Determining the validity of a research project: Batman and his villains.

This was a 2nd year university project researching a possible 3rd year dissertation project.

Pilot Project
How Do Batman’s Villains Reflect Aspects of His Own Psyche?

First appearing in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939, Batman today is one of the most universally recognisable cultural icons of all time. Many people argue that a superhero is only as good as their villains and Batman’s are arguably the best, many of which are as recognisable as Batman himself. This project aims to determine the validity of a research project exploring the nature of Batman’s relationship with his villains and decipher what exactly they reveal about him.

Literature Studied

Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon by Will Brooker
Will Brooker is a Cultural Studies professor and has written books on Star Wars, Batman and David Bowie. He focuses on the universal timelessness of these iconic properties and the public’s fascination with them.

Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight by Travis Langley
Batman is examined from a real-world psychological standpoint. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is used to determine whether Batman suffers from proposed conditions. Various case studies are put forward to explain his and his villains’ bizarre behaviour. Freudian and Jungian psychological theories are also applied to Batman et al. Langley’s book became a fundamental text for exploring the title of this project.

Freud by Jonathan Lear
In this book Freud’s theories and psychoanalysis are outlined and evaluated. Useful for a starting point from which to define the psyche as a concept before delving into Batman’s.

Hunting The Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman by Will Brooker
Brooker considers Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and its post 9/11 relevancy. He also discusses authorship and Batman as adaptation. The final chapter discusses Batman in regards to deconstruction, an approach to theory established by Jacques Derrida in the 1960’s.

Jung: A Very Short Introduction by Anthony Stevens
Stevens defines and outlines Jungian theories on the self and wholeness which are concepts derived from Freud.

Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre by Peter Coogan
Coogan defines the comic book superhero in unprecedented depth by outlining the conventions and codes of Superhero as a genre. He establishes a timeframe for the modern superhero whilst tracing their mythic roots. Superheroes as metaphor and the ideology of the superhero are also discussed. Within Superhero, there is a chapter on supervillains and the hero/villain relationship that was particularly valuable. Here Coogan defines and categorises supervillains with specific references to Batman.

Superheroes: A Modern Mythology by Richard Reynolds
Like Coogan, Reynolds explores the origins of superhero comics with comparisons to myths and legends. He focuses on the medium-specific issue of narrative continuity in serialised comics. Also, the idea of the hero is deconstructed within three key texts. One of which is Frank Miller’s Batman mini-series The Dark Knight Returns (1986).

The Batman Files by Matthew K. Manning
A non-academic yet official encyclopaedia of Batman, written from the perspective of Batman’s secret identity, Bruce Wayne. I used this as a consistent referencing tool for the characters involved in this study. Although my study often examines the fluid intertextual nature of the characters involved, it was useful to have a starting point.

The Joker: A Serious Study of The Clown Prince of Crime edited by Robert Moses Peaslee and Robert G. Weiner
The first published collection of essays on The Joker considers his relationship with Batman and why he is so relevant today and. The Joker in film, comics, television, animation and games is examined through magic and mysticism (e.g. carnival), politics, psychology, performance studies and philosophy.

The Many Lives of Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media edited by Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio

This focuses on Batman’s ‘constant process of redefinition’ (Bennett in Pearson & Uricchio, 1991, pviii). It reads into the ‘camp’ aspects of Batman, Batman and ethnography and other audience related studies.

Discussion/Findings

Here I will discuss the most relevant and potentially useful findings of this project. Of the books I read, some were more useful than others. Although, all were enlightening as to the sheer scale to which Batman has been studied and provide suitable backdrop for further study.

Langley analyses Batman using real life psychological diagnoses. He discusses the effect Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma may have on a person. In studying Batman’s psyche in conjunction with his villains’, this was helpful as many of them suffered similar childhood trauma to him. Langley asks why somebody might put on such a costume and what comfort or thrill they might get from it. Furthermore, criminal nature and the personality disorders that might create a criminal are explained. Langley applies Freudian and Jungian psychology to Batman allowing the oedipal, erotic and other theories on more sexually charged incarnations of Batman and The Joker to be considered. There is also a chapter on the women in Batman’s life. This allows for Batman’s penchant for ‘bad
girls’ (e.g. Catwoman and Talia al Ghul) to be assessed. Individual psychological case studies of Batman’s most famous villains are drawn up by Langley, by drawing links between these and Batman it is possible to use Langley’s book as a fundamental text for exploring the psychological nature of this project.

