Everyone is pretty whipped up about the release of “The Dark Knight,” which shattered the record for largest first-weekend box-office haul in its debut. Unlike previous champ “Spiderman 3,” “The Dark Knight” is actually a very entertaining film.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise is darker, more serious, and consequently more frightening. It also captures the psychological complexity of the titular character in a way that the more stylized vision of Tim Burton — not to mention the dreck produced by Joel Schumacher — never could.
Nolan’s vision is inspired by the Golden Age Batman, who was a different breed altogether. Batman of the early 1940s, for example, shot people, tossed them off rooftops and had few reservations about killing criminals. He menaced murderers, gangsters and thugs, not overgrown graffiti artists.
Early Gotham was a dark and scary place, the sort of place that might inspire people to, you know, dress up like a giant bat. So what happened? Why did the dark and menacing Batman of the 1940s become the lame and tame Batman of the 1960s?
Much of it has to do with changing national mores and an evolving economic and social landscape. In this sense, Batman’s story is a microcosm for what happened throughout the entire comic book industry during that period and, to a lesser extent, some of the changes that swept across the nation.
One of the most important episodes in the hero’s metamorphosis centered around the startling accusation that Batman (Bruce Wayne) and Robin (Dick Grayson) were gay and might seed impressionable youths with homosexual fantasies. Silver Age Batman was indelibly shaped by the gender expectations of the era and his failure to adhere to those expectations incited criticism that predictably called into question his sexual identity.
I always preferred Batman to Superman, largely because Batman, the central implausibility of his character aside, was psychologically interesting in a way that the bland Superman never was. Of course, my introduction to Batman was Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” a crucial revision of the Batman myth which imagined Batman as a psychologically scarred character inhabiting an increasingly savage world.
In contrast, baby boomers might be more likely to associate Batman with the campy, absurdist version of the late-1950s and ’60s best captured in the long-running television series. Similarly, in the pages of DC Comics’ “Detective” magazine in that era, Batman traveled through time, verbally sparred with “Batmite,” and foiled countless plots to deface many of Gotham City’s iconic landmarks.
In other words, Silver Age Batman was a glorified boy scout, patrolling against vandalism — just like Superman without the awesome powers.
Outing the Caped Crusader
The accusation that Batman was a homo, as strange as it might sound to our ears, was taken quite seriously by both the government and public. It wasn’t leveled by a marginal nut or crank, but by a world-renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Frederic Wertham.
Wertham was the chief psychiatrist for the New York Department of Hospitals and an important figure among the New York City liberal intelligentsia. His writings were respected enough to help form part of the legal strategy for Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1954, Wertham published a scathing indictment of comic books, “The Seduction of the Innocent,” which argued that comic books were an insidious influence on American youth, responsible for warped gender attitudes and all manner of delinquency.
Wertham’s accusations garnered the attention of Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver and his Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, where Wertham repeated many of his central claims.
Batman and Robin, Wertham charged, inhabited “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” They lived in “sumptuous quarters,” unencumbered by wives and girlfriends, with only an aged butler for company. They cared for each other’s injuries, frequently shared quarters, and lounged together in dressing gowns.
Worse still, both exhibited damning psychological characteristics: proclivities for costumes, dressing up, and fantasy play; secretive behavior and double-lives; little interest in women; and, most damning of all, neurotic compulsions resulting in their violent vigilantism.
Indeed, Wertham argued, depictions of Batman and Robin were frequently homoerotic, visually emphasizing Batman’s rippling physique and Robin’s splayed, bare thighs.
“Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize the subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures,” wrote Wertham. “The Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies.”
Batman’s creators and writers were aghast. They noted that the character had a series of dalliances with several Gothamite ladies, even if he’d never settled down. Nor, they argued, had there ever been any explicit homosexual affection between Batman and Robin, much less a portrayal of anything beneath their tights.
Besides, they asked, what sense did it make to interrogate the sexual practices of a character who lived only in the frames of a comic book? Any “sex life” Batman might possess was purely the imagination of his critics and had nothing to do with Batman himself. Right? Right! Imagination, as they say, is a powerful thing.
As literary critic Mark Best notes, “Wertham did correctly identify the possibility of a queer reading of the superhero, albeit as an example of what was wrong with the comics.”
If Bruce Wayne was a paragon of upper-middle class white masculinity — wealthy, cultivated and amiable — his secret identity represented the dark liberation found in the lurid city cruising strange corners. Even if Batman’s genitals were never portrayed coming into contact with Robin, Batman’s crime-fighting lifestyle still embodied a fantasy of freedom from male familial responsibilities and, in a very real sense, from women altogether. Batman’s world of the 1940s was almost exclusively male.
The few females who appeared in the pages of “Detective” were usually for show or comic relief (Bruce Wayne’s earliest fiance, Julie Madison, was frequently duped by his double-identity and played for laughs). Like many closeted men, Bruce Wayne dated women to keep up appearances, so that no one would suspect that beneath his placid veneer lurked the sort of fellow who wrestled with criminals in dark alleys.