Remember, you’re a hero. (The Forgotten)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 LogoIt’s October 8, 1992, between “The Last Laugh” and “The Underdwellers.” The top song is of course “End of the Road,” and the top movie is Under Siege, its first of four consecutive weekends at number one. In the news, El Al Flight 1862, the deadliest airplane crash to ever occur in the Netherlands, kills 43; Tevyk Esenc, the last known speaker of Ubykh, dies; and Cartoon Network enters its second week of existence.

Batman the Animated Series continues something of a run of really solid episodes, at least in production order, as the rather lackluster “The Last Laugh” and “Pretty Poison” are followed by the very memorable “The Underdwellers,” then “P.O.V.” (probably the best episode yet), and now the quite solid “The Forgotten,” which is surprisingly coherent and well-written for an episode that apparently needed three writers to make it work–Jules Dennis, Richard Mueller, and Sean Catherine Derek all get full writing credits for this one, with no story-teleplay divide.

Right from the title, this episode is drawing some interesting connections for us. It is, of course, a pun: Batman suffers amnesia while undercover and therefore the titular forgotten are him and Bruce Wayne, along with everyone else in his life; however, it also refers to the homeless whom Boss Biggis kidnaps and enslaves. He gets away with it because hardly anyone notices or cares about the homeless (obviously–if anyone in a position to help did care about them, they wouldn’t be homeless), and therefore they can disappear without a fuss–they are society’s forgotten.

This episode is very much of its time. Up until the 1970s, temporary and transient homelessness was a recurring feature of American life, especially during the economic disaster of the 1930s. However, in the 1970s the phenomenon underwent a qualitative change with the emergence of a semi-permanent homeless class and the rise of the working poor–that is, people who worked full time but were still below the poverty line. Globalization led to a loss of relatively high-paying, unionized, unskilled manufacturing jobs throughout the 1980s, while most of the new jobs created were either skilled labor, professional, or low-paying service jobs such as retail and fast food. Slashes to federal education funding meant that the poor had no realistic means of improving their skills in order to compete for skilled labor or professional positions, while the tax structures collectively dubbed “Reaganomics” increased the gap between rich and poor and disproportionately increased the tax burden on lower-income families, increasing the number of poor still further. Unsurprisingly, this led to a rise in homelessness as well, especially in the wake of the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, triggered by an ill-considered program of deregulation that led to risky investments and in some cases outright scams by banking institutions. (And if all of this is sounding really familiar–good, you’re paying attention.)

Other factors contributed as well. Funding cuts to public welfare and social service programs meant that the poor were increasingly unable to rely on assistance at the same time that their need for it was increasing. An even bigger factor is the rise of drug abuse in the 1980s, as crack provided a cheaper, but ultimately more destructive, alternative to alcohol as a means of temporary escape from the suffering that poverty entails. The mentally ill as well became disproportionately likely to be homeless, as largely well-meaning policies of de-institutionalization (which sought to reduce the length of involuntary psychiatric confinements) resulted in many mentally ill patients being kicked out of treatment facilities with nowhere else to go and unprepared to manage their illnesses on their own.

And into this massive systemic issue we place Batman. The cops, he is told, are unable to help with the disappearing homeless because they’re too busy with other things, and don’t really care about the people disappearing. (That the only kidnap victim who isn’t homeless is a black man is fairly telling here.) Batman thus disguises himself as a homeless man and goes undercover, but is ambushed, beaten, and kidnapped to Biggis’ mine, losing his memory in the process. Other than a fairly amusing B-story about Alfred looking for “Master Bruce,” the rest of the episode is mainly about Batman’s suffering in the camp until his memory is restored.

Two things stand out: first is that Batman becomes one of the homeless people, doubling down on the equation between them suggested by the title. The implication, refreshingly, is that homelessness can happen to anyone, that it requires only a surprisingly brief moment of bad luck, after which it becomes a horrifying and inescapable series of humiliations and tortures. By all accounts, this is fairly accurate.

Second is the means by which Batman regains his memory: not by reminders that he once possessed power and wealth, nor some sort of totemic encounter with darkness or bats, but rather by another prisoner mentioning that he is losing his family, and his child is losing his father. Once again, it is Bruce Wayne’s trauma that creates Batman. Pain, not power, is suggested here to be the root of the superhero.

Yet ultimately, is Batman of any use here? His solution to this massive problem is to offer a job to the two people he befriended in the mine–one of whom is not homeless and already had a job. What of the other homeless? Are they back out on the streets, or did he give them jobs, too? We have to assume that he didn’t just ignore them after having spent so much time among them, as one of them–let us say, then, that he gave jobs to the employable ones and pensions to the unemployable.

Batman’s solution to homelessness, then, is much the same as his solution to crime: have a uniquely, immensely powerful individual address each individual instance separately. There is no attention paid to systemic causes; just find the correct bad guy to punch in the face, help the nice people he was victimizing, repeat until utopia is achieved.

Which, to be clear, is not a complaint. This is how superheroes work–how they have to work. A story about a rich man using his power and influence to reduce crime by bettering the lives of the most at-risk people, giving them real hope of other options, isn’t a superhero story. It’s Thomas Wayne, not Bruce.

Bit by bit, we inch toward a coherent theory of Batman, and thereby of the superhero. The Bat is a factor, the brutal force of violence contained within the civilized and moral veneer, but there is more. There is something at the intersection of trauma and power that transforms the man into the Batman, breaking the law to fight crime, addressing systemic issues on an individual basis. We are not quite there yet–there is still at least one leather-clad, whip-wielding, purring piece of the puzzle missing–but the outline is taking shape.

Further reading on poverty and homelessness in the 1980s and early 90s:

  • Carol L.M. Canton, Homeless in America
  • Christopher Jenks, The Homeless
  • James T. Patterson, America’s Struggle Against Poverty: 1900-1994

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5 thoughts on “Remember, you’re a hero. (The Forgotten)

  1. “Which, to be clear, is not a complaint. This is how superheroes work–how they have to work. A story about a rich man using his power and influence to reduce crime by bettering the lives of the most at-risk people, giving them real hope of other options, isn’t a superhero story. It’s Thomas Wayne, not Bruce.”

    It can function as a background element, though; a recurring theme in early New 52 Batman comics is that the Wayne Foundation is working to make the bad areas of Gotham better (and the complexity of this is addressed with characters who suspect that this means gentrification, and rather than their lives improving they’ll just be pressurised to move elsewhere). And I recall a Batman text story about the Penguin creating a gang of children with poor home lives, and that ended with the reader being told how Wayne money helped the specific kids in the story, but part of that seemed to be building a whole infrastructure to stop kids falling through the net.,

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  2. This is true. But if it becomes the main focus then you’ve ceased to be telling a superhero story, because–as I’ll discuss more in later posts–the protector fantasy requires violence, and it has to be violence pointed in a particular direction.

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