Hunting The Dark Knight, asks if the various manifestations of Batman ‘feed into a single Batman metanarrative?’, i.e. are the Batmans of TV, film, comic books and video games all contributing to a singular article. Furthermore, does this link extend to viral marketing campaigns and tie-in products such as Burger King’s ‘Dark Whopper’ burger. I would expand by applying this theory to the world Batman inhabits. So not only do all versions of Batman contribute to this singular article but I would argue that every facet of every tale contributes to characterising him somewhat. I would cite Gotham City, its mise en scene and its inhabitants (including Batman’s villains) as indicators of Batman’s personality, each factor telling a consumer something about the character. Brooker’s views

are similar to writer, Grant Morrison’s. When Morrison was writer on the Batman comics, he treated the character as having been through each incarnation (e.g. everything from Adam West’s psychedelic 60’s Batman to George Clooney’s nipple-clad Batman were treated as prior phases in Morrison’s Batman’s life) (https://soundcloud.com/ fatmanonbatman/26-grant-morrison-bat-bard).

Brooker states that ‘any representation of Batman… depends, for its own definition, on an alternative other’ (Brooker, 2012, p179). I would argue that Batman’s villains provide this ‘alternative other’. Brooker uses deconstruction in an attempt to dissolve the dichotomies of binary versions of Batmans: e.g. camp/tough, realistic/fantastic, serious/ silly. Deconstruction was introduced to cultural studies by philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1967 work Of Grammatology. Brooker theorises that over the course of Batman’s history, different versions of the character, ‘rather than [exist in] clear binary opposition, … can more accurately be seen as a shifting spectrum’ (Brooker, 2012, p179). This is applicable to Batman’s ever-changing relationship with his moral, motivational and thematic opposites (his villains); especially The Joker, Batman’s antithesis and archenemy. The Derridean means of deconstruction allows for Batman and The Joker to be seen as more than simply chaos and order (or some other thematic binary). Derrida proposes that ‘to impose a binary distinction on [a] fluid intertextual relay is to fix it at a certain point and deliberately construct a contrast from a network that in itself offers no absolute sense of truth, origin or authenticity’ (Brooker, 2012, p182). So, by deconstructing Batman’s relationship with The Joker (and other villains), it may be possible to explore how they interact in more complex ways than simply opposing one another.

Coogan, in Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, states that ‘just as a hero represents the virtues and values of a society or culture, a villain represents an inversion of those values’ (Coogan, 2006, p61). In his chapter on supervillains (chapter four) he establishes ‘The Five Types’ of supervillain: the monster, the enemy commander, the mad scientist, the criminal mastermind, and the inverted-superhero supervillain. Batman’s foes can be categorised into these archetypal groups: 1. The Monster: Killer Croc, Manbat, Clayface; 2. The enemy commander: Ra’s al Ghul, Talia al Ghul; 3. The mad scientist: Scarecrow, Doctor Hugo Strange, Mr Freeze; 4. The criminal mastermind: The Riddler, Two-Face; 5. The inverted superhero: The Joker, Prometheus, The Wrath. Of course, there are other villains, and each would fit into one of these categories. Also, many overlap into more than one category but the point withstands, each falls into at least one.

A common motif in Batman narratives is the idea that he is personally responsible for the creation of his villains; this is one of the main features of the inverted-superhero super villain who often has a direct link to the hero in their creation (e.g The Joker, Two- Face, The Penguin). Arguably Batman is responsible for the creation of all of his villains because in origin stories he initially faces off against mere robbers and gangsters (Batman: Year One, Batman Begins). It is not until he dons a costume that criminals begin to do the same, becoming more elaborate, theatrical and dangerous. Batman’s villains ‘mark an innovation in villainy because they are such direct responses to the superhero’ (Coogan, 2006, p72). Coogan’s villain framework is ideal for analysing Batman in terms of his villains. In terms of psychology, Coogan’s displacement theory states that a hero’s villains represent the pleasure-seeking parts of his psyche (the id): the hero has to suppress selfish urges, whereas his villains embody them (Coogan, 2006, p104).

