10 October 2010

Can Batman Change the World for the Better?

This week invincible superblogger Chris Sims discussed the Robin phenomenon at Comics Alliance (leaving out Stephanie Brown, and immediately getting called on it).

Sims wrote:

Robin — specifically Dick Grayson — represents one of the most important aspects of Batman’s character, in that it shows just how much he's able to change the world. . . .

Bruce and Dick start at the same place — between the dead bodies of their parents, taken from them by crime and chance through no fault of their own — but because he’s taken in by someone who has been there and fought through it, Dick ends up at a dramatically different place. For all the fact that he’s surrounded himself with a network of sidekicks and has been a member of the Justice League for decades, Bruce is still characterized as grim and alone, but Dick? Dick’s no less driven or skilled, no less devoted to battling crime and injustice, but he's also happy.
Sims’s essay includes this panel from Batman, #700, which many comics analysts have used to illustrate the contrast between Bruce Wayne as Batman and Dick Grayson as Batman. Dick acts friendly to Officer Bailey, remembering his name and family situation. The Bruce Wayne of the last twenty years would offer a brusque comment at most. (Of course, the Bruce Wayne of 1945-1985 would also have remembered Officer Bailey’s name, possibly from the singalong at the precinct’s last holiday party. The character has changed greatly over the years.)

There’s something about that panel that I haven’t seen Sims or any other interpreter mention. As Batman fans with better memories than I noted, it fits with references in Batman, #666, and a later story in #700 to trace the life of Max Bailey, the wheelchair-bound policeman’s son. In the future that scripter Grant Morrison is dealing out card by card, that boy appears to grow up to be a supervillain named Max Roboto.

In that future, Dick Grayson has met an unspecified but terrible fate, and Damian Wayne has taken over as Batman—an even nastier Batman than the recent Bruce Wayne. He kills bad guys. Any kind of bad guys. He may or may not remember police officer’s names, but if they’ve been turned into Jokerzombies he uses satellite lasers to zap them dead. He defeats Max Roboto and leaves the formerly wheelchair-bound child to be eaten alive by mutant rats. Even though Dick Grayson was friendly to the guy’s dad.

In other words, the Max Roboto storyline suggests that—unlike Bruce Wayne’s Batman, as Sims describes him—Dick Grayson’s Batman doesn’t change the world for the better. Despite his efforts and friendliness, it gets worse. Dick might save Damian by making him Robin, as the Batman and Robin magazine suggests, but he can’t preserve Batman’s ideal in Damian’s hands. Gotham becomes a less nice place despite having had a nice Batman.

And that should worry everyone, not just Robin fans.

COMING UP: Robins and the problem of the future.


Anonymous said...

According to most canon, though, Bruce doesn't "change the world for the better" either. It's really common nowadays for people to point out that Bruce seems to make things worse too!

A.C.K. said...

Scott Snyder, who is taking over Detective (Let us note, this is the actual birthplace of Batman), has said Gotham will change to reflect the new Batman. Which doesn't mean, a nicer, happier Gotham, just one that presents challenges more suited to nearly-beating one.

And to play realsies... Morrison can't stay in charge of the Batchise forever. No future is worth worrying about.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, since The Dark Knight Returns or so, there’s a meme that Batman actually makes Gotham worse by attracting crazy criminals. So the good Bruce does for some people is outweighed or at least balanced by the greater harm others cause. (Of course, Batman wasn’t responsible for the earthquake, contagion, and other catastrophes that befell the city.)

In the case of Dick and Officer Bailey, however, I sensed his fans being excited about this nicer kind of Batman. Is he thus also a better Batman? In this specific case, Dick’s niceness doesn’t appear to lead to a better outcome, alas.

J. L. Bell said...

Since Grant Morrison’s Batman and Batman and Robin issues are considered “in continuity” (unlike The Dark Knight Returns), his colleagues and successors will be expected to stay reasonably close to what he’s written. Expected by whom? Readers first of all, and then editors trying to please those readers. I’m not sure, however, whether the future of Damian as Batman that we’ve seen in Batman, #666 and 700, and a couple of other places is now official or simply one possibility.

DC often offers glimpses of potential futures or alternate futures (as in “Titans of Tomorrow” and Robin 3000). There’s a “canonical” future including the Legion of Super-Heroes—but there have been at least three versions of that future, as the company recently acknowledged.

When I write about Dick Grayson’s future, however, I’m not writing just about a particular future, but more about what Dick represents as the DC Universe’s oldest and most famous symbol of growing up. If life doesn’t get better for Dick Grayson, then symbolically it doesn’t get better, period.

A.C.K. said...

I'm not sure if you read GM's X-men run, but the next authors on the book took it rampantly and aggressively away from the directions Morrison had established. You never can tell what fans and publishers will welcome.

Anonymous said...

Morrison showed how easily it is to undo such things in his X-Men run, by showing the pivotal moment which would change one future into another and then having something change the outcome of that moment. He changed a future where the X-Men split up and the world fell apart, to one where they didn't, simply by having Cyclops say "Yes" instead of "No" at a pivotal juncture. (Phoenix was involved, but the principle applies)

All that needs to happen here is for a younger Damian to somehow see the damage that his future self would cause, and decide to take the TRUE heroic path, and sacrifice himself to prevent that future from happening. That would also show that he truly had learned something from Dick, the most important lessons of heroism; putting others first, and making whatever sacrifices are necessary, no matter the personal cost. Though I suspect that Bruce returning through time-travel might be more likely to be involved in destroying the timeline which might have happened if he hadn't returned.

Also, it seems a bit much to automatically lay any "blame" for Max Roboto on Dick, it may have been something that DAMIAN did after Dick was gone which sent him down the path to villainhood, or it most likely was nothing to do with Dick or Damian, and so it would have happened anyway.

J. L. Bell said...

No one has yet suggested that the magazines show Max Roboto coming about because of what Dick Grayson does as Batman. I’m saying they show that villain, and the dismal future in which he appears, coming about despite how Dick Grayson behaves as a different sort of Batman.

Of course it’s possible that the future shown in Batman, #666 and 700, and now apparently in an issue of Superman/Batman, can turn out to be one of many alternative futures. In fact, storytelling almost requires outcomes to be open to ensure that characters’ choices matter.

Nevertheless, when everyone’s so excited about seeing a “nice Batman,” it would be more reassuring if that Batman were linked to a better future than what the “canonical” magazines are showing.

Furthermore, adult Damian’s final encounters with Max Roboto and the Jokerzombie police now appear to be intimately tied to his rescue of baby Terry, and thus to the comics version of Batman Beyond (which is working through its own Dick Grayson issues, of course). Again, it’s always possible for DC to create a different future. But that’s not what the magazines show now. It’s all bound up together, and there’s a grim stretch ahead.

A.C.K. said...

Wait. I'm pretty sure the baby in 700 isn't Terry?

J. L. Bell said...

Okay, an alternative interpretation! By “alternative” I mean that most Batman fans on the ’net appear to believe that Damian is shown rescuing Terry as a baby.

I think there’s a little ambiguity, and of course comic-book physics and biology and alternative futures produce a lot of wiggle room. So how do you read the later pages of that issue?