Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Redemption and the Bat

Today we’re going to be dealing with a reader question, from Friend Of The Blog and all around good guy @goblinpaladin: “Does Batman's abhorrence of firearms and imposed restriction of no killing mean he believes in the possibility of redemption?”

Good question! Let me begin by answering it quickly, and then going into a bit more detail: Batman believes THE HECK out of redemption. It’s basically his whole deal. It’s why he’s not the Punisher. It’s why he doesn’t kill, why he sends his villains to an asylum, a place of healing. You might also say, "but Alex, isn't Batman also kind of a suspicious guy? Can't he sometimes also be kind of an asshole?" And you'd be right, for the most part. Here's the thing: Batman accepts the capacity for redemption in all people as a concept, but he basically never believes in it when he sees it.

There are a few caveats that I want to get out of the way before we dig into the nuts and bolts, and the first one is that you can find a Batman story to prove anything you like. The guy has been in print for seventy five goddamn years now, often in as many as six books a month, all by different writers, all of whom have their own idea of how the ‘real’ Batman behaves. There's gonna be done variance, and at the end of the day he’s a fictional character, so getting at what  "really" believes is always going to be a problematic endeavour. That said, there are degrees. Let me put it this way – there’s a difference between a story where Batman lets Catwoman come hang out in the Batcave, which is out of character but not impossible, and a story where he teams up with the man who killed his parents, USING THE GUN THAT KILLED HIS PARENTS, which is totally goddamn insane. Both of these things happened (Hush and Year Two, respectively) and both of them are terrible, but the latter is a far greater deviation from the ‘proper' Batman, for lack of a better word. That concept is also pretty subjective, and if you have a different perspective, well it's not like you're paying for this.

Let's just move right along...
The second caveat is that, of course, nobody who prances around the Gotham rooftops in a fancy costume in Gotham is ever going to reform their ways, not even the ones who got stuck with terrible names like Sportsmaster or Killer Moth, no matter how long they spend in Arkham Asylum. This is for the same reason that none of them ever stay dead, not even when they get burned to ashes and have those ashes spread into space, as happened to Ra’s al Ghul in “Messiah of the Crimson Sun.” It’s just the nature of serialised storytelling – one writer might genuinely intend for a character to have a resolution, but the next guy in line is still free to tear all that down and bring them back to status quo. Batman doesn’t know this, though, just as he doesn’t know that his sweet cape is actually the work of artist, colourist and inker, so in analysing his behaviour we have to work under the assumption that it might be possible for one of his rogues gallery to properly and permanently give up the life of crime. There have been a few stories to dig deep into the workings of Arkham and look for an in-story explanation for why any actual healing or reform is impossible there – Arkham: A Serious House on Serious Earth and Cages (from Batman Annual #2) spring to mind, but they’re both a little outside today’s scope.

"Cages", by Scott Snyder and Marguerite Bennett
To work, my friends, and let’s keep this simple. We’re going to look at a single set of stories that cover the length and breadth of the Batman mythos, a series that is consistent enough to be considered a single text but broad enough to form a microcosm of the larger Batman universe. You know what I’m talking about. The greatest appearance of Batman on television, Batman: The Animated Series. We're going to use the series to look at how he puts criminals away, how he treats them when they're released, and even what he thinks about the nature of their incarceration.

To my mind, the clearest examples in The Animated Series that demonstrates Batman’s belief in redemption are “It’s Never Too Late” and “Paging the Crime Doctor”. There are a lot of common threads between the two episodes, though “Paging the Crime Doctor” comes later and builds a lot on the setup of the first. “It’s Never Too Late” is essentially a reworking of the A Christmas Carol / It’s a Wonderful Life setup, with Batman taking an aging crime boss named Arnold Stromwell around Gotham and showing him the fruits of his misdeeds, encouraging him to turn state’s witness and end a destructive mob war with rival Rupert Thorne. It’s powerful stuff, culminating in Stromwell flashing back to the childhood tragedy that set him on the path of destruction before breaking down and vowing to change his ways. “Paging The Crime Doctor” runs in a similar vein, with Batman seeking to save Thorne’s brother instead of his rival, a doctor named Matthew Thorne who has been compelled to operate an illegal practice for his Thorne’s henchmen. Not only does Batman rescue him from Rupert’s machinations, he also pays for a top defence lawyer for him and testifies as Bruce Wayne, all in the name of getting him a more lenient sentence. This is despite Matthew having endangered the life of one of Batman’s closest friends, Leslie Thompkins, something that would usually earn you a date with a rope and the underside of one of Gotham’s higher gargoyles.

"Paging The Crime Doctor"
What’s the common thread here? Batman can tell the difference between those who are completely consumed by evil – Rupert Thorne, in both cases – and those who have a chance to be better people. Arnold Stromwell and Matthew Thorne have both made bad choices and done bad things, but they still have good in them, and Batman can see that. That’s not to say that they don’t get punished, since both characters end up facing jail time for their crimes, but Batman understands that if someone just reaches out a hand to them, they may well walk a different path in the future. Within the confines of his mission to help the helpless and bring down the guilty, he also does what he can to be that hand. He’s here to make Gotham a better place to live, and reforming those who can be reformed is absolutely a part of that.

