Tuesday, January 12, 2010
If you imagine, however, that Batman had the experience as a dream, and apply the Freudian notion that dreams reveal hidden preoccupations, you can take it as evidence that Batman has, in comparison with Superman, an inferiority complex and that his subconscious created the fantasy to let him experience the superior role for a change. Grant Morrison fills in this explanation (along with the idea that exposure to a villain's hallucinogenic gas, not a mere dream, triggered the vision) in explicitly psychological terms in Batman #679, with Bat-Mite providing the analysis. Bruce, still reeling from Doctor Hurt's attack, provides Morrison's comparison of Batman and Superman, when he comments that his mind is "Like a streamlined engine. A silver bullet." This echoes Superman's catchphrase "Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive." (A streamlined engine is a type of locomotive.) And that's an encapsulation of Batman that no one can deny -- his superpower is his mind.
Given the notion that Batman had something to compensate for, a vulnerability, what was it? In pre-Crisis (and pre-Dark Knight Returns) history, Batman had a measured sense of humility, and lacking powers, in comparison with Superman, might be cause enough (in the 1958 story, he comments, "It has been fun playing Superman"). But modern Batman asks and gives no quarter. Inasmuchas he lacks the powers of his JLA allies, he more than makes up for that with near-total self actualization, making him one of the hardest superheroes to beat. The limits he perceives for himself are few and far between and largely concern his past. First and foremost, there is his defining origin moment -- his helplessness on the night his parents were killed.
When Bruce speaks with the evil monk in Batman #681, he speaks of a hole in his mind, waiting to open up and swallow him whole. As he turns to discuss his plans for a defensive measure, a backup personality to save him in the event of an attack on his mind that may have already taken place, it is clear that he is describing, without being fully aware then of the details, the attack that Doctor Hurt began through some unrevealed brainwashing that took place during the ten days of the isolation experiment (the basis of another old story from Batman #156). This is a second weakness that Bruce has, because of the vulnerability that Doctor Hurt took advantage of. A single panel, easy to miss, reveals the connection between the two: the words "Zur En Arrh", in mirror image, is placed into the middle of this discussion. By the end of the issue, we know that this phrase was not a string of random syllables, but from a mishearing of one of the last things Thomas Wayne ever said -- a line that Bruce did not hear clearly enough to understand -- a comment that if Zorro actually existed, he would be branded mad -- Zorro in Arkham.
This itself points to a quality of Batman often considered a flaw of his (if an essential one): That his obsession with crime and dressing up like a bat is fundamentally insane. That perspective can be seen in the 1989 Batman movie, as well as Morrison's Arkham Asylum which presented Batman's jarring confession: "I'm afraid. I'm afraid that the Joker may be right about me. Sometimes I... question the rationality of my actions. And I'm afraid that when I walk through those Arkham gates... when I walk into Arkham and the doors close behind me... it'll be just like coming home." While Batman teeters on the edge of losing his composure in that story, he loses it utterly in Batman, R.I.P.
Morrison structures all of these vulnerabilities together: A line that alludes to the madness of the hero that Bruce will one day become is spoken by his father. Then the act that brutally sets him on his life's path takes his parents from him. The sounds of that phrase surface in a hallucination that exposes Batman's weakness in comparison to his friend and ally, Superman. When he thinks of weakness, that phrase, the thing ringing in his mind before the gunshots, brings it all together -- his helplessness, powerlessness, loss, and madness.
Therefore, it is not surprising that someone empowered to manipulate Bruce, with access to all of his memories, would choose a phrase that Bruce associates with weakness, instead of a random one, to trigger in him a weakened state. The phrase already has those associations -- it does part of Doctor Hurt's work for him already. Doctor Hurt sums it up in Batman #677: "The extreme lengths to which our boy has gone to make himself strong are powerful indicators of the weakness he feels he must overcome. That weakness is still there, inside. The fracture that will break the man." Doctor Hurt thereby asserts firmly that it is not just a psychological trigger phrase that was programmed into Bruce that will bring him down -- it is the very weakness that Bruce has been trying to overcome since the beginning. The loss of his parents. The tragedy that came with the sounds "Zur En Arrh" in Bruce's ears.
