Batman’s tragedy, memory, and continuity
First published in Refractory: Journal of Entertainment Media | Volume 32, June 2019
Bruce Wayne’s parents have been shot and killed. In fact, they have been shot and killed so often that the LA Times ran a feature ranking their cinematic and televisual deaths (Fischer); and yet that does not account for all the times their final moments have been depicted in DC Comics’ pages. “Lost parents” is one of the features that defines the superhero (Reynolds 12), and one would expect that after decades of comics, movies, games and TV shows, Batman’s origin is well enough known. His stories, however, cannot help but return to the death of Martha and Thomas Wayne. Why do we need to see this moment, again, and again, and again? Exploring this obsession with Batman’s traumatic origins means unpicking the complicated logic of comic book continuity and its tug-of-war between remembering and forgetfulness. As this article will articulate, Batman’s memory seems transfigured by the shift from the hazy, repetitive, and dreamlike nature of Umberto Eco’s “oneiric climate”, to the “hyperconscious” storytelling style in which every narrative is set in stone. However, the slippery nature of continuity complicates a strict division between moments forever fixed in memory and moments lost to inescapable amnesia.
Batman famously first appeared in Detective Comics #27 (Bob Kane et al 1939), but his origin was not revealed until months later in #33 (1939). Here, “WHO HE IS AND HOW HE CAME TO BE” is spelled out over two pages: the death of his parents; his oath to fight crime; his training and preparation; and finally the bat coming through his window to inspire him. Film scholar Federico Pagello suggests that “the origin story of superhero fiction is not simply placed in an irrecoverable past; on the contrary, it is revived again and again in order to underscore its mythical status, reinforce the stability of an otherwise chaotic diegetic universe, and, oddly enough, to present the origin as perennially new” (729). Batman’s origin is his “engine”, according to DC editor Denny O’Neil, for all the stories that follow (Pearson & Uricchio 26). Batman may have only been truly “haunted” by the death of his parents since the 1970s (Bukatman 122) but tragedy was always there, present in his narrative engine.
This constant revival of Batman’s origin ensures the trauma of his parent’s death can never fade. In her studies of trauma narratives, Cathy Caruth describes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a phenomenon “in which the overwhelming events of the past repeatedly possess, in intrusive images and thoughts, the one who has lived through them” (Caruth, “2: Introduction” 151). A 2002 promotional issue of Batman, meant to hook new readers by harking back to the days when comics were just ten cents each, begins with the narration: “His life is a story of tragedies…”; the fact that Batman’s mission will not ever succeed is a “common motif” in his stories (Walker 42). The issue continues: “Starting in that moment when young Bruce Wayne saw his parents gunned down before his eyes […] a moment he lives again every night” (Batman: The 10 Cent Adventure, Greg Rucka & Rick Burchett).