The Eschatology of Barbara Gordon, Part 5
by The Old Maid
We mentioned that there are two aspects of Bat Gnosticism, “secret knowledge” being one. The second one involved motivation. We must acknowledge why people get involved in Gnosticism (Bat- or otherwise) in the first place: it feels good. These “secret” truths made a complicated world easy and digestible (in the sense of being unifying, easily memorized, and communicable in slogans). In Bat Gnosticism, the argument of choice is that those who are not Bat Gnostics are simply operating out of emotion. That is, Bat Gnostics see the “truth” of the screen, and those who disagree with them are “not going by what everyone sees on the screen.” It takes a dismissive tone but usually does not drift into ad hominem territory. (Usually.)
To the average viewer it would seem obvious that the best approach for Bat Gnosticism is to counter with canon evidence. At other times, additional approaches may be desirable. Specifically, the moderate fan should be big enough to point out the creative team’s fondness for writing ambiguous scenes. For Bat Gnostics to be seen as moderate, they must be willing to make the same admission.
When this writer challenged the “secret truth” about Barbara supposedly being the love of Bruce Wayne’s life, Bat Gnosticism employed a new strategy.
One must admire the cheekiness of such a design, although the bait is a little rancid. Consider: the appeal to emotion, from a sub-faction that argues that those who disagree with it are operating out of emotion, said sub-faction being in place to pounce upon the hapless respondent who takes the bait. In the effort to build a better mousetrap, one would do well to consider whether there are, in fact, mice. That is, when in Barbara’s day did Bruce Wayne have a good reputation to lose?
Bruce Wayne is well known as a billionaire playboy, who lets his parents’ appointees handle his business. Long before we see Old Man Wayne shuffling around that “haunted house” at 1007 Mountain Drive, we know that Bruce derived no particular pleasure from this persona. Pretty women on his arm titillated the press, but they seemed to annoy him. As a civilian, he was happiest (as much he could be happy) using his family’s money to do good in the world.
Batman cultivated a different image at night. He wanted to be feared, by the bad guys at least. Jim Gordon has not even met him in the opening of “On Leather Wings,” yet Gordon gives him the benefit of the doubt. Batman’s name also carries him through episodes such as “It’s Never Too Late” and “The Man Who Killed Batman.” In terms of reputation, he may have reached a high point in “His Silicon Soul.” In that episode, Batman imprints his double with his own values, to the point that the double self-destructs in (emotional? psychological? spiritual?) agony at the thought of crossing Batman’s no-kill line.
Since those days the audience has witnessed Bruce Wayne’s ungentle descent into spiritual squalor. Some would say Bruce/Batman first set foot on the downward slope in “Perchance to Dream.” In that episode, Bruce commits suicide rather than live life under someone else’s terms. Some viewers praise the story as proof of Batman’s pursuit of the truth, even if it hurts. But other viewers correctly point out that Bruce could have been sick and hallucinating at home after some illness or injury, and could have really thrown his life away.
Other viewers first had moral qualms about Batman in the episode “Mudslide.” Although they have debated this episode indefinitely, it wasn’t until the release of a live-action film called “Batman Begins” that they were able to compress the debate into a single sentence. Fans see Batman’s treatment of Clayface in “Mudslide” as an illustration of the film’s slogan, “I won’t kill you. But I don’t have to save you.” Fans have struggled to resolve the question of whether there is a difference.
Still other viewers suggest that Bruce/Batman crossed the Rubicon when he opened his “daycare center” of sidekick children. Bruce ceases to spend time with mentors, people he looks up to with respect. Instead he spends time with acolytes who look up to him with awe. The system of checks and balances against his dark nature is lost. (When Grayson tries to reassert the original standards, he is dismissed by his colleagues and belittled by the fans. Hence his return as the rival Nightwing.) Yes, Bruce felt sorry for the orphaned Dick Grayson, but he very well could have let the boy be adopted into a loving home and this is the Arkham escapee Batman we’re talking about. (Literally: he escaped from Arkham in “Dreams in Darkness.”) And as founder of the charitable Wayne Foundation, Bruce ought to know perfectly well how many charities are involved in the rehabilitation of child soldiers, and what their chances are.