A plot point that led to some confusion was that the phrase that Doctor Hurt used to put Bruce into a helpless state was the same one that Bruce used to activate his savage backup personality, the Batman of Zur En Arrh. Given that Bruce had no conscious memory of the details of Doctor Hurt's plan until some of them began to resurface in #674, we cannot conclude that Bruce chose the trigger knowing that it was specifically the trigger that would be used to attack him. But it's not so strange that he would use the personality that was super-strong as his salvation, or the phrase associated with it. Coming from whatever subconscious sense that he had, Bruce put his weakness front and center to trigger his strength. That is the essence of his life: Everything strong that he is was caused by the defining moment of helplessness. Psychologically, he doesn't run from it -- when he needs to be strong, he remembers it. That's what he chooses to trigger the Batman of Zur En Arrh. (Note: The purple costume was the costume worn by Tlano, not by our Batman; that is a confound from the older story to Bruce's defense.) Somehow, Bruce was training himself to be the Batman of Zur En Arrh when he heard the phrase. His training was incomplete. If it had worked, he would have beaten the Club of Villains physically when they invaded the Batcave. Instead, he knew that he was not ready, fell to the ground, and endured their predations on his prostrate body. He needed to mutter the key phrase to himself more over the next day, all the more revived in his purpose by having been led again to Crime Alley.
The Zur En Arrh hallucination had a number of interesting follow-ups. In Batman #682, we see the Bat-Radia, the artifact Tlano gives Batman in the original story, in Batman's palm while he arranges items in the Batcave. This is presumably a small joke on Morrison's part, since the Bat-Radia should not exist if the adventure was a hallucination. Issue #678 opens with a panel showing a slightly different version of the Bat-Radia, evidentally part of the vision Bruce had, as Tim reads from the Black Casebook. Most recently, we see that Zur En Arrh is the acoustical password that Dick uses to access the vault where Bruce's body was placed after Blackest Night. It is a small mystery as to how a vault in Dick's use utilizes that phrase, but that mystery has more than one possible resolution.
This account of Bruce's vulnerabilities, all tied up into a tidy package, leaves one thing out. In Batman #673, Bruce recollects that when he was about five years old, he first senses "the presence of a toppling void in the center of existence. For the first time in my life, I suddenly grasp something. Mom and Dad are going to die." Is this an epiphany that anyone might have had -- the universality of death? Or did something -- besides the discovery of the cave under Wayne Manor depicted in the artwork of that scene -- make Bruce sense such a void? In the Detective #235 account of the costume party to which Thomas Wayne first wore the batsuit that inspired Bruce's, young Bruce sees his father in the costume before the party. Ten years later, the Waynes are killed. In Morrison's telling, the timeline must be somewhat different, but could the party have been the basis of young Bruce's sense of a toppling void? Did Black Glove iniquities take place and mark the Waynes for their eventual destruction, the way that criminal activities of a less grand kind did in Detective #235? When Doctor Hurt comments in #678 "How you've grown" does that indicate a meeting between Hurt and young Bruce? Given Morrison's notion that Bruce is 35 and the newspaper headline in #678 reading "GOTHAM'S HURT MISSING" marked 31 years in the past, the timeline works out very well for that toppling void to have coincided with the Waynes' first meeting with The Black Glove.
Update: While I have long associated the "toppling void" comment with a possible association between the Wayne family and the Black Glove when Bruce was about five, there is an existing explanation that is more prosaic. The scene depicted in the artwork at that point in #673 is a well-established scene, occuring in stories such as Batman #0 and "The Man Who Falls". #673 shows Bruce discovering the cave and its bats from above, but the earlier renditions show him falling ("toppling") into it and identify his age as four. This doesn't mean that there isn't something more to the scene -- it's not quite apparent why finding a scary cave would lead one to believe that one's parents would die. Whereas the party from Detective #235 is an event from roughly the same time frame (in #235's version, Bruce must have been about four at the party and fourteen when his parents died) and did confront Bruce with an event that led to his parents' deaths -- though without any obvious clues to that effect at the time.