It’s not uncommon this time of year to hear the phrase “holiday cheer” being thrown around. It’s a nebulous saying, undefined, and passed around like an offering plate collecting alms for the poor. In our modern day context, whether lost in culture wars, or debated and quibbled over semantically, the idea of giving back naturally falls to this time of year. Part of this is sociological; we as a people travel this time of year for family gatherings, giving our time. Part of this is religious; the winter months are packed with the holy days of various faiths and practices, in which a day is commemorated in celebration of a great achievement buried in religious tradition. Lastly, part of this is existential; in the bleak autumn days we confront our mortality, ripped from our distractions for a brief sequence of harrowing thoughts that remind us that we too will no longer be here, only to be reminded that life goes on when the snow melts and spring comes. One of the most notable stories in Western European societies is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published at the birth of the Victorian Era of British history, in the fever pitch of the Industrial Revolution. The tale is synonymous with Christmas, well told and well known to many in British and American cultures, and has permeated the cultural membranes of nearly every generation from its point of inception over a hundred and fifty years ago. It has been adapted numerous times into all art forms ranging from film and television, to stage dramas, and even operas. More importantly, this tale was entered into the sequential art narrative November of 2011 as Batman: Noël, and was warmly received by critics and fans alike, all thanks to Dickens’ generational story about a man’s journey to redemption and empathy.
In order to understand the weight and power of Batman: Noël, one must understand the time and place in which Charles Dickens penned his work: notably, the sociological implications brought on by the rapid industrialization and commodification of goods that ushered in an age of prosperity for a select few at the expense of the masses. This was a period when raw goods, culled from far off locales like the West Indies, India, and the African nations, were imported en mass to large, urban cities, displacing local, grass roots industries. Britain was no exception as tens of thousands moved to London and other major cities to eke out a living for themselves, in hopes of gaining wealth in a time of agrarian decline in the countryside. The result generated tremendous wealth alongside tremendous despair. Child labor, gruesome on-site work accidents, and grueling work hours were commonplace then. Work conditions and the sheer volume of migrating citizens enhanced the dystopic social milieu to a point where debt and poverty exploded, creating slum cities within cities and generational poverty and crime. Throughout Batman: Noël, allusions to this not so distant past are obvious, comparing Gotham’s dingy government projects to Dickensian London. Within this social context, Lee Bermejo explores the Dark Knight’s interaction with the difficult and troubling dilemmas faced by the people that he has forgotten in his crusade against crime.
Victimization is a core theme of the comic, exploring the modern equivalent to those that packed the poor houses and debtors prisons of Victorian England. Bob, and his son Tim, are victims of a system, not flawed, or broken for that matter, that perpetuates poverty because of a lack of empathy for the downtrodden. Because of his lack of means, Bob’s motivation to provide for his son becomes a fearful race for survival, so he turns to crime to pay his rent and keep his boy well. Bob Cratchit, Dickens’ face of the struggling lower middle classes, is more well-off than the surname-less Bob of Bermejo’s work, but the adaptation is spot on with the new face of the poor that has arisen out of the American social systems, and British ones. Bermejo’s Bob is an unskilled laborer. He has no marketable talents and therefore can’t get a job. This is a problem of multiple factors. Cratchit, on the other hand, boasted at least a skill in bookkeeping, but was a victim of something different: labor displacement. An educated bookkeeper was in high demand in London at the time of rapid expansion. Every business required one to ensure the business met profit projections and kept unnecessary spending in check. Cratchit was probably one of tens of thousands of bookkeepers that flocked to London to meet the demand of the market, only this time there were too many, and the miserly Scrooge, whose shrewdness, or the shrewdness of those before him, was not willing to pay Cratchit enough to live on. Why would he need to? If Cratchit left, there would be a hundred more at Scrooge’s disposal to replace him.
Bob, the unskilled laborer, is a victim, and the irony that Batman would hound a victim is palpable. The young Bruce Wayne did not smoke crack to fall into misfortune; his parents were shot! Shot by a desperate man that was stealing to survive in a city with four seasons and a lamentable shortage of warm blankets. Tim Keller, a pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, nestled in downtown Manhattan, has written extensively on this conundrum faced by the poor and impoverished in his book Mercy Ministries: The Call of the Jericho Road. Though written primarily for social workers and other pastors, the book sheds light on the need for social systems and a better understanding of those in need in the first place. In the book he explains that there are oftentimes dozens of factors that bring about the poverty of others. A person isn’t just poor because they are lazy, he says, in sum; they are poor because they were raised in a home environment that was unstable, with limited access to better education, and without the hope of a better life. This systemic disenfranchisement causes them to turn to drugs or a life of crime to provide, just as Bob has in Bermejo’s adaptation of the Dickensian tale. Dickens accounts for the conservative mindset that favors more black and white interpretations of this social dilemma in the famous interaction between Cratchit and Scrooge, a scene in which Bermejo taps into frequently as Batman rationalizes his vicious pursuit of justice, like a businessman selling crime free streets as a commodity:
Cratchit: “At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
Scrooge: “Are there no prisons?”
