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 GREEK MYTHS ORIENTING THE BATMAN'S NARRATIVES:
AN ARCHEOLOGY OF THE IMAGINARY IN POP CULTURE


 

The Batman's Canonic Imaginary

The Batman is one of the most popular and successful characters in pop culture. Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger for comics in 1939, Batman’s narratives have built, reproduced, and shared a unique and cohesive imaginary.

Within its narratives, a set of articulated symbolic elements bring similar and repetitive images, symbols, and archetypes related to the main characters (Batman, Officer Gordon, The Joker, etc.) and other central components (Gotham City, Batmobile, etc.). These elements compound the core of the Batman’s imaginary.
           
The existence of a group of canonical elements in Batman narratives has been demonstrated by several scholars. For example, in The Many Lives of the Batman, William Urichio and Roberta E. Pearson identified the fact that “five key components constitute the core character of the Batman: traits/attributes; events; recurrent supporting characters; setting; and iconography.”

Furthermore, the importance of preserving these canonical elements in the Batman stories is strengthened in the “Bat-Bible," a document written by Dennis O’Neal, editor of DC Comics in the 1970s and 1980s. According to Will Brooker, the bible outlines “everything the present editor thinks new writers and artists need to know to do basic Batman stories.”
           
Based on Urichio and Pearson’s analysis as well as the DC Comics Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to the Characters of the DC Universe by Scott Jimenez and Phil Beaty, it is possible to summarize the following characteristics that have been constant in the Batman narratives since its origin:

  • Bruce Wayne is the Batman, a hero without supernatural powers: he is a wealthy man, heir of a huge fortune that supports his heroic activities; he is very intelligent and an autodidact; he has developed outstanding physical capacity and abilities as well as great deductive skills.

  • Bruce Wayne is obsessed with fighting against crime due to the trauma of witnessing his parents murdered when he was a child and because of a strong desire for vengeance.

  • Bruce Wayne leads a double life in Gotham City (a version of New York): he lives in Wayne Manor, which houses the Bat Cave, the Batman hideout and headquarters.

  • Inspired by a bat, Bruce adopts a dark and frightening visual appearance – including cape, cowl, boots, gauntlets, and armor body with his icon – to scare his enemies and to lurk unseen in blackness.

  • Alfred Pennyworth is the mentor of Bruce Wayne/Batman - likewise Bruce Wayne/Batman is the mentor of Robin.

Some new redundant traits have been developed in the contemporary Batman narratives, such as the graphic novels Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller, 1986); Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader (Neil Gaiman, 2009); and the films Batman: The Dark Knight Trilogy (Christopher Nolan, 2005, 2008, 2012).

Thus, since the aesthetic and commercial rebirth of the hero in 1986, with Frank Miller’s graphic novel, the contemporary narratives about The Batman have emphasized other features that have been recurrent in the caped crusader stories in comics, movies, cartoons, and video games, such as the following:

  • The use of science and technology in Batman’s actions (in criminals and Batman enemies' actions too).

  • The Batman is characterized as a “vigilante,” a hero who takes the law into his own hands, follows his own moral code, regardless of the legal system. He is “officially hunted” by police forces.

  • The city (Gotham) is deeply ill (mainly because of corruption and moral degradation), and, since there is a symbiosis between Bruce Wayne/Batman and the city, the salvation of Gotham means his own salvation and vice-versa.

Regardless of the several variations developed by different authors, artists, screenwriters, editors, and directors, the narratives have shared a set of common components that compound the core of the imaginary built by its stories through different media.


From Mythemes to Archetypes

The recurrent and long-standing elements in the core of The Batman’s narratives are strongly present in the contemporary imaginary of the hero. According to Gilbert Durand, each one of these characteristics constitutes a mytheme, a feature related to a founder myth that emerges from a narrative due to its redundancy. Durand also asserts that founding myths have always been in circulation within cultural products, and historical periods have been implicitly or explicitly oriented (or disoriented) by one or more myths. Based on this hypothesis, this article identifies the founding myths that can be orienting (or disorienting) the Batman’s twenty-first century imaginary.

In order to identify these founding myths, the first step is to delineate what sociological and psychological functions these redundant characteristics (or mythemes) have had in the Batman’s stories (Table 1).

