Most Batman fans learned to love the Caped Crusader in childhood, and occasionally—or in some cases, fervently—continue in adulthood to check in on his exploits in comics and in films. Whether a colorful, uncomplicated do-gooder or the Dark Knight now in vogue, Batman has entranced children with his self-made excellence and strange imagery. But what deeper currents exert a pull on Batman fans of all ages? Children respond to the primal power of the Batman mythology (if we can call it that—it certainly has the power of myth), but do not question its meaning. The adult Batman reader/viewer may begin to sort through some questions as disturbing as they are intriguing. Why do I like Batman? Can his brand of vigilante justice be at all defensible in a real-world context? Is Batman crazy? What does Robin really mean to him? And what must it have been like when Alfred gave young master Bruce "the Talk"?
All of these questions are addressed in Batman Unauthorized: Vigilantes, Jokers, and Heroes in Gotham City, a brilliant new book of critical essays on Batman in print and on screen. And if the reader engages in the dialogue the book initiates, the reader will also emerge with some fresh answers. The conversation is hosted by editor Denny O'Neil (a legendary Batman writer), who provides a succinct introduction to the book and avuncular thoughts preceding each essay. In this way, we're privy to O'Neil's own dialogue with each author's contribution, and welcomed to tussle for ourselves over the points raised therein.
Part of Benbella Press' SmartPop series, Batman Unauthorized comprises eighteen essays that run the gamut of Bat-topics. One category of essays meticulously (if ironically) considers the Batman story in real-world terms. "The Cost of Being Batman," by Darren Hudson Hick, considers, in 21st century American dollars, the monetary sum required to be the Batman, including the costume, education, fully outfitted Batcave, and all the gadgets and vehicles. Paul Lytle's "The Madness of Arkham Asylum," with tongue firmly in cheek, considers the institution as perhaps the worst mental health facility of all time (while also considering its meaning within the overall Batman narrative). "What's Wrong With Bruce Wayne" finds clinical psychologist Robin S. Rosenberg examining and diagnosing Bruce Wayne using the DSM-IV.
Another category of essays supplies critical reviews of the treatment of the character in comics and movies. In "Keeping It Real in Gotham," Robert Brian Taylor wags a finger at Batman writers who force the character into outlandish situations and confrontations with supernatural enemies (hailing the approach of Christopher Nolan's corrective Batman Begins). In "Frank Miller's New Batman and the Grotesque," writer Geoff Klock defends Frank Miller's much-maligned later Batman work as an extension of Miller's restless deconstructivist spirit (later in the book, John C. Wright savages Miller over his fascist take on Batman). Chris Roberson's "Why Doesn't Batman Retire Already?" straddles the real-world category, trying to make sense of how Robins age and Batman doesn't, while encouraging DC Comics to adopt a more sensible approach to the timeline. And Mike W. Barr's "Batman in Outer Space" represents for the science-fiction adventures of the Dynamic Duo from the '40s and '50s, arguing that they required noteworthy character definition to offset the far-flung plots.
In addition to numerous psychological takes on Bruce Wayne/Batman, the book focuses in on other key characters in the Batman universe: the Joker ("Two of a Kind"), Ra's Al-Ghul ("Ra's Al-Ghul: Father Figure or Terrorist?"), the three most well-known Robins ("Robin: Innocent Bystander"), and Thomas and Martha Wayne ("Gotham's First Family"). Each is supremely insightful on the elemental, unchanging significance of the character as a foil to Batman and a literary archetype, but also usefully revisits and unpacks the meanings of very different versions of the characters over the years. Wright's "Heroes of Darkness and Light" contrasts Superman and Batman, explaining why women invariably prefer the Dark Knight to the Man of Steel (for more on Supes, read Benbella's similar volume The Man of Krypton).
And there's more: "The Dubious Origins of the Batman" roots around in the controversies over the co-creation of Batman by Bob Kane and a largely uncredited Bill Finger. Daniel M. Kimmel's "The Batman We Deserve" examines the changing face of Batman in the movies, corresponding to an evolving masculine ideal.
Unsettling: "To the Batpole!", Alex Bledsoe's three parodies examining how the Alfred of the 1966 series, 1990s movies, and current movies would teach Bruce the birds and the bees. Even more unsettling: In "Batman in the Real World," Kristine Kathryn Rusch unsettlingly poses political parallels between Batman and America at its worst, including the Bush Administration (difference? Batman's always right...whew!). And most unsettling: Nick Mamatas suggests, in "Holy Signifier, Batman!" that Batman means nothing at all, or nothing more than a commercial brand, a commodity.
Mamatas' essay, while intellectually fascinating, seems more and more of an exercise the further one gets into the book. Those who hated English class would be sympathetic to Mamatas' conclusion that a multiplicity of conflicted meanings adds up to a singular nothing, a theory that proposes the rest of the book is just so much pretentious wanking. But as a whole, the book suggests that once the chaff of Batman stories is swept aside, golden grains remain, sufficient to explain—beyond the appeal of action-packed heroics—why the legends of the Dark Knight been so hugely popular for so long. Batman Unauthorized is essential reading on the modern myth of Batman, its meaning, and its enduring hold on the American imagination.