Friday, August 23, 2019

Green Phoenix - Building Better Backstories I

Welcome to Building Better Backstories.

The premise behind this series of editorials will be amending or transforming the backstories behind famous fictional characters, events, or organizations to fix issues that I see with them. This could be something as complex as a complete rewrite of a backstory, to a simple retexturing of the overall lesson.
Today's Subject? Batman

My aim with this series is for you to join me in considering why fiction utilizes certain backstories and how those stories and the changes we make can have a fundamental impact on the overall "feel" of the character, event, or organization in question.

And for our first post in this series, let's take a look at one of the most famous superheroes, with one of the most well-known backstories of all time.

He is "The World's Greatest Detective (in the DC Universe)", He is Vengeance, He is the Night:

Bruce Wayne, otherwise known as Batman.


Current Backstory

The backstory of Batman is almost ubiquitous. Everyone has heard it and everyone knows it. In fact, next to Superman and Spiderman, Batman may be the most recognized superhero in existence. But for the few people who have never read a comic book...or watched TV:

Bruce Wayne is the son of Thomas and Martha Wayne, a wealthy pair of socialites in the city of Gotham. Thomas is the owner of Wayne Enterprises, giving the family immense wealth. One day, after the opera, the Wayne's are walking down the street when a lone thug pulls a gun demanding money.

Thomas and Martha Wayne are killed by the gunman, who manages to escape into the night (he is sometimes found in versions) and Bruce is left an orphan to be raised by the family butler, Alfred Pennyworth.

As he grows up, Bruce Wayne develops a desire to combat the crime that has corrupted Gotham to its core. To that end he travels the world, learning combat skills and everything he can to become the hero Gotham needs; eventually developing the moniker of The Batman to inspire fear in his enemies.

As Batman fights crime, he is joined by a sidekick named Robin and even works alongside other heroes in the Justice League, using his vast fortune to support his crime-fighting endeavor and the League itself.


The Issues

1. The Wayne Fortune

Batman is incredibly rich.

Like stupid rich.

Scrooge McDuck money bin-levels of rich.

In fact, in comic canon (and TV shows), Bruce Wayne is the principal financier of the Justice League, responsible for funding just about everything the team uses.

Image result for justice league space station
JLA Watchtower: Courtesy of Wayne Enterprises
This includes things like Wonder Woman's invisible jets (which get destroyed all the time) and a portal in Washington DC that teleports a person onto the CITY-SIZED SPACE STATION FLOATING ABOVE THE EARTH.

Which begs the question, if Bruce Wayne is so come he is still punching poor and mentally sick people in the face when he isn't helping the league save the universe.

You see, there is a direct correlation between poverty and crime. The majority of crime is the result not of cruelty, but of desperation; a sign that there exists some system failure in society. If any of the issues involving poverty, corruption, and societal inequities could be resolved in Gotham, logically, crime would begin to diminish.

And with the sheer amount of money that Bruce Wayne is in possession of, a serious argument could be made that Bruce Wayne's money would be better spent on low-cost housing, supporting anti-corruption candidates in politics, and promoting welfare programs than on Batmobiles and Batplanes.

Quite frankly, if Bruce Wayne isn't using this money to improve the city, than he is potentially doing more harm than good.

Speaking of which...

2. Batman Seems to Do More Harm Than Good

Let's talk about the supervillains and Batman's code against killing.

When Batman first showed up in comic books, he predominantly battled against mobsters and common criminals, not supervillains. To the prohibition and post-prohibition audience reading his comics, organized crime seemed an inevitable and very visible aspect of American life. A force which needed someone like Batman to oppose it. Even some of Batman's greatest rogues tended to be tied more petty crime and organized crime (Two Face and the Joker), than the Caped Crusader.

But as time went on, many of the supervillains in Batman's rogues' gallery became tied to the Caped Crusader himself. They committed crimes not for any specific goal beyond simple cruelty or to perhaps draw Batman in and defeat him. The goal of the criminals became defeating Batman, not committing crimes.

