I am not versed in psychology or psychiatry. I couldn’t even really tell you the difference. So don’t look at this as a psychological deep dive into the denizens of Gotham City. I’m not even sure that’s the right approach to take to get a good superhero story but it could be pulled off by the right writer. I’m also just learning the importance of the archetype by following storytelling commentators who give tips in this area. Therefore, take what you’re about to read in the proper context: someone who grew up reading and watching Batman stories since maybe seven years old.
If Superman From The Thirties To The Seventies was the book I borrowed most from the local library then Batman From The Forties To The Seventies is probably the second most often borrowed book. Both collected random stories from the decades as the title suggests. It’s where I saw how Superman and Batman’s official first meeting in comics happened. Longtime readers know that Batman #307 was one of my first three comics. I watched reruns of the 60s live-action series, the Filmation series (the second of which I saw when it first aired on Saturday mornings), Superfriends, the Tim Burton movie, and by the time I was an adult we had the DCAU, Batman: The Brave & The Bold, and that other early year story called The Batman that was on Kids WB. I’ve seen so many stories about Batman and the “Bat-Family” that I think I have a good idea what these characters are like, many of whom predate my existence in this world, and certainly predate the people who write them now.
With that, let’s talk obsession. While not necessarily the intended theme of the Gotham City residents we follow the topic does come up constantly, and not just because so many of Batman’s rogues gallery are psychologically damaged. It’s a part of the structure of stories set in this city. However, each character follows it in their own way. The common element here however is that the villains embrace their obsessions while the heroes, in contrast to how they’re written by writers like Tom King who seem to love writing psychologically damaged people, are actually about NOT being obsessed.
Let’s start with the villains. Splitting this into two parts still wouldn’t give me a chance to go over every villain, even ignoring one-shots like Limehouse Jack. If you know who that is, thank you for your years of reading because he’s from that comic I bring up so often in Batman discussions. Each of Batman’s villains are either born from or driven by obsession. The Joker is obsessed with chaos and showmanship. Harley Quinn is obsessed with the Joker, even when they fight, but even in the times she’s out of his influence she’s obsessed with finding love and acceptance. The Joker’s madness may have something to do with the acid bath that made him, losing all sense of self-control. (This is a dude who wore his own face as a mask.) In Harley’s case we’ve seen her as a stuffy psychologist with a different obsession, understanding the mind of evil. Perhaps she had denied her desire for love in pursuit of her career and the Joker, because “crazy” people are “clever” too, picked up on that and twisted her for his own ends. It’s their mutual obsession that keeps putting them back together despite it clearly being an abusive relationship for Harley and the Joker’s plans sometimes spoiled by Harley’s obsessions for love, including her pet hyenas or her friendship/budding romance (pun totally intended) with Poison Ivy.
Then you have the rest of the gallery. The Riddler, in contrast to Matt Reeves’ unrelated The Batman movie (it’s sad that the show’s Riddler is more accurate given his odd character model), is obsessed with puzzles and games. He has killed but unlike the Joker it’s not part of his obsession unless he’s in revenge mode. Edward Nygma isn’t even obsessed with proving he’s smarter than everyone else in the room. He wants the challenge of overcoming a smarter foe because he’s in it for the lols. One of my favorite Batman stories (based in the DCAU) is where the Riddler tries to prove he’s reformed by leaving clues to find other criminals–only to subconsciously include clues to his own wearabouts. Of all of Batman’s foes, Edward is probably the one who most wants to become sane and go legit. In main continuity he even tried his hand at being a crimefighter. Yes, even Selina Kyle is not as willing to give up crime as Edward, she’s just better at it because of her love for Batman. She’s more obsessed with her independence but she’s trying to work through it.
You have the various Clayfaces, each with their own obsessions. One is forced to kill because of a biological need, others because of psychological issues, and others because of a search for a cure. In one continuity he’s even a cop looking for justice. Scarecrow is obsessed with learning all he can about fear and has no concern for the well-being of others because he wants the best result of his experiments. Some of his crimes are really part of the neverending experiment. Mr. Freeze is obsessed with not dying. In his original origin he was a criminal doused by chemicals during a botched theft. Whether Batman is involved or not Freeze apparently doesn’t want to be locked up and tested, even when he’s actually a doctor himself. Thanks to the DCAU the canon origin is now Freeze trying to cure his wife Nora so he can release her from suspended hibernation without her dying. On their own these interests wouldn’t be a bad thing, but obsession has driven them to madness and murder, and even their own death in certain versions.
