Imaginary Story 7: Batman Adventures vol. 1 #29-36

 

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Continuity, at least as it exists in comics, is not the presentation of the history of a fictional world. Rather, it is the presentation of the memory of a fictional individual. Rarely is that difference presented as clearly as in the final issues of Batman Adventures.

The year opens with “Demonseed,” yet another identical round in the dance that is Talia and Batman. Once again she believes her father to be dead; once again this seems to free her to be on Batman’s side; once again she abandons him to follow her father’s path. Programmatic characters collide and follow their programs, their interactions differing from past encounters only in the details. The same old pains recur again and again, inescapably.

The tragedy of Batman and Talia reiterates again and again, from comics to TV and back to comics. Robin’s origin is a retelling of Batman’s: a young boy whose family is snatched from him by the demon Crime, obsessively training in order to pursue revenge by means of stalking the night in long underwear. There are new stories from time to time, of course, but the ones which stick are told again and again with varying details, because that’s how memory works: when you remember the past, you don’t replay a recording, let alone read a transcript; you reconstruct past perceptions out of fleeting impressions, the same basic beats but with the blanks filled in by details created on the spot. The precise form those details take is shaped by the moods and interests of the present, so the Batman of the 60s is all campy counterculture, the Batman of the 90s a grimdark product of apocalypse deferred, yet both are recognizably Batman.

Fairly straightforward reiterations comprise the next issue as well, with “Natural Born Loser,” an odd and somewhat silly story that prevents us with the origin stories of the comic’s trio of joke villains, Mastermind (an aggrieved self-described victim who turned to meticulous and elaborate planning as his means of revenge, reiterating BTAS’ Clock King), Mr. Nice (someone who just wanted to entertain children but whose particular skills “forced” him into a life of crime, reiterating the Ventriloquist’s story in the annual), and the Perfesser (who playfully refuses to provide a backstory, reiterating the Joker).

That last, a recycling of the Joker, carries us into the next issue with “Anarky,” whose titular villain comes across as essentially a college freshman version of the Joker. He spouts rhetoric about anarchy, the corruption of the upper classes, and letting the people judge, but ultimately proves hypocritical. He sets up a death trap for several rich men (including Bruce Wayne) at a fundraiser, but releases a phone number that, if enough people call it and tell him to spare the men, he’ll let them go. However, he admits that Bruce Wayne is innocent of the other men’s crimes, and is only there because of guilt by association, and further when the police arrive he’s willing to abandon the men without disarming the death trap or leaving instructions on how to do it, regardless of how the people vote, because “that’s showbiz.” Rather than empowering the people or tearing down power structures, he is simply trying to place himself atop a new power structure, as we have repeatedly observed regarding the Joker. Indeed, with his fixed mask and strange black garb, Anarky recalls nothing so much as a cut-rate V, from V for Vendetta, which like The Killing Joke has been repeatedly imitated by people who don’t understand it. It should perhaps come as no surprise that Alan Grant, who created Anarky and wrote this issue of Batman Adventures, had by the late 90s moved on from anarchism to an even more cult-like offshoot of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism known as Neo-Tech.

Nonetheless, Robin admits at the end of “Anarky” that there was some truth in what Anarky had to say, which there was. As if to confirm this, the next issue, “A Soldiers Story,” presents a bizarre little tale of rich men playing an elaborate  game, hiring the bulk of Gotham’s street criminals to act as toy soldiers in a deadly confrontation. It’s an odd but fun story, which struggles to decide whether the men are “sociopaths” (which in this context is presumed to mean inherently incapable of making morally correct choices) or “spoiled” (that is, so sheltered from consequences for their actions that they stop caring about morality). Either way, it is a condemnation of wealth, either because it gave “sociopaths” the power and freedom to indulge themselves, or spoiled two men so thoroughly. It’s an interesting story choice for a comic about a man whose primary superpower is money, but not the first time BTAS has made overtures in that direction: there are elements of both “The Forgotten” and “Appointment in Crime Alley” here.

Those are both appropriate episodes  to invoke heading into the final four issues of Batman Adventures‘ original run, as all four deal with themes of memory, repetition, and the ghosts of the past. The comic ends as it began, with a three-issue arc; however, the issue between “A Soldiers Story” and that arc has close thematic ties with the arc, and should be considered with it. That story, “Just Another Night,” features Bruce Wayne out on a date with a woman named Veronica and her son, attending a film festival showcasing The Grey Ghost. On the way home, they are attacked in an alley by a mugger, in a clear reiteration of the attack that killed Thomas and Martha Wayne. No one is killed, but as soon as he is sure they’re safe, Wayne makes excuses to leave (infuriating Veronica) and sets off as Batman after the mugger. In the end, the boy is glad to have Batman as a protector, but Veronica dumps Bruce.

In other words, he has an experience which reminds him of the event which shattered his identity into boy, bat, and man; he responds with fear and pain followed by rage. He jumps directly into the unhealthy behavior he developed to cope with that initial shattering, knowing that it will sever a rare good relationship that was in the process of forming. In short, he acts out a textbook trauma response. It’s as subtle as an all-ages comic book based on a cartoon can be, but clear nonetheless: this is a story about Batman being triggered. It is a reiteration of his origin story, yes, but also of Mask of the Phantasm, the terrible choice between pursuing love (with a woman who even somewhat resembles Andrea Beaumont!) and avenging his parents, and choosing the more painful path because, ultimately, his survivor’s guilt makes him feel unworthy of love.

