“Death and chance stole your parents. But rather than become a victim, you have done everything in your power to control the fates. For what is Batman if not an effort to master the chaos that sweeps our world…an attempt to control death itself?
“…But I can’t, can I?”
“None of us can.”
-An exchange between Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth in the 1997 film Batman and Robin
Death and Batman – or rather – death and Bruce Wayne, are inseparable conceits in the world of comics. The death of his parents galvanized Wayne into becoming the Batman, and it’s his battle with death that keeps him donning the cape each night despite pain, unrest or strained personal relationships. It’s also a more recognizable theme for him than many of DC’s other heroes, such as the Atom, Firestorm or Green Lantern to name a few.
So what does it mean when he fails?
The first major instance of Batman failing to save someone can be found in Detective Comics #439’s “Night of the Stalker!”, written by Steve Englehart and illustrated by Vin and Sal Mendola with inks by Dick Giordano. The title refers to Batman himself, as he tracks down members of a sundown bank heist after they murder a boy’s parents before fleeing in their getaway car. The similarities to the death of the Waynes flash in his mind, as he tracks the robbers across the city, defeating them one by one before returning to Wayne Manor at sunrise, collapsing into a fit of sobs.
The is an overlooked classic, found in the 2005 edition of “The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told”. Batman never says a word, dispensing a ferocity that’s always been implicit but rarely depicted with such verve as done by Englehart, the Mendolas and Giordano. Playing on the men’s fear, he stalks them into the woods, into a ravine and finally into a small shack. The use of geography to maximize psychological advantage had never before been so expertly rendered, and would only be topped thirty years later in the re-telling from Darwyn Cooke, in his tribute to the story found in the Deluxe Edition of Batman: Ego.
This would probably be the most logical outcome of a scenario where Batman failed to save someone’s life. He’d swiftly mete out justice, then wallow in his failure until the next story. But that isn’t the only story option taken by writers.
Batman: Venom tells the story of Batman’s first encounter with the steroidal compound that was later abused by the villain Bane, depicting an early affair in his career when he ingested pills of the drug in order to increase his power and better stop crime in Gotham. The inciting incident was his failure to save a kidnapped girl trapped under a flooded sewer behind several boulders of rock. After relating what’s implied to be his first loss to Alfred, he relentlessly pursues the kidnappers throughout a rain-soaked night, gathering more and more injuries in the process, until finally – after getting punched through a second-story window – he returns to the victim’s father, a scientist who had created the performance enhancements later known as Venom. Receiving a month’s worth of pills, he exacts revenge on the kidnappers, but over three months grows more and more dependent on them, becoming more ruthless and violent in the process.
What follows is a series of scenes involving withdrawal, mind control, domestic violence, racism and homophobia, Shark Repellant, and torture. Batman’s story is a rise and falls arc, thematically resonant with Michael Caine’s words from Batman Begins, but the sticking point is in how writer Denny O’Neil ends the story. Commissioner Gordon recaps the final days of the villain who died in custody, congratulating Batman on another victory. But Batman stares off into the distance, with the narration caption:
“He is remembering a girl named Sissy…and a boy named Timmy…and the shadows he inhabits are cold…and filled with grief.”
Grief and rage are the common denominators of these types of stories. Dick Grayson felt the same impotent rage when his involving the Flying Todds led to their murder by Killer Croc in Detective Comics #526.
Batman #414 presents another scenario. While patrolling the city, Batman saves a woman named Kate Babcock from a fire. Discovering that she’d been trying to save people herself, he ends up meeting her again as Bruce Wayne, and the two become friends. Kate embodies the good in Gotham City citizens, zealously looking for ways to help the less fortunate. Later, in pursuit of a serial killer, Batman finds out that Kate is the most recent victim. His shock at the sudden murder of a new friend puts him on edge and even impedes his deductive reasoning in figuring out the killer’s identity.
Women are a key figure of tragedy in Batman’s life. His love interests mainly consist of long-running supporting characters such as Vicki Vale and Julie Madison, with the closest to his heart being Selina Kyle and Talia. But there are several others whose light went out and soon as they burned for him, and end up ranking in both the “What Could Have Been” and “IN MEMORY OF” categories.