In any case, by the time we get to stories like “Old Wounds,” “Over The Edge,” “Return of the Joker,” “Rebirth,” and “Out of the Past,” we know that Bruce/Batman is having serious trouble living up to his own moral code. Dick/Robin becomes Nightwing because he thinks he can live up to Batman’s code better than the boss can. Then in “Calendar Girl” a minor character named Bernie prompts Bruce to reconsider his policy on mandatory retirement. Bruce decides to rescind the rule and let Bernie work “for as long as you can do the job”—a ruling that he expands to mean that he, Bruce, can work even beyond his ability to do the job. And then there’s Tim and Barbara and Terry and Talia.
“ROTJ” shows how “everything that happened to Tim came from falling under Batman’s shadow.” The creative team describes Joker’s plan as “not merely out to humiliate [Batman] or kill him. He’s after a spiritual death.” Since Batman creates “surrogate families,” stealing his “spiritual son and turning him into Joker Junior is the worst thing Joker could do to him.” (Actually, Joker turns Tim into the Joker twice.) On top of the actual horrors, there’s no believable excuse for Bruce to have sent Tim away in this condition. (For the record, Joker was using stolen microchip “personality chips” back in Grayson’s day, in the episode “Make ‘em Laugh.”)
Other parallels may be implied. As Joker and Harley consider “settling down” with a family, Barbara eventually will want Bruce to settle down with her. It was at this point that one of the “Bat agnostics” claimed that this writer had made a comparison to the effect that, “Saying Barbara should have known better than to get involved with Batman is like saying that Harley Quinn should have known better than to get involved with Joker.” (Oh really? When was this? Well, someone said it, so it might as well be put to bed.)
To continue with our eschatological terminology, Harley is a “hyperpreterist” character. “Hyperpreterism” means that every prophecy has been fulfilled, and that we are born into a world where that fulfillment is a fact of life. Harley illustrates Bat-hyperpreterism in the fact that she already is Harley. The series and the audience were both “born” into a world where her existence is a fact of life. (We see a flashback of her life as Harleen Quinzel, but that story simply tells how the present came to be.) But is Harley also a “superlapsarian” character? (“Superlapsarianism” is the argument that God made man in such a way that man never had any choice but to sin.) Did Harleen ever have a choice? A few fans would say Yes, “there is always a choice.” Others would say, Maybe. She once called the supervillains “glamorous” and settled into the murder-groupie mentality very well. But could she have done things differently: lived elsewhere, studied elsewhere, studied other majors? Still other viewers would say No, Harleen never had a choice; the creative team created her to be a villain and would not have created her as a good guy. (And Harley is a simple case!)
So, since someone (else) compared Harley to Barbara, they must be asking if Barbara is a hyperpreterist and/or superlapsarian character. In the animated continuity, the answer to question one would seem to be No. Barbara might not even be a hyperpreterist character even if we include her comic incarnations. (That is, the animated Batgirl is “born” into a world where her previous incarnations occasionally had a crush on Batman, none of which every came to anything.) Now Commissioner Barbara is hyperpreterist. She, and the series, and the audience, are “born” into a world where the past Bruce/Barbara affair has been fulfilled and is a fact of life.
It would seem that what fans are asking is whether Barbara could be superlapsarian. Was she created in such a way that she never had any choice but to hook up with Bruce? Even the most outspoken among the creative team would hesitate to go anywhere near the word “Yes.” So unless the creative team directly states, Yes, the default answer is No. Yet that answer remains frustrating, because we never get an answer as to why Barbara would follow Bruce/Batman—whom she barely knew—into his darkness but turned up her nose at the prospect of following Dick Grayson into his darkness, even though she had a good idea what caused that darkness and, just maybe, how to lead him out of it. If Barbara finds darkness attractive to the point of self-destruction (as Harley did), then yes, we would be getting into questions of whether the writers created her that way. But that offers the unappetizing prospect that, from the day we first saw Woobie on Barbara’s pillow, she was preprogrammed, HARDAC-style, by the creative team to put Batman on that pillow instead.
In an indeterminate time post-ROTJ, Batgirl is “killed” in the line of duty. We know from the “Over the Edge” commentary that Barbara never especially feared dying on the job. Her only concern is what it would do to those around her. Barbara gets out alive, but the extent of her injuries suggests she might never return to that duty. Meanwhile, we never learn if the loss of these two “soldiers” made Batman question his mission, even to the minimal extent that Grayson’s rebellion did.