Table 1: Mythemes and Their Functions in The Batman’s Narratives

mytheme

functions

Bruce Wayne is The Batman, a hero without supernatural powers: Bruce is a wealthy man, heir of a huge fortune that supports his heroic activities; he is very intelligent and an autodidact; he has developed outstanding physical capacity and abilities as well as great deductive skills.

The idea prevails of the individual's ability to get power by himself (through his own efforts, qualities, and merits) and his radical combat (separation) of opposite values (supernatural, evil).
 

Bruce Wayne leads a double life in Gotham City (a version of New York): he lives in Wayne Manor, which houses the Bat Cave, the Batman hideout and headquarters.

The idea prevails of the reunion of “two in one” in which the independence of each part is preserved; the harmonization of opposites also prevails, where the original characteristics of each element is sustained and not faded; both parts work in symbiosis (in the Bruce Wayne-Batman symbiosis and in the Bruce Wayne/Batman-Gotham City symbiosis).

Inspired by a bat, Bruce adopts a dark and frightening visual appearance – including cape, cowl, boots, gauntlets and armor body with his icon – to scare his enemies and to lurk unseen in the blackness.

Bruce Wayne is obsessed with fighting against crime due to the trauma of witnessing his parents murdered when he was a child.

The idea of domination prevails, the power imposed through fear; the opposition between good and evil; the desire of vengeance and an iconography to show the potency of the hero in his dominance over death.

 

Bruce Wayne, as himself or as The Batman, has in Alfred Pennyworth his mentor likewise he (as Bruce Wayne or as Batman) is the mentor of Robin.

The logic of domination prevails - that there is in the relationships leader-follower, master-disciple, chief-minion; hierarchy is based on knowledge, wisdom, and background.

Batman uses science and technology in his actions (criminals and his enemies also do the same).

The logic of domination based on technology and knowledge (science) prevails; potency comes from the technological products as an extension of the human body; great power exists with the (technological) weapons.  

The Batman is characterized as a “vigilante,” a hero who takes the law into his own hands, follows his own moral code, regardless of the legal system. He is “officially hunted” by police forces.

The logic of heroic potency, autonomy, and individualization prevails; the hero is “above the law,” on the top of the hierarchy. 

The city (Gotham) is deeply ill (mainly because of corruption and moral degradation) and, since there is a symbiosis between Batman and the city, the salvation of Gotham means his own salvation and vice-versa.

The logic of fighting against corruption and moral degradation (the “dark side” of the city) prevails; salvation comes from the defeat and elimination of evil.

 

Based on the functions of each mytheme (Table 1), the second step matches the archetypes that represent these meanings (Table 2).

Table 2: Main Archetypes in the Core of The Batman Narratives

functions

archetype

The idea prevails of the individual's ability to get power by himself (through his own efforts, qualities, and merits) and his radical combat (separation) of opposite values (supernatural, evil).

Hero – a rational/scientific human hero who sacrifices himself in benefit of others

“Two in one” with the independence of each part; the harmonization of opposites (the original characteristics of each element is sustained and not faded); both parts work in symbiosis.

Double – masks that preserve identities; transit between two worlds

The idea of domination prevails, the power imposed through fear; the opposition between good and evil; the desire of vengeance and an iconography to show the potency of the hero in his dominance over death.

Shadow – the “inside monster” in the hero is used as a weapon to threaten external “monsters” (enemies) and the “dark side” of the city that arises from corruption and moral degradation

The logic of domination prevails - that there is in the relationships leader-follower, master-disciple, chief-minion; hierarchy is based on knowledge, wisdom, and background.

Mentor – the wise (old) man who teaches young ones

The logic of domination based on technology and knowledge (science) prevails; potency comes from the technological products as an extension of the human body; great power exists with (technological) weapons.  

Scientist – a “face” of the hero who uses science and technology as main resources and weapons

The logic of heroic potency, autonomy, and individualization prevails; the hero is “above the law,” on the top of the hierarchy. 

Vigilante – a “face” of the hero who obeys his own moral codes and does not necessarily follow the law or respect the authorities

The convergence of canonic images in the Batman narratives shows that the archetypes of hero, vigilante, scientist, mentor, double, and shadow are in the basis of the main symbolic elements in stories. Based on these archetypes, the next step is to look for some of the founding myths that can be driving its narratives.

