Hey, Comic POW! readers! I’m Kari, and I’m thrilled to be joining the team here. Check out the “About the Writers” page to get to know me a little better.
One thing that you should know about me right off the – heh – bat: I love Batman.
I’ve read a lot of Batman comics. I won’t claim to have all of them, or even most – that’s a lot of comics, and I’m working my way through them – but I’ve read enough to have more than a passing familiarity with the different men who have filled the Bat-suit over the years. I’ve been thinking about Batmen recently, and after rewatching The Dark Knight, was really struck by the line used in the title of the article. If you need a refresher, it’s part of a line that then-Lieutenant James Gordon delivers; when asked by his young son why Batman is running away, Gordon replies, “Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”
But who, really, is the hero that Gotham deserves? How is that different from what she needs?
In the context of the film, there’s only one Batman, but the comics give us a different story. There have been several people to don the pointy ears over the years, but for the sake of this article not becoming a novella, I’m going to narrow my focus to Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. (Major spoilers for Hush and The Black Mirror ahead.)
Chances are good that Bruce Wayne is the guy you think of when you think Batman. He’s the original model, and he’s featured in pretty much every major story arc to happen in the Batman franchise. The Long Halloween, The Killing Joke, Death in the Family, Knightfall, No Man’s Land… if you’ve picked up a Batman comic (or seen a TV show or a movie), there’s a better-than-average chance that you’re familiar with Bruce. He’s typically portrayed as fairly stoic, somewhat emotionally stunted, and… well, kind of grim. He cares for people a great deal, but he’s not the best at showing it, and he’s got a bunch of trust issues that make it hard for others to get close to him.
Bruce became Batman to bring an end to crime in Gotham, full stop. He was present for his parents’ murder when he was a child, and devoted his life thereafter to seeking justice for the people of Gotham. He grew up under the care of the family butler, Alfred Pennyworth, and spent years travelling the world to learn from fighting masters in every corner of the globe. He returned to Gotham and settled in to fight crime.
Bruce’s quest started as a very solitary one, and it took him a while to learn how to rely on others. His most famous crime-fighting partner is Robin, and he teams up with others along the way as well. The thing about Bruce, though, is that he’s not really a people sort of person. He’s continually surprised by the fact that he’s acquired such a large family through the years. He started out on his own, and he never really expected that he’d be anything but alone.
He makes friends. He creates a family. Depending on which retcon you follow, he ends up adopting three of the kids who serve as Robin; another is his biological son. From time to time, he attempts relationships…
…only to have his doubts and difficulties with other people pop up and damage the relationship later in the same story arc.
With that in mind, let’s think about Hush, a Batman story from the early 2000s. The story begins with Bruce saving a kidnapping victim. During the rescue and subsequent chase, he figures out that at least three of his rogues are involved, which is strange. Bruce’s line is cut during the chase scene, and he falls to the ground in Crime Alley. He’s badly hurt, and he has to call for backup. Huntress arrives and saves his bacon, and Bruce manages to communicate that he wants his childhood friend Thomas Elliot to do the surgery that he needs to survive his injuries. While in recovery, he muses on the nature of having a bunch of people around to help him, and realizes that he does, indeed, rely upon quite a wide network.
Bruce realizes that there’s more going on than meets the eye; there are a lot of rogues involved, doing things they wouldn’t normally do, and he wants to find out who’s pulling the strings. He decides to trust Catwoman for the time being and they travel to Metropolis, where they encounter another one of Bruce’s friends while looking for Poison Ivy.
Back in Gotham, Bruce encounters Harley Quinn and the Joker, who is standing over the dead body of Thomas Elliot (who stuck around after the surgery to keep an eye on Bruce). Bruce has a bit of a breakdown in the street, remembering how the Joker had paralyzed Barbara and killed Jason, and has now also killed one of Bruce’s only childhood friends. He starts beating the Joker pretty severely, only stopping when former Commissioner Gordon talks him out of it.
Bruce discovers the involvement of several more of his rogues, and the mystery deepens. We find out that Tim Drake (the current Robin) has been kidnapped by a man who looks remarkably like Jason Todd (the second Robin, who has been dead for years). “Jason” taunts Bruce and nearly kills Tim; Bruce notices that he’s dripping clay and deduces that it’s actually Clayface, not Jason come miraculously back to life.
