In the Face of Anomie:
Batman from Golden Autoark to Modern Combinard

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2009, Volume 8, Issue 2


Darren Marks
Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario

Spanning seven decades, the Batman mythos provides a unique instantiation of the themes of reflective "first modernity" with its "occidental rationality" as well as reflexive "second modernity" (see Beck, Individuation) in light of the chaos or missing boundaries of anomie (Durkheim 289-311). Like Hegel’s Antigone or other characters birthed in first modernity, Batman is a character doomed to reconcile his seemingly objective (but really subjective) morality and selfhood in light of an external apparent discord in the chaos of loss with his desire to impose order on a world in which such things occur. But if initially Batman is born as an expression of first modernity’s confidence and fears and modernity itself is "another word for crisis . . . [in light of] feeling outraged and insulted" by modernity’s failures, then the new Batman of a second modernity (c. 1969-present) is to be expected (Beck, Individuation XX). A careful reading and observing of the Batman mythos (in print and on screen) demonstrates this shift from the reflective autarkic modern self (c.f. Sartre) to the reflexive combinard bricolage postmodern self, and importantly both are responses to individual and collective/societal anomie.

In particular, Batman shifts from the (first) modern monad or autoarkic model of "occidental rationality" (see Habermas; Weber), which is tethered to the American dreamy (and chimera) vision of law and order, other-centered bureaucracy, technological confidence, and capitalism. Batman’s response to his personal experience of injustice (anomie) is to impose order onto his personal subjective reality so that his own inner order is extended or reflected (and is in itself a reflected microcosm of the larger American ethos) to those in the Batman "family" (mainly Robin) and mirrored against his antithesis of apodictic self knowledge and confidence doppelganger, the Joker. In the golden age and silver age Batman, running from 1938 to the late 1960s, Batman is first modernity’s homo faber and the Batman "family," particularly Robin, is that order imposed. It – the Batman "family" – is also the place wherein the model breaks down and so it is here we begin.

Creating the Ideal Society One Family at a Time

In the first modernity, the Batman family – Robin through to Batwoman, Commissioner Gordon and Alfred – shares first modernity’s assumption of a family, cemented by a common goal (justice, order, lawfulness), as a selected community of solidarity with easily defined roles in that vision of community. The orderedness of the Batman family, echoing Marx’s individualism as economic mobility independent from tradition allowing personal destiny as Bruce Wayne is marvelously rich, addresses the modern alteration of kinship from traditionally situated biological or ethnic to self-selecting kinship. In short, the Batman family are those who band together in a common vision of order, and not an organic or haphazard collection which may, due to its own alogical imposition, allow the proverbial black sheep or "other" within the circle of kinship. Instead of the alogic of traditional kinship, there is the logic of modernity itself. The "other," in more simple terms, is exaggerated as completely other with no organic relationship to the whole. Instead of organic relationality or kinship, abstractions are imposed, which allow the internal other to be isolated and raised in profile as non-useful (Lee and Ackerman 1-15). Several points are important here: first the isolation of selection and its intrinsic isolation; then asexuality; followed by protection and biopower.

We begin with the isolation of selection. To most easily explain this point, consider how Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Dick Grayson (Robin) are completely devoid of any extended kin in the first twenty or so years of publication. Both are orphaned completely, not merely as plot devices, but more to describe how modernity’s ethos of homo faber extends to even the creation of non-traditional kinship. Both Batman and Robin are de facto orphans. It is only in the late-1950s that their family extends beyond the two. Just as we create ourselves, so we create our families and eventually our societies. Our families, as in the Batman family, are those who share in our idealized reason of existence and membership is open, at least in theory, but in reality is ever-increasingly exclusionary. What life creates in its chaotic manifestation is tamed; personal tragedy is merely opportunity disguised. And so in the Batman family, the putting on of a mask (literally) is really a deep disguise in the most fundamental sense of "first modernity" – it is also our placing of a false identity (after all, who is Bruce Wayne? Is he Batman or Bruce Wayne the foppish playboy?) in order to tame our fears. Stepping outside the Batman universe into another comic universe this exact point is echoed in Alan Moore’s majestic Watchman (1986) graphic novel. In Moore’s work, he argues that the mask is both a call to exterior conformity in order to fit into the American or modern dream (remember the comedian’s reply to "whatever happened to the American Dream" in which he answered in reference to himself and the other heroes "it came true") and a neurosis in itself which cannot sustain the bearer in the long-run. It may bandage, but it cannot heal.