 

Founding Myths Orienting the Batman's Imaginary

In order to study the role of myth in the imaginary, Durand proposed a method called myth criticism. Ana Taís Martins Portanova Barros explains that myth criticism has as its goal to check themes or obsessive metaphors that appear in cultural works in general. According to Durand, the importance of myth criticism lies in helping readers understand a work since "Myth would somehow be a matrix 'model' of all discourses, structured by fundamental patterns and archetypes of the psyche of sapiens sapiens, our species. Thus, it is necessary to investigate which myths more or less explicit (or latent!) animate the expression of a second and non-mystical 'language.' What is the reason therefore? Because a work, an author, an age – or at least a 'moment' of an age – is 'blinded'...explicitly or implicitly, by one or more myths, in a paradigmatic way, and becomes aware of their aspirations, desires, fears, terrors."

According to Ivan Pintor Iranzo, “myth criticism proceeds by analyzing the archetypal dimensions of the cultural work or object, identifying its minimum units, the mythemes, and comparing them with an ideal version of the myth they are linked to."

Based on the archetypes and their functions identified in The Batman’s narratives in this investigation, we can outline the following:


- Batman’s narratives are about a human, rational, and scientific hero who gets power by his own efforts, qualities, and merits, without any divine or supernatural support;
- Batman’s power is also fed by his anger and obsession;
- Batman/Bruce Wayne lives a double life - one of them masked and about defeating evil;
- Batman uses technology and science to improve his potency, using technological resources as extensions of his body and weapons;
- Batman is at the same time a disciple and a mentor;
- Regardless of laws and hierarchy, Batman’s actions are oriented only by his own moral code and reasons;
- Batman lives in symbiosis with his city (Gotham City), and saving his city equates to his own salvation.


If those are the main mythemes in The Batman’s narratives, what are the founding myths that have oriented the Batman imaginary? Using Greek mythology as reference, we find some similarities among those mythemes and mythological Greek narratives (Table 3).

Table 3: Founding Greek Myths in The Batman Narratives

mythemes/archetypes

Greek myth

Hero (Vigilante)
A human, rational and scientific hero who gets the power by his own efforts, qualities and merits, without any divine or supernatural support.
Regardless of laws and hierarchy, Batman’s actions are oriented only by his own moral code and reasons.

Prometheus
The son of Titans loved humans and deceived the gods in favor of humankind.
He acts as a “double,” pretending to be loyal to the gods of Olympus, but his wittiness and compassion for mankind makes him not respect the authority of gods and the balance of the universe.
He steals fire and the creative genius of the arts from Hefesto and Athena to gives them to man.
Fire and the skill to invent artificial things give to humankind the divine capacity of creation and transformation of the natural world. They are elements of survival and progress.
His actions bring about punishment from Zeus.

Double
He lives a double life (Bruce Wayne/Batman).

Scientist
He uses technology and science to improve his potency, using
technological resources as extensions
of his body and weapons.

Hero-Mentor

The hero has a mentor, responsible for his education, and he also becomes a mentor (Robin).

Achilles
The Greek hero of the Trojan War has the centaur Chiron as his mentor – Chiron is responsible for Achilles education. Achilles also is the mentor of Patroclus, his lover who fights with him during the Trojan War.

Shadow
His power is fed with his inside fears, anger, and obsession.

He lives in a dark environment where corruption, death, and degradation are commonplace.  

The Furies
The three daughters of Uranus (the primeval god of the sky) or Nyx (night) are spirits of justice and vengeance. They (Allecto, Tisiphone, and Magaera) pursue those who murdered family members and are defenders of moral and legal order. They live in the underworld (land of the dead).

Those founding Greek myths are not patent but latent in The Batman imaginary. They are hidden under several layers of symbolic elements that have been updated and built over them. Even so, they can be strong enough to drive the Batman narratives, as they are founding myths that still exert influence in contemporary society where the Batman imaginary is built and shared.

Their influence occurs in different levels and can be more or less visible. For Durand, in its circulation through the imaginary of society (compound by “anthropological unconscious,” “societal ego,” and “societal superego”), the founding myths are eroded and transformed. Because of that fact, we must partake in “archeological” work to recover their original meanings hidden under layers of modification.

