Batman: An American Myth

By Aust Phoenix

Two things make for a good hero: recognizable physical traits and the narrative arc of their story—their mythology. Batman is such a figure. Even without having read a comic or seen a movie, most people will know the basic premise of Batman’s story and recognize his outfit. Bruce Wayne is a son to a very wealthy family. As a child, he falls down a well on the grounds of his estate and is attacked by bats living in the well, becoming afraid of bats on account of his experience. One night while out to a movie with his parents, a lone gunman shoots both of his parents, right in front of him. To be sure nobody has a similar experience, he trains to fight crime, ultimately being initiated into this calling by the bats themselves. As Batman, he dresses as a bat: a dark suit with a cape, utility belt, a bat symbol adorning his chest, and a cowl with bat ears covering his face. He does this to scare criminals as he fights crime in Gotham city. It is a simple narrative and a recognizable appearance. Whether or not people in America are very familiar with story, all they have to do is look at the bat symbol on his chest, the cowl, and the cape and they know it is Batman.

The mythology of Batman is vast. Time and again he has done the seemingly impossible. This ranges from solving all types of crimes to shooting a god with magical bullet (see Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis #6) and traveling through time (see Grant Morrison’s Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne series). But Batman is not only a great mythical figure, but he is in many ways an example of a quintessentially American myth. Why do people in the U.S. know his story so well? Why does it resonate with us? What makes Batman an iconic American myth?

Mythology: An Explanation

At its most basic, a myth is a narrative. While not necessarily the same as religion or theology, it can be key component of it. Famed mythologist Joseph Campbell defines myth this way:

“Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth” (Campbell 1).

Furthermore, Furthermore, noted Zen Philosopher, Alan Watts, adds this to definition of myth:

“We are forced, therefore, to speak of it through myth- that is, through special metaphors, analogies, and images which say what it is like as distinct from what it is. At one extreme of its meaning, ‘myth’ is a fable, a falsehood, or superstition. But at another, ‘myth’ is a useful and fruitful image by which we make sense of life in somewhat the same way that we can explain electrical forces by comparing them to water or air. Yet ‘myth,’ in this second sense, is not to be confused with air or water” (Watts 13).

The definition of myth encompasses a spectrum of meanings. In determining and understanding what mythology is in the American sense we need to look at the era and people that were working with the advent of myth in America.

American Myth and the Transcendentalists

When American mythology came to prominence in the nineteenth century, there was an interest among American writers to revive myth:

“In the 1850’s during the period that F.O. Matthiessen called the ‘American Renaissance,’ a body of writing which includes Walden, Moby Dick, and Leaves of Grass and which may be defined as heroic literature in America. Believing that the mid-nineteenth century in America was a new heroic age, and believing deeply in the future of the great democratic experiment, these writers and others forged a new series of myths about the common man, the American, and embodied them in a literature of workaday epic and democratic heroism that still stands as a highpoint in American writing.” (Feldman 511).

The American Renaissance involved the creation new myths for a new country. There was a spirit of optimism in America during that time. Because the country was still fairly young, there was a celebration of the common man and the belief that their exploits could be heroic, even in everyday life. Many of the American Renaissance authors became the founders of the Transcendentalist movement:

“Transcendentalism is a very formal word that describes a very simple idea. People, men and women equally, have knowledge about themselves and the world around them that ‘transcends’ or goes beyond what they can see, hear, taste, touch or feel. This knowledge comes through intuition and imagination not through logic or the senses. People can trust themselves to be their own authority on what is right” (Ushistory.org).

The Transcendentalist movement is important not only because of their emphasis of this intuitive knowledge that people possessed but because one their main writers, Henry David Thoreau, greatly contributed to the creation of American mythology by following that innate intuitiveness and living out his own myth, much in the same way that Bruce Wayne followed his own innate intuitiveness and created and lived out his own myth.

The Bat

Most depictions of Batman’s origin show Bruce Wayne struggling with how to go about his crusade for justice. This is true in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, Scott Snyder’s Zero Year, and Grant Morrison’s “Last Rites.” Bruce knows he needs to do something, but he is not sure exactly what or how to do it. Batman Begins offers its own take on the resolution to this struggle.

While in his study, Bruce hears a squeaking noise, and upon further investigation, he sees a bat flying around near the ceiling. As a child, he fell into a well on the estate and was then attacked by bats. From that day forward, bats scared him. Upon returning to the well as an adult, he descends and finds a cave filled with bats, who then encircle him in a welcoming initiation. This rite serves as the catalyst that triggers Bruce’s inspiration to use the bat as a symbol to fight crime. The inspiration that Bruce receives is what Joseph Campbell refers to as bliss.