In The Joker: A Serious Study of The Clown Prince of Crime, the essay ‘Playing With The Villain: Critical Play and The Joker as Guide in Batman: Arkham Asylum (video game)’, Bezio explores Batman and The Joker’s relationship and examines their reliance on each other. In the game, The Joker holds complete control of the narrative, having taken over the asylum and acts as Batman’s guide and designer of the in-game challenges. Bezio asks why not either give up or kill The Joker. In a video game, either of these logical choices would obviously end the game, so indulging The Joker is productive within the medium’s conventions; although Bezio’s ideas may be applicable to other mediums. “The Joker’s narrative control forms the foundation of Arkham Asylum, just as the ‘relationship’ between Batman and The Joker has traditionally shaped their characters’’ (Bezio in Peaslee & Weiner, 2015, p131). The game itself is a case study of not only Batman and The Joker but the themes and characters of Batman’s world and it, along with Bezio’s analysis, speaks volumes of the Batman/villain dynamic. Bezio also compares the game to ‘carnival’, stating “the world of carnival, like Arkham Asylum, is a ‘world inside out’ that contains ‘giants, dwarfs, monsters, and trained animals’ descriptions that apply to the various inmates of Arkham Asylum” (Bezio, quoting Bakhtin, in Peaslee & Weiner, 2015, p133).

Earlier I mentioned deconstructing binary views on Batman and The Joker through the works of Jacques Derrida. Johan Nilsson, in his essay Rictus Grins and Glasgow Smiles from The Joker: A Serious Study of The Clown Prince of Crime, attempts something similar. He states, regarding Batman and The Joker, that ‘while they function as opposites, they are also intrinsically tied to each other… The Joker is not only a counter to Batman but a satirical figure in which a subversive attitude towards contemporary society is realised’ (Nilsson in Peaslee & Weiner, 2015, p165). This area of study is further explored in the same book by Micael Goodrum in his essay “You Complete Me”: The Joker as Symptom in which he also expands on Batman and The Joker as binary, stating that ‘this doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story’. He expands, “Batman and The Joker may be locked into a relationship of mutual construction, but they also draw on and contribute to more general social processes; their relationship does not exist in a vacuum… [and to] truly understand the nature of [their] connection it is essential to move beyond such categories as ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘hero’ and ‘villain’”. Goodrum prefers to look at them as ‘symptoms’, a term defined by Slovak Zizek in The Sublime Object of Ideology.

 

Method

This was a qualitative research project to assess a self-posed question’s validity. The first thing to establish was the question itself – ‘How do Batman’s villains represent aspects of his own psyche?’. Then, in order to have clear definitions of the keywords in the question – Batman, villain and psyche, I sought out books on these topics, and derived definitions from The Batman Files by Manning, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre by Coogan and Freud by Lear.

The critical framework needed for this study was a psychological one. Batman’s story begins with childhood trauma (the murder of his parents). Therefore, an analysis of the effect of those events can be formed through Freudian theories on the different stages of childhood development and on children’s relationships and attitudes towards their parents. Freud’s works also pertain to Batman as an example of repressed desires. Because Batman represses his pleasurable urges in order to focus on his mission, Freud would argue that these urges would then manifest subconsciously, effect Batman’s relationships and be decipherable in his dreams; Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean lends itself particularly well to Freudian dream analysis due to McKean’s abstract art. Jungian ideas on the self and the pursuit of ‘wholeness’ (Stevens, 1994, p190) also apply to Batman’s individual practices.

I knew beforehand that there would be existing research on the basic psychological theory being applied in this project but had to determine whether it had been applied to Batman. So before settling on my question, I used Google Books, Google Scholar and library searches to determine whether it had.

Due to the vast reach of Batman’s pop-culture appeal, it seems that every major pop-culture website has some sort of clickbait rundown of Batman’s villains as reflections of Batman. It was tempting to reference sites like IGN, whatculture.com and Comicvine but I opted to stick to published academic literature in order to establish a critical framework. Websites can be biased, inaccurate and determining the reliability of the author can be difficult.

Critique

In this critique of my findings, I will attempt to refine my question, taking into account my newfound awareness of the areas of theory through which Batman and his villains have been studied.