It is no wonder that in the second modernity, particularly with Robin, that this familial identity is challenged – first, in Dick Grayson’s decision to leave his Robin identity for another as Nightwing, a complicated 1970s history in which he goes to college and then disputes his role as sidekick – then in the introduction of a second (Jason Todd) and third Robin (Tim Drake). In the case of the second Robin, the storyline continues to the present with a completely different "Red Robin" who is much closer to a sociopath as a Robin who completely, despite similar origins, rejected Batman’s ethos and is killed by the Joker as a direct result of that ethos. Batman’s failure to eradicate the Joker in essence, by the late 1980s, kills Robin. The voluntary association of value is both not shared by Jason Todd in his present manifestation as "Red Robin," and it is also those different values that lead to his death. Likewise, the third Robin, Tim Drake, is very much a different kind of Robin than his predecessors. Initially, for the first decade of the character's creation, the third Robin (Tim Drake) does have a family outside of the Bat-family, not being a de facto orphan as the other two Robins. In the second modernity’s Batman, much more grim, this Robin is a kind of throwback to the first modernity’s ideals. In this case, Tim Drake’s Robin does not share the second modernity’s Batman’s bleak and almost desperate concession to anomie, he believes he is indeed making a difference as an optimistic crimefighter. Second modernity’s Batman is a creature who punches in the dark randomly, hoping that something is accomplished but secretly aware nothing is done. Robin, or Tim Drake, is the counterpart to that vision. He shares a youthful optimism, like the Batman of the first modernity, and this is well travelled in the now seminal "Lonely Place of Dying" storyline of 1989-90.

What we see in the three Robins (although there are actually four) is both the symmetry and dissymmetry of our first investigation of the Batman mythos as transitioning from first to second modernity. The Batman of first modernity still haunts the mythos in Tim Drake, but haunts it with its absent presence in that Tim Drake is Robin without the natural affinity of the mission of the second Batman but in a very real sense is that first Batman in his mission. Tim Drake, for example, leaves being Robin for his organic and natural family for a period. First modernity haunts second modernity. Further, Dick Grayson, the first Robin, breaks faith with the first Batman, exchanges identity and in a very real sense is a completely different character in his approach as explored in his storylines than his mentor. First modernity is replaced by another. Finally, Jason Todd is the failure of the first Batman and as such is the most interesting of all the characters with his re-introduction to the mythos in the last five or so years. Furthermore, Jason Todd represents the logic of the failure of first modernity’s Batman to wrestle anomie.

However, the Bat-family beyond Robin alone reveals another motif of modernity’s understanding of kinship when it is expanded to others in the orbit of the mythos. The Bat-family is also (economically) asexual in terms of its kinship, the Bat-family is no place for sexuality but ordered in a biopower motif. Recalling that for Foucault, biopower is the replacement of the older notion of political life under which populations were controlled by threat of punishment by a more powerful lord; instead, now there is a deployment of identity that assumes instead of punishment the motif of protection and therefore control of identity (and bodies) under the guise of protection. The Bat-family, then, is not organic in its kinship but rather imposed through its patriarch Batman whose wisdom and training protects the lesser members who join. But this protection is, by definition, asexual as well as economic. It must be asexual, as the specter of homosexuality has always haunted the Batman-Robin relationship, but also the extension to lesser members such as Batwoman/Batgirl. Batman (or Robin) cannot have a sexual relationship with them – it ill befits the biopower model. It is striking, then, that the postmodern reinvention of Batman by Frank Miller, both in his Dark Knight (1986, 2001) and then in his recent All-Star Batman (2005-), brings the motif of sexuality back into the Bat-family by implying a sexual tension or relationship with the now female Robin of the Dark Knight and then explicitly with the Batwoman of All-Star Batman. But in the first modernity’s Batman, the Bat-family is a demonstration of asexual biopower – a group of individuals organized around the center of protection through its patriarch. The wondrous world of Bat-gadgets, the seemingly endless supply of technology, is of course the primary mode of protection in that it is Batman’s largess in terms of his economic power that supplies the remainder of the Bat-family with their requisite kit in order to participate in the kinship. No member of the Bat-family survives without this technological identity, from the simplest mode of transportation to the most engineered piece of technology such as the elements of the utility belt.

