A Dark Knight of the Soul

Batman 1

Author’s note: This blog was drafted prior to Chester Bennington’s suicide, and prior to recent studies showing a link between the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why and an increase in Google searches about suicide, including how to go about it. So, allow me to issue my first-ever “trigger warning;” this piece will discuss depression, suicide, and some of the philosophy behind suicide. It is my intention for this piece to be a hopeful one, with a message that may be of benefit to those who suffer from depression, but if you suffer or have suffered from suicidal ideation and are concerned that reading about such things may trigger or worsen those thoughts, please turn back now. And if you are feeling suicidal, there are resources available to help you; https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or their phone line, 1-800-273-8255, are excellent places to start.

Recently, DC Comics launched its “Rebirth” initiative, a re-launch of all their titles that, while not a full “reboot” along the lines of what happened with Crisis on Infinite Earths, changed a lot of the status quo from their “New 52” run, and fixed most of the decisions that I disliked about that continuity. Superman and Lois Lane are back together and have a son, Bruce Wayne is back to being Batman with all of his memories restored, Damian Wayne is alive and in costume as Robin again, and Dick Grayson has reclaimed his identity as Nightwing, among other changes. With most of the elements I considered problematic swept away and with all the positive reviews I’d been hearing about the new runs, I decided to take the plunge and read some of the new stuff, picking up the first two trade paperback volumes of the Rebirth run of Batman.

I’ve been a huge fan of Batman ever since I can remember. The 1989 Tim Burton film turned me on to the character and the reruns of the Adam West TV series that were airing at the time sustained that interest. Then Batman: The Animated Series hit the air and cemented my love of the Dark Knight, a passion for the character, his supporting cast and villains, and the setting of Gotham City itself that has endured for over 25 years now. I’ve never been a collector of individual issues (I’m far more interested in reading complete stories, so trades suit me better), but I’ve read most of the seminal works in the Batman canon. Though I have yet to read The Long Halloween or The Court of Owls, but I plan to remedy this lapse eventually.

I write all this to say that I have steeped myself in the Batman mythos for over two decades, and I have a strong understanding of who Batman is as a character and why he does what he does. But I have never read something that so thoroughly redefined the character in my eyes as the second volume of the Rebirth run of Batman.

In this volume, which spans issues 9-15, Batman leads a mission to recover Psycho-Pirate to get him to undo the mental conditioning he placed on a new heroine named Gotham Girl. Psycho-Pirate has been taken by Bane to the prison he rules on his home island of Santa Prisca, a fortress isolated by shark-inhabited waters and guarded by a small army of Bane’s loyal soldiers. With the sanction of Amanda Waller (of Suicide Squad fame, who was responsible for Psycho-Pirate when he was taken), Batman assembles a strike team of Arkham Asylum inmates to help him with the extraction, including b-list Batman villains Bronze Tiger, the Ventriloquist, and Punch and Jewelee, promising them parole or better accommodations in exchange for their help. Also on the team is Catwoman, who is on Death Row for the murders of 237 men comprising the terrorist organization who bombed the Gotham orphanage where she grew up—murders Batman is convinced she’s innocent of, though he can’t prove it.

While the plot focuses on the extraction of Psycho-Pirate and the twists and turns of Batman’s plan to defeat Bane and get out of the prison with their objective, the thematic focus of the story is on Batman, Catwoman, and their troubled romantic relationship. This, as any long-time Batman fan can tell you, is par for the course whenever these two share the page together. However, the approach to this examination and what is revealed make it a unique and defining tale for both characters, Batman especially.

The backstory of what Catwoman is to be executed for, and how she and Batman are dealing with it, takes an epistolary form. As the story of the prison break unfolds, letters that Catwoman and Batman exchanged in the wake of her arrest are given in captions. In her letter, Selina opines that the reason for their attraction is that they share a common pain, both being orphans, and that being with someone who understands that pain makes it stop, albeit briefly. But, she says, the fact that Bruce rose above his pain, turning it into something that would allow him to create a better world, while hers caused her to turn to crime, is why the pain never stays gone, and why things never seem to work out between them.

Bruce, however, has another take, stating that “it’s time to acknowledge what we are.” He acknowledges the absurdity of the Batman identity, the ridiculousness of “A grown man. Dressed as an animal. Sitting on a gargoyle. Waiting for crime to come.” He admits that it’s childish, the response of a boy who never mourned his parents properly and instead dedicated his life to vengeance through a war on crime. People should laugh at it, he says, but he doesn’t. Instead, he thinks of Selina and knows she wouldn’t laugh. “Because you know. You know what this is.”

Bruce then goes on to talk about the oath he swore as a boy. It’s a famous scene, one that has been told and retold in comics and other media more times than I can count. But here, writer Tom King adds additional context and detail that fundamentally changes what we, the audience, know about that scene, and about the character of Batman himself. A summary would dilute the impact of the writing, so I’m going to quote this portion in its entirety:

After the alley and the gun. And the pearls. What use was I? After the blood on her hand, what use was a little rich kid whose mommy and daddy got shot? I was pain. That’s all I was. Everything else, every chance given to me, every promise I’d made, all of it was pain. And what use is pain? What use is being just pain? It’s not dignified. It’s not kind. And if it’s not dignified and it’s not kind, then maybe it’s not worth anything. Maybe it’s better off as nothing. Gone. Dead.

