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The Batman We Deserve

Batman #44 CoverAn issue of Batman exploring institutional racism in the form of police brutality and housing policy. That’s what it takes to get me to read Batman again and that’s what Scott Snyder and Brian Azzarello delivered in the groundbreaking issue Batman #44.

I was unaware of any comics from DC or Marvel ever addressing the racialized nature of police brutality until Batman #44. That is newsworthy*. My pal Spencer Ackerman of The Guardian interviewed the issue’s writers Snyder and Azzarello and artist Jock. Read his fascinating article for some enlightening quotes from them (and me! and Emma Houxbois!). Here, I want to expand on our conversation because this is a major moment in Batman comics and it is also one that highlights why so many on the left have long joked about the character’s problematic nature in our analyses.

Mainstream superhero comics have a history of dealing with questions of economic injustice. At times they’ve directly looked at racism, though never institutional racism without relying on a metaphor like the X-Men’s Mutants. Comics frequently tell stories about police abusing their authority— sometimes we’re supposed to even celebrate that abuse, but police corruption is usually shown as either the behavior of a few “bad apples” or something that can be fixed by brining in a new commissioner. Never is policing itself depicted as intrinsically racist and classist. Now it has.

Snyder doesn’t reveal Batman #44’s ironic title “A Simple Case” until the very end because throughout the issue the story is slowly revealed to not be a simple case at all. The story shows the interplay between institutional racism and economic injustice. By looking at these pieces together Batman and the reader can get a sense of the complexity of the problems that Batman usually attempts to solve via detective work and Bruce Wayne attempts to solve via so-called “charity”. These problems will not be solved by each of those approaches alone– especially not one that treats the criminal justice system as a fair partner when it is not.

Batman #44 brings up redlining, banks’ refusal to invest in communities of color. It hits on how even so called “affordable housing” developments can be used to displace the lowest income people in the name of helping moderate income people. Moderate income people need affordable housing too as super gentrification strikes places like NYC and SF (though not Metropolis apparently), but generally speaking the policies that subsidize moderate income housing exclude the poorest residents and pit workers against each other.

A Batman book that addresses gentrification, institutional racism and bank’s disinvestment in communities is the Batman book we need today. Fan’s see these patterns in the world around them and Batman can give people an additional perspective encouraging them to engage more deeply in these issues.

Let’s talk about the Wayne Foundation and why I put the word charity in quotes. Bruce Wayne is always shown as a source of “charity”. The Wayne Family Foundation funds the opera. It fund hospitals and schools. But who makes the decisions in those institutions? Largely the funders— the 1%. If a charity is dependent on the benevolence of a rich benefactor it will never be truly be reflective of the community it intends to serve. It will not be a source of liberation. It will perpetuate the power imbalances that cause poverty in the first place. If an institution runs on charity alone the community will never be in charge.

The Wayne Foundation’s charitable donations do not contribute to any systemic change in Gotham or elsewhere. So what should the Wayne Foundation do with it’s money? A woke-up Bruce Wayne should fund community-based organizing that would lead to long term change by financially supporting people who fight back against the roots of their oppression. He could fund community organizers to go door-to-door to raise money within low income communities by building membership organizations. Membership-lead organizations can become self-sustaining so that institutions by and for low income people are no longer dependent on a Wayne Foundation grant. Imagine if Bruce Wayne funded the Center for Popular Democracy (disclosure, the organization I work for is a founding member of CPD) or another institution that empowers low income people to organize themselves for lasting change?

The Wayne Foundation hasn’t pushed for a living wage campaign. But the Bruce Wayne shown in Issue 44– I could imagine him showing up for a #FightFor15 rally. He could agree not to interfere in union elections so that all of the employees of Wayne Enterprises from the janitors to the techies can unionize. He could call for a tax on the 1% that would be high enough to finally fund all the Gotham City infrastructure that has crumbled away and is only now being rebuilt by frankly predatory private funding sources.

All of what I just described is dramatic. All of what I described could be a great story. It could be a science fiction story or a contemporary drama. But none of it is noir. None of it is a detective comic. I don’t expect these solutions in Batman. If at super hero comics writer can pull off a story like that I’d be the happiest fangirl in the planet. Take the challenge if you can, but it’s not something I expect to see.

Genre limitations keep Batman stories from addressing the solutions I raise and the narrative machinery of a noir comic needs Gotham to remain a failed state (city). But it’s still important to know that Bruce Wayne’s “charity” solutions would never work in the real world either. Emma Houxbois writes in her review of Batman #43 (go read her immediately) “there can never be any kind of a soft power, George Soros informed version of Bruce Wayne and neither can Gotham’s institutional problems of corruption and poverty ever be permanently solved. The elastic will have to snap back eventually.”

I hadn’t been reading Batman lately but Emma Houxbois review of Batman #43 makes it clear that the political awareness shown in issue 44 has been building for some time.

She writes that Snyder: seems to have been building up to this moment for quite some time. He’s taken great care in participating in the construction of the most urgent and presciently dystopian Gotham that has ever appeared in a monthly title. The old structures, the standbys of Gothams past like Arkham Asylum and Wayne Enterprises have crumbled. Gotham is a hypermodern city of crushing poverty and astounding wealth with a militarized police force that it relies on the private sector to sustain.

Having just finished reading Grayson #12 it is clear that in the next few months Amnesia!Bruce is going to be forced into re-taking the cowl of Batman once again. Maybe the Batman that comes back will be a Batman who can see the flaws in his own systems and recognize how his work has perpetuated the problems he seeks to address. Genre says “no”, but Batman #44 says “yes”. If anyone is going to be given the creative space to do so it will be Scott Snyder.

I have increasingly seen militarization of the police force as a topic in comics like Green Arrow. Superman is being written by the Eisner-winning Gene Luen Yang. Maybe someday we’ll get a smart feminist writing Wonder Woman again. As the new DCYou promotions brought more diverse teams and subject matter to their titles I’ve started reading a lot of DC. But I hadn’t been reading their A-list characters. With stories like these, maybe I should.

* Since writing this piece I read a fascinating essay by former Batman editor Joseph Illidge about a one-shot by groundbreaking black comic book author Christopher Priest called Batman: The Hill which does. I definitely want to track that down to read too. It stinks that important work by creators of color is still buried. In his article Illidge writes “For various administrative reasons, “Batman: The Hill” almost did not see the light of day as a published comic book, but thanks to the efforts of Jordan Gorfinkel and myself, the editors, and Denny O’Neil, the Batman Group Editor at the time, the book did not disappear in a pile of cancelled projects cast to the wind.