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Friday, June 30, 2006

Batman Unmasked 

Messrs Wayne and Grayson will be at home ...

Batman is a difficult character, but he is the real person, and not Bruce Wayne. I can't remember ever thinking that there was any "Bruce Wayne". Unlike Clark kent, who is obviously the feckless begetter of his fantasy antithesis, "Bruce Wayne" is Batman's fantastic and ill-informed idea of what a healthy individual might be: "Bruce Wayne", head of "Wayne Industries", a socialite who hobnobs with society dames. He can buy anything he wants. "That's what I'd be", thinks Batman, "if I didn't have to be Batman. And I'd have like a butler and everything, and a place to hide the batmobile, probably a cave that would be underneath my mansion. Yeah." There's a lot of unrealistic stuff about "Bruce Wayne"—the pipe-and-slippers cosiness of mornings at the Wayne mansion, the undemanding presence of "Dick Grayson" (not, I think, an erotic figure but more a companion, like a Tintin's dog Snowy)—but it's all in Batman's head, and so are the villains.

Eli commented on the villains a while back: "My theory is that their unusually cartoonish funhouse-mirror insanity is a reflection of Batman's own madness." I would even go further and say that the Joker and the Riddler are nagging voices that Batman hears. They're always laughing at him or confounding him with nonsense. The Penguin, however, is something else. He's not really any kind of penguin; that's just his nickname. His identity comes fom his clothing. He wears a top hat, cutaway, watered-silk waistcoat, striped tousers and spats, a bit like somebody's idea of a wealthy industrialist. But the image breaks down, as fantasy images do, with the details of the cigarette-holder and the umbrella. A real mogul would enjoy a cigar after dinner, or perhaps Turkish cigarettes, but I doubt he would be seen going around with a cigarette-holder, like some gossip columnist or Theosophist. And nobody of that rank carries an umbrella; that's what doormen and flunkies are for. In any case, if the Penguin were really from a rich family with some pretension to class, he would probably be eager to dress like a genuine criminal wherever indicated, perhaps even ordering a good supply of expensive criminal clothes every season. So who is he?

I think that he is meant to be a mockery of Batman's own "Bruce Wayne" fantasy. Batman himself undermines his "Bruce Wayne" ideal with this revolting and vulgar caricature. His great struggle is to remain unaware of this, and that's also why the Riddler and the Joker (who are trying to give him valuable clues) have to be kept at bay.

Batman, of course, wears a mask, and masks can be taken to do the opposite of what they are purported to do: they conceal the wearer's identity from himself. Everyone knows who Batman is except Batman.


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