Literary Excerpt: Margaret Atwood on Batman

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cover for Margaret Atwood's new book In Other WorldsMargaret Atwood explores science fiction, fantasy and mythology in her newest book In Other Worlds. This excerpt contains her look at Batman through a Jungian lens. Enjoy...

In addition to his disguising "normal" alter-ego, the superhero of the 1940s was required to have a powerful enemy or two. Carl Jung made no secret of the fact that he based much of his mapping of the psyche on literature and art. … A comic-book character leading a split life and engaged in a Catwomanbattle between Good and Evil might well be expected to show Jungian characteristics, and in fact Batman is an almost perfect case study.

 

Batman has three main enemies, who to a Jungian would obviously be projections of Bruce Wayne that Wayne himself has not come to terms with. (In Blakean terms, the two male enemies would be called his Spectres and the female one might be his Emanation.) For Bruce, the female element is conflicted - he's a confirmed bachelor, and has no nice-girl Lois Lane sentimental figure in his life. But the sinuous and desirable Catwoman with whom he frequently skirmishes the Jokermust be his Jungian "dark anima" figure: even a child could recognize that there was a lot of unresolved electricity going on between those two.

 

The sadistic card-playing Joker, with his sinister-clown appearance, is Batman's Jungian Shadow - his own interest in dress-up and jokes turned malicious. There's another Shadow villain - the Penguin - who wears an outfit reminiscent of period cartoons of capitalists, with spats, cigarette holder, and top hat. His civilian alias even has a three-barrelled, pretentious, old-plutocrat faux-The PenguinEnglish name: Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot. The Penguin is the "rich" side of playboy Bruce Wayne gone rancid.

 

Then there's Robin, the Boy Wonder, who is Bruce's ward. Is Bruce gay? Don't even think about it. From the point of view of we Robin, the Boy Wondermythosophists, Robin as an elemental spirit, like Shakespeare's Puck and Ariel - note the bird name, which links him to the air. His function in the plot is to aid the benevolent master trickster, Batman, with his plans. From the point of view of we Jungians, however, Robin is a Peter Pan figure - he never grows up - and he represents the repressed child within Bruce Wayne, whose parents you'll recall, were murdered when he was very young, thus stunting Bruce's emotional growth.

 

This is the kind of hay, or perhaps hash, that can be made of such comic-book superheroes once you really get going. Both they and Jung himself can be viewed through Hoffmanesque* magic spectacles and seen to be part of the same mythology.

 

But from the point of view of we kids - the primary readers - Robin was simply ourselves - what we would be like if we, too, had masks and capes and could go running around in them under the delusion that nobody would know who we were, and - better still - stay up long after our bedtimes, allowed to participate in the doings of what we fondly hoped was the adult world.

Batman, by Alex Ross

 

*This is a reference to The Tales of Hoffman, Offenbach's opera. Protagonist E.T.A. Hoffman falls in love with a mechanical doll and when he wears magic glasses, sees her as a real person.

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11 comments

  • Comment Link Grizzled Whiskers Monday, 24 October 2011 22:19 posted by Grizzled Whiskers

    Can't Robin be a Jungian archetype and Bruce's catamite at the same time??

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Tuesday, 25 October 2011 17:01 posted by Chris Dierkes

    hmm...well one of the Robins was a girl (Stephanie Brown) so she can't be a catamite right? Also the first Robin (Grayson) becomes Nightwing which is an interesting parallel to Batman and throws into question whether Robin is always a Peter Pan figure. In fact, Jason Todd and Tim Drake also become superheroes in their own right.

    So I suppose the Robin figure maybe Peter Pan though various characters graduate from the role.

    Which leads me to question the catamite theory and think that has more to do with a sense of Bruce never having a family or a son/daughter of his own. In that sense, I can get the Peter Pan element as an inner shadow within Bruce. But other than a campy 60s show (not in the comics--brilliantly spoofed by Saturday Night Live in Ambiguously Gay Duo) I don't see the gay quality in their relationship. Maybe I've got my blinders on :)

    I'd say the link (at least initially) is more about trauma and horror. With Grayson the link is obviously one of orphans and seeing one's parents murdered.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Tuesday, 25 October 2011 20:44 posted by TJ Dawe

    I think it all depends on which interpretive lens you use to look at these characters.

    The Jungian perspective was so interesting to me because I'd never thought to look at the characters that way. The notion of Robin as an air sprite is supported by him having come from a family of acrobats. Also, his hero name isn't very heroic. There are a lot more dangerous birds he could have been named after. But "robin" really does accentuate the air sprite symbolism. He's also happy and wisecracking, like a trickster fairy.