“Rebirth” shows us a Janus-faced Batman, ending and beginning. By now Bruce is so compromised by pain and poor health that he violates his own rule against guns. Aghast, he “fires” himself. Terry should not be astonished to see Old Man Wayne in such a pitiable condition. Ask a psychologist about how men handle retirement and an answer will be: it depends on the when, how, and why. Men who retire early are often forced into it by poor physical or mental health, technical obsolescence, or even an inability to get along with people (which puts them on the short list for layoffs). Also, as “Out of the Past” illustrates, moving to a sunbelt vacation home does not guarantee happiness and peace either. (That’s because wherever you go, there you are.) Old Man Wayne finds nothing meaningful to replace the gratification he obtained through work. Terry gives the old man a fresh chance at life—but that means facing the repercussions that come with it.
The length and breadth and depth of Wayne’s problems are compressed into a particularly ghoulish little story called “Out of the Past”. In a surprise twist, it opens with a parody of Batman’s life. Wayne is simultaneously infuriated and deeply hurt. But the motif has been planted that things are not as they appear: Robin didn’t wear ruby-red lipstick, and Bruce’s guest isn’t the real Talia. Almost everything in this episode is doubled: double meanings, double participants, double failures. Even the hidden implication of “OOTP” is that there are two epic stories of the disintegration of Bruce/Batman’s family. One story, “ROTJ,” shows the loss of Tim. The other story provides clues to the loss of … someone else.
Despite Wayne’s initial silence on the subject, he does have a photo of his TNBA self with Talia, which the audience will view at the episode’s end. Moreover the Bruce/Talia photo is a “touchstone,” an event referenced from multiple points of view. The picture displays on screen as long as Barbara’s picture ever did, and it generates a brief conversation between Bruce and Terry who see it. Talia thought that quiet summer night special as well, so “Razzerella” (the creature that actually shows) brings a trifle with those memories of love: “roast pheasant with truffles, just like we shared at that little bistro in Milan.” The purpose of this meal is not to chew food. It is a calculated move on Razzerella’s part to fan the embers of an old flame. (Assorted Bat Gnostics claimed that Wayne called Talia “beloved” in this episode just to be polite, and followed her because he was desperate, but they do not “feel” that he was particularly serious about her. This too is revisionist, and is a direct challenge to the lines spoken in “Avatar.”) With a little more manipulation “Talia” soon has Bruce and Terry on a plane to goodness-knows-what fate awaits them.
“Talia” talks a great deal about Love and Right and Truth. For example, Bat Gnostics eagerly latch onto the line, “I know you loved her,” meaning, “Bruce loved Barbara.” To the extent that the legally insane Demon can even comprehend and value love, he will grant Bruce/Barbara that verdict. But Razzerella has his own definition of love, one that will be illustrated in deliciously disgusting detail. Even on their best days the Head family’s definition of love is fraught with overtones of abuse (physical, mental, child, gender, sexual) and absolute obedience (upon penalty of death)—and Bat Gnostics ignore these facts at their peril.
It is quite bad enough when we compare the men themselves.
But it doesn’t end with two poisonous, slit-eyed old men glaring at each other from opposite ends of the same moral morass. Raw emotion is not a resting place either. Those emotions have led both men to vice, but vice is not the real problem. Sin is about the violation of moral law, whereas vice is more about weakness. The Demon’s vice is his fear of death. Bruce is humiliated (and understandably annoyed) that his enemy has provoked that fear in him. But that is not what they are fighting about. It is the violation of Talia. “You sacrificed her!” pronounces Bruce in tones of purest outrage. But The Demon has a swift retort: Bruce Wayne is in no position to judge him.
Razzerella’s logic is devastating. Yes, he admits he exploited the trust of a sweet young thing, turned an intelligent woman into little more than a trophy bride, turned her into his muscle, and subordinated all her needs to his version of The Plan. He interfered with her relationship with her little boyfriend, to the point that the boyfriend (knowing their bed was not large enough for three) walked away from both to get away from one. This was in spite of the fact that Daddy meddled in Baby Girl’s affairs precisely to bring the kiddies together to build a dynasty for him. Daddy might mistreat the little boyfriend, mistreat Baby Girl, mistreat the little boyfriend in front of Baby Girl. But let Daddy show her one crumb of tenderness or humankindness and her heart melts, her eyes fill with adoring tears … oh, and she forgets about that other guy, there … what was his name again? Oh well, her heart belongs to Daddy, and if he wants that heart in a chest then that’s good enough for her. Razzerella might use Baby Girl, use her up, hazard her life, mindwipe and ultimately kill her—but by golly he doesn’t sleep with them!
Bruce doesn’t have an answer to that.