The Joker is perhaps the best example of this. Originally, the Joker was little more than a common thief with a clown motif. Even in the Adam West Batman TV series, this was the predominant aspect of his character. As time went on and the relationship between Batman and his rogues evolved, the Joker became more of a supervillain than a common criminal; with elaborate schemes to defeat the Caped Crusader. With some versions of the character's backstory even tying his creation to the interference of Batman, essentially tying the characters for all time.

And when this fact, extrapolated to other supervillains, is coupled to Batman's refusal to kill, ends up creating a perpetual state of conflict between Batman and his villains. This is a principle of the Batman universe that is difficult to argue with. In the structure of the comics, between Arkham Asylum and Batman's reluctance to kill, the presence of supervillains is a direct result of Batman's existence and most if Batman didn't exist or if the supervillains were dealt with in the manner that law would actually allow without Batman, there wouldn't be any supervillains.

In the comic series, The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, which had a deep influence on the modern interpretation of Batman, w even see proof of this principle with the Joker. Following Batman's retirement, the Joker enters a catatonic state for years because his purpose (Batman) has been eliminated and his mind can't handle it. It is only with Batman's return that the Joker regains his mind and continues his criminal activities.

And this cyclical relationship between Batman and his villains can all be derived from an issue of modern comics that I call the Moore-Miller Problem.

2. The Moore-Miller Problem

The Modern Age version of Batman has been irrevocably shaped by the work of Alan Moore with The Killing Joke and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. And I would argue that both the money issue and the supervillain issue ultimately stem from this influence of Moore and Miller.

They popularized the idea of Batman not as a well-meaning vigilante seeking justice, but as a damaged man with just as many psychological issues as the villain he defeats. A man who uses his vast wealth to punch other mentally sick people because his parents died when he was a kid.

This is the the heart of what I call the Moore-Miller Problem. The idea of Batman being a psychologically damaged individual who is on a seemingly endless pursuit of vengeance; where his villains feed into his obsession just as he perpetuates theirs, is about the least interesting take that Bruce Wayne and Batman could be taken.

Now, I'm not saying that many of these issues didn't exist before Moore and Miller popularized them. The truth is that Batman's rogues' gallery should never have been able to escape at all and that is an issue that needs to be resolved as well for the story to make sense. But Moore and Miller definitely popularized the concept of Batman being the true person and Bruce Wayne being the mask.

This is an argument that has existed for years. Is Batman the mask or the person? In modern interpretations, Bruce Wayne is the secret identity used by Batman to mask his identity and finance his true goal. But I would argue that Batman being the true identity of the character is the least interesting way this character could be written.

What is the fundamental forces behind Batman's actions if Batman is the true identity? Batman's only goal is fighting crime, everything else is secondary or inconsequential. This means that the forces which effect Bruce Wayne don't really tend to impact Batman's life, since Bruce Wayne isn't the real person and his losses don't impact the overall crusade against crime. This, to me, wastes the potential of Bruce Wayne as a character.

His drama and how it relates to his persona as Batman could be much more interesting, as I will now explain.


The Improvements

1. The Story is about Bruce Wayne, not Batman

Resolving the Moore-Miller Problem must be our priority to fixing the overall backstory of Batman. And the best way that I can figure to solve this issue begins with transforming the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Batman. And the birth of the idea of Batman goes back to the death of Bruce Wayne's parents.

We cannot get rid of the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne. These are critical aspects of the Batman mythos. But perhaps we can recontextualize them to serve a different purpose.

It is incredibly strange that the death of his parents would effect Bruce Wayne so fundamentally. I understand the tragedy of the event, but the level of connection this event has on him and the impact that it ends up having on everyone around Batman borders on psychosis, at least in how it is written by modern authors. To quote Rocket Racoon in Guardians of the Galaxy, "Everybody's got dead people. That's no excuse to get everyone else dead along the way."

Quite frankly, the death of the Wayne's should hurt Batman as a child, but by the time he is an adult, 20-30 years afterward, Batman has lived without them longer than he has with them, most likely he might not even remember their faces anymore. Due to his youth, the death of his parents shouldn't be the ever present ghost that haunts him.

So how can we use the death of the Waynes' to motivate Batman. By changing how they die. The Waynes' shouldn't be the ghost which motivates Batman, but a lesson which Bruce Wayne is reminded why Batman exists in the first place.