I was ten. I got one of my father’s razor blades, and I got down on my knees. I put the metal on my wrist. The edge scratching cold. The blood on my hand. And I looked up. To Mother and Father. I told them I was sorry. I was so sorry. I was on my knees in Gotham. And I was praying, pushing my hands together now, the blood and the blade warm between them. I prayed.

And no one—no one answered. No one answered. No one answered. I was alone. Like everyone else. Like everyone in Gotham. I saw everyone in Gotham, all of us. We’re all on our knees, our hands together, the blood and the blade warm between them. We pray. And no one answers. I saw. And I understood. Finally. Kindness. Dignity. I let the razor fall and I understood, it was done. I’d done it. I’d surrendered. My life was no longer my life, and I whispered, “I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”

So that’s what it is. The ears. The belt. The gargoyle. It’s not funny. It’s the choice of a boy. The choice to die. I am Batman. I am suicide.

And here we see the truth of the character laid bare, in his own words, a completely different interpretation than what has come before. Beneath the Detective, beneath Vengeance, beneath the Night, at the core of it all is a boy in pain who, instead of ending his life, takes the pain and turns it into something else. Instead of ending it all, he gets up and keeps going. Doing one task after another, always going, always moving forward, because stopping is stillness. It is death. It is non-existence.

King also presents the logical counterpoint, the classical counterpoint, to this argument in the form of Bane. Bane, we have long known, grew up in the Santa Prisca prison he now rules, imprisoned as a child for a crime committed by his father. He grew up in a cell that flooded with the tide, living on the rats and sea creatures that entered his cell as part of this cycle, treading water for hours at a time, clinging to life. He endured much the same struggle as Batman, surviving impossible pain through sheer willpower, shaping himself into something more.

But Bane, we learn in this story, views this survival as a weakness, a lack of courage to stop, to let it end. This lack of courage, Bane asserts, is what drives both himself and Batman to leave the safety of their homes and seek out monsters to finish their lives for them. This is the reason Bane became addicted to the Venom steroid in the first place. This is the reason he has “acquired” Psycho Pirate: so that the psychic villain can hypnotize Bane and tell him that “You are brave. You are happy. You can always stop.”

It is an old argument, one that claims that suicide is the nobler path, the harder path, the more courageous path. It is at least as old as Socrates, and possibly predates the philosopher, and written language itself. During their confrontation, Bane puts this argument to Batman, and asks him to let go, to be at peace. Batman refuses, and he and Catwoman defeat the troubled tyrant. In a fitting bit of symbolic symmetry, the Cat and the Bat overpower Bane and “break his damn back.” Batman rejects Bane’s philosophical endorsement of suicide, of surrender, by throwing his own platitudes back in his face, by telling him to remember, “You’re brave. You’re happy. You can always stop.”

My friend and fellow author Steve Mix recently wrote an essay about the character of Cyborg, discussing how he is, in many ways, a superhero for those on the autism spectrum. Similarly, with this revelation, this additional context to his origins, Batman is now a superhero for those with depression. For many years now, Batman stories have had a focus on mental illness and its treatment. Many of Batman’s rogues’ gallery suffer from mental disorders: Two-Face famously has dissociative identity disorder, the Riddler has obsessive-compulsive disorder and clinical narcissism, Firefly suffers from pyromania, Harley Quinn is a textbook case of battered woman syndrome…the list goes on and on. And this is one of many reasons why Batman doesn’t kill; many of the criminals he catches are mentally ill and maladjusted. Dangerous though they might be, their actions are not their own fault, and they deserve a chance at healing and redemption. And the portrayal of Arkham Asylum is easily viewed as a condemnation of the way mental illness is handled in this country, and the lack of funding and proper care that are available to those in need.

Batman himself has always been a character defined by his willpower: the will to train himself to be the World’s Greatest Detective, the world’s greatest martial artist, a world-class scientist and inventor, the will to keep going in the face of impossible odds, to stand against beings more powerful than himself, to do whatever is necessary to stop criminals and protect the innocent. And now we see another layer to that willpower: the will to live. The will to push aside pain and grief and take one step, and then another, and to keep going.

For a person suffering from depression, sometimes it’s all they can do to get out of bed, shower and eat a meal. Some days it’s a victory to be celebrated when they resist the urge to walk into traffic and instead go to work like everyone else. One of the first things any person with depression learns is to do whatever they can, to continue living their life as though they aren’t just pain. Whatever they can accomplish that’s more than ending their life or just laying down and waiting for it to end is a success. When you have depression, some days putting one foot in front of the other is all you have.

Batman, we now know, deals with the same struggle every day. Every day he faces the pain, moves past it, and does what he has to do. He succeeds. He triumphs. He makes the world a better place, not because he is without that overwhelming pain, but rather because he endures it. Just as nearly 20 million adult Americans endure it every day. In a world where depression is still marginalized, dismissed and treated as not serious by so many, it’s important that those living with it have a sense that they are not alone, that they are understood, even to have someone to look up to.

Having one of the greatest heroes in popular fiction demonstrating that understanding and showing a way to survive is invaluable. And so I salute DC Comics and the creative team behind Batman for having the courage to run a risk and make that happen by telling such a bold story. I can’t wait to read the next volume. And the next time I have a depressive episode and wonder what’s the point of even getting out of bed in the morning, I may also find myself asking, “What would Batman do?”