Ask Chris #315: Bat-Mite
Q: Bat-Mite: Silly or amazing? — @firehawk32
I feel like Bat-Mite is a character that it's hard to not have a pretty extreme reaction to. For readers that prefer Batman to be a a grim, gritty street-level vigilante who patrols Gotham City with a scowl on his face and vengeance on his mind, he's not a character that you're going to get a whole lot of entertainment out of. I mean, even if you're willing to accept the rocket car, the immortal shirtless bio-terrorist, and everything that goes along with them, the idea of an interdimensional imp popping up from the Fifth Dimension to screw things up with his weird magic powers is probably just a little bit too far.
In fact, I'd be willing to say that even if you do like the weirder aspects of Batman, Bat-Mite is still probably going to be a pretty hard sell, if only because he feels like a piece of Superman's world who's been grafted onto Batman's.
He is, after all, Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff's pretty direct lift on Mr. Mxyzptlk, a character who works as a foil for Superman in a way that he couldn't really work for Batman. Well, outside of the time they met in a one-page Superman Adventures story from Mark Millar and Rick Burchett.
But something tells me that might not have worked so well back in 1959.
Really, what makes Mr. Mxyzptlk work is that he's presented specifically as a foil for Superman, the most physically powerful person in the world. Having someone who can step outside that, who can change what the entire physical world is, presents him with a kind of challenge that changes the way that he works, and forces him to use his powers in new and interesting ways.
That's actually the trick with most Silver Age Superman stories. The idea that nothing could really present him with a physical challenge meant that a lot of them were built around the idea of changing what his reality was. Red Kryptonite's the big one, of course, because it changes Superman's personal reality, but that's a factor in a lot of the most memorable stories of the era. They're about stuff like traveling back in time to Krypton, or about his supporting characters getting super-powers and causing trouble, or about weird bottle cities showing up.
But Mr. Mxyzptlk, by sheer virtue of being a character rather than just a plot device, has an intelligence and motivation behind what he does that sets him apart. Nothing he does is incidental. It's all on purpose, and the fact that he can show up every 90 days (of in-universe time, naturally) to wreak more havoc means that Superman is set in this endless conflict of having to outwit a malevolent force that's even more powerful than he is. That he only ever sends him back to the 5th dimension on a temporary basis is the revolving door of supervillain appearances writ large --- no matter what it took to put him away this time, you know he's going to be back in a few months to try again.
The thing is, in the same way that Superman's creation sparked the Golden Age and led to a wave of new heroes that were inspired by, modifications of, or reactions to Superman himself, he's also the character that defined the rules of the Silver Age --- and the Silver Age was nothing if not driven by rules. Imaginary Stories, dog sidekicks, weird transformations, even a larger family of characters are all the things we associate with the Silver Age, and they're all really put into place by Superman. Even if they came from other places --- like the idea of the Kid Sidekick, which starts with Robin --- they were refined and codified by Superman. I mean, Robin didn't have a self-titled series until 1991. Jimmy Olsen had one in 1954.
It makes sense, then, that elements of Superman that had been codified through interesting stories would be exported to other characters to see if they work. Because of that, Batman gets Bat-Mite, the Flash briefly gets Mopee (if you don't know, don't ask) and Aquaman gets Quisp. The only really amazing thing is that Wonder Woman never had a Mxy of her own. You'd think that's what the Silver Age would've done with, like, Dionysus or something.
But what works for Superman (and what might well work for Aquaman) doesn't always work with Batman.
There's a very simple difference in character approach in play here, and it comes from the idea that while Batman, particularly the SIlver Age Batman, is truly The Greatest Man In The World, he still has some limitations. Sure, they're the same kind of limitations that any protagonist has --- which is to say that they're basically just plot points that are meant to be circumvented --- but they're definitely in there and they change how his character is meant to work.
A villain who's physically powerful but needs to be defeated in a battle of wits is, like, zero challenge for Batman. Being smarter than people who have ridiculous ideas that they're applying to the world around them is kind of his entire deal.
But that's the genius of Bat-Mite. The thing that makes him work is that he's not an antagonist. He's a fan.
And it will not surprise you learn that I find the idea of a fan who loves Batman so much that he's willing to cross dimensional barriers in a homemade costume just so he can hang out with him to be a very appealing idea. I mean, there's a good reason that Erica gave me the costume she did when I asked for a Halloween-themed Ask Chris header.
At his core, Bat-Mite works for the same reason that we see not only in Mr. Mxyzptlk, but in Duck Amuck, the single greatest cartoon ever animated. There's this idea of authorial conflict in there that I love, because when you get right down to it, it's not really the villains that are coming up with all the deathtraps and horrors that Batman has to go through, it's the creators. It's one of the reasons I like the Riddler so much, because if you're sitting down to write a Batman story, you are now a guy who's trying to come up with something so clever that it seems like Batman can't solve it. You don't get to the part where you're thinking your way out of it alongside Batman until a lot later in the process. And with Mxy (and with Bugs Bunny, a Cruel And Uncaring God Who Is Deaf To Your Cries Of Suffering), that frustration comes out in a very literal form. We're the ones who make the rules of the fiction, so why can't we just go in there and break them?
But rather than focusing on that adversarial relationship, Bat-Mite flips it around. That dude loves Batman, and all he really wants to do is to make Batman stories more exciting.
It's the flipside of the creator/character --- and even the fan/character --- relationship. Bat-Mite doesn't just want to hang out inside the stories, he wants to fill them with more dangerous villains and more exciting set pieces. And that works.
Part of the reason it works so well is because that's what the Silver Age was all about. If you couldn't do straight crime stories, then Batman had to be pushed more into the Silver Age aesthetic of rainbow monsters and Planet X. If that's where he's going to have to go by virtue of existing in the medium and universe in which he exists, then throwing in a character specifically designed to make his adventures bigger and weirder is a pretty good way to push the stories past their existing limits.
At his heart, though, Bat-Mite goes beyond that into a weird kind of weaponized enthusiasm that's super fun to read about, and a lot of that comes from the fact that Batman himself --- even the Batman of the Silver Age --- thinks that Bat-Mite is one step too far. This is a guy who's willing to deal with aliens, gorilla mobsters, and whatever else as part of his job, but a tiny little man who loves him and wants to be his best friend is just too much of an annoyance. Which is pretty perfect.