So this is our new story. The Wayne family are an exceptionally family residing in Gotham, a city whose criminal underground has remained incredibly organized due to the presence of super-powered villains in charge of the underground (see Point 2). The Waynes' represent a force of reform and change in the city, utilizing their funds and wealth to uplift areas of the community and finance campaigns for reform. During one of the their events, promoting a new recovery center or other event, some supevillain or common criminal (perhaps a young Oswald Cobblepot or pre-transformation Joker) interrupts the event and kills the Waynes'. Bruce sees this and takes a lesson from his parents. Reform and money can only get you so far, to truly fix the city, Bruce Wayne will need a tool which works outside conventional means, a force in the grey areas. And thus, he creates Batman.

This backstory completes transforms Bruce Wayne's story, making his struggle the central focus. Batman is just a character, a tool used by Wayne to further his goal. And one that could be dropped if it ever stopped being effective. But now, we can design stories where the presence of Batman makes Bruce Wayne's job harder in some cases, or where his personal interests conflict with his goals as Batman.

For example, let me give you the story of our new Harvey Dent/Two-Face.

Harvey Dent/Two-Face
Harvey Dent is a good friend of Bruce Wayne. Dent is running for District Attorney of Gotham on a new anti-corruption campaign, being predominantly financed by Bruce Wayne. But when rumors of Dent's involvement with the mob, coupled with death threats from the criminal underworld put Dent at risk, Bruce Wayne uses his alter-ego as Batman to keep Dent safe.

But when an attempt on Dent's life results in his disfigurement, he begins to blame Batman for the incident. We could then have Dent either win the election and become a force who uses the law and his political power to work against Batman, unintentionally harming Bruce Wayne's cause (losing in his victory), or have Dent slowly be corrupted by his hatred and becoming a force just as corrupted as the elements he tried to replace.

And all from transforming Batman from the true identity of the character to a tool to be used by Bruce Wayne.

2. The Supervillains become Mobsters

A second and relatively minor change which would, I think, fundamentally shift the overall perspective of the Batman mythos is to change the role of his rogues' gallery. An aspect of Batman that has always been incredibly silly is just how obvious it is that his opponents would be either imprisoned or possibly executed for the crimes that they commit, regardless of their mental health. I can't imagine any court that doesn't have its pockets lined that would actually allow the Joker to live based on just how many crimes and murders he has committed.

Which makes the goal of Batman seem incredibly silly and pointlessly cyclical, especially when it seems that they only act to oppose Batman, rather than actually achieving any greater goal.

So my solution is to take a bit from the TV show Gotham and transform the supervillains and rogues' gallery into mobsters and a form of organized and unorganized crime syndicates. Just like during the Prohibition, everyone would know that people like The Joker, The Riddler, and The Penguin exist and commit crimes, but because of political powers and pressures; they can't be touched by traditional means. Their crimes would be to secure their own power or influence, maybe having rivalries and wars between various supervillains. And even when Batman stops a particular crime from occurring, the influence of that supervillains crime syndicate prevents them from being arrested for it.

It's more realistic and it allows us to forge supervillains that can oppose both Bruce Wayne and the Batman alter-ego, while at the same time granting us a real reason for the apparent perpetual existence of some of the comic's greatest villains.



I love the character of Batman. Despite my particular issues with the general structure of what Batman has become in recent years, I still find the Caped Crusader a magnificent concept of a superhero. A man with no particular powers beyond money and an intractable will, waging a one-man war on crime, is exceedingly exciting and cathartic in a world where the power of the individual is perhaps at its most powerless in the political and economic landscape.

Batman, like all superheroes, is a power fantasy. An exemplar of human willpower and an incorruptible force in a corrupted world. But in our modern-day society, perhaps it is time that Batman's famous backstory and the personality that he has derived since the self-sure times of the 1980s and 90s be transformed into a more conflicted and complex character. One whose selfish desires as Bruce Wayne clash with what he knows is right. Perhaps it is time that Batman becomes a tool, rather than a character; and allow Bruce Wayne a chance to show that a person's better nature can triumph in the face of corrupting influences, rather than ignoring them altogether.

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