With 80 years under his utility belt, Batman has evolved significantly since he spawned from the mind of Bob Kane, with contributions from Bill Finger. In his most recent iteration, the Dark Knight is, well, dark. But is that who Batman really is? Is that who Batman should be?
Ardo Omer is both a Batman fan and a student of criminology, which gives her a unique perspective on the World’s Greatest Detective. “Most people are surprised to hear that I got my BA in Criminology,” explains Omer. “When they find out, they assume one of two things: I plan on writing crime fiction or I got into it because of Batman. Both are untrue. I got a degree in Criminology thinking I’d have a better chance at finding a job than I would as an English major. Jokes on me! I wasn’t interested in being an academic or working in the criminal justice system.”
The truth is, though Ardo loved Batman as a character, she didn’t come to appreciate him as she does now until Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and she didn’t realize that Bruce Wayne studied Criminology until after she had graduated herself. “What I did discover as a Criminology student was Popular Criminology which is essentially when you use Criminology to interrogate the mainstream understanding of crime and the criminal justice system in pop culture. In fact, the first essay I wrote for Women Write About Comics was breaking down the Captain America: The Winter Soldier trailer through the lens of security. Of course, this meant my love for Batman intensified.”
Ardo has a lot of thoughts and feelings about Batman, many of which recently bubbled up after Zack Snyder’s proclamation about Batman’s status as a killer. With that in mind, I wanted to explore the character more closely from her perspective.
What is your ideal portrayal of Batman? What stories have reflected this ideal?
I find that Batman’s depiction in animated television shows are superior to his stories in comics. My favourite version of Batman is in Justice League and Justice League: Unlimited as well as Terry’s Batman in Batman Beyond (I love old man Bruce). In the shows, they prioritize his intellect and resourcefulness, showcase his compassion while also giving us a loner who tries to push people away but is constantly surrounded by people who love him regardless.
In comics, I tend to enjoy stories that aren’t necessarily starring Batman like Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia and 1988’s Suicide Squad #10. The “No Man’s Land” arc has had interesting moments of questioning Batman’s role in Gotham which I like but definitely a run I need to revisit (I loved the novelization by Greg Rucka). I like a Batman struggling with his existence.
In conversation you stated, “Violent crime led to his creation and he has to contend with how he affects crime/criminal justice system via his existence.” This seems like a significant catch-22. How can this cycle be broken or at least better addressed in his stories?
This is a big question. We know the origin story: young boy loses parents in violent crime and decides to dedicate his nightlife to fighting crime as a vigilante. It’s a little bit of trying to prevent something similar from happening to someone else and a dash of providing justice where institutions are too corrupt to do so. A lot of it, however, revolves around trauma.
There’s also the fact that Batman attracts supervillains! I think Batman as a figure in Gotham has a time limit if we’re assuming he’s a band-aid propping up justice until traditional methods can do it without the help.
I like to think of vigilantes or superheroes similar to Batman as a reaction to a lack of trust in institutions. Batman teams up with a honest cop, James Gordon, and tries to clean up Gotham. Cool but then a problem occurs when Gotham starts to function like a normal city (a normal city in the sense that reform can happen through normal channels like organizing, calling your representative etc. Basically not the complete breakdown that Gotham experiences 100% of the time). Batman becomes an obstacle to the justice he claims he’s fighting for since a lawyer can easily dismiss any evidence or arrests associated with Batman. It doesn’t bode well for these institutions that someone who isn’t within a system that can hold them accountable is out there doing their job. Of course, we’re living in a world where those within the system (i.e. cops) aren’t held accountable but the theory is that they would be while Batman isn’t accountable to anyone.
There’s also the fact that Batman attracts supervillains! I think Batman as a figure in Gotham has a time limit if we’re assuming he’s a band-aid propping up justice until traditional methods can do it without the help. It’s an interesting question that I’m still working through years later but one that I don’t think many writers successfully tackle.
How does Batman’s existence fit in with the issues of police brutality? Has Batman ever beaten the crap out of the wrong person? What were the repercussions?