The question in the first modernity Batman is whether biopower is actually benign or whether it is under the guise of "life destructive" to the development of the Bat-family. Certainly in the first blushes of the golden and silver age Batman mythos, biopower is always a positive but with the transition of the 1970s cracks begin in the mythos in which Batman’s seemingly munificent presence, his technological savvy and wealth, is challenged by a pared down existence first by the first Robin and then by subsequent members of the clan. By the third Robin, Tim Drake, one major storyline is his transition in terms of reliance for training from Batman to others in the extended hero universe and his coming to use a non-traditional choice of weapon as a distinguishing feature. Likewise, the first Robin in his transition to Nightwing eschews the traditional arsenal of the Bat-family. In a later 1990s recreation of Batgirl, she is completely trained outside of the auspices of Batman and is foreign to the ethos as a whole. Biopower by the 1990s, the maturation of the second modernity Batman, is completely eschewed.

Haunted by Reality: Who Gets the Joke?

Linked as a binary pair, Batman and the Joker tell another aspect of Batman’s reflection of cultural irreality and the trajectory of modernity to postmodernity. The Joker in first modernity represents Batman’s shadow self, the failure of homo faber, or the resistance to the vision of an ordered selfhood, and is, in the final analysis, the failure of modernity’s Kantian dualism or Cartesian anxiety. Of all the members of the Batman mythos, he is perhaps the most telling character, for the Joker from his inception in 1940 throughout present manifestation has always been the shadow self of Batman. For the "transcending summonser" (see Grant) of Batman, the chaos of the Joker is an object to be mastered or subdued by rational systematic application of "law" – Batman’s subjective self (c.f. Hegel). In short, in the face of anomie, the first modernity Batman’s answer is commitment to lawfulness or modernity’s institutional individualism given a societal facing in terms of the presence of the Joker and his values. In a very real sense, the Joker is not merely the foil of Batman but in fact the very chaos he faces and attempts to master in himself and his wider placement in the cosmos. Most telling in the first modernity’s blush is that the Joker is chance itself – a personification of his own card of randomness – whose reasons for killing make neither sense nor yield power. For example, one early storyline has the Joker killing famous comedians who are renowned. The Joker’s decision to murder this group is mere whimsy, nothing being gained aside from notoriety or no direct access to power, etc. The Joker for much of his golden age life is chaos incarnate and even when there is an attempt to transform him into a mere clown figure in the TV series, he is still the doppelganger of Batman albeit with less murderous zest. The latter years of the golden age and silver age, until the 1970s renaissance of the Joker under Danny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, is one who mimics Batman by having his own Jokermobile, utility belt, supporting cast but always with that mad twist. In short, the Joker remained that shadow-self even in his most benign form.

In the second modernity Batman, the Joker shifts once more into the mode of opposition. The celebrated and near canonical origin of the Joker, in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988), offers a vision of the Batman that reflects first-modernity’s cartography in situ. The core of the story is simple, the Joker, like Batman himself, suffers a catastrophic loss (anomie) and that one bad day is enough to make anyone insane. Batman, like the Joker, is insane but his insanity exists in attempting to order the chaos whereas the Joker simply gives into it and perhaps is the hyper-sane amongst us all. The storyline ends with a joke between the two, implying that both in the face of anomie are ultimately jokes in themselves. As Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989) asserts, the Joker stands like the character in Larkin’s poem, "Church Going," from which the title takes its subtitle. In Larkin’s poem, the narrator stands in confusion, seeking order as found in religion, while understanding that such things "our compulsions meet" and are, as such, chimera but comforting nonetheless (34). At the end of the poem, the only certainty is death and our desire to find wisdom in this serious house is made pallid by the reality of anomie. For Morrison, the Joker is the poor unfortunate whose hyper-sanity prevents him for seeing the cosmic joke for what it is and to further the juxtaposition he also creates a confused sexual identity for the Joker. The Joker is so sane that the usual polarities or Larkin’s "separations of difference" fail at every point. The Joker is non-duality in essence, all and no-thing. The Joker is anomie.