    If you want to look at the characters through the lens of realism, well, the whole thing collapses right away. But if you grant the premise - that an orphaned billionaire would dedicate his life to fighting crime, and do so as a costumed vigilante, and that the police go along with this - then the character would age, and have to anticipate the possibility of grievous injury ending his career. So it'd make sense that he'd train an apprentice - or series of them - to take over the work when he can't do it anymore.

    If you look at superheroes as symbols of sexuality - ordinary seeming adults who periodically take off their clothes and reveal new versions of themselves which are either ultra-masculine or hyper-feminine (dressed in their underwear, no less), then the fact that Batman and Robin spend a lot of time in a cave together, and continually get incapacitated and tied up.... that starts to suggest another kind of relationship altogether.

    And there's no reason you can't look at the characters through multiple lenses at once. But the Jungian point of view makes a kind of sense that to me that no previous interpretation has. Superheroes are larger than life. They're colourful. They (most of them) defy the laws of physics. They're analogous to characters in Greek and Roman and Norse mythology. They represent aspects of the human psyche. And this mythology clearly speaks to people, especially now that "serious" literature doesn't rove into this fanciful realm so much anymore - which is the premise of Atwood's first section of In Other Worlds. Great book, by the way.

  • Comment Link Tim Mooney Friday, 28 October 2011 15:45 posted by Tim Mooney

    For what it's worth, Puck's seldom mentioned first name (in "Midsummer Night's Dream") is "Robin."

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Friday, 28 October 2011 16:51 posted by TJ Dawe

    Robin Goodfellow! Of course! Thanks for this, Tim. Bob Kane must have been tapping into some serious unconscious material when creating this mythology. The fact that the characters have been in constant publication for more than seventy years, with no signs of going away (in fact, Batman and co. are possibly more popular than ever now) attests to that pretty strongly.

  • Comment Link Z. Agbah Saturday, 29 October 2011 22:58 posted by Z. Agbah

    What an interesting read. I'm a fan of Batman, precisely because he's the most psychologically compelling superhero. It's almost as if he has a dissociative identity--the playboy, flimsy throwaway Bruce Wayne, and the rock-like, brooding and serious Batman, who cares too deeply and loves too hard, but will give up that chance of love if suspicion demands it, as seen in the graphic novel 'Hush'. Bruce Wayne/Batman is seen by readers as two separate entities, because The Joker is the other side of Batman, not Bruce Wayne, and he remains Batman's nemesis because they fulfil each others' needs--Batman needs evil to thrive in order for him to vanquish it, and The Joker needs Batman to remind himself not to be so serious.

    In the DC comicverse, the Joker was a responsible family man whose wife and child were murdered by thugs who then threw him into a toxic waste dump that turned his hair green and damaged his brain. The Joker can never be serious again; if he lets seriousness overtake him, he will by that token have to grieve for his slaughtered family, and recognise his pain, rather than run from it, as he always does. Batman reminds him of the seriousness of life, of which he wants no part. The Joker enjoys the game he and Batman play, and will happily put the whole of Gotham City in danger to get Batman to play. The Joker represents what Bruce Wayne could have become, had he given himself over to the madness of destructive instead of constructive revenge .

    Bob Kane was influenced by Robert E. Howard, the creator of Solomon Kane and Conan the Barbarian. Howard was a scrawny, 'geeky' boy who transformed himself into a muscleman through weightlifting. The two characters are clearly Howard's alter egos. While Solomon is physically lightweight, ultra religious and cerebral, using his intellect and faith to solve crimes and mysteries, Conan is muscular and physical, using brute force to achieve his ends. Batman is a perfect meshing of the two; the detective with a heightened sense of moral righteousness, and the muscleman with the brute force and determination to conquer his foes.

    Personally, I think Robin may be the comic personification of Bob Kane, who was a teenager when he first created Batman. Robin serves as a perfect foil to Batman; where Batman broods, Robin laughs off his problems. Where Batman takes his nightly patrols seriously, Robin sees it as an adventure. Because his character is a child, and is not afraid of The Dark Knight, he can tell Batman exactly what he needs to hear, be it good or bad ; 'out of the mouths of babes' and so on. He is not sycophantic to Bruce Wayne or awed by Batman's presence, he simply tells it like it is.

    As to them being lovers, I highly doubt it; Batman sees Robin as his heir. He might well be into men, and I don't doubt it, seeing as he's one of the most homoerotic figures in the comicverse, and as Bruce Wayne, his interactions with women are brief and throwaway, like he himself is, but as Batman he may well be impotent, even if he is sexually attracted to Catwoman. He would like to have a relationship with her, perhaps, but since she exists between both lawful and criminal worlds, he errs on the side of caution, as his moral rectitude would demand. Perhaps it is partly sexual frustration that makes him such a violent character, opting for beating up bad guys instead of 'getting his end away'. Perhaps he wants to be Catwoman; in consummating a relationship with her it could mean the symbolic drawing together of his feminine and masculine personas.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Monday, 31 October 2011 21:44 posted by TJ Dawe

    Thanks for all this, Z. The Joker being the other side of Batman comes up as a theme in The Dark Knight:

    The Joker: Oh, you. You just couldn't let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You are truly incorruptible, aren't you? Huh? You won't kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won't kill you because you're just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.

