Superhero Accessories:

Part Three: Mo Bat-Money, Mo Bat-Problems

…continued from here.

It’s worth noting that the original Klan and the fictional KKK seen in The Birth of a Nation were both begun by young rich white guys who lived in mansions. The hero of the movie, Ben Cameron, the first to don the robes, is the son of a South Carolina estate owner. The first leader of the Klan was a former Confederate General, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and he was anointed at one of the group’s regular meetings at the swanky (albeit unfinished at the time) Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville. As originally envisaged, this was an organisation for rich white Southerners – they were the officer class in command of lower ranks. Historians argue whether the spiraling violence and bloodshed the KKK was responsible for was orchestrated by the officers or – as some of the officers later claimed – represented them losing control of their men.

Not every rich white guy was in the Ku Klux Klan, and there’s no reason to think the character of Bruce Wayne would ever have been politically sympathetic to them. The first Batman comics were for children, and in them, Bruce Wayne’s wealth is a backdrop. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro – and almost certainly because it’s directly lifting the idea from those characters – Bruce Wayne’s privileged background is mainly played to contrast the foppish ‘secret identity’ with the hardnosed hero he really is. Bruce Wayne, like Clark Kent, pretends to be wimpish and ineffective.

There have always been broad ‘political’ implications to the fact that Batman inherited his wealth. The hero of the Batman stories is, inescapably, a member of a white, male, privileged, elite establishment. The axioms of Batman assume an idolisation of wealth, paternalism, vigilantism, and a distrust of civic institutions. Writers have often been keen to stress that Bruce Wayne is one of the world’s largest philanthropists, that he hands out grants, he employs former criminals who want to reform, that he is concerned for the environment, but it’s hard to position the character anywhere but the right-of-centre politically. He may be a good capitalist, but he’s inescapably a capitalist – not just someone with the view held by most Americans that the free market is better than communism, but someone with vast amounts of capital.

Bruce Wayne has always been rich, but like many of those in the upper tax brackets, he has seen his wealth expand exponentially over recent years.

While Bruce Wayne was referred to as a ‘millionaire’ in his earliest appearances, there was no attempt to break down his net worth or pry into his business dealings. It’s very important to note that Bruce Wayne was not always as rich as he is portrayed now. In Detective Comics 205 (1954), for example, Wayne Manor was large but still relatively modest:

Note that Bruce Wayne is seen buying the property here as an adult. There were super-rich people in real life when Batman was created, and there were super-rich characters in fiction. Bruce Wayne was not, as originally devised, a Gatsby or Charles Foster Kane figure himself. Originally he was the son of a doctor, and he inherited enough money to buy himself a big house (which he discovered had a very handy basement), and to drive a fast car, and he didn’t need a day job so he could sleep in late after a busy night.

Nowadays, Bruce Wayne lives in an ancestral home the size of Gormenghast which sits on top of a vast hangar full of stealth bombers and custom-made super-cars.

Some of this can be explained away as an accident of shorthand: by the 1980s, being a ‘millionaire’ was not quite as notable as it had been fifty years before (nowadays there are about five million people in the USA with a net worth over $1M). The first two Tim Burton films show Wayne as immensely wealthy, and press packs and other marketing materials referred to him as a billionaire, but the word wasn’t used on screen. Even The Dark Knight Returns, set decades in the future – or Will Brooker writing in 2001 – still pegged Wayne as a ‘millionaire’. This changed in the mid-‘90s. Wayne’s referred to as a ‘billionaire industrialist’ in the movie Batman Forever (1995), and Wayne Enterprises shows a ‘Thirty billion dollar increase in revenues’ in one quarter in Detective Comics #682 (February 1995). To put that in perspective, Apple had a $37.5 billion total revenue in the last quarter of 2013. Wayne’s fortune, we’re told now, comes from being the head of a vast conglomerate with interests in aerospace, real estate, medical technology, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, electronics … the list goes on.