VESPER FAIRCHILD (Died in Batman: The Ten-Cent Adventure)
RACHEL DAWES (Died in 2008’s The Dark Knight)
DAWN GOLDEN (Died in Batman: The Dark Knight #5)
NATALYA TRUESEVICH (Died in Batman: The Dark Knight vol.2 #20)
SILVER ST. CLOUD (Died in Batman: The Widening Gyre #6)
In contributing to the “Women in Refrigerators” trope of cynically killing off women for the sake of drama, these examples tried showing that happiness and Batman do not mix, sacrificing women close to him in order to affix that conceit into universal law. As opposed to the circumstantial murders listed earlier, most of these women died as a result of a villain seeking to hurt a male character for a greater purpose, making them props in their convoluted revenge. Natalya Truesevich and Silver St. Cloud died as a direct result of knowing Batman. Vesper Fairchild was killed in order to frame Bruce Wayne as revenge courtesy of Lex Luthor for humbling him during the end of No Man’s Land. Rachel Dawes was blown up in order to drive Harvey Dent insane, or, to screw with Batman and the police in trying to save two people at the same time. The only outlier is Dawn Golden, who was killed as a part of a cult her father was involved in, yet she was a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne, same as Rachel Dawes.
These deaths are also similar in their lack of catharsis. The Widening Gyre has yet to be followed up on after nearly nine years (at the time of this writing) since Silver’s cliffhanger death. Neither Dawn Golden nor Natalya Truesevich have been mentioned since their deaths in the pages of Batman: The Dark Knight. Vesper Fairchild’s killing and Bruce’s subsequent arrest for her murder kicked off the Bruce Wayne: Murderer/Fugitive storylines, which spanned across the Bat-Books for a year, but she’s hardly been referenced after the story was resolved. The largest consequence came from Rachel Dawes’ death, which led to Bruce leading a lonely life of solitude in memory of the life they failed to have together, resulting in the eventual retirement of Batman in the process. Granting that there’s no hard and fast rule for depicting loss in sequential storytelling, most of these examples weren’t in the unending pages of Batman or Detective Comics. They were either written in miniseries or limited series, or films. But that fact only highlights the impermanent weight of the “Women in Refrigerators” trope. Eventually, comics must be fun again and the characters have to be thrilling and exciting to read. Even Batman, with all of his characteristic frowning, has to have excitement in his stories, devoid of mopey baggage. Because of this, and because his adventures aren’t typically romance books, these women and their murders have to be of a finite importance that cannot weigh on his soul too heavily or too long. Ultimately, their loss and his failure cannot define him, because they do not define our engagement. Who even remembers Dawn Golden or Natalya Truesevich, let alone cared about them?
Of course, the people in Bruce’s life that we do care about tend to have been around longer than most.
FRIENDS AND FAMILY
Deaths of Batman’s partners have almost become as much a tradition as Batman having partners at all. “A Death in the Family” remains a watershed moment in the character’s canon, with Jason Todd’s very name synonymous with crowbars and explosions. Even before his eventual fate by the Joker, the pull of Robin dying was an easy grab for comic book covers in the Silver Age.
Of course, Status Quo was God in the Silver Age, so Robin was always counted on to be okay at the end. It wasn’t until alternate history stories and Elseworld tales grew more prolific that we saw what would happen if Batman truly did lose his partner.
One of the most notable stories which introduced the tradition of the haunted costume case was The Dark Knight Returns. Here, Bruce Wayne has been retired as Batman for ten years, and through his inner monologue it’s implied that Jason Todd’s death was the cause of it. Until “The Last Crusade” was published, it was never explicitly stated that Jason died in a fight with the Joker. Batman doesn’t refer to Joker as Jason’s killer (unlike in Knightfall), and Joker doesn’t mention it either. Yet, the ghost of Jason haunts the Batcave and draws a long shadow over the new Teen Wonder, Carrie Kelley.