    Batman: You'll be in a padded cell forever.

    The Joker: Maybe we can share one. You know, they'll be doubling up, the rate this city's inhabitants are losing their minds.

    and in this passage:

    Batman: Then why do you want to kill me?

    The Joker: [laughs] I don't want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, NO! No. You... you... complete me.

    Batman: You're garbage who kills for money.

    The Joker: Don't talk like one of them. You're not! Even if you'd like to be. To them, you're just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don't, they'll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve.

    This passage nicely highlights the fact that Batman, though technically on the side of the law, is an outsider to society, very much like a super-criminal would be. And, appropriately, the movie ends with him becoming a wanted fugitive, taking the rap for the deaths of multiple cops.

    The one part of Margaret Atwood's interpretation I don't agree with is her comment that the Joker is Batman's "own interest in dress-up and jokes turned malicious." I agree with you, Z - Batman doesn't joke. He's deadly serious, and meets the Joker's jokes with a grim, straight face. Although in the 60s, the book's tone was quite a bit lighter, as well as on the TV show.

    I agree that Robin isn't like a sexual partner, symbolic or otherwise. A very small part of the audience is gay. The mythology resonating on so widespread a scale suggests that the symbolism has further reaching resonances. DC comics has very recently rebooted all of its titles. They're now free to update elements of the stories to make them more relevant, or sell more, or just work better. Maybe they'll explore Batman and Catwoman's attraction there. Or Maybe they'll make Robin gay. I kind of doubt it, though.

  • Comment Link Theremin Nipplecat Tuesday, 01 November 2011 16:12 posted by Theremin Nipplecat

    Ya that or he's just The God Damned Batman.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Tuesday, 01 November 2011 16:35 posted by TJ Dawe

    Theremin, you've got a valid point. There's nothing wrong with enjoying Batman (in the comics or on the big screen) exactly as he's presented, getting swept right into that world for the sheer thrill and pleasure of it. In fact, this is the way the vast majority of Batman fans experience him, and that's kept him in print for seventy-some years and counting.

  • Comment Link Kitty Wilson-Pote Monday, 14 November 2011 17:38 posted by Kitty Wilson-Pote

    Much fun and food for thought here, especially as the dark side of Batman is what gives him his distinctive appeal vs the clean-cut goodness of contemporary peer Superman.

    Both figures helped to 'bring me up' as a little girl in the 1950's. (Hid under a girlfriend's porch to read her comics, actually, as they weren't allowed at home -- ironically, it was this forbidden fare that led to my lifelong love-affair with literature and psychology.)

    From the start, one of these captivating heroes engendered deep feelings of safety and the other shivers of dangerous (albeit protective) daring, both echoing emerging aspects of a young fan's character.

    As Theremin reminds us, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and yet it's enjoyable to trace how the archetypes pervade even our innocent pleasures in the realm of entertainment.

    Dreams are said to be the personal myths of the individual, as myths are the dreams of humankind; it seems to me that these beloved fictional figures are shared dreams that are portals to understanding ourselves and our times.

    (Oh my, so love the Penguin's public alias -- didn't remember that delicious moniker, "Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot"!)

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Tuesday, 15 November 2011 04:43 posted by TJ Dawe

    Comics weren't forbidden in my house, but they were very restricted, which of course, increased their allure, and caused me to reread the ones I had endlessly, squeezing every last drop I could from them.

    Grant Morrison's book SuperGods (a passage from which forms the basis for another article - http://www.beamsandstruts.com/articles/item/671-superman) describes Superman and Batman as the two central and contrasting figures of the superhero genre - the Sun and the Moon. Batman was happy and friendly in the 50s and 60s (especially on the TV show), but his initial incarnation, and in the last few decades in the comics, he's been very dark indeed. Superman has always been the broad shouldered, smiling figure of friendliness and righteousness. A person's attraction to one or the other could form a type of psychological litmus test, I suppose. Chuck Klosterman posits a similar litmus test in terms of a basketball fan's preference for the Boston Celtics or the LA Lakers.

    "these beloved fictional figures are shared dreams that are portals to understanding ourselves and our times" - well said. So much of what I write on this site proceeds from that exact premise. Works of art are birthed and released to the public in staggering quantities every year. Only a few create significant ripples. The ones that do... those are signposts, pointing to the collective psyche.

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