No doubt we’re seeing the influence of the movies on the comics – in 1985’s Who’s Who in the DC Universe, Wayne Manor was large but not immense:

It was the Tim Burton films which reimagined it as a vast Gothic stately home. Writers seeking ‘realism’ needed Bruce Wayne to be extremely rich to be able to write off a Batplane without it bankrupting him. Some of it may be because Lex Luthor was reimagined as a tycoon, explicitly a billionaire, following the mid-‘80s revamp of Superman, and writers wanted Bruce Wayne to be in the same league. Likewise, as fan service, artists started drawing old Batmobiles as background detail in the Batcave – accidentally implying that instead of running ‘the Batmobile’, one vehicle (give or take) that different artists have drawn in different ways over the years, Bruce Wayne maintains a fleet of them.

Much of Bruce Wayne’s newfound fictional wealth is a result of accident and cumulative effect. But the bottom line is that Bruce Wayne is a lot richer than he used to be. You need a thousand times more money to be a billionaire than a millionaire. Bruce Wayne has gone from being a playboy who’s ‘the richest man in Gotham’, to someone who’d comfortably be one of the richest people in the world. Forbes calculated he was worth $6.5Bn in 2012, and that would place him 182nd in their list of real life rich people. They didn’t show how they got to their figure, and it’s easy to argue that Wayne is worth even more.

And the knock-on consequence of that is that whereas Bruce Wayne’s wealth used to be a hand-wave in a children’s comic to explain how he could afford to literally throw away so many batarangs, it is now such a presence that it has to be a political issue if we are intent on imposing psychology and adult values on our Batman stories. We know that Bruce Wayne feels that the system is weighted against him, that he burns with the injustice of it. And there are super-rich people in the real world who think that, and there are those deeply worried about the influence people like the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, or (on the left) George Soros have on American politics. It’s unlikely that there’s any such thing as a neutral, apolitical figure, but it’s utterly impossible for a billionaire to be one. Since the ‘90s, a global oligarch class has emerged in the real world, and Batman stories have firmly located Bruce Wayne within it. And once that’s the case, it makes it impossible for Bruce Wayne to be the ineffective bystander he pretends to be in the early comics.

Think of it this way: Bruce Wayne is concerned with gun violence. In our world, the National Rifle Association has an annual budget of $231M. This is an astonishing amount of money, which goes quite some way to explaining why even modest gun control legislation has proved so difficult to enact. It’s chump change, though, if your net worth is $6.5Bn. In the DC Universe, Bruce Wayne could be matching the NRA dollar for dollar without breaking a sweat, and if he was doing so, it’s naïve to think this wouldn’t have an effect on the political landscape. If you’re for gun control, that may sound quite an appealing prospect, until you spot that it isn’t democracy, it’s tyranny but with a tyrant you feel more sympathetic towards.

The Christopher Nolan films, particularly, seem to understand this. Bruce Wayne gets more screen time in them than Batman, we see the soirees and the boardroom meetings. Lucius Fox calls him ‘one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world’, and that fact alone is enough to scare off the would-be blackmailer he says it to. Again and again, Wayne uses his money to get his way – in just the second movie, he gets to pull tables together at a restaurant he owns, he secretly buys shares in his own company to outplay Rutger Hauer’s character, he tells Harvey Dent ‘one fundraiser with my pals and you’ll never need another cent’, he funds the creation of technology that turns every cellphone in the city into a sonar tracking system. Some of these are explicitly marked as troubling or unpleasant, and we can always fall back on the explanation that Bruce Wayne is playing a rich jerk. But, while the Nolan films understand the importance of Wayne’s vast wealth and problematise it, just as Captain America has to finish off his villains by incapacitating them with his shield, the needs of the Batman formula mean Nolan’s movies can’t ever quite get to the end of the path they lay out. In The Dark Knight Rises (released in a year when the Occupy protests – featuring people wearing V for Vendetta masks – had flared up around the world), Selina Kyle may say:

‘There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little to the rest of us.’

What actually happens is that, at the end of the movie, the counter-revolution is successful, order is restored by the police, and Wayne’s punishment is … to disappear off to a foreign country and go to bed every night with Selina Kyle. If we follow the logic through, there are still plenty of nasty rich guys left in Gotham, there’s just one fewer good rich guy.

We’ve not even got to Batman, yet. Whatever else Bruce Wayne gets up to, the main thing he does with all his resources is to strap on some kevlar and gadgets and go punch people. As noted, there have been real life instances of rich white guys who live in mansions putting on masks to scare particular people, then breaking into their houses to rough them up. There are also real-world vigilantes who ‘take the law into their own hands’. Very rarely, if ever, in our world has this been a recipe for harmony or security.

