“An Arrogant, Aristocratic Batman?”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 13

Panel from 1997’s JLA #4, By Morrison, Porter, Dell et al

Continued from last week.

But how were Morrison and Millar to explain away the Batman’s aloof and frequently contemptuous attitude towards even his fellow super-heroes? If the Dark Knight was to be cut away from the slightest taint of psychological disorder, then his apparently pathological lack of the social graces needed to be explained away. How to allow the character to stay manipulative, distant and even disdainful without reinforcing the Batman’s reputation as a deeply wounded and fundamentally dysfunctional victim?

Instead of his childhood trauma serving as the source of the character’s intimidating and demanding manner, Millar suggested a far more prosaic explanation; class. Bruce Wayne was, in this shrewd reworking of the mythos, an “arrogant aristocrat” who treated “his team-mates as though they were his manservants”. (*1) It was a nimble-minded explanation which drew from the two men’s distinctly British sensibilities. American creators in the superhero tradition have mostly – if not exclusively – tended to skirt over matters of class beyond the most token of gestures.(*2) In particular, the suggestion that their more privileged superheroes might be anything other than identifiably everyday individuals has nearly always been avoided. The best of the rich, it seems, are pretty much indistinguishable in terms of culture and behaviour to everyone else.

Panel from 1999’s JLA #27 by Millar, Pajarillo, Wong, Alquiza et al

Ever since the Batman’s very first appearance, Bruce Wayne has frequently been portrayed as a purposefully designed front for his alter ego’s unwavering mission. Creators have often disagreed about whether it’s Wayne or the Dark Knight who’s the core personality, or whether some third, controlling persona is in charge of a series of useful roles. Yet the assumption has always been that the character has been shaped by his suffering rather than by any more prosaic and everyday influences. No matter how often Wayne was played as an apparently wealth-sodden and sybaritic playboy, it was always on the understanding that the character was in truth one of us, a typical and decent individual rendered extraordinary by circumstance and force of will. By contrast, both Morrison and – to an even greater extent – Millar had, as we’ve discussed, repeatedly displayed a fascination for class and class conflict.  Whether in the first issue of Morrison’s The Invisibles, in which schools are portrayed as a mechanism for crushing the spirits of working class children, or in Millar’s The Saviour, which worked as one long expression of contempt for the New Right, class was absolutely central to the story at hand. So it was for their version of the Batman, who was anything but an ideal of a socially uncontaminated crime-fighter who just happened to have born into a life of absolute privilege,

That the two men were working from a shared understanding of the Batman’s nature as an amusingly offensive snob can be seen from a comment made by Morrison to Matthew Brady in the very same year as Millar’s JLA profiles;

“(The Batman) …feels superior to every single one of (the JLA), because he basically knows he is. He’s the aristocrat of the superheroes – he’s been brought up with money and knows he’s the most gifted human being on the plane. He’s almost so arrogant, it’s unbelievable….” (*3)

panel from 1998’s JLA 80-Page Giant, by Millar, Jones, Stegbauer et al

As such, their Batman wasn’t a force of nature who dispassionately used his inherited wealth, status and power as a tool in his crimefighting. Instead, both Bruce Wayne and his costumed identity were elitist to the core. Though the Dark Knight was undeniably fighting for justice for everyone, his personality had been decisively shaped by his class as well as his anguish. So appallingly fixed in his imperious ways was this particular Bruce Wayne that, according to Millar, he even “irritated” the characteristically genial and forgiving Wonder Woman;

“Their relationship is strained, as is common when Royalty meets Wealth.” (*4)

It’s an understanding of Wayne that was made most obvious in Millar’s The Bigger They Come, a fill-in issue of the JLA which appeared in 1999. (*5) In a scene which made explicit that which Morrison had previously tended to leave as sub-text, Millar depicted a brief Tokyo meeting between Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and J’onn J’onzz, who’s disguised as one Hino Rei. Almost immediately upon arrival, Wayne haughtily declares that he’s “only got an eighteen minute window in my diary, so I’d recommend we get down to business straight away”. It’s a shocking presumptuousness on Wayne’s part that helps to make the scene a particularly enjoyable one, although there were critics at the time who thought that his behaviour throughout the interlude was all-too untypical and “playful”. (*6)

This three page sequence also showed how far Millar’s writing skills had developed since his debut for DC in 1994’s Swamp Thing #140. Although his understanding of Japanese proved fallible, his script was otherwise packed with invention and marked by a consistent control of characterisation and script dynamics. (*7) Though undoubtedly informed by his close working relationship with Morrison, the script was also quite different from the older man’s work on the JLA title. Denser in its script and less fascinated by super-people as symbols rather than individuals, Millar’s story expressed a warmer and more conventional approach. If that made it less inventive, daring and surprising than Morrison’s work, it also lent Millar’s tale an undeniable and distinctive warmth. Unlike Morrison’s version of the JLA-as-Gods, Millar’s version felt enticingly human, and it was that which, for all the absence of intellectual pyrotechnics, lent his fill-in its considerable charm. Though Morrison was undoubtedly still serving as the apprentice’s master, The Bigger They Come showed how well-judged, controlled and individual Millar’s work had become.

To be continued.


*1:- :- pg 60, Batman, by Mark Millar, 1997’s JLA Secret Files And Origins

*2:- It’s a sweeping statement which doesn’t mean to suggest that class hadn’t frequently been referred to in the American super-book. Yet, it’s also true that the subject was, in the greater scheme of themes, mostly ignored and generally touched upon only in the broadest of broad brushstrokes.

*3:- pg 54, Just Us Leaguers, Grant Morrison interviewed by Matthew Brady, 1997’s Wizard JLA Special

*4:- pg 60, Batman, by Mark Millar, 1997’s JLA Secret Files And Origins

*5:- The Bigger They Come, script Mark Millar, JLA #27, 1999

*6:- Google Groups discussion from 1999:- Jesse: “…the smirking, somewhat playful personality we saw Bruce Wayne demonstrate in that scene with J’onn and Clark seemed rather different not only from how he’s portrayed in the Bat-books but how he usually acts behind the mask in JLA. I wonder if this was just due to the different writers or if Mark Millar really imagines Bruce’s personality as being different this way when he’s not in costume
(but is with fellow heroes).”


*7:- It’s worth reading Millar’s explanation of how his research had begun and ended at a Japanese restaurant in Glasgow:- https://groups.google.com/forum/#!searchin/rec.arts.comics.dc.universe/mark$20millar/rec.arts.comics.dc.universe/kqENC_ZyIN0/O9zfQV4Hs8UJ

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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Also by Colin Smith:

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