We’re then treated to the big reveal: Thomas Elliot wasn’t actually murdered earlier in the arc. He’s become a villain named Hush, and he blames Bruce’s father for not killing his mother when Bruce and Thomas were children together. The epilogue reveals that the Riddler has been pulling the strings all along, partially to hurt Bruce and partially to lord over him the fact that the Riddler has figured out his identity. In the end, though, the impact of this arc is that Elliot betrays Bruce, and Bruce’s trust issues take another hit that they really didn’t need.
I chose to look at Hush for this article because it really does illustrate a lot about who Bruce Wayne is, and what that means to him being Batman. He’s a man who has lived through a lot of tragedy, who tends to steep in it and surround himself with more. He has a strong support network, but his experiences have made it hard for him to connect with people – even those who care about him a great deal. When Bruce is speaking at Elliot’s “funeral,” Dick and Tim have a side conversation about how neither of them had ever heard Elliot’s name before – but then again, neither of them is really surprised, as Bruce doesn’t share much about his childhood.
There’s a lot about Bruce’s family in this arc, too. He spends a lot of time thinking about the nature of family, and how he’s managed to find himself with a support system that he never imagined nor intended. In the beginning, it was Bruce and his demons, Bruce and his dream – and now he’s got more allies and friends than he knows what to do with. I mean that quite literally: Bruce doesn’t know how to relate to the people in his life. It isn’t that he doesn’t want people around; it’s that he was focused inward for so long, first isolated by his tragedy and later by his concentration on becoming Batman, that he tends to tunnel vision on Bat-things at the expense of those with whom he has surrounded himself.
This arc gives Bruce both the time and inspiration to think about family, though. He has to rely on others for help in a literal matter of life and death; he’s forcibly reminded of how the Joker has personally hurt his family throughout the years; he comes face-to-face with the supposed reincarnation of Jason, and thus, what he considers to be his greatest failure; one of his oldest friends is first killed in front of him, and later turns out to be a devastating enemy.
Then there’s Bruce’s relationship with Selina Kyle. He kisses her early on, and he’s touched enough by the experience that Dick notices something is up and encourages Bruce to pursue it more than he has done with relationships in the past. Dick even goes so far as to suggest that Bruce share his identity with her.
Of course, after Bruce does so, he ends up wondering if Selina was more a part of the bigger picture than she said she was, and his distrust ends up driving her off. The final panels of the arc show Selina walking away, and Bruce standing alone in a cemetery.
In the end, Bruce is portrayed as an isolated figure. Bruce is Batman; Batman is Bruce. That’s all he’s left with, all he has to rely on at the end of the day.
Dick Grayson is best known for his roles as Robin and Nightwing. He was created to be a counterpoint to Bruce’s Batman; Dick was the proverbial light in the darkness. Batman could become as dark and gritty as the writers deemed necessary if Robin was there to provide a bright point. He’s a lot of things that Bruce isn’t: outgoing, cheerful, and open.
Dick and Bruce grew apart, which eventually led to Dick being fired and creating the identity of Nightwing. He moved out of Gotham, setting up shop in Blüdhaven and learning how to do things his own way. Things got really dark for him for a while, and some truly awful things happened to him, but the core of Dick’s character has always been optimism and strength. It took time and work, but he recovered, largely due to the relationships that he cultivated through the years.
In a storyline called Batman RIP in 2008, Bruce Wayne is shot and apparently killed. (He gets better. Yay, comics!) After some shenanigans go down, Dick ends up donning the cape and cowl, becoming Batman to Bruce’s son Damian’s Robin. It’s a startling reversal of how Batman and Robin had been to that point; Dick remains himself, becoming the bright point against Damian’s darker tendencies. Dick remains Batman even after Bruce returns, and stays that way until the reboot in 2011.
The Black Mirror is a 2010-2011 story featuring Dick and Commissioner James Gordon working together to solve a few seemingly unrelated crimes that end up twisting together. Our story begins with Dick recounting a story from his days in the circus: there had been a map in his trailer, with blue pins in the small cities that would get small-time tricks, and red pins in the larger cities, meaning more dangerous tricks would be performed. Gotham, however, was the only city with a black pin – the place where you have to give your all, or the city will take the deficit out of you.
We switch to the present, where we find Dick investigating a series of crimes related in strange ways to some well-known Gotham rogues. Dick is eventually able to trace the origins back to Mirror House, an auction house run by a man known as The Dealer that sells off memorabilia of the worst of Gotham’s crimes and criminals. With Babs’ help, Dick manages to get an invitation to the next Mirror House auction…
…and with Tim’s help, Dick is able to come up with a nearly foolproof disguise.