Another Elseworlds story, “The Nail” presents a scenario where we actually see the death and fallout of not just Robin, but Batgirl as well. In the three-issue miniseries, The Joker wields Kryptonian technology, immobilizes Batman, and forces him to watch as he brutally destroys his two partners. In a rage, Batman breaks the Clown Prince’s neck. For the rest of “The Nail”, and even its sequel “Another Nail”, Batman is tortured by the memory of Robin and Batgirl’s deaths, and haunted by his own actions, breaking his moral code even when the Gotham City courts abdicate Batman in what they judged to be an act in the midst of war. Batman leaves the Justice League for the sake of preserving its clean image, wrestling with his life alongside Selina Kyle.
Both “The Nail” and “The Dark Knight Returns” present similar instances with alternative outcomes. In TDKR, Batman apprehends the Joker, or, if Jason died of different circumstances, Batman simply retired. We know he didn’t break his rule not to kill as it’s mentioned to be the line he still hasn’t crossed throughout the four issues. “The Nail” has Batman exact his vengeance on Joker immediately, in the midst of the battle. But the act of revenge does little to wipe off the stain of helplessness and failure that irrevocably shook him for the remainder of the story. Ultimately in both scenarios, the deaths of his partners had permanent consequences for Batman’s career.
In the actual event of Robin’s murder, Batman quickly resolved to kill the Joker, marking the boy’s death as the step too far in justifying the Ace of Knaves’ continued existence, in the face of the swath of bodies left in his wake. He does inwardly debate the purity of his intentions, acknowledging that he wouldn’t be doing the right thing. Ultimately, he decides Jason’s killing was the bridge too far.
Batman chases the Joker into a helicopter, and a fight ensues where gunmen open fire on everyone inside, shooting the costumed characters and the copter’s pilot. Batman leaves the Joker to crash and escapes the explosion, but demands a nearby Superman to find Joker’s body, understanding deep down that his war with the Joker always ends up unresolved.
But when the Joker returns in Batman #450-#451, Bruce struggles with what to do with the second chance at revenge. Both he and Commissioner Gordon thirst for vengeance, but are afraid to take it, knowing ramifications of crosses that moral line. The Chief of Police could not kill whomever he judged fit for capital punishment, and Batman would no longer be the extra-legal example of justice in Gotham City.
Ultimately Batman and Gordon stick to their morals and apprehend the Joker.
Jim Gordon is a point of interest, as he’s suffered as much if not more from the Joker’s actions. Not only did Joker shoot and paralyze Barbara Gordon, but he also killed Sarah Essen, Gordon’s second wife. Both times, Gordon insisted on judging the Clown Killer by the letter of the law. He reminds Batman of this in Batman #614, when – after the Joker appears to have killed Bruce’s long lost friend Tommy Elliott – Gordon arrives to save Batman from stepping over the one line he knows he could never return to.
By that point in Batman’s continuity, he’d amassed a number of partners. Tim Drake had been serving as the third Robin for over ten years, and Cassandra Cain filled the boots as the new Batgirl. Over time, he included Stephanie Brown’s Spoiler to his team, and she eventually replaced Tim as Robin. Her stint was short-lived, and during the War Games arc, she ran afoul of Black Mask, who beat and tortured her nearly to death. She survived long enough for Batman to tell her she mattered as one of the Robins, before passing away on her hospital bed. However, in one of the most reviled and quickly retconned moments in Batman comics, it was revealed that Leslie Thompkins purposefully withheld treatment from Stephanie so that her death would prove a point that involving partners in Bruce’s war on crime was a bad idea.
Batman’s understandably furious with Leslie, and promises to arrest her should she ever step back into Gotham City, but let’s note that this sacrifice play of Leslie’s doesn’t produce much reflection in him. Stephanie’s death was his first major loss since Jason Todd. Hers’ was mourned and regretted, but had no impact on a man whose teams still consisted of two other teenagers. This is justified in a later retcon by Chuck Dixon, who explained that Leslie’s letting Steph die was a ruse and they hid away across the planet, with Batman suspecting it all along.