Zombies, Bats, and Postmodernity

However, in the transition to the second modernity, "zombie categories" begin to crop up in the Batman story as the Batman family fragments as does the Batman himself, beginning with the bronze age’s Dick Grayson’s slow devolution to Nightwing in 1969 and ending with "A Death in the Family" and a new Robin in Jason Todd/Tim Drake. By the late 1980s, and in particular Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s visions in The Dark Knight and The Killing Joke, Batman becomes an icon of the second modernity and its rejection of both stable identity and confidence in occidental rationality. Batman, in the second modernity, becomes homo optionis and the previous confidence of self-sufficiency is altered into self-insufficiency and the once autarkic Batman faces numerous crises of identities (c.f. Heidegger). Batman adopts a much more "vagrant morality" (Bauman 17) and his commitment to necessary ideals – metaphysics as it were – is reduced to pragmatism and artistry so that order becomes a function of the rule finder himself, and Batman is now firmly in the world of his experience (c.f. Husserl). Batman becomes the Bastelbiographen of the second modernity (Lash), a combinard of networks, alliances and possibilities. He becomes the "risk-manager" (see Beck, Risk Society) and his relationship with the Batman family and Joker thus changes.

The Batman family becomes a celebration of difference rather than similarity. The various Robins are now decidedly in opposition to some aspect of Batman (as above), but like the other old/new members of the Batman family, demonstrate a new familial identity that is causal or elective, cemented by occasion or free association and not necessarily one particular vision or personality. The Batman family, like the Batman himself, is a paradoxical collective facing fragmentation in their specific reactions to the anomie of life but joined together in an altruistic and reciprocal individualism (Beck, Individualization 85-100). By fighting their own anomies, each is joined to and differentiated from the others – made and making all at once. Likewise, the Joker, as Batman’s mirror, is also a person of choices or risks and all that separates the two is "one bad day" (Moore 39) or a misplaying of a risk and the increase of anxiety in light of anomie. What truly separates Batman from the Joker is the Batman family itself in which Batman’s need for a stable self is managed by his newfound collective self-in-making. Since the late 1980s, Batman and his mythos is thoroughly postmodern but haunted by the Zombie categories of his original modernity. This comes to a sharp point in 2008-09.

Batman: R.I.P

Over the last year, writer Grant Morrison has run a storyline entitled: Batman: R.I.P. This storyline is really about the death of Batman and the reconciliation between the two Batmen of first and second modernity as understood by Morrison who has taken the position that the two Batmen are in reality one man, squeezed into a fifteen year span, and the journey of one man to come to a deeper understanding of himself (and by extension of society). In a completely fascinating revision, Morrison introduces then deconstructs the first modernity’s Bat-mythos and explains it in terms of second modernity with the simple claim that we are all narratives in making.

The first modernity exported its vision to other climes in a colonial metanarrative. This is reflected in the odd story, here and there, of the "Batman of many nations" in which on occasion Batman would encounter a nationalized version of himself. Thus, he encounters an English Batman (the Knight), a French version (Musketeer) and so forth. Morrison reintroduces them in 2007. However, instead of merely a solidarity of Batman worship, his "club of heroes" are terribly dysfunctional, each increasingly terrible, lunatic, or egocentric and variant to the original dream. One is literally institutionalized, one is sexually predatory, and several become sociopaths in their quest – as brutal as the Joker and increasingly dark (one even adds the adjective "dark" to his name). The point is simple – the metanarrative imposed fails miserably in other climes, just as it would fail in Morrison’s Batman of the second modernity.