C: “Plenty of prisons…”
S: “And the Union workhouses. […] Are they still in operation?”
C: “Both very busy, sir…”
S: “Those who are badly off must go there.”
C: “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
S: “If they would rather die […] they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Much attention in modern politics has been dedicated to hashing out the difference between the “righteous poor” and the “unrighteous poor,” with some calling for a revitalization of government programs to help offer the poor more options and means. What is interesting about Batman: Noël is that the “happy ending” is more in line with Keller’s views on rehabilitation than the average liberal sociologist. Here we see not the Batman, but Bruce Wayne, delivering Bob and his son Tim a Christmas tree, home repairs, a warm dinner, and a salaried, pensioned position at Wayne Enterprises. Wayne gives Bob stable infrastructure with a nest egg for Tim’s future, not a million dollars and a mansion. Throwing money at a poor neighborhood doesn’t solve social disparity, people do. And this is what the ending of Noël advocates. Generational poverty is a problem born from lacking empathy, and broken hearts, and through his journey as Scrooge, Batman is forced to see what his crusade has brought to Gotham. In the initial pages of the comic, there is much evidence that the Batman is responsible, if not more so, for the increased crime and class warfare that plague Gotham. His brute force and viciousness has engendered in Gotham a fight or flight mentality of classism: the good versus the bad. Batman’s final confrontation taps into what the entire comic has delved into throughout the visitation sequence of the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future: Nostalgia and a heartfelt rejection of comic book revisionism, which has driven the comic book narrative to its inevitable catharsis of anarchic fire and despair. Hope and Justice are the cornerstones of this comic, and provide the focus of attention for Batman’s rehabilitation.
Lee Bermejo’s end product is something that doesn’t come along too often in the world of licensed properties either. Back in the 60s and 70s, during the growing popularity of art comics, the artist and writer were commonly one and the same. The delineation of duties and positions to assembling a comic (penciler, inker, writer, letterer, etc.) is only an invention of recent memory, and the result is often what seems to be a bizarre animal sewn up and subjected to tricks and talents. Comics are pumped out, not unlike commodities of the Industrial Revolution, mechanically, in sequence, without raw emotion or feeling. The plots are there just to be there, as is the art and flare the comic produces. The fact that Lee Bermejo wrote and did the art for Noël makes his work all the more personal, and puts the reader back into the nostalgia of how comics used to be made. (There very fact that Bermejo was involved in the creative process at nearly every single level qualifies Batman: Noël as a true blue art comic.) Nevertheless, it is also a clever rejection of revisionism, because it was at the height of revisionism that comics changed the genre of comics from a medium existing to retell age old archetypical stories into a printing machine of fantastic, subversive stories that tapped into mankind’s bestial passions. The insatiable postmodern appetite for consumption overrode the joy of telling a story, and replaced it with escalating narratives of violence and suffering. While there is certainly merit to the new wave of comics that give readers real, human characters with pain and problems enough, Batman: Noël is proof that justice can come out from the shadows and into the light. Batman’s final exhortation to Bob is similar to the exchange between the Flash and Wonder Woman (from Season 2, Episodes 45 and 46 of Justice League) after it is believed that Toyman has killed Superman. Wonder Woman is ready to kill Toyman out of anger and vengeance, when the Flash stops her and says, “We don’t do that to our enemies,” to which she replies, “Speak for yourself.” Flash answers flatly, “I’m trying to speak for Superman.”
What Bermejo produces here encapsulates the spirit of the season, as least from the perspective of the mountain of social workers perched at every entry point of every mall, food store, and public office. Grace is the message that Batman must remember,himself being a product of the very same system that produced Bob and his son Tim. Batman must come to terms with himself as a social organism among many others in his pilgrimage over Christmas Eve, encountering past demons and future allies. More importantly, he must bring himself down from his philosophical perch of superiority and become a man again, to give back as a fellow citizen of Gotham and not an unstoppable spiritual force. In doing so, paradoxically, he becomes more of symbol than a man, and a greater one than the Batman. He becomes hope. And that is redeeming.