The Passion of the Batman, part 1

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : June 7, 2005

I’m a big Batman fan.  Next week, Batman Begins opens in theaters nationwide.  In homage, I will be sharing portions of a paper I wrote last year for a theology course (yes, theology) interacting with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, one of the best graphic novels ever, and the inspiration for Tim Burton’s and Chris Nolan’s visions of Batman.  I picked Batman as the focus of my paper (which was for a Theology in the Media Age course), because I think he is a modern American mythic hero who reflects some of our conceptions of justice and ethics.  Please stay with me for all 6 parts.



There are few superheroes as widely
recognized as the Batman[1]. Since 1939, the Batman has been a pop
icon-though his image has changed through the years. The Batman has reached mythic status, some
would argue-an enduring symbol of justice. Dennis O?Neil, long-time editor for
DC Comics states: “Even though only a tiny fraction of the population reads the
comics, everyone knows about them the way everybody knows about Paul Bunyan,
Abe Lincoln, etc. Batman and Robin are
the postindustrial equivalent of folk figures. They are much deeper in our deeper in our collective psyches than I had
thought. Because these characters have
been around for 50 years, everybody in the country knows about them. They have the effect on people that mythology
used to and if you get into that you can?t avoid the question of religion.”[2]

The Batman?s popularity is due in
large part not to what makes him exceptional, but what makes him common-he is
one of the few comic superheroes without super powers. And his quest for
justice is motivated by the tragic death of his parents. In many ways, the Batman is one of us. He may possess greater abilities than any
man, but he is still a man-a man who uses his vast resources to bring order to
a chaotic and dark world. Americans can
relate to such a hero, because he does what many fantasize about-stand against
injustice. He epitomizes our desires to
secure justice and punish evil. The
Batman touches something primal in each of us. And because of that, he is an irresistible character.

In what follows, I will look at the
Batman in greater depth. More precisely,
I will examine Frank Miller?s interpretation of the Batman. Many consider the Batman we find in the Dark Knight Returns, which was created
by Frank Miller, to be the most sophisticated and satisfying presentation of
the Batman in any media. Frank Miller
broke new ground when he wrote the Dark
Knight Returns
-it not only re-created the Batman and set off an explosion
of new Batmania, but he also sparked a renaissance in the comic book genre.

Drawing from almost fifty years of
publication history, Frank Miller sought to offer a new interpretation that was
both faithful to the tradition, yet fundamentally new. In order to do this, he brought a level of literary
and artistic depth that hadn?t been reached in popular comics before. To deepen the mythic quality of the Batman,
Miller utilizes religious imagery, drawing parallels between the Batman and
Jesus Christ. What I hope to show in this paper is that in the Dark Knight Returns,
Frank Miller re-interprets the story and tradition of the Batman, using
Christian imagery in order to show the Batman as a messianic figure who brings
salvation to a world falling apart.

In order to show Miller?s
innovations, I will begin with a brief history of the Batman. Next, I will offer a brief synopsis of the Dark Knight Returns, followed by an
analysis of Miller?s reinterpretation. After the groundwork has been laid, I will begin to show how Miller
utilizes religious imagery in order to assist in his mythic reinterpretation of
Batman. In a concluding section, I will
suggest some of the things we, as Christian theologians, can learn from the Dark Knight Returns.

Apparently there is some dispute over whether the character in question should
be called “Batman” or “the Batman.” Most
self-described “purists” refer to him as “the Batman.” In order to respect
their desire for purity, I will try to
refer to “Batman” as “the Batman” as often as possible.

[2] Dennis
O?Neil, quoted in Roberta E. Pearson and
William Uricchio, “Notes from theBatcave: An Interview with Dennis O?Neil,” in
Pearson, Roberta E., and Uricchio, William, Eds., The Many Lives of the Batman (New York: Routledge, 1991), 23.


for further reading . . .

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3 Responses to “The Passion of the Batman, part 1”

  1. Michelle on June 7th, 2005 2:42 pm

    I love graphic novels. They just put an article in Bradford’s school paper about my knowledge and intrest in dare I call them comics :). I can’t wait for these installments. Is it just Batman, or are there are crusaders and characters you like?

  2. Van S on June 7th, 2005 6:07 pm

    I used to be big into Spiderman, Thor, the Xmen, Batman, etc. Lately, I’m more into film than graphic novels. This paper gave me an opportunity to dig into a childhood love, but to do so with an eye to contemporary American culture.

  3. Dave Zimmerman on June 13th, 2005 8:12 am


    We had a graphic novel discussion group at work for a while, and the person who made posters lifted a panel from DKR to hint at the nature of the discussion: Batman in classic leaping pose, with sidescreens of people on the street speculating about who or what he is. Meanwhile Batman is being “born again,” experiencing a “baptism” in the midst of his return to active duty. Super-cool. I’ll be gobbling up your posts about this. Nice to meet another blogger.

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