When Joseph Campbell refers to bliss, he is referring to the internal intuitive force that drives people to do potentially great things:

“Now, I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: Sat, Chit, Ananda. The word ‘Sat’ means being. ‘Chit’ means consciousness. ‘Ananda’ means bliss or rapture (Campbell 149).

Campbell elaborates further on what these terms mean in relation to the decision-making process. “Each person can have his own depth, experience, and some conviction of being in touch with his own sat-chit-ananda, his own being through consciousness and bliss” (Campbell 150). When one follows one’s bliss, it puts the right opportunities in one’s path, “namely, if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living. When you can see that, you begin to meet other people who are in the field of bliss, and they open the doors to you” (Campbell 150). It was this kind of intuitive knowledge that led the Transcendentalists to create the new mythologies for America. It was also this same drive that compelled Bruce Wayne to fight the injustice that befell him when his parents were killed. This is when he started on the path to becoming Batman.

In the case of the Henry David Thoreau, he went out and lived the new mythology. He lived on the edge of Walden and wrote about it:

“Henry Thoreau was perhaps more successful than Emerson in applying the idea of a new mythology for a new heroic age to his writing. Both A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden are epics of the common man; each is a recommendation that we live heroic lives in the present” (Feldman 513).

Thoreau literally created the American approach to myth and made it a way of life. When he was living on Walden pond, he used the seasons of the years and nature to lay out the structure that is common in modern myths: birth, growth, harvest, and death (Feldman 513). Thoreau’s case is the most similar to that of Batman. Thoreau went out into the world as a common person and lived the idea of the new mythology. Bruce Wayne, as a common person, went out and got the physical and mental training he would need to combat crime and injustice.

Mythological Hero

The essence of American mythology maintains that life consists of epic and heroic events, but what does it mean to be a hero, besides rescuing damsels from towers and slaying evildoers. Joseph Campbell was notorious for his speeches on heroes in relation to myth. Here is how he defines a hero: “the main character is a hero or heroine who has found or done something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience. A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself” (Campbell 151). Additionally, there is also the event that propels the hero forward: “the usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there is something lacking in the normal experiences available or permitted to the members of his society” (Campbell 152). Does this sound like a familiar bat-themed hero?

To say that Bruce Wayne is a common man is an exceptional understatement since he is a billionaire and an orphan. However, in a comic book world of gods and monsters, Bruce Wayne is an ordinary human being; he is not an alien that came to Earth, nor does he have powers granted to him by magical helmets or rings. Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed in front of him when he was a child. Lamenting the death of his parents, Bruce realized he needed to do something about crime in Gotham City. He began training by developing his physical prowess and honing his analytical skills. He later returned to Gotham, used the symbol of the bat, something he was afraid of, to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. As Batman, he spends his life fighting crime, recruiting others to help him, and joining other heroes to save not just Gotham, but the Earth itself. So does Batman fit the motif of the American mythology?

In essence, he is a common person with no special powers. He found his bliss and dedicated himself to the heroic task of being Batman. Batman fits the American Mythology. Batman does serve as a symbol of what the common person can do in reality; using a negative pivotal life experience to do something positive. That is why he resonates with so many people. Bruce Wayne is a regular human, who endured the pain of loss and used that as a driver to be something more and make something better—to become transcendent.

Aust Phoenix is a writer based out of the Washington D.C, area. Aust got a bachelors degree of Individualized Studies in Mythic Systems from George Mason University. He focus was on Apocrypha and Apocalyptic Themes in the Bible. For a short time, Aust was in the Ph.D program for  Mythology Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. During that time he took a deep interest in Psychology. In light of that,  he shifted his focus purely on Psychology and is currently working on a B.A. in Psychology at George Mason University. Outside of Academia, Aust spends his time training in a variety of combat styles, studying philosophy, and reading comics, true crime topics, and the monthly box subscription: Hunt A Killer. 

References

Campbell, Joseph. “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.” Novado: New World Library. 2008. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. “The Power of Myth with Bill Moyer.” Anchor Books. 1991. Print.

Doty, William G. “Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals.” Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. 2000. Print.

Feldman, Burton, and Robert D. Richardson, Jr. The Rise of Modern Mythology:1680-1860. Indianapolis: Indiana UP. 1972. Print.

Ushistory.org “Transcendentalism, An American Philosophy.” Ushistory.org. Independence Hall Association, n.d. Web. 26 July 2017.

Watts, Alan W. “The Book: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.” New York: Random House. 1989. Print.

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