I think Batman #44 by Scott Snyder and Jock is the only time when police brutality is addressed. There have been many stories about Bruce being goaded into killing someone or giving into his anger but he doesn’t. When he doesn’t submit to violence, it’s not usually interrogated, i.e. The Dark Knight Returns or, according to some readings, The Killing Joke. In those cases, it’s mostly the environment that made it so that the violence or killing was warranted or inevitable. The narrative is telling us, “Sometimes you don’t have a choice,” and I think asking why people would want to play out these difficult scenarios is more interesting than the scenarios themselves.
Is Batman still the hero Gotham needs? Who determined that he was in the first place? How much effect does his privilege have on this choice and his subsequent actions?
Does Gotham need Batman? Is Gotham what Bruce needs to feel like he has control over his life? What made Scott Snyder’s Batman run interesting was these questions he posed but we haven’t really dug deep enough into those ideas. It would be interesting to see Bruce truly self-reflect on his privilege and to see writers reassess what it means to “fight crime” especially when the law and justice don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye. Who are the people engaging in street crime and why?
What is Bruce Wayne’s role? I used to be a fan of the idea that Bruce Wayne is the real mask and not Batman but then I thought about it some more. It would mean that the identity with the power to make lasting change is the facade that exists to help keep “Batman” going.
Batman currently has a no killing rule, but he regularly commits felony crimes that would have him locked up for as long as a murderer. Does the fact that he is committing these crimes in the name of justice justify them? Is he permitted to get away with too much?
Batman is a vigilante so his existence is illegal and that’s mostly because of the lack of oversight. He answers to himself and decides what’s right or wrong. The assumption is that Batman will always make the right choice but in quite a few stories, we’ve seen how much the violence can get away from him. The real question is what type of crime is he prioritizing and what is he doing as Bruce Wayne with regards to criminal justice reform. But yeah. Batman’s face gets prime real-estate on the GCPD corkboard.
Batman has definitely killed in the past (check out Rosie Knight’s article, Does Batman Really Have a ‘No Killing’ Rule?, at IGN) but the “no killing” version of Batman has definitely dominated his stories.
Wonder Woman does kill, but her moral code is grounded in empathy and justice that she balances with her work as an ambassador of peace etc. Superman does not kill, but his moral code seems to focus on working with and respecting authority. How does Batman’s code compare within the trinity?
Batman is more skeptical than Superman with regards to authority figures (see The Dark Knight Returns) and is, in most iterations, more rigid where killing is concerned compared to Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is more of a warrior and engages in battle when diplomacy fails and kills when she sees she has no choice. Superman, like Batman, creates lines for himself but in Superman’s case, it’s because he has this wealth of responsibility as someone with godlike powers. Superman’s abilities allow him to save lives on a scale that we’re not equipped to do (i.e. evacuating people during a natural disaster, saving a plane that’s falling etc). For Superman, it’s a matter of, “Oh, damn. This guy is so powerful. What happens when he decides to use his powers to hurt instead of help?”
Is it fair to say, given the escalating violence of comics writing today, that Batman has not killed anyone, even if unintentionally? Is it fair to bind the character to “he doesn’t kill” as a defining trait?
You want Batman to kill, fine but it’s got to make sense. I’m not a fan of just having someone casually killing bad guys and calling them a superhero. If you’re going to have Batman kill, you’re going to make that sit with him.
If he’s killed someone unintentionally, it should be shown on the page and dealt with. I understand that the level of violence we’re seeing in superhero media would mean a death in the real world but it’s one of those things where we gotta suspend our disbelief. That’s not to say we can’t critique and pose these questions! I just think it would be far more interesting to have someone explore that critique on the page.
I’m not team “Batman never kills.” I used to be but not anymore. You want Batman to kill, fine but it’s got to make sense. I’m not a fan of just having someone casually killing bad guys and calling them a superhero. If you’re going to have Batman kill, you’re going to make that sit with him. We don’t need another Punisher. We don’t need superheroes and vigilantes deciding who gets to live and die, and we shouldn’t be okay with killing people who’ve broken the law.
Thank you, Ardo, for sharing your thoughts on the Dark Knight. Stay tuned for more deep dives into our writers’ favourite characters.