Monday, April 6, 2009

The Mask Considered

We can remain silent no longer. Recently, the issue of identity, as pertaining to Batman and Superman, has resurfaced as a point of debate across the internet. Both SF Gospel and Threat Quality Press have engaged the issue, and now io9 has offered their thoughts, as well.

The conclusions they come to are more or less the same. Batman, they say, is the true personality, while Bruce Wayne is a mask. And, likewise, that Clark Kent is real, while Superman is a disguise worn by a farm boy with exceptional powers.

The arguments presented at all three of these sites are strong and have been well thought out. Yet, ultimately, it is our opinion that all have missed the point.

They've chosen select stories, and mistook specific versions of these characters for broad rules.

The question of true identity is not meant to have one answer. Different stories will provide different points of view, and this is as it should be. Because, if every writer had approached these characters the same way, some of the best superhero stories written would never have come to fruition.

Let us begin with Batman, since his comic book was first.

Surely there are stories where Batman is the dominant personality: Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns jumps immediately to mind, of course. Other writers, before and since, have also approached Batman in this manner. It is somewhat poetic, of course, to say that Bruce Wayne is the mask. As far as we know the convention was started by Denny O'Neil in the seventies, where he played with the idea that, to protect his secret identity, Bruce Wayne needed to act cowardly and spoiled: it's important to note this was originally an idea Batman found frightening, not empowering.

And, in doses, this version can lead to interesting stories. In larger quantities, however, there are problems which develop. If Bruce Wayne is truly an illusion, who is Batman avenging? The Waynes were Bruce's parents; if Batman has truly disassociated from Wayne, wouldn't his connection to Bruce's parents have been severed, as well?

The story, "The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne," by Alan Brennert, takes another approach. In it, an elderly Bruce Wayne recounts the story of how he revealed his identity to Catwoman and eventually married her. This story is interesting, as it begins with a version of Batman who has "lost" Bruce Wayne: in essence, where it seems that Batman is the true identity. Exposed to the Scarecrow's fear gas, Batman's allies and loved ones began to vanish from his sight, leaving him alone. This, we discover, is Batman's greatest fear: that his new family will be taken from him just as his parents were. Frightened, he teams up with Catwoman, who convinces him to remove the mask:

I found and captured the Scarecrow, of course... but more important... that night I found Bruce Wayne.
It is beautiful story, and we recommend it to anyone, particularly those who still insist that Bruce Wayne should never be more than a mask.

There are other versions of the character, of course. One of our favorite episodes of Batman: The Animated Series showcases a more complex adaptation. "Old Wounds" reveals the falling out between Batman and the original Robin. Sensing that he's losing an ally, Batman brings Batgirl into his world, in effect stealing his son's girlfriend. It would be easy to mistake this as a case of Batman being the true persona, but the truth is far more devious. The episode shows how he uses both Bruce Wayne and Batman as masks, manipulating everyone - possibly even himself - towards ends we can only grasp at. This version of Batman is not a character at all, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, he's a setting for other characters.

In old versions of the character, the Superman persona seems to have been dominant, with Clark Kent being a tool to fit in. But this presents something of a logic problem: unlike Batman, there is no real reason Superman needs to be Clark Kent at all. Why not fake his death and become Superman full time?

To answer this, most writers agree that, at the very least, being Kent is something Superman enjoys or needs. Many take it a step further, declaring that Clark Kent is who Superman "really" is. After all, he was raised by human parents in Kansas: isn't this how he thinks of himself?

In "Superman: For All Seasons," Jeph Loeb utilizes a version of Superman who really is Clark Kent. No matter what powers and abilities he has, he is really a Kansas farm boy at heart. What's more; that's all he wants to be. Lex Luthor is the one who wants to be a savior and God.

Since the Silver Age, there have been few Superman stories which have portrayed Clark as wanting more than the simple life. However, the question should not be what Superman wants, but what he is. And, in The Dark Knight Returns, Clark Kent is a memory. Here, Superman is THE Superman, the Nietzschean ideal. He has come to realize that the Kents were wrong to see him as human: that, for better or worse he is more than that.