Now compare this with the heroes of Gotham. If the villains are an example of embracing obsession then the heroes are the opposite. They are not obsessed, they’re driven, or determined, but they aren’t defined by their obsessions. The best example comes from the various Robins. Dick Grayson was literally created by National Comics, the company that would later rebrand as DC Comics, to draw Bruce from the edge. Dick himself has tried to quit being a superhero more than once, only to be drawn back either as Robin, Nightwing, or on some occasions as Batman. Tim fulfills the same role of keeping Batman from going over the edge, taking on the identity because Batman needs a Robin. Damian Wayne isn’t the counter to obsession but still fulfills that role to Bruce. Yet it was Dick during his time as Nightwing that made him Robin in order to curb the more deadly tendencies one gets for having Ra’s Al Ghul as your grandfather and instructor. With Bruce he tries to find his own humanity and gives Bruce a new venue to follow that same path. The exception is the post-Crisis version of Jason Todd, who paid the price for letting his desires override his common sense, which he does now as the Red Hood as the only member of the family to regularly kill criminals. And yet he stays a part of the team, and even at times agrees not to kill during joint missions, because he still wants to be part of this group. There may be hope for him yet, or would if characters would be allowed to evolve.
Then you have the Batgirls. I don’t really know Betty Kane that much so I can’t speak about her. Barbara on the other hand is the daughter of the police commissioner who realized after a series of events that she liked being a superhero and helped out. Eventually she decided the best way to help Gotham was to serve as the senator for that district and went to Congress, which is what everyone forgets. Prior to the events of The Killing Joke Barbara was not Batgirl. When she was paralyzed due to the Joker’s obsession of the week (trying to prove all anyone needs is one bad day to turn bad, in keeping with the origin in his head that week) she instead became Oracle, the researcher for the Gotham guardians and founder of the Birds Of Prey, a team of Gotham’s lady heroes who operated apart from the Bat-Family for the most part. She has a desire to help others but isn’t obsessed with one particular way to do it. She has a healthy way of going through it.
That takes us to Cassandra Cain, the character I feel needs the identity most, though she has created her own when nostalgia led to Barbara being Batgirl again. Frankly I feel that’s a step backwards in her character development. Cass on the other hand is born from obsession but that very obsession caused her to run away from it. Her father was so obsessed with creating the perfect assassin that he somehow convinced Lady Shiva to put a baby in her, then raised her without the ability to speak or read. Instead he used those areas of the brain so she could read her opponent and be able to counter a move as they were making it. This backfired when she was able to read the death throes of her first target, leading her away from obsession, instead taking the path of Batman by not killing. At least under a good writer.
Stephanie Brown on the other hand is the only member of the team apart from Jason most struggling with obsession. She became the Spoiler to stop her father, the Cluemaster (a low-rent Riddler and game show host turned criminal), from committing crimes. Then she was obsessed with proving herself to Batman, only to cause chaos in Gotham by not understanding a contingency plan Bruce had and trying it out to show her worth. This got her killed until it didn’t as the fans demanded her return, though DC’s solution to their mistake ended up ruining another character, Leslie Thompkins. She still has issues, like betraying the whole group when she thought Tim was dead and wanting to “save” her other friends by forcing them out of the life, but she is trying, which is still anti-obsession at least in goals.
Which of course brings us to Batman himself. Is Batman as obsessed as the villains he fights?
NO HE @#$%#$%# ISN’T AND THEY NEED TO STOP @#$%$#% WRITING HIM THAT WAY!