An apparently mandatory scene in every super-hero movie is one where the police, army, air force, or secret service prove helpless and are slaughtered by the super-villain. Yes, in a world threatened by aliens, giant monsters, and mad scientists in battle armour, it makes sense for people with special abilities to take on the task of fighting these unusual threats. Recent tastes, though, have preferred Batman to take on lone killers, gangsters, and other ‘street level’ bad guys. The more outlandish or comical rogues in Batman’s gallery have been given a more ‘realistic’ makeover, so that, say, the Penguin is now a nightclub owner and smuggler, rather than someone keen on stealing statues of birds with the help of an umbrella that serves as a parachute and flamethrower.

Let’s take a look at two panels from Batman: Year One:

What is wrong with this picture?

A member of the super-rich is punching three African American teenagers because he’s been patrolling the rooftops and spotted them stealing a TV and a record player. Notice that we don’t see the owner of the television, the victim of this crime. The TV ends up smashed in the alley below. Now consider that the person who is beating up those guys runs a company that saw an increase in revenue of $75,000 a minute. Is this really the most efficient method Bruce Wayne has to deploy his resources if he’s serious about ‘fighting crime’?

That the three thieves are African American … Miller and Mazzuchelli are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. In the issue with that sequence, there’s one African American cop sitting at a briefing in one panel, the only other non-white characters are drug dealers who appear in a panel illustrating a cover story a crooked cop has made up. Then again, virtually everyone in the story is a crook of one kind or another. The ‘good guys’ – Wayne, Gordon and his wife – are all legacy characters established as white. Still, while I don’t make any claims on controlling the exchange rate, this looks to me more problematic than the Gollywog in The Black Dossier. There are four black people in this comic, and Batman beats up three of them. The effect is to edge Batman into KKK or George Zimmerman territory. Again, I don’t think Batman is racist … he doesn’t tend to pick on people of colour, his predilection is to go after the disfigured and the mentally ill. Even if we ignore the fact that we’re told that he’s fighting crime specifically as a form of therapy to deal with the loss of his parents at the hands of a street thug, and excuse him by saying he’s actually fighting for the little guy, Wayne’s hopelessly paternalistic, he’s acting outside a legal system, he’s unaccountable. His tactics are to scare and hit his opponents. His choice of targets is questionable for any number of reasons.

At some point reading this, you’ll probably have thrown your hands up and said ‘it’s a comic strip, it’s not a documentary’ … and of course that’s healthy. (As Grant Morrison has noted, the answer to the question of who changes the tyres on the Batmobile is that no one changes the tyres on the Batmobile. It’s just a story.) But the problem is that comics have increasingly tried to be ‘realistic’. Broadly speaking, Alan Moore is right. There is a problem with repurposing the children’s stories of yesterday into stories for adults today. Values change over time. In some cases, depictions that were perfectly acceptable – even progressive – decades ago are sexist and racist to modern eyes. This applies just as much to novels and cinema as to comics, of course, but the continuous, ongoing nature of super-hero stories leads to peculiar – almost unique – problems. These include insidious legacy issues. In the current political climate, a rich guy with a bunker full of weapons who ignores the law represents a very specific type of wish fulfillment position only held by the Ayn Rand libertarian fringe. To anyone else, there is something … unpleasant about ‘billionaire Bruce Wayne’ taking it out on street thugs. It’s the very definition of an unequal fight. We can, of course, level almost exactly the same charges against Marvel’s most popular movie hero, Iron Man. And we excuse both because they are familiar characters. I don’t think it’s very likely that this is some deliberate political statement. This is a conjunction of broadly unrelated things coming together. The early Batman stories are fantasies for kids about, basically, Scrooge McDuck fighting Hamburglar. Stories for adults can be playful and fantastic, but they shouldn’t be careless.

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Lance Parkin has written Doctor Who novels and non fiction, as well as writing or co-writing books on the works of Philip Pullman, Star Trek and Alias. His literary biography of Alan Moore, Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore, is out now from Aurum Press.

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