This project has revealed areas of theory I was previously unaware of, such as Derrida’s ideas on deconstruction and the Zizekian symptom. Also, some of the essays I referenced in turn referenced other works. For example Nilsson’s essay Rictus Grins and Glasgow Smiles expands on an essay by Marc DiPaolo in Heroes of Film, Comics and American Culture: Essays on Real and Fictional Defenders of Home. By looking through the bibliographies and notes of the research I studied, more research then becomes apparent.

Although a psychological approach to Batman and his villains proves interesting, other than in Langley’s Batman and Psychology, there isn’t much existing theory specific to the subject. Hence, I would widen the scope of this project, changing the question to simply, ‘How are Batman’s villains reflections of Batman himself?’, therefore, not limiting my approach. This would enable me to discuss the topic using Derridean methods of deconstruction, Coogan’s displacement theory, Zizekkian symptom theory and apply other readings such as a queer or masculine one. Furthermore, the scope could then be narrowed in other ways. Whilst many of Batman’s villains do reflect aspects of his personality, e.g. Bane (Batman’s physicality), The Riddler (Batman’s intellect), Two-Face (Batman’s duality); The Joker quite simply blows the rest out of the water in regards to any thematic resonance. Coogan describes The Joker as ‘a weak-egoed ideological doppelgänger who bends to the matrix of Batman’s pathological self-delusion that costumed vigilantism is an effective response to crime’. Therefore, the question could be further specified to, ‘How are Batman and The Joker reflected within each other?’. If the question’s scope became too wide by including more areas of theory, this specification of character acts as a counterweight. It is worth noting that Batman and The Joker share an over seventy-five year history. Thus, although the challenge of tackling their entire history across all mediums is attractive (if a little daunting), perhaps it would be wise to specify here, too. For example, ‘In The Dark Knight (2008), how are Batman and The Joker reflected within each other?’ or ‘In the comics of Grant Morrison, how are Batman and The Joker reflected in each other?’.

Conclusion

My research for this project not only led me through a refinement process of its titular question, but opened channels that presented new questions entirely. I have found that existing research on Batman and his villains, particularly The Joker, is both vast and detailed. Should an examination of their relationships be undertook, there would be more than adequate amounts of theory to draw from, applicable to the various incarnations of the characters across all mediums.

Bibliography

  • Arkham Asylum. USA: Rocksteady Studios, 2009. videogame.
  • Batman Begins. USA: Christopher Nolan, 2005. film.
  • Brooker, W (2000). Batman Unmasked. New York: The Continuum InternationalPublishing Group Inc.
  • Brooker, W (2012). Hunting The Dark Knight. London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd.
  • Coogan, P (2006). Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Texas: MonkeyBrain Books.
  • Guerro, T. (2011). Off My Mind: Are Batman’s Villains Reflections of his Personality?.Available: http://comicvine.gamespot.com/articles/off-my-mind-are-batmans-villains- reflections-of-hi/1100-142930/. Last accessed Jan 2017.

 

  • Lear, J (2005). Freud. London: Routledge.
  • Manning, M (2011). The Batman Files. New York: DC Comics.
  • Miller, F (1986-1987). Batman: Year One. New York: DC Comics.
  • Miller, F (1986). The Dark Knight Returns. New York: DC Comics
  • Morrison, G (1989). Batman: Arkham Asylum, a serious house on serious earth. NewYork : DC Comics.
  • Pearson, R & Uricchio, W (1991). The Many Lives of Batman. London: BFI Publishing.
  • Peaslee, R & Weiner, R (2015). The Joker: A Serious Study of The Clown Prince ofCrime. Mississippi : The University Press of Mississippi.
  • Reynolds, R (1992). Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd.
  • Slovak, Z (1999). The Sublime Object of Ideology: London: Verso
  • Smith, K & Morrison, G. (2014). Grant Morrison: Bat-Bard. Available: https://soundcloud.com/fatmanonbatman/26-grant-morrison-bat-bard. Last accessed Jan 2017.
  • Stewart, K. (2014). Batman Symbolism: What 15 Most Famous Villains Really Mean.Available: http://whatculture.com/film/batman-symbolism-what-15-most-famous-villains-

    really-mean-2?page=1. Last accessed Jan 2017.

  • Stevens, A (1994). Jung: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press Inc
  • Watts, S. (2014). A HISTORY OF BATMAN’S MIRROR-IMAGE VILLAINS. Available: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/04/03/a-history-of-batmans-mirror-image-villains. Last accessed Jan 2017.
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