Even more striking in Morrison's recent take is the R.I.P. storyline in which Bruce Wayne dies to the legend and is to be replaced by a new Batman. Here Morrison cleverly takes the first modernity’s Batman mythos and introduces two central ideas – argued in the above paragraphs – that demonstrate Batman, like first modernity, must finally be put to rest. In the R.I.P. storyline, Batman is taken to task by a new villain, literally the Devil, and driven to face the madness of his life and choices – his anomie. Morrison takes another imposed metanarrative of Batman, this time an alien Batman (of the planet Zur-En-Arrh) and makes this persona a refuge for the psychologically damaged Batman. Morrison’s Dr. Hurt (the Devil) slowly unravels the mythos and isolates Batman in such issues as family, vision, and identity. The first is the creation of a maddened new "Batman of Zur-En-Arrh," whose literal madness allows Batman to navigate for a period until he "dies" his personal anomie. What was implicit in the first modernity – that the Batman persona was an incomplete response or a masking – is not made explicit. It is madness, but a madness that holds until it can be dealt with as a kind of suicide – a letting go of control. The second icon is the cropping up of "Batmite," originally a magical imp whose imperfect admiration of Batman creates all kinds of bizarre yet benign foibles. In the first modernity, Batmite is the tamed imposition gone awry – harmless imperfection, but an imperfection nonetheless. In Morrison’s work, Batmite is literally the crazed Batman of Zur-En-Arrh’s subjectivity manifest – the last bastion of rationality before giving in to the anomie. Batmite is reason but the reason of a Nietzschian madman, but reason, or the reason of first modernity, dies with Batman’s death. Interestingly, Morrison introduces the Joker once more into the storyline at this point, as hyper-sanity to Batmite’s in/sanity. The Joker in the storyline comes in seemingly as a prop in the machinations of Dr. Hurt, a bit player, but is revealed to be truest rationality in the anomie. The Joker, unlike Hurt and even until he dies Batman, knows the game as fabricated, even alters the game itself: "Apophenia. I have been driven literally insane, trying to get him [Batman] to loosen up . . . . You can never prepare for the unexpected, the well timed punchline, the wild card. . . . [To Dr Hurt] pleased to meet you [referencing the Rolling Stones Sympathy for the Devil], admire your work but don’t call me servant. I collect my winnings from all of you in due course" (Batman #681: 17). Morrison in this little diatribe by the Joker – Batman’s true self in anomie – reveals all. In the face of anomie, there is no meta, only chaos, no servant but a master and everything must pay that price.

What Morrison’s Batman R.I.P. storyline does is to throw the argument of this paper into relief. The anomie of Batman is the modern/postmodern condition, and we, like Batman, are in the process of committing a kind of cultural suicide in order to be reborn. In the Batman mythos, the problem of anomie and identity is a Janus-like quality as the iconic character spans two periods of Western conceptuality. As such, the Batman mythos is an illustrative window into modern and postmodern identity, altarity and collectivism.

Perhaps our own postmodern condition is echoed in the Joker’s words to Batman: "[We] had a bad day, and it drove [us] as crazy as everyone else . . . only [we] won’t admit it. [We] have to keep pretending that life makes sense, that’s there some point to all this struggling" (Moore 39).

Works Cited

Batman #681. Written by Grant Morrison. New York: DC Comics, 2008.

Bauman, Zygmunt. "Wir sind wie Landstreicher- die Moral im Zeitalter der Beliebigkeit." Süddeutsche Zeitung 16 (1993): 295-300.

Beck, Ulrich. Risk Society Towards a New Modernity. Trans. M Ritter. London: Sage, 1991.

Beck, Ulrich. Individualization. London: Sage, 2001.

Durkheim, Emil. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. 1897. Trans. J. Spaulding. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Foucault, Michel. A History of Sexuality. Vol 1. Trans. R. Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Grant, George. "Two Theological Languages." Two Theological Languages and Other Essays. Ed. W. Whiller. Lewiston: Mellon Press, 1990. 1-219.

Habermas, Jürgen. Theory of Communicative Action. Trans. T. McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. 1927. Trans. J Stamburgh. Albany: State U of New York P, 1996.

Husserl, Edmund. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book. 1913. Trans. F. Kersten. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1982.

Larkin, Philip. "Church Going." The Less Deceived. Hessle, East Yorkshire: Marvell Press, 1955. 34.

Lash, Scott. "Reflexivity as Non-Linear." Theory, Culture and Society 20.2 (2001): 48-57.

Lee, Raymond and Ackerman, Susan. The Challenge of Religion After Modernity: Beyond Disenchantment. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002.

Moore, Alan. The Killing Joke. New York: DC Comics, 2008.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. 1943. Trans. H. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904. Trans. T. Parsons. London: Unwin, 1930.

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