However, the next loss in the Bat-Family was very real, even if it was temporary. In Batman Incorporated #9, Damian Wayne is killed during a battle with The Heretic, a genetically-engineered assassin of his mother Talia’s, who is also an adult clone of him.
Batman and the Bat-Family swear vengeance on Talia, but no further line is drawn. Talia’s killed by a recently-returned Kathy Kane, but both her and Damian’s bodies are snatched away by Ra’s Al Ghul.
Potentially more than Jason Todd’s death, Damian’s murder resulted in many issues of the Bat-Books that showcased the Bat-Family expressing their grief. While some characters were impacted more than others, Bruce’s sorrow was consistently rendered from issue to issue, straining his relationship with his other partners. As fate would have it, Bruce found himself in a position to either resurrect Damian or his parents with the Chaos Shard, a powerful tool from Apokolips. Bruce chose to bring back Damian, who returned with a temporary set of superpowers. Eventually, the powers burned out, but Batman was more than happy to have his (relatively) normal son back.
During this time period, Nightwing was also thought to be dead by the masses. However, that was a ruse by Batman himself, while Dick became a secret agent and infiltrated the organization known as Spyral. But the next “death” was thought by the Caped Crusader to have been real. When Tim Drake battled a legion of Bat-Drones in Detective Comics #939, it looked as though he was blasted into oblivion. He was not, teleported at the last moment by Mr. Oz, yet Batman and the rest of the Bat-Family believed that yet another Robin had perished in battle.
Eventually, Tim found his way out of Mr. Oz’s prison and returned to Gotham and the Bat-Family.
Within the past five years, three of the canonical five Robins have either died or were thought to have been dead. While issues dedicated to the fallout have varied in length and exploration, none have strayed past the typical choreography of anger, sorrow and moving on. Batman abhors death, and it weighs on his soul whenever someone close to him dies, but readers can expect the same kind of Public Service Announcement about how the deceased or thought-to-be-deceased lived life by their own standard and that Batman was free from blame despite his crying. For the characters, it’s logical, but after decades of loss and pain, one wonders if there’s nothing else to be said about death in Gotham City.
Batman v Superman
I’d be remiss in neglecting how Batman is depicted in 2016’s Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. One of the many criticisms of the film is the depictions of the two lead heroes, particularly Batman’s as a darker, more vicious crime fighter. To be sure, Ben Affleck’s portrayal of the character went over glowingly, one of the more appraised elements of the movie. However, the writing of Batman, in particular his short-sighted hate of Superman and the indiscriminate manor in which he kills nameless henchmen throughout the film was a note of contention for many. The setup is that, like in The Dark Knight Returns, Bruce Wayne had decades of crime-fighting behind him, and his lifetime of heroics has left him bitter and angry over the futility of his mission. Coupled with the death of Robin in the back of his mind (although Robin is never referenced or mentioned beyond the costume case), the prospect of aliens posing a threat to the human race has Wayne on a mad-on. His actions, which include branding criminals with his bat-symbol, have not gone unnoticed. Alfred remarks that Bruce has become cruel, and Clark Kent/Superman sets out to stop this violation of civil liberties. All the while, Bruce ratchets his plan to kill Superman, running over and blowing up many henchmen of Lex Luthor in the process. In the most memorable scene of the film, Kent and Wayne resolve their differences over the coincidence that their mothers share the name “Martha”. This seemingly extinguishes Batman’s thirst for violence, with a promise that he’ll save Martha Kent of Luthor’s goons. Yet no such change of heart is demonstrated, as Batman aggressively wastes more goons with no greater sense of his morality’s limitations.
This seems to be a viable outcome for a lifetime of death and loss. In contrast to the comic book Batman, Affleck’s Batman has determined that the ends justify the means in regards to dealing with those on the opposite side of the law (despite Batman and criminals being on the same side of the law). This is never meaningfully commented on or reflected in the film. Affleck’s Wayne quotes Miller’s Wayne in how he’s always been a criminal, but the introspection doesn’t go further than that. To be sure, this is not the first depiction of Batman on film where he’s willingly killed his enemies. One needn’t think too far back to Michael Keaton, who blew up Ace Chemicals and everyone inside just to snuff out the Joker. The comparison of Keaton to Affleck is one relied upon by most defenders of Batman in BVS.