So Dick infiltrates Mirror House, witnessing The Dealer auctioning off the crowbar that the Joker used to beat Jason Todd to death. Before the auction is over, though, Dick’s cover is broken, leaving him to steal the crowbar and escape. He manages to escape, though he’s severely weakened by a gas that causes vivid hallucinations. After a recovery time that both Tim and Babs tell him is too short, Dick is back at it, attacking The Dealer aboard his plane but eventually losing him.
Meanwhile, we get a story featuring Commissioner Gordon, whose son James Jr. has come back to town. James is a confirmed, diagnosed psychopath; he claims that he’s part of a drug trial to cure psychopathy, and that it’s working for him. James does his best to convince his father that he’s turning over a new leaf, and asks his father to keep Dick, an old family friend who has a fairly low opinion of him, out of his way as he starts over. Babs flat-out doesn’t buy it, and warns her father that James is dangerous. Gordon is suspicious, but truly wants to believe that his son is getting better. He talks to Dick, asking him to meet with James and then report back and let Gordon know his honest opinion about what’s going on with James.
Fast forward to Dick and Gordon investigating a strange case: a dead whale was found in the lobby of a local bank. The investigation eventually leads them to Sonia Branch, the daughter of Tony Zucco (the man who killed Dick’s parents years before). After interrogating Branch, who is less than helpful, Dick heads to confront the Roadrunner, an arms dealer who he thinks might be important to the investigation. After a fight in which Dick nearly gets crushed by a metal compactor, he figures out that there’s no real connection. He later meets with both Gordon and Branch, and the latter reveals that she hadn’t told the truth before – she thinks that Roadrunner and another bad guy, Tiger Shark, are targeting her because they want her to launder money for them, and she’s refusing to do it.
Dick heads out after Tiger Shark, promising Branch that he’ll do more than judge her by her father’s mistakes – which is a fairly big deal for him, considering that her dad killed his parents and tried to kill him, and that Branch hadn’t told him the truth earlier. Tim points this out to Dick, who pretty much ignores his brother’s advice as he heads out to find Tiger Shark.
The meeting goes about as well as you’d expect: Dick gets tied up and dangled over a tank of killer whales, and only gets away because Tiger Shark turns tail and runs before blowing up the yacht that Dick was left on (and because he’s apparently a very good swimmer). Tim gets him out of the water just in time for Dick to meet up with James Jr. They have a brief and somewhat awkward talk – James tries to convince Dick that he’s trying to get better, but Dick is too distracted by a revelation about Sonia Branch to pay close attention. He realizes that she manipulated him into catching the bad guys exactly how she wanted them caught, rather than how it should have been done. Dick ends up believing that she’s much more like her father than he wanted to think.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon manages to swipe one of the pills that James claimed he was taking to help him feel empathy; Babs tests it and finds that it’s actually the opposite of the original drug, formulated to stunt the amygdala. They figure out that James plans to distribute it to infants Gotham-wide, leading to more people like him in the future.
Gordon rushes to stop him, but finds out that the Joker has escaped from Arkham. Over the course of the next few hours, Gordon’s ex-wife is attacked with Joker toxin and Babs is kidnapped. When Dick finds and confronts the Joker, demanding that he leave the Gordons alone, the Joker laughs in his face and replies that it wasn’t him. The realization hits that James has orchestrated everything, from Mirror House’s involvement to freeing the Joker, as a way to get back at Dick – the person with the most empathy that James has ever met. He sees empathy as humanity’s greatest weakness, and as such, he wants to break Dick and take that ability to care away from him.
Between Dick and Tim, they manage to save Barbara Sr. from the Joker toxin and get Babs away from James. James tries to escape, but is caught by his father, who shoots him in both legs and catches him when he tries to tumble off of the bridge.
In the end, we’re treated to Dick and Gordon having a conversation. It becomes clear that Gordon knows Dick’s identity as Batman, though it’s never said aloud, and it appears that Gordon plans to keep the knowledge to himself. The two of them talk about Gotham and how they stay even though it’s the stuff of nightmares, because if you can survive Gotham, you can survive anything.
So what does The Black Mirror tell us about Dick Grayson? We can see right from the start that he’s more connected to his friends and family than Bruce is. He actively involves Babs and Tim in his investigation without prompting from either of them, and works closely with Commissioner Gordon as Dick Grayson as well as in his role as Batman. He relates to the people he’s talking to as much as he can.
He jokes with both Babs and Tim, even while in the middle of working a case, and neither of them is surprised that he’s doing so.
