1: Orphans are Great
I should tell you now: as far as I know, my parents are very much alive.
I mean, I know for a fact my mother is; she lives in Columbus, in an apartment with my sister and near the rest of my family. It’s not how she expected to spend her golden years. She used to tell us quite often that she was planning to die young, and we believed her — no one prepared for her to be taken care of at 68 years old, least of all her. So she spends her days drinking and waiting for something to happen.
I say “as far as I know” because I’m not particularly close with either of the men my father might be. I haven’t spoken to the man who raised me in six years. His dad knocked him around, and the fact he never hit me was a point of his personal pride. The other candidate, my mom’s second husband, is someone I only met once, at my brother’s wedding — I don’t think he knew what to do with me, so he just kept buying me drinks and telling anecdotes that ended with his blood type. (I guess because he was hoping I’d share mine?) He had throat and jaw cancer a few years ago, and although I only met him once it’s hard for me to imagine him without the ability to smile. My “dad” — the man who raised me — he’s been dying since I was in third grade, in one way or another.
Batman’s parents are dead, and he’s able to idealize them. Have you ever noticed how many stories there are about lonely, rich, orphaned men who have everything except loving and nurturing relationships? Men are only permitted to contemplate their emotional needs when all other desires have been exhausted. And like a kid who thinks he’s angry but is actually hungry, Batman needs love but wants revenge.
I think my parents loved the idea of me most of all. In college I’d get drunk-dials at 3AM, telling me how proud they are of me. But when it came down to the performance of care — being home, going to the grocery store, basically doing anything other than spending all non-working hours at a casino — that’s where they fell short.
I grew up in a mansion atop a hill, overlooking a city. There were five bedrooms, four floors, three fireplaces, a sunroom and a sauna, balconies on every bedroom. There was a regulation slate pool table and not a single living soul in the house but me, for six years. I wasn’t allowed to have a driver’s license, or have friends over without my parents home, and I lived a mile north of city limits in the middle of nowhere, Montana.
The Internet was my Alfred, and I ran up a two thousand dollar phone bill talking to friends who lived far away. Because, like I said, sometimes you’re a kid who needs love but wants revenge.
2: Batman is Super Smart
My mom likes big, strong men — four out of five of her ex-husbands are Marines, and they all have names like rifles. Browning, Thompson, that kind of thing. The man who raised me was the biggest and the strongest. I think my mom always expected those men to protect her, and she was always disappointed in the end.
I don’t trust men who are big and strong.
I mean, I’m friends with plenty of linebacker-looking gentlemen, but let’s be real for a moment: I’m not going to invite you into my bed unless I think I could take you in a fight. It might be close odds, okay, but I have to be able to visualize my ability to protect myself. And I’ve been wrong in the past — with men that I thought were weaker, or because I overestimated my own strength. I’ve found out the hard way every time.
This is not to posit an answer to the age-old question of “Who would win in a fight, Batman or Elizabeth Sampat?” but rather to give context. In a world of superheroes, of course my favorite fights with his brain. I never got into the romance of a Big Strong Man Who Is Surprisingly Gentle because it ignores and whitewashes the fact that, in our patriarchal society, a man’s body is a weapon. There’s something scary and dangerous about the entitled white boy who grows up feeling weak and makes himself strong — but if you’re a girl, surrounded by men with super-strength and super-anger and a bunch of male role models, there’s something comforting about Batman, too.
The man who raised me was huge, six-foot-four and three hundred and sixty pounds, with the kind of mustache that means authority. The girls in my school were beautiful aliens who wore black liquid eyeliner on their lower lashlines and navigated all three floors of the building in heels. The boys were like me, but valuable somehow — more relaxed and more powerful.
3: Bruce Wayne’s Secret Identity Is Batman
You may have noticed that I refer to Batman exclusively as Batman; it’s because that’s who he really is. Bruce Wayne is his mask, not his true identity. There was this great story arc in the early 00s called “Bruce Wayne: Murderer”, in which Bruce got framed for murder and everyone slowly turned against him, believing that he had done it. Eventually, Bruce just says “Fuck it” and goes full Batman, all the time.
Clark Kent could never do that. He’s Superman because he feels like somebody should be, because of his own burdens of responsibility. Meanwhile, it’s Batman’s burdens of responsibility that force him to sit through directors’ meetings at Wayne Enterprises, to go to charity fundraisers and smile and pay taxes and be a human person in the world. And at the end of the day, he puts on the cape and cowl because he earned it.
Clark — and I’m not talking today’s fascist wet-dream of a Superman, but rather the scrappy corn-fed immigrant — his whole narrative is one of eager assimilation, and defending the people and the culture he idolizes. If you stare at Clark long enough, you start to see Stockholm Syndrome.
That’s not to say that Batman is a bastion of mental health — I mean, dude dresses like a bat. But his assimilation into normal society is based on need, not love. I can’t really picture Bruce Wayne at a baseball game, can you?
When I was a kid, growing up in that big empty house, I spent six or seven nights a week at church. It was a community and, for the first time in a long time, it was a place that made me feel fiercely loved. My pastor used to paraphrase the same chapter of Romans over and over again — “Be in the world, not of the world.” I spent a lot of nights standing in the sunroom, alone, watching lights blink on across the city. I am not in the world OR of the world, I would think. What is the point of me?
Later, I was eighteen and home from college. My parents invited me to go to the casino with them, because I was finally old enough. I agreed to tag along; I figured maybe I could get them to come home earlier in the evening and we could actually have dinner. My mom always said it was the man who raised me that kept them out so late — I knew he was an angry drunk, and physically intimidating, and my mom was the only person in the world I really trusted.
The angry drunk who refused to leave the casino was my mom, of course. I’d never seen her like that before — the stumbling, the insults, the bitterness. I don’t even remember how we got her home, but there was a quiet and uncomfortable time when I was alone with the man who raised me.
I finally said something. “She always told me it was you.”
He looked embarrassed. “I didn’t want to say anything. You two have such a good relationship, and you and me…”
I’ve never really forgiven him for that moment, for making me apologize.
My kids don’t really get Batman; they think he’s a downer, and with the pop culture zeitgeist being what it is, they’re Marvel fans all the way. My five-year-old is a jock; she’s the only kid in her Kindergarten class with six-pack abs, and she’s saving her allowance for a kettlebell. She’s taking Zumba as an after-school enrichment course because she’s pissed that five-year-olds aren’t allowed in the parkour class. She’s a bro, and her favorite superhero is Thor.
My eleven-year-old is autistic, and dreams of being a gene therapist. She’s unbelievably smart and incredibly sensitive — when you pair autism sensory meltdowns with the hormonal imbalance of puberty, it’s no fun for anyone. She’s ahead academically, so most of what she’s learning in sixth grade is how to make it through the day without sobbing or screaming. There’s a big silent fear in our house that she’s not going to have the hang of it before college. Her favorite superhero is the Hulk.
And why would my kids share my love of the Dark Knight? Batman is the great pretender, a broken robot programmed during childhood who never bothered with a software update. There are layers upon layers of disguises, but at his core, he’s a kid playing dress-up to intimidate predators. He’s never quite managed to get past the worst things that have happened to him.
At least he has a cool car.