The problem is that the moral and ethical implications are explicitly invoked by characters in the movie until they aren’t. There’s no argument or conversation with how Batman should be or how he conducted himself in the past. Alfred resents Batman’s branding but does not comment on his killing, and the same goes for Superman. Batman’s body count is higher than Superman’s, even though the public at large distrusts and debate the Man of Steel’s place in humanity. There’s the talk of power and responsibility, the corruption of power and power left unabated. But when Batman embodies all the negative outcomes of power unchecked, when he’s the dark reflection of how he imagines Superman’s place in the world will turn out, being as awful as Alfred and Clark say he is, there’s no relief from this morass of ethics. Batman’s left unaltered by the end of the movie, merely regretful that his actions led to Superman’s death. In the follow-up film Justice League, he doesn’t take any life, even going so far as to let a criminal go for the sake of learning more about Parademons. Still, the initial film Dawn of Justice was thematically centered around the good of those who have the power to do evil. There’s no conversation or understanding that Batman as a character reflected on his actions to the point where he changed them. Additionally, the GCPD are barely shown in BVS, and Gordon is nowhere to be seen. He defends Batman in Justice League, reassuring Crispus Allen that Batman wouldn’t go rogue after twenty years of crime-fighting, despite that being exactly what happened in BVS.
In the end, the exploration of a Batman’s whose lifetime of loss and death resulted in a darker, compromised version of himself failed to result in a comprehensive analysis because there’s no abreaction from seeing him become that which he dedicated his life to fighting against. While one can grant clemency to a film series which has only a short amount of time to explore everything properly, perhaps such ideas shouldn’t have been explored at all if they weren’t going to naturally resolve themselves.
Recently in the pages of Peter Tomasi’s Detective Comics, both Leslie Thompkins and later Henri Ducard fell victim to a plot against Batman, dying as a part of a revenge scheme in the countdown to Detective Comics #1000. In ‘Tec #995 and #996, the outcome of Bruce’s mother figure dying produced the same results as the majority of loss in his life has; anger, violence, and determination. This is right for the character. It’s how his psychology has been shown to process and deal with the pain of loss, time after time. In ‘Tec #999, it was revealed to be part of a yearly test scenario Bruce puts himself under to better himself. Leslie and the others are, in fact, still alive and well. But at the time before the story’s conclusion, with all of these examples of death, I found myself wondering…what’s the point?
Arguably a worst case scenario outside of the mishandled storytelling in BVS would be that these characters are brought back to life. That’s happened to both Jason Todd and Damian Wayne, while Stephanie Brown and Tim Drake were revealed to be alive all along. But resurrection collides with the notion that Batman cannot control the fates, despite his best intentions. We saw that play out in Justice League, where he resolved to bring Superman back to life, in a scene where nobody questioned the possibility or sanity of the idea in the context of that movie. But resurrection has long proven to be a very real thing in DC Comics. Batman explored the possibilities when learning that Jason Todd was both alive and acting as the Red Hood, touring various DC characters who’ve experienced death and returned to the living plane. But for the sake of argument, imagine if Leslie and Ducard stayed dead. Not too much would be lost, as neither characters have had much impact on Batman’s life at the moment. Still, one would hope that their deaths would affect some change in him. Otherwise, why do it?
Death and Batman are constant companions. They battle against each other, and while only death can be the final victor, there isn’t be a more relentless interloper in its plans than the Dark Knight. But when death does best him and take people away from him, is the purpose of that next loss the refusal to surrender to its inevitability? Judging by the character’s history, that would seem to be the case. In which, then, it’s difficult to be continually interested in the same story, especially when such a well-trodden, repetitive conceit is being highlighted as the grand crescendo to Detective Comics #1000. The only hope left for the future is that there really are more avenues to explore when it comes to Batman and death. Let’s hope it won’t take another one-thousand issues to see them. We’d all likely be dead before we got the chance.