Prometheus, for example, was a dominant myth from the last few centuries. Since the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, the fire that Prometheus stole from the gods of Olympus in order to illuminate human life has been a symbol of the “light of knowledge,” brought by reason and science. On the other hand, this “light” can also be so intense that it may blind the man, driving him into the darkness. The myth of Prometheus also represents the virtuous son of Titans who sacrifices himself – the greatest quality of a hero – for humanity. This same humanity can be vicious and try to surpass God, giving meaning to life by deciphering the world’s mysteries through science, controlling nature, and technology.

In The Batman narratives, science and technology appear among the most important elements in the hero’s journey, working as resources to overcome the natural limits of being. They allow the hero to be successful in his combat of crime and evil.

Disregarding the authorities and rules (laws) is another important influence of the Prometheus myth in The Batman stories. As Prometheus did not respect the gods of Olympus, Batman disregards the Gotham City authorities and its legal system when he thinks it is necessary.  

From the founding myths of Achilles and the Furies, the influence over Batman's characteristics is less visible and obvious. From Achilles's myth comes the strong presence of the mentor archetype – Achilles had in Chiron his mentor and he was the mentor of Patroclus, while Bruce Wayne/Batman has in Alfred Pennyworth his mentor and he is mentor of Robin. Finally, from the Furies' myth comes the elements of justice and vengeance, besides the archetypical image of symbioses with the underworld.

 

Final Considerations

This analysis departed from the most redundant symbolic elements (mythemes) in The Batman narratives to identify the main archetypal images and founding myths.

We can map the substantive archetypes of hero, double, shadow, mentor, scientist, and vigilante in the core of The Batman’s imaginary. The similarities of these archetypes and their functions in the narratives within Greek mythology (used here as reference) – mainly from the myth of Prometheus and secondarily from the myths of   Achilles and The Furies – drive the Batman’s imaginary.    
  
An imaginary, as the analysis shows, dominated by archetypal images based on the logic of fight, ascension, opposition, and separation, that privileges a worldview where combat, dualistic oppositions (good vs. evil), reason, science, and knowledge prevail. According to Michel Maffesoli, this phenomenon can be one of the most important, examining how archetypes and myths work as a “social” cement.

This “core” of common archetypes and myths may be responsible for a successful expansion of the universe around The Batman in different media, even when the narrative does not put him as the protagonist. The phenomenon occurs, for example, in the TV series Gotham (2014-present), produced by Primrose Hill Productions, DC Comics, and Warner Bros. In “Gotham,” the storyline occurs before the appearing of Batman (Bruce Wayne is still a teenager). But, at least in its first season (2014-2015), the archetypes and myths that have compounded the core of The Batman’s imaginary analyzed in this investigation are present. The archetypes of hero, shadow, scientist (rational method of investigation), and mentor inhabit Officer Gordon, who keeps a symbiotic relation with the city. The archetype of double and shadow exist within the main personages in “Gotham,” especially within the criminals. Understandably, one important archetype is still under construction: the “vigilante,” probably the strongest archetype that characterizes The Batman. The presence of the same archetypes in the imaginary of Gotham can be an important element to a successful expansion of the universe of the caped crusader throughout this TV series, as they can be contributing to the adhesion of the audience to a consolidated Batman’s imaginary.               

The initial findings in this analysis indicate that, in a process of expanding universes around a set of characters, themes, and situations through multiple media platforms, archetypal images and mythological meanings, that form the core of the imaginary, may have an essential role to preserve identifications already established (or that will be established) between audiences and narratives.  
           
In the same way that a set of archetypes defined the founding myths in the great mythologies (Greek, Celtic, Hindu, etc.) are defining the contemporary narratives and the imaginaries that emerges from them, some of those founding myths in circulation in society emerge as dominant during specific periods – as the myth of Prometheus in the modern age – and have a strong influence over the imaginaries.

One last consideration is that this initial analysis is necessarily “archeological” work to reveal symbolic elements that have been covered under several layers of updates, fusions, and transformations.

 

May 2016

From guest contributor Sílvio Anaz, Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, Brazil

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