What could Bruce Wayne possibly say in his defense? That he exploited the trust of a sweet young thing, turned an intelligent woman into little more than a trophy bride, turned her into his muscle, and subordinated all her needs to The Plan. He interfered with her relationship with her little boyfriend, to the point that the boyfriend (knowing their bed was not large enough for three) walked away from both to get away from one. This was in spite of the fact that Daddy meddled in Baby Girl’s affairs precisely to bring the kiddies together to build a dynasty for him. Daddy might mistreat one or both, blah, blah, blah. But let Daddy show her one crumb of tenderness or humankindness and her heart melts, her eyes fill with adoring tears … oh, and that other guy? Whathisname? Oh well, her heart belongs to Daddy, and if he wants that heart in a chest then that’s good enough for her. Batman/Bruce Wayne might use Baby Girl, use her up, hazard her life, and ultimately sleep with her—but by golly he doesn’t kill them … um, he doesn’t? Really? Are we sure? So Barbara was never in any danger of dying when she followed Batman into battle, and off the roof of a building (“Old Wounds”). And Dick was never in danger of dying in “The Demon’s Quest” or “Bane” or half a dozen other episodes. And Terry was never in any danger of dying when Wayne turned off his defensive suit so the kid could be stomped and beaten to death (“Rebirth”). Oh, and surely Tim was never in any danger of dying in “ROTJ,” or, for that matter, in danger of dying now. (When we first meet the adult version of the character, he occasionally looks suicidal.) So, just because they’re not dead yet, it shouldn’t count? Probably not. After all, most of these characters may well be alive not because of Batman, but in spite of him.
Okay, so the “no kill” defense probably won’t work. Too much rationalizing. (The Demon would be back home maxing out his credit cards before Bruce finished.) What else can Bruce say in his defense? Okay, let’s try this: he may have exploited and interfered and not-quite-dead-yet, blah, blah, but at least he doesn’t mindwipe them! Oh. Wait. Oh dear. Bruce can’t use that excuse either. (See Dick Grayson’s complaint in “Old Wounds” or Terry’s in “Epilogue,” or Barbara’s retort in “ATOC” when Terry says he knows what he wants: “That’s what we all thought, at first.” And the adult Tim is barely forming sentences when we meet him because of all that mindwiping, both old and new, because it’s happening again. Bruce didn’t do it, but he didn’t stop it either, and in any case it was done as a message to him. So it should count. It certainly counts for Tim.)
This is the real reason Bruce has no answer to the Demon’s monologues and gloats, save to yip a few ineffectual lines that would sound more typical coming from Terry (on a bad day). Razzerella at least is “man enough” (so to speak) to acknowledge his behavior. Yes, he “shot the sheriff,” and furthermore he shot the deputy. Unlike the fans, he never hides behind the excuse that “it’s not abusive if she totally wanted it” (i.e. “I didn’t shoot the deputy”). And it is significant that Bruce does not clutch at this excuse either.
It is not possible to separate these men from the decisions that shaped them. We know what The Demon did to his Baby Girl, and in spite of the clear moral offense Bruce finds he cannot keep up his end of the debate. Was his conduct toward his own Baby Girl a factor? As in “ROTJ,” Bruce does not defend himself against an enemy’s taunt that the good guys are “no better than” the bad guys. Bruce cannot defend himself because, on some level, he considers his decisions to be indefensible.
In “OOTP,” as in “ROTJ,” Terry challenges the villain because Bruce is not merely physically compromised by age and a thorough beating, but is too morally compromised. The relatively unsullied Terry still has the moral authority to express moral outrage. That is also why he prevails.
Perhaps this is why Batfans raised the question of whether there were parallels between Barbara and Harley. It is as likely that they were aiming for Talia, as all three women emerge from a long silence as indefinably disturbing mutations of themselves. They look like themselves, speak with familiar voices, wear their clothes, live in their houses. But in each case there is a faint miasma of *something* trailing wraithlike in their wake. No wonder Old Man Wayne’s face shows no affection when the slide show takes him to Barbara’s picture. If his face shows something more like alarm and anxiety, maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason.
The creative team said that the Bruce/Barbara affair sounded “interesting” because it was “wrong.” But at no time did they say that this made Barbara special, let alone irreplaceable. The Bruce/Barbara affair was never mystical or magical or about “the love of his life”. It was never the High Holy of Bruce Wayne’s life. Barbara’s cameo in “Out of the Past” was never about Redemption. It was always about the Fall.
Under those circumstances, is it so strange to think that Barbara might continue to do something she has always done, to shut her eyes and just wish away such awful things? Why wouldn’t she?
In a sense, she’d be crazy not to.