Commissioned entry for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!
I have, generally speaking, not talked much about Batman after the time of the DCAU. I’ve talked a good bit about versions of Batman before, and I’ve talked about other comics that postdate the DCAU, but this is my first time writing about a 21st Century Batman comic.
As we’ve discussed before, superhero comics function more like memory than history. Scott Snyder’s Batman (or, more accurately, his student Marguerite Bennett’s–she wrote the issue based on a story outline by Snyder) is not a replica of any past Batman, anymore than Timm, Dini, and Conroy’s is. But neither are they entirely new, independent creations. They are reconstructions, like all memories. A few impressions of who Batman was in comics, TV shows, and movies past, with the rest filled in by the mind of the rememberer, colored by their mood and interests, their state of mind and preferences.
Snyder/Bennet’s Batman, as presented in this comic, is a figure of rage. Someone who, when he claims to be terror, vengeance, and the night, not only means it but lives it. Consider the initial premise of the comic, the very reason he is in Arkham in the first place: to confirm the inescapability of what is very obviously Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.
Conceived as a more enlightened, more rational form of prison, the Panopticon consists of a central tower with a wraparound window, in the center of a circle formed by prison cells, which are stacked atop one another. Key is that every point in the Panopticon is visible from the central tower, which means that a single guard could be observing any inmate at any time. Bentham’s theory was that this would guarantee good behavior from all inmates at all times, since they never knew whether or when they were under observation.
Probably more well-known than Bentham’s original conception is Michel Foucalt’s critique. The horror of the Panopticon is obvious; it is utterly dehumanizing and cruel, plunging prisoners into a state of perpetual fear and anxiety from which there would be no hope of escape, essentially guaranteeing the kinds of behavior it is supposed to control. But what is less obvious, and the crux of Foucalt’s argument, is that the underlying principles by which Bentham designed the Panopticon–a casual disregard for the humanity of those who deviate in any way from a narrowly defined and rigidly disciplined conception of “normal,” which if need be is imposed by force–not only underlie our existing prisons, but also our hospitals, asylums, schools, and indeed our society in general.
This is what is constructed within Arkham, and Batman’s response is not to acknowledge its horror and destroy it, or at least refuse to help construct it; he instead participates willingly in tests designed to make sure that none of Arkham’s more dangerous occupants can escape.
Intertwined with these tests is the story of the Anchoress, a woman who defied what was “normal” in her time by studying the sciences, and was punished for it. Demands that she accept an arranged marriage or remain shut in her room resulted in her setting off an explosion that killed her parents and transformed her, giving her a withered appearance and a potent superpower. That seems like a superhero origin story, and it well could have been, except that the Anchoress had no one to blame but herself. She created her own prison, voluntarily entering Arkham.
But then, as she tells the story, Batman came along, and transformed Arkham from a place of healing to a place where monsters were imprisoned. The moment at which Arkham changed for her, personally, was when she attacked Batman for violating the privacy of the inmates by sneaking in to read their files, for which she was punished by being moved to a small cell which could imprison her despite her ability to walk through walls.
She was, in short, rebelling against the Panopticon of the asylum, the knowledge that anything the inmates do or say could be recorded by a doctor, kept in a file whose only protection was a set of rules, rules the inmate themselves has been shut away for failing to live by–and for this she was punished. The same logic as the person arrested for resisting arrest, a sadly familiar scenario in this age of police excess and violence.
The violation of privacy, the exposure of secrets, is also the weapon she uses against Batman, forcing him into a cage of his darkest memories. A memory trapped in memories; how apropos.
The last major figure of the comic is a young orderly on his first day working at Arkham, who witnesses the Anchoress’ escape. He is obviously unsettled by the Panopticon, though not enough to voice an objection, and sympathetic to the Anchoress. By the end of the comic he is still insisting that there is a possibility for Arkham to be a place of healing, not just a prison.
Unfortunately, as long as any and all deviance is monitored and punished, no such healing is possible. The Anchoress tells Batman she was “healing, until you,” but that’s exactly the problem: monitoring and punishment beget monitoring and punishment. A Batman more concerned with the containment of Arkham inmates than their humanity subjects those inmates to surveillance, violates their autonomy and privacy, and they justifiably lash out in return, which is taken by their captors as justification for more surveillance, more punishment, more containment.
There are hints of the possibility of a better way. Batman refrains from punching the Anchoress, allowing her to be captured peacefully, and she is given a better cell. The orderly retains his hope that the inmates of Arkham can be healed. But the “heard it before” attitude of the other orderly tells us everything we need to know about that hope: it is deviance, and will be squeezed out of him by the discipline of Arkham.
Like all prisons, it confines the jailers almost as much as the inmates. (Almost.)
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