Another extreme is Grant Morrison's All Star Superman, where we see a version existing as a religious figure. He is, ultimately, a god, who exists to do good. Whether he wants to be Clark Kent or not is immaterial: as he nears the end of his life, his desire to do good takes over, and he becomes a God.

Many of the greatest Superman stories have considered this transition between man and god. In Superman: The Movie, we see Clark Kent embrace his destiny as a savior. In Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, we see a god choose to become a man at the end.

Our all time favorite portrayal of the character, however, was on Justice League Unlimited, which showed Superman on the edge of losing his humanity. A series of horrors unleashed by Lex Luthor, culminating in the presumed death of a friend, brought Superman to the point where he seemed ready to kill his adversary. Through the use of multiple universes, such a version of Superman had appeared before. But, when the moment came, Superman realized that he wasn't a man who could kill, though he was so angry he wished he could.

In the end, there is reason to believe that it is the ambiguity of identity that may ultimately define these characters. To demand one answer diminishes the question. There is room in these mythologies for multiple points of view. We are fans of The Dark Knight Returns, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Adam West, the animated DC Universe, The Dark Knight, and countless other tales. The world we be poorer, we believe, if any of these were versions were ignored.

And we must therefore differ with our friends at Threat Quality Press, SF Gospel, io9, and anyone else who believes these characters should be limited. To reduce Batman or Superman to a single portrayal sacrifices the richness of their mythologies.


Threat Quality Press said...

They've chosen select stories, and mistook specific versions of these characters for broad rules.

I have to respectfully disagree here. While I can't speak for Holland's opinion on the subject (and therefore, cannot state this as the official opinion of Threat Quality Press), it is my own opinion that there are no broad rules.

Batman, Superman, and (again, in my opinion) Jesus are fictional. There is no more or less correct, more or less accurate, or more or less true version of any of these characters; every version of them is equally fictional.

When I say that such and such an interpretation of Batman is true, it must not be understood that this interpretation is the correct, or even best interpretation, but only that it is the most interesting to me.

I do not feel any particular need to support an interpretation with the entire canon of Batman literature, and am pleased to ignore or discard whatever I don't like.

It is therefore inaccurate to say that I've mistook anything. There was no accident here; I purposefully threw out versions of the character that I thought were boring.


Erin Snyder said...

Braak: Whoa, whoa, hold on a minute: you're retreating into subjectivity? You're saying your original post was just talking about the Batman and Superman you personally liked?

Come on, you wrote one hell of an argument: I don't agree with you, but that's beside the point. Don't feed me this “everyone gets an opinion” crap. Tell me why your opinion is better.

Look, there ARE broad rules about these characters. There have to be. If someone wanted to tell a Superman story where he had a monkey’s tail and wasn’t a reporter, it isn’t Superman: it’s Dragonball. There are aspects of these characters that shouldn’t change. Batman witnessed the murder of his parents then dedicated his life to fighting crime: this isn’t optional – it’s an integral part of the mythology. Has anyone written a Batman story without this element? Probably. But they shouldn’t have, and the world will be no poorer if they never do so again.

I just reread your post, and it still looks to me like you’re implying the same is true with the "Bruce Wayne's a mask" and the "Superman’s really Kent" tropes. You didn’t waffle: you gave solid, arguments to defend your reading of these characters. When you talked about Jesus, on the other hand, you used subjective terminology (which was wise, because he’s Jesus). If I’m completely misreading your argument, let me know.

Now, I don’t think the mask/identity thing should be set in stone. Why? Two reasons: first of all, because there are some logic problems, particularly with Batman, that develop (mainly motivational, as I discussed in my post). But, more importantly, because there have been some amazing stories which haven't used these motifs. If you've truly "thrown out" all of these stories, I believe you've made a grave mistake, indeed.