Batman does not “need his pain”, he isn’t crazy because he runs around in a costume beating criminals up, and he doesn’t see his allies as “soldiers” or tools for his war on crime turning into an actual war! I’m so sick of seeing this garbage! Batman is driven by what happened to his parents, but his goal is to see that nobody else suffers as that child in Crime Alley did all those years ago. He wears the costume as an edge, scaring the criminals to the point that they make mistakes like not shooting him, or being too scared to properly fight him. It’s also why he employs ninja-style shadow tactics. As far as treating his team as soldiers or trying to make them obsessed with the war on crime…
Bruce doesn’t want anyone to become like him. Remember, that’s why he dresses up as a bat and runs around. He doesn’t want Dick or Tim to be like him, and is actively trying to bring Damian from the dark side. Yes, of all of them he is probably the most driven. However, being Batman isn’t his only outlet. Through Wayne Enterprises and his family fortune and clout Bruce works to rise Gotham from the darkness. He both gives and runs charities for orphans to help them grow up and out of the streets, to the police to hire less corruptible police officers and given them the gear they need to handle crime in Gotham, and to other groups looking to make the place better. He’s even given jobs to some of the thugs he’s beaten up, in the hopes that getting work after leaving prison will keep them from returning to crime and perhaps finding a better way to live. He’s not out there to beat criminals up to satiate a child’s rage against a mugger, he’s trying to build a better Gotham City because he loves this city and the people in it.
I heard there was a Batman story recently where Bruce refused to solve a case because he considered the victim a lowlife. Yet, look at this scene from Batman #307. “When start making value judgements, deciding who’s important enough to avenge it’ll be time to hang up my mask forever.” Batman is a crusader of life. He may be vengeance and the night, but he is willing to show compassion as we see later in the same story when he shows it to the murderer, who was actually trying to kill him seconds ago.
Batman beating people up for information is against the character I grew up with and who existed before I knew what a bat was. He wants to help, to make lives better for everyone. He’s not afraid to pound some villain into sleepytime but it’s not the goal. He does stare into the abyss but he surrounds himself with people who pull him back from it. What happened to him shaped his destiny but in the end he still lived by what his parents had taught him, what Alfred continued to teach him, about being human. When Jim Gordon, beaten and forced to watch his daughter on the ground after being shot by the Joker, tells him to bring Joker in by the book, to prove he’s wrong about one bad day Batman goes along with it. One bad night is what created the Batman, but the identity is just another tool in his arsenal, like his utility belt or the stuff in his Batcave. The people he knows are not. Yes he has issues with getting close to people and trusting them but when he does he’s a good and loyal friend. The man is on at least three different teams minimum at any given point whether it’s the various branches of the Justice League, the Outsiders, or his own Bat-Family, all times where more often than not he works with the authorities not run by Amanda Waller or some other clueless jackass.
And yes, Bruce does smile now and then. He does make a joke on occasion. I once bought into the notion that Bruce is the reverse of Clark Kent, that the superhero identity is the “real him” and the secret identity is the “mask”. I’ve seen reassessed that. Clark is who he is and Bruce is who Batman really is. There is the Bruce Wayne that the public sees and the Bruce Wayne that he really is but Batman is a personality, it’s a mindset. It’s the same way that “Troy A.” represents my creative side and “ShadowWing Tronix” my more thoughtful mindset. It’s a name describing what mental mode I’m in but ShadowWing doesn’t define who I am as a person. It’s a name I took on the internet that evolved into what I use in comments and later articles to examine the topic at hand. That doesn’t make me Moon Knight, it just means I have more than one mode, and the same goes for Public Bruce, Private Bruce, and Batman Bruce.
We also see it in one of Bruce’s more famous replacements, Terry McGuiness. He took the Batsuit to get the man that killed his father, but he was a punk headed down the wrong path. Being Batman gave him a better purpose, turned him away from his own anger, and rather than being obsessed with the rage he felt after his parents’ divorce that led him to almost ending up arrested became a good man who fought to protect others. Like Cassandra with Batgirl, Terry needed to become Batman to become a better person, to resist obsession. Being driven is good, but being obsessed is an extreme that will destroy you. This is why the Bat-Family wins and the rogues lose.
It’s possible you all think I’m talking out of my backside here, or the running around and crazed sleep cycle is messing with me. I’m curious what others think on this subject but to me the Gotha villains represent obsession to the fullest degree while the Gotham heroes represent a more tempered impulse to follow what they feel is the right thing to do. The heroes are not as screwed up as the villains. Somehow the folks jumping on rooftops in animal-themed spandex are the saniest people in the story. Except for Alfred. Alfred’s just awesome.