Dick has a great relationship with Commissioner Gordon, both in the suit and out of it – and is able to trust Gordon enough that he doesn’t freak out when Gordon reveals that he knows who Dick is.
He even tries to put aside his completely justifiable initial dislike of Sonia Branch, trying to see past her family ties so he can help her when she becomes involved in a crime and loses a dear friend. Even though it ends up biting him later on, he’s willing to try to relate to her.
The point of The Black Mirror is that Dick is, at his heart, a deeply empathetic person with the capacity to care for just about everyone. It’s what makes him a target in the first place, and it’s the tool that he uses most when he’s working. He connects with others, he maintains good relationships wherever he can, and though he gets hurt, he learns how to bounce back from it.
Now let’s think about Gotham as a place.
With comics being what they are – a wonderfully changeable medium with lots of canon to draw from – there’s no one set location for Gotham. Some creators have said it’s based on New York, others Chicago; occasionally it’s in Connecticut. For the most part, though, it’s generally agreed that Gotham is located somewhere in New Jersey. It’s a gritty, dark place, terrorized not just by mafia activity and average big-city crime, by also by lunatics like the Joker, Riddler, Scarecrow… the list goes on. There’s a bleak feel to Gotham as we see it on the page, which leads to a general feeling of darkness around its heroes. There’s a reason Batman is known as The Dark Knight, and that reason is Gotham.
Batman grew out of the nature of Gotham. The hero that Gotham needed at the start was a dark sort of person; she needed someone who reflected the city herself. Only a dark kind of hero would serve in a place like Gotham; someone as bright as Superman would have been too disillusioned by Gotham.
Cities change over time, though. Gotham is still dark and twisted; in many ways, it’s even more so than it was at the onset of Batman.
There comes a time when a city like Gotham needs a hero that’s brighter than herself, though. Superman still doesn’t fit; the bitterness and horror of Gotham mean that it’s a place that he can never understand like he does Metropolis. Gotham still needs Batman… but she doesn’t need the Batman of the past.
Dick gives us the chance to have a brighter version of Batman. He has Gotham connections; he grew up learning her streets and her tone. He knows exactly what Gotham throws at people…
…and he knows that it’s a place that is constantly shifting. Dick understands that Gotham is a changing place, that the horror of yesterday will never seem as bad as what you’ll have to face tomorrow.
He knows all of this, and yet he’s still able to joke around with his family, to have friends, and to do his best to empathize with the people that he meets while on the job. He’s still harsh on the criminals, but when he’s dealing with victims’ families, Dick is a very relatable person. It comes back to his ability to relate to other people, and how he’s able to talk to others.
Don’t think that I’m saying that Bruce doesn’t have the capacity for empathy. It takes an incredibly empathetic person to care about a place enough to want to help its people, and Bruce has that in spades. Bruce’s ability to externalize his feelings, though, has always been less than Dick’s – and his reluctance to rely on people other than himself only stands to hurt him. He protects himself in ways that Dick doesn’t, to be sure – you can’t be hurt by people that you refuse to let close to you – but in doing so, he loses a lot of his ability to grow.
Gotham needs a hero that can change as she does, and she deserves a hero who can do more than spiral into a blacker and blacker hole. She needs someone who can step in and do the dirty work when things go pear-shaped as they often do, but she deserves someone who can give her people hope that everything isn’t as bleak as it always seems. Gotham will always be a city full of needs, and she deserves to have a protector who can conquer those needs without holding onto them after they’ve passed.
Gotham needs Dick Grayson as Batman.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for Bruce Wayne. He’s an incredibly essential figure to the Bat-family, and what’s more, fighting crime is integral to Bruce as a person. His travels with Batman, Incorporated right before the 2011 reboot served him well; he was able to spread Batman’s influence around the world, preventing what happened to him in his childhood from happening to others outside of Gotham as well as within her walls. Bruce is able to extend his reach and fight crime on a global level. It doesn’t keep him from jumping into the fray when he’s needed in a fight, but it gives him the opportunity to lay the mantle down from time to time so he can focus on spreading his work around the world. Bruce is very well-suited for the job, and it’s one with importance that cannot be diminished.
The city of Gotham, though, calls for a Batman who can fight her battles and inspire her people. Gotham needs – and, yes, deserves – Dick Grayson as her Batman.
Comments? Questions? Want to make the case that Gotham really deserves Jean-Paul Valley? I’ll be happy to talk comics with you!