Three Surrogate Wise Men:

The Father Figures of the Batman

Many of our comic book heroes are orphans. As a writer, it’s easier to write exclusively about a solitary figure. The character is controlled and is focused on his or her life and mission and not how they interact to the people that they’re related to. The New 52 made Superman a twice-orphan, keeping his expulsion from Krypton the same but killing of his adoptive parents Ma and Pa Kent. He was raised with the all-American values as before but with the loss of the Kents he is once again completely alone. Readers can see the same type kind of strategy used in young adult novels by writers such as S.E Hinton, where the parents of the teenagers are dead or lost or even on an extended vacation. Writers have been using this parental disappearing act for years and it’s not going to change. Batman is very much the poster boy for this strategy, having lost his parents to murder at an early age. In light of this tragedy, he traveled the world training to become the pinnacle of human mental and physical perfection and in the process he became invested in a number of different father figures that gave shape to the man he would become.

The first man to examine has appeared in the New 52 in Detective Comics #0 during the years that Bruce Wayne had vanished from Gotham City.  His name was Shihan Matsuda inconveniently located somewhere in the Himalayan Mountains. From this man, Bruce wanted to learn to further his martial art skills but also to control his body with complete mastery and precision. In addition, this training would purge love and joy from his life to make himself an instrument of protection and justice (very Vulcan stuff). The reader can see in the dialogue that Bruce wants to impress Shihan, after slicing a few flying coconuts with a sword he even states, “At last you are proud of me, Shihan.” This need for approval is very much out of character for the Bruce Wayne readers know and enjoy. Bruce’s emotional investment is demonstrated even more in the dinner scene that shows Bruce sharing a meal with Shihan and his wife. In this scene we see the Shihan pay Bruce a back handed compliment by stating that Bruce was (after nine months of training) making progress. Slow progress. It is this moment that Bruce volunteers the information that being there in Himalayas with Shihan and his wife was the first place that had felt like a home. Bruce goes a step further by stating that Shihan is like a father to him and Shihan’s wife (Sama) is like a mother. This is a rare occurrence to see Bruce Wayne so emotionally open.

After Bruce makes this uncharacteristic confession, Shihan gets up and firmly tells Bruce that they are not his parents and walks off. The panels are abrupt and matter-of-fact. Essentially what the reader sees here is this father figure rejecting Bruce’s need for a male role model. It can be argued that Bruce is starting his training and is not yet the man we are familiar with. In addition, it is this moment that starts the trend of keeping those he cares for at a distance. Batman is famous for this. During his career, Batman has been called cold-hearted by several members of the Bat-Family. Batman’s emotional dissonance has ruined many of his relationships both platonic and romantic. For years, Batman has been considered to be obsessive and sometimes self-destructive in regards to the emotional human tendencies that most people experience. Instead of a girlfriend, Batman has Catwoman. Instead of a workout buddy, he has Bane.

It should be noted that in the current story arcs, Batman is very much at ease and comfortable with the emotions he has for his Bat-family, especially in regards to Damian. Perhaps Batman has grown and made room for his mission and his family. He is so comfortable in fact that the Joker has come back to rid Batman of his allies because they have made him “soft” and “slow”.  This assertion by the Joker himself implies that at one time Batman was hard in an emotionally cold-hearted sort of way.  It could be asserted that the father figure of Shihan has been made responsible for Batman’s infamous cold demeanor.

The second father figure in the New 52 to look at is Henri Ducard. According to Batman & Robin #4, Henri Ducard was the last person to train Bruce Wayne on his path to Batman. Henri Ducard was a father figure to Bruce in the most basic of ways, he taught Bruce a skill. Bruce located Henri to teach him to be a man-hunter. It makes logical sense that he would need this skill in addition to forensic and detective knowledge. These teachings that Bruce received were not without a cost. He had to pay large sums to train under Henri. Bruce would also work and train along with Henri’s son Morgan Ducard (later to become Nobody). One of the interesting things about this particular experience compared to Shihan is that Bruce was not seeking any sort of approval from Henri. However, due to Bruce’s talent and progress he outshined Morgan. Morgan Ducard then found himself comparing his own worth and talent to Bruce.

While Bruce learned many things about tracking and hunting criminals, he caused a rift in the relationship between Henri and Morgan Ducard. After a disagreement, Henri ordered Morgan to kill Bruce. Morgan fails to carry out this task and Bruce throws Morgan on Henri’s desk broken and barely alive. This moment is the catalyst for Morgan’s hatred for Bruce and the vengeance he takes out on Damian Wayne.

Unlike the emotional investment Bruce put into Shihan, he took what he needed from Henri coldly. This father figure situation was based on a need that Bruce had; the need to further his skills. Henri wanted money and let his greed dictate many of his own decisions. Morgan Ducard saw Bruce’s progress as a reflection of his own short comings and believed that Bruce wanted Henri to regard him as a son. Morgan was wrong.

While Bruce sat in the same position as Morgan as a student and/or disciple he never sought out to replace Morgan as a son. The reader can see Morgan’s logic insomuch that Henri treated them the same in the panels where all three men were present in the Batman & Robin story arc.  By the end of their time together Bruce acquired all he needed from the Ducards. With his skill set now complete, Bruce went back to Gotham.

Finally, we have the last and most obvious father figure of Alfred Pennyworth. The butler. The nurturer. The teacher. Readers know that Alfred is Batman’s most trusted of his allies. After the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne it was Alfred Pennyworth who took custody of Bruce Wayne. Bruce promised that he would have vengeance. He spent his entire life preparing for his oncoming battles. And while it would be more logical to try and talk Bruce out of this obsession, Alfred instead ends up supporting it. Alfred is the embodiment of both parental units in Bruce Wayne’s social schema. He guides a young Bruce into manhood and he also takes on the nurturing role that is commonly associated with mother characters.

Bruce Wayne travelled the world learning, fighting, suffering, and overcoming, often leaving Alfred for long periods of time without a single word of explanation. Alfred would not even know if Bruce was even alive but he kept the faith, so to speak, and continued to have things prepared for Bruce’s return. Alfred Pennyworth not only continued to stay in a position of occupational servitude, but instead of leaving to go back to his favored life on stage performing the classics of Shakespeare, he stayed and raised a child that he has no biological claim to whatsoever. No matter how alone Bruce thought he might be or how dark his cowl might become, Alfred has been and will be there to pull him back from the brink. Mr. Pennyworth has sacrificed his own future: returning to England, normality excluding a batcave, biological children with a woman he loves, etc., etc. to keep Bruce Wayne from spiraling into the abyss he so casually wades in.

In the pre-New 52 DC Universe, Alfred put it out for the reader to see clearly. During the aftermath in which Bruce Wayne had been “killed” by Darkseid, the Bat-family is in disarray. There is a moment where the Justice League asks how Alfred is, he responds by saying, “My son is dead.” This is a powerful and important moment. Alfred is showing how he processed the relationship between himself and Bruce and it goes well beyond being the kindly butler. Beyond loyal compatriot. He raised Batman. He is Bruce Wayne’s father.

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Nathan J. Harmon is a graduate of Missouri State University and teaches English in southwest Missouri

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