Why Everyone Should Read Batman
"Why are all the characters you play so miserable?"
That was the question that stopped me in my tracks. It was true. Any time I wanted begin some kind of role-playing game, I created some horribly conflicted, broken character to be my own.
It's even weirder, though, because I've had a pretty blessed life. It's not perfect, sure, but I haven't endured any great trauma. I'm no Vietnam veteran. I've never been pinned down in a foxhole under mortar fire. So why do the characters I create have such exaggerated struggles? Normally, I wouldn't worry about it. We all have our quirks, and I'm not narcissistic to think that everything I do is a key to universal truth. Here's the thing, though--I know a lot of people who do the same thing. The characters they dream up are real class-A basket-cases. What's more, when you think about it, this extends beyond just the nerd community. We all love a fractured, damaged hero.
That's right, we're talking about Batman.
Batman is insanely popular (which, obviously, is because he's the best hero). But he's got a pretty simplistic backstory. Rich boy, parents murdered, becomes Batman. Still, this hasn't stopped Batman from captivating the minds of millions in comic books, movies, and video games. Batman, the world's richest trauma victim continues to entertain. Why? We are attracted to brokenness.
When you meet a joyful person (a species of human becoming rarer and rarer), there is an air about them that is warm, filled with light, and welcoming. Contrast that when a damaged person is around, one that everyone knows is damaged. There is a pervasive desire to know why and how and where. We want to know what broke them. What made them that way. How they're dealing with it. We suddenly become investigative journalists around broken people.
Batman comics are full of that mystery. You know he's going to win. That's a given. It's not a surprise when you read the last page and Gotham is still safe and Batman can hang up the cowl again. It's how he got there. You're mystified by the moral battle, not the physical one. Can Batman hold to his unyielding "no kill rule" again? Is this the issue that the reader will see Batman break? We read with fascination as this orphaned billionaire fights a one-man crusade against evil and injustice. We admire a man who took his tragedy and vowed to never let it happen to someone else.
The comics have something that the movies will never have, Batman's internal dialogue. Batman is more than a rich brute that can hit people. He thinks. He struggles. He endures. Just as we look at Batman with curiosity, so does Batman look with vengeful (and yet empathetic) interest on the brokenness of his rogues gallery. This is because Batman recognizes something that for some reason we all constantly forget:
We are all broken.
The joyful people, the sad people the in-between, we are all broken in some way. The reason I want everyone to read Batman is because he teaches us how to channel our brokenness into something beneficial. What makes his villains evil (aside from all their evil deeds) is that while he channeled his brokenness into something good, they allowed themselves to be consumed by it. Batman stands close on the edge though, while he hasn't been consumed by it, he has allowed himself to be defined by it, which can sometimes be just as problematic. I'm not saying Batman is perfect, but he is a good exemplar of what to do in some cases.
There is a popular sentimental adage of whose authorship I have no clue, but it goes something like, "we're all broken and it's our neighbors who have the pieces to put us back together." What does that even mean? Once again, Batman provides an answer. What has Batman been doing over the years? Has he done this all alone? Or has he created the Bat family? He tried to do it on his own, and even when he insisted on being alone, others saw his need for help and aided him even when Batman didn't think he needed it. The answer to our brokenness cannot be found within us, but is found in our relationship to others.
Our brokenness shows us something. We are incomplete. We do not possess the means within ourselves to fix us. We need other people. We need community and relationship.
You can find this principle in many philosophical and religious thoughts, of course one being Christianity. The answer isn't in you. It's outside of you. It's in the relationships you form with others. Martin Buber, a Jewish Existentialist of the early 20th century understood this. In a book called I and Thou (1923) he described the three relationships that define our "self:"
1. I and Nature
2. I and Thee
3. I and God.
It is in those relationships, and whatever answers you conclude about them, that you will either find the answer to your brokenness, or a deepening of it. Batman, in all of his stubbornness, realized this. So his story, in some weird stretch of the imagination, is our story. The highs and lows of his relationships with the Robins. Bruce's many unsuccessful romantic attempts. The deep ideological struggle between Batman and the Joker. All of these are simply dramatized stories of our day to day lives. They may sound much more cool and exciting, but we go through these stories each day.
So connect with these stories, and most importantly, connect with others. Read these stories because somewhere in them is a story about us. Accept that brokenness, and see where you can fill someone else's, and where someone can fill yours.
The choice is yours. I recommend Batman: Year One (1988) to start.