Amidst all the other and far more important things in the world right now, I nevertheless feel compelled to express opinions about comic books. These opinions are neither original nor particularly startling, but I’m writing them anyway.
Superheroes are Relics of the 1930s
Superman, the best-known superhero in mass media, debuted in Action Comics #1 in 1938. At that time the Great Depression had been going on for nearly a decade, with no end in sight. Prohibition had inadvertently fueled the rise of organized crime, but by the time of Prohibition’s repeal the gansters had diversified into other rackets. Most people of the time were struggling earn a living, at the mercy of landlords and political machines, and frightened by stories – and incidents – of violent crime. Superman became popular because he was a wish-fulfillment fantasy; his initial foes were slum lords, callous business men, corrupt politicians, and gangsters. He was far stronger than any mortal man, and incorruptible.
The people of Germany and Italy voted for leaders who portrade themselvs as strong men who could solve all their problems. It did not end well.
Batman Makes No Sense
Let me state upfront that Batman is my favorite superhero. Whether I imprinted on the 1960s TV show – popular when I was young – or on the 1990s cartoon series, or on the weird gothic atmosphere of the 1970s and 1980s comics that I discovered even later, I don’t know. Maybe it’s that Batman is supposedly an (extra)ordinary mortal rather than an alien, magical warrior, mutant, or the like.
Nevertheless, Wondermark has a point: why doesn’t Bruce Wayne use his vast wealth to influence policy, fund schools, improve neighborhoods, and so forth?
Batman as an actual hero, rather than as a deluded
really only makes sense under certain very specific conditions:
- The police force is too overwhelmed and/or corrupt to effectively deter crime.
- An immensely wealthy individual can train himself physically and mentally in dozens of fields and as a single individual2 become as effective at lowering crime than entire federal, state, and local agencies.
- This extraordinary yet mortal individual or individuals can somehow pursue their mission for years, possibly decades, despite inevitably being shot, stabbed, beaten, drowned, and otherwise injured.
- Conversely, a few improbably brilliant psychopaths in garish costumes can pose as great a threat if not greater than conventional organized crime, and thus merit special attention. As a corrorlary, these psychopaths also keep coming back over a period of years or decades despite incarceration and/or serious injury.
In the real world, Bruce Wayne is highly improbable, if not impossible. Even if he’d been born or somehow acquired an extraordinarily athletic physique, and from a young age honed his body and mind to master dozens of disciplines, he’s still, ultimately human. Serious injuries never heal completely, and each would impair his physical performance. Professional athletes typically retire within three to five years in part due to the repetitive strain on their joints, ligaments, and muscles. (Never mind blunt trauma and gunshot wounds, which can maim or kill.) Blows to the head would create cumulative mental deficits, as anyone vaguely familiar with boxing would know. Even if Batman were extraordinarily lucky not to suffer a debilitating injury – say, a ‘roided-out luchador breaking his spine – day after day of street fights and rope-swinging would wreck his body well within a decade. And, as the Wondermark strip comments, there are far safer and more effective ways for an absurdly rich man to reduce crime in a single city than tracking down crooks and punching them in the face.
Even accepting the premises of Batman’s comics, Batman’s “war against crime” is at best a holding action. For every mugger Batman stops, dozens succeed. For every gang Batman breaks up, others form. After Batman thwarts some madman’s scheme, some other madman starts another within the month. The comics and spin-off media portray Gotham City as chronically, irredeemably dysfunctional. Police are still corrupt and/or inept, crime still runs rampant, and none of the aforementioned crime bosses and criminal masterminds stays in jail (or the laughably porous Arkham Asylum) for long. Even Bruce Wayne’s charities to address the causes of crime, which the comics occasionally mention, never really make a dent in the poverty, corruption, and cycle of cruelty. As escapist fantasies go, Batman and his world are pretty bleak. (And more bleak than actual crime statistics.)
It’s worth noting that the “Dark Deco” aesthetic of Batman: The Animated Series evoked the 1930s and 1940s with fedoras, overcoats, and tommy guns, yet also featured cell phones, 1990s computers, and technology from pulp science fiction. The anachronisms divorce the story of Batman from our history and put it in the realm of fairy tale, legend, and myth.
The tale of Batman is about as plausible as a Man of Steel or a warrior for peace. Yet it aligns more closely with the world we live in, or at least the world we think we live in thanks to the media’s pre-occupation with crime.
Brightly Colored Spandex Considered Hot and Uncomfortable
Have you ever noticed how comic book movies change superheroe costumes? It’s not just art directors and costume designers sticking their oars in. Comic book costumes just don’t work in the real world.
Superman, the first true superhero in comics, was meant to look like a circus strongman, tights and all. As other artists and companies jumped on the bandwagon, they kept this look for nearly all subsequent superheroes. It’s easier to draw a person in tights – so close to nude – than to worry about creases in trousers, the hang of jackets and ties, and so forth, especially when they’re in motion. Still, relatively few actors can look good in tights; even the best looking actors, from Christopher Reeve to Brie Larson, go on crash fitness programs before filming.
Up until the 1970s the range of colors in comics was limited. Thus the only way to distinguished one muscular man in tights from another was to use the comparatively few bright colors they had plus an insignia and/or uniquely shaped helmet. (Medieval heraldry had the same problem in a different context.) Now, of course, comics use the same printing process as art books, assuming they’re printed at all. All those bright colors, on real people, simply look garish.
Superhero costumes for women sometimes look particularly unwearable: sheer or fishnet stockings, high fricking heels, bare midriffs, short skirts, plunging necklines, and some parts that must have been glued on. A woman running after perps or leaping across rooftops in all that will soon rip her stockings, lose some exposed skin, or violate public decency ordinances. It’s no wonder that, for example, Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff initially looked like a goth peasant girl; in one WandaVision episode her classic outfit appeared as a “Halloween costume” and I noticed she didn’t do any running in it.
Never mind the problems actors have wearing these things. If real costumed vigilantes existed3 would they chase down criminals and fight each other in brightly colored, expensive, hot, skimpy, easily ripped clothes? Watchmen notwithstanding, I’d say no.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies made Batman’s outfit closer to special ops stealth armor. Something even more realistic and on a non-billionaire’s budget might include the following:
- Well-made and tough but inexpensive street clothes, possibly army surplus, covering as much skin as possible.
- Sensible shoes, or preferably boots.
- A thin, concealable mask that effectively hides one’s face and hair but that one can still see out of.
- Bulletproof body armor and if possible a bullet-resistant helmet, especially in America.
- A brightly colored but light and inexpensive outer covering when one wants to announce one’s presence or at least not get run over in traffic, but that one can also lose quickly when being pursued.4
- No capes.
In other words, except for the mask and colors, what cops and soldiers wear.
A million dollars doesn’t go as far as it did in 1940. ↩︎
Or sometimes aided by a handful of similar individuals. ↩︎
Yes there are supposedly “real superheroes” … who are essentially cosplayers making citizens' arrests. ↩︎
A reversible outer jacket or coat also works. ↩︎