Oddly, the issue ends with an apparent error: as with most comic books, the letters page at the back ends with an advertisement for the next issue, but the advertisement at the end of “Just Another Night” is for “Just Another Night,” not the actual next issue, “In Memoriam.” Even more oddly, it’s not a straightforward error of reprinting the previous issue’s ad: although both advertise “Just Another Night” and describe it similarly, the ad at the end of “Just Another Night” is worded distinctly differently from the one at the end of “A Soldiers Story.” It is almost as if, like Batman himself, we are trapped in the cycle of trauma, eternally reiterating slightly variations on his origin story. Experiencing not a linear history, but a memory that fractures and skips, looping back on itself or hopping across gaps.

It may very well not be an error, given that the next issue, the aforementioned “In Memoriam,” is a deliberately disjointed tale built around Hugo Strange’s obsessive work on a new device which has something to do with memory, interspersed with scenes apparently set after the device has been completed, including a diamond heist by Strange, a diamond heist by Catwoman, Batman’s attempts to foil both, and at least one spot where time jumps between pages to indicate a memory lapse on Batman’s part. By, again, the standards of an all-ages comic, it is a deliberately difficult story, disorienting the reader and requiring an unusual amount of effort to piece together what happened when.

For someone like me, who suffers from minor memory issues, it’s a familiar kind of disorientation. My memory contains significant gaps, and I often struggle to place what I do remember in proper sequence. The comic does an excellent job of capturing this sensation, while still getting its story across, a story which is expanded on and explained in the next two, rather more straightforward, issues, “The Book of Memory” and “The Last Batman Adventure” (which is, fittingly, the last issue of Batman Adventures).

These memory issues are related directly to trauma in the form of Strange’s tragic story: some time after the events of “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne,” Rupert Thorne attempted to coerce Strange into recreating his memory-viewing device so it could be used for blackmail. When Strange refused, his son David was murdered on Thorne’s orders. In agony from grief, Strange experimented with memory removal and storage, trying to erase the memory of David’s death. After much experimenting, he managed to remove the memory, but as a result he couldn’t remember that he’d succeeded, and continued fruitlessly trying to remove a memory he didn’t realize was already gone, shredding his memory in the process and giving rise to the disjointed “In Memoriam.” However, in the second and third issues of the arc it becomes clear that on some level he does remember the loss, as he begins reliving David’s death, trying to save him by attacking people who remind him of David’s killer, culminating in the murder of one of Thorne’s men right in front of Thorne.

This is an excellent metaphor for the function of memory in trauma. Defense mechanisms are constructed around the memory, emotions of grief, pain, anger, loss, an effort is made to push it away and forget it–but it inevitably returns, dragging the victim back own into those same emotions. Parallel with Strange’s journey deeper into the prison of his memories, Batman is temporarily freed from his as, at the end of “In Memoriam,” Strange accidentally erased all of his memories from the age of seven on. Following a brief period of exploitation by Catwoman, an oddly sweet subplot in which she takes great joy in having him as a partner in crime, he returns to crimefighting as essentially Robin’s sidekick as they seek the diamond (stolen, of course, by Catwoman) in which Strange stored Batman’s stolen memories.

Yet in the absence of that trauma, those memories, he cannot function as Batman. Without being triggered, without the trauma response, there is no superhero. The endless reiteration of his origin serves a purpose, and it is only after being forced to relive it via the restoration of his memories that he is able to really resume being Batman as we know him. Even Catwoman agrees: the final scene of Batman Adventures is a rooftop meeting between Batman and Catwoman in which she realizes that he has no memory of his amnesiac period, and therefore no memory of either the promise she forced him to make (that he would leave her free to engage in her criminal activities unmolested) or his declaration that he would “hate her forever” (remember, mental age of seven). The final line of this scene, and hence of “The Last Batman Adventure” and The Batman Adventures, is her saying “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The Last Batman Adventure” is in some ways an answer to the first: where the Joker in his three-issue arc would have us question the narratives by which we construct our world in general and Batman in particular, Strange in his reminds us that to lose all our narratives is to be lost ourselves, and Catwoman suggests that maybe some narratives are worth keeping. It is yet another reiteration of Batman’s origin, yet another sympathetic villain (as Strange very much is, unlike his appearance in the show), yet another statement–much like Talia at the beginning of the year–that Batman’s flirtations with his enemies can never become more.

Trauma cycles endlessly. So, too, do superheroes. The same stories repeat endlessly, and only the cancellation of the comic can bring them to an end. Even then, it’s often temporary–immediately after the end of Batman Adventures is The Batman and Robin Adventures, with a new creative team headed by Paul Dini. Batman Adventures vol. 2 is less than a decade away.

No. Trauma is what creates superheroes, the “one bad day” we saw very nearly at the beginning. A real person can heal, but so long as the hero exists and remains a hero, they never can. The only way out for them is the cessation of existence, the cancellation of the book, the end of the world.

Acts, that is, of global violence. Acts which create new traumas, spawning new victims, which is to say new heroes.

The reward for being Batman, as Neil Gaiman would write many years after this, is the same as the punishment for being Batman: you get to be, and have to be, Batman. The reward and punishment for making Batman, on the other hand, is that you get to, and have to, make Superman.


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