on Batman --- #584 if you're looking to track it down --- that focuses on this idea through the lens of a couple of college kids trying to make a documentary exploring whether or not Batman actually exists, and one of the things I like best about it is that they're presented as having no idea what he even is. When you get right down to it, that makes sense --- they're living in a world where aliens, ghosts, vampires, and dudes who got their powers from being exploded inside nuclear reactors are all very real, so the possibilities for what Batman could actually be are pretty endless.
Even if you're willing to believe that he exists, the amount of information that the public would have about him is very small compared to what they'd know about Superman, constantly surrounded by reporters, or Wonder Woman, who was literally an ambassador to America. And that opens up a lot of possibilities.
There is, of course, an incredible degree of storytelling gymnastics that you have to pull off to make that part of the character, but again, it's all stuff that I really like. The best one is the Bat-Signal. It's this thing that's been an iconic part of the character for decades, so you can never really get rid of it no matter how "realistic" you want Batman to be, so they found a way to work around it. The "official" explanation is that it's just an unconventional tactic that the GCPD instituted because they noticed that for some reason, crime rates always go way down whenever they're shining a giant bat-shaped spotlight over the city, and the wink at the audience that Jim Gordon gets to give whenever he has to explain that is delightful.
At the same time, I don't think we're meant to believe that the people in the DCU actually buy that explanation --- at least, not in Gotham City. Surely every one of Gotham's ten million citizens has a first-hand Batman story, if only because people won't stop trying to cash their checks at the Second National Bank on Tuesday, February 2nd.
But then, think about all the people who don't live there, who wouldn't be seeing Batman and Robin show up at the Crossword Puzzle Factory or whatever. I remember going to New York for the first time and being shocked at how much it looked and sounded like it did on TV, right down to the constant car horn honking, because I'd never really experienced that for myself, so it's easy for me to buy the idea that people in, say, South Carolina or Arizona would have their doubts about something like Batman, if only because it seems pretty weird. Superman, Martians, the Flash, sure, but Batman? That's too much.
But of course, it's like you said: If you think about it for more than a couple of minutes, it doesn't really work. If nothing else, Batman --- the same Batman that we're supposed to believe is an Urban Legend --- shows up in front of the United Nations as a charter member of the extremely public Justice League:
You can hide behind Black Canary all you want, dude, but we can still see you. Once you've been photographed as part of a press conference on the floor of the UN, it's kind of hard to walk back that whole "possibly an urban legend" thing.
Which, I think, is part of the reason why the pendulum is swinging back around. We're currently in a time when Batman is not only a public figure once again, but one that's explicitly based around the idea that he's a visible, inspirational figure.
Part of that can be traced back to the wild popularity of the Nolan films --- it's the entire point of The Dark Knight, after all, that Batman can function as a symbol that people can rally around --- but it's become a key point in the comics, too. The two most recent major runs on the character --- the ones that have defined Batman for the 21st century so far --- have both incorporated that idea in a major way, whether it was Grant Morrison, Chris Burnham, Frazer Irving and others bringing forth the idea of Bruce Wayne going public as the money behind Batman and starting a highly visible, worldwide organization, or Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo carrying on with idea that Batman as a symbol was more important than the man behind the mask.
I mean, if nothing else, you don't get more publicly visible than a giant blue robot bunny that drops out of a blimp, right?