But what does Batman do with those who have reformed, or at least claim to have done so? After all, there are several episodes which open with an Arkham regular being released and announcing their intention to go straight. Does Batman believe them? Like hell he does. Let’s break it down, starting with “Riddler’s Reform.” It opens with the Riddler’s apparent cure and release from Arkham, something that should be good news, but of course Batman doesn’t trust him. A truck full of question mark crates seems to bear this out, and of course Bats breaks this up, only to discover that it’s part of a shipment of games. Not deterred, he keeps following Riddler around, threatening him, disrupting his activities and accusing him of all sorts of crimes. He turns out to be right, of course, because a Riddler who goes straight isn’t nearly as interesting as a master criminal, no matter whatever comics of late oughts might try to make you believe. The point is, a criminal tells the world that he’s going straight, and Bats just can’t accept it. He wants criminals to give up their ways, but when they try, he doesn’t believe that they have. He’s complicated.
"Riddler's Reform"

This isn’t the only time, either. Poison Ivy even gets married and adopts a couple of kids in “House and Garden”, but when there’s a string of plant-based murders Batman is right there, knocking on her door and trailing her all around town. Another instructive example appears in “Birds of a Feather”, in which it is the Penguin who is released and makes a try for the simple life, albeit in his own disgusting way. Batman once again gets involved, first accusing him of being involved in a mugging which he was actually breaking up, and later assuming that he was stealing a statuette which he was in fact returning to its owner. This time, Batman actually starts to come around, starting to believe that the Penguin is genuine in his desire to go straight before the cruelty of others drive him back to his criminal ways.

Then there’s Catwoman, and I’ll be honest with you folks, it’s hard to get a read on where she fits into the whole question of redemption. Yes, Batman looks out for her when she’s not actively involved in stealing enormous statues of Isis, and he even saves her from becoming a walking Deviantart at one point, but the fact that he’s so very attracted to her means that he’s got as much personal motivation in turning her around as he does a legitimate belief in her capacity for good. It’s also worth noting that when she is paroled from prison in “Cat Scratch Fever”, just as with the Riddler, Batman doesn’t believe that she could have possibly gone straight, and sets out to keep tabs on her. Unlike Ivy or the Riddler, though, she’s telling the truth, and when circumstances find her imprisoned once again, it’s Bruce Wayne who pops up with bail for her release.
"Tyger, Tyger" - not what you'd call a "good" episode

One last example of a reform story before we move on, that his is a more complex version that I want to pay particular attention to. “Harley’s Holiday” has Harley Quinn being released from prison and goes on a shopping spree, only to be caught up in a series of misadventures that begin with her walking her rabid hyenas down the street and end with her accidentally kidnapping a socialite. It’s worth noting that the whole thing stems from the people of Gotham assuming that they know that Harley must be up to no good, coupled with her complete inability to behave in public. She does end up causing quite a bit of wanton property damage, and Batman brings her down and sends her back to prison, but here’s the thing: he understands. He doesn’t condemn her as a no good criminal, and he doesn’t say that she shouldn’t have been released. What does he say, then? “I had a bad day once too.” Harley’s not a bad person here, she’s just poorly socialised and unable to fit in. Yeah, she’s done terrible things, but that’s not who she is. This episode is largely pitched towards humour, but the producers also have something to say about ex-convicts and recidivism, namely that those who struggle to escape from a life of crime could do with an understanding ear, even if it does come from a grim figure of the night.

"Harley's Holiday"
So we see how Batman goes about bringing down particular criminals, and how he behaves when they’re released, but what about the time in between? What’s his attitude towards those who are incarcerated? For that, we need to turn our attention to an excellent episode with a terrible villain, “Lock-Up. This episode is about Lyle Bolton, the brutal head of security at Arkham Asylum. When Batman discovers the lengths that he goes to in order to keep the Arkham inmates under control, including intimidation, beatings and torture, he’s horrified. Under the Bruce Wayne persona he sets up a hearing into Bolton’s behaviour which leads to his termination, whereupon he reacts like everybody in Gotham reacts to anything that happens to them and becomes a costumed vigilante.

Now, It’s never stated precisely why Batman is upset about the treatment of the inmates, especially since they’re all guilty of terrorism, murder and abuse of theming several times over, but the likely explanation is that he feels they’re capable of reforming. At the very least, it indicates a support for due process and for the humane treatment of prisoners, which would indicate a position that the prison system is there to reform, not to punish. That might be a stretch, but seen in combination with the previous examples, it seems to be clear proof of Batman’s commitment to reform and redemption among Gotham’s cowardly, superstitious lot.

So there we have it! Batman believes that people can reform, but when it comes to individual criminals actually trying to do so, he tends to be kind of a dick about it. Agree? Disagree? Let me know, and be sure to follow along on Twitter at @CrimeAlleyNotes


  1. Agreed. I think Bats is like a disappointed parent as far as his rogues' gallery is concerned. He believes in redemption and rehabilitation but Penguin/Poison Ivy et al have let him down so many times he has given up on them ever reforming. He still puts them back in Arkham every time though.

    Maybe this is why he takes it easy on Harley Quinn. She is a newer villain, and he hasn't quite got to the point that he has with the others...

    But also, he can be very distrusting of everyone, even (or is that especially?) other superheroes and allies.
    Also the ep "House and Garden" is pure nightmare fuel. Surprised its not guest directed by David Cronenberg.

    1. House and Garden is horrifying! Horrifying and kind of sad. I wanted to mention that, but didn't want to spoil it for people who haven't seen it yet.