Rant #2: Family
by The Old Maid
Batman is glaring, unapproachable, the kind of man few of us would want to actually meet in life. Yet for all his mystery there's a side of him we can all relate to : his weird family. Like many of us, Batman handles his job better than his personal life. You won't find his villains keeping him awake. His villains are under control! Then he comes home to a series of nagging Bat-women and Robins screaming in his face, and he doesn't know WHAT the heck is going on!
Here are a few tips from the world of Batman on the right and wrong ways to cope with family.
1. Don't get into power struggles with other caregivers.
One of many things that make the Batman unique is that Batman has three fathers. The first is Dr. Thomas Wayne, whose voice survives in the excellent comic "Good Evening, Midnight" (BATMAN BLACK & WHITE #3). (If you haven't read the BB&W series, by all means do so. Good stuff.) The second "father" is Alfred Pennyworth. The third is Commissioner James Gordon.
Thomas Wayne urged his son to seek happiness and a peaceful life. Alfred raised Bruce, loves him, and echoes Thomas' hopes for his son. Alfred is proud of Batman, but he mourns for Bruce. However Jim Gordon echoes (as Batman echoes) Thomas Wayne's actual personality : professional, tireless, and passionate that The Work comes first. The result is an unspoken rivalry between Alfred and everyone else. It's hard enough to compete with a ghost without also competing with Jim who brings that ghost to life.
2. Some people lie because as perfectionists they fear failure, but most lie because someone taught them.
Usually Alfred plays the disciplinarian (asking the hard questions, challenging borderline decisions) while Gordon gets to be the indulgent parent. ("OKay, a man dressed like a giant bat is roaming my city and getting me in hot water with the system. Sure, why not?") At other times, as in the NO MAN'S LAND odyssey, Alfred indulges Bruce (poor, traumatized baby! have a biscuit) while Gordon plays the heavy. Some fans questioned Gordon's white-hot rage as out of character, when in fact it's a logical progression since both men brought it upon themselves. When Gordon didn't challenge the imposter Batman during KNIGHTFALL, Gordon sent the message that it's okay to lie to him. Now, in NML he realizes he had to break Batman of this habit. Batman let him down again, not by failing to be invincible, but by lying to him. If Batman had just sent word during CATACLYSM that "A building fell on me ; I'm pretty messed up" -- then Jim probably would have given him the benefit of the doubt. That the Batman was not injured when Wayne Manor fell on him was precisely the point. Gordon could accept half-truths, but not whole lies. And Batman is most likely to tell whole lies when he believes he has failed.
3. Don't drag your children into your problems.
Batman took in a series of youths, claiming to see something of himself in them. (We all know how well that turned out!) Meanwhile Jim Gordon made his daughter share him with the city and with the Bat. And it is significant that Barbara turned to the outlaw life because she couldn't get close enough to her father another way. Fans debate which relationship would describe Bats and Babs directly : siblings? Or do the two men grow to become brothers, making Barbara a kind of niece? Barbara could have written that old rhyme "I'm My Own Grandpa" -- and that was before romance was added to the mixture.
4. Have realistic expectations for your children.
All comic book characters require some Suspension of Disbelief, but Comic Book Barbara pushed this requirement to near-Jump-the-shark proportions. Take Barbara's career(s). An eidetic memory is useful for data, but it won't teach you diddly about budgeting, combat technique, mechanical expertise, or supervising people. It makes sense for the future Oracle to begin as a librarian. But to be head librarian (a supervisory position) at the world-famous Gotham library system? With her attendance record? At her age? Not likely. Next Barbara went to Washington, earning the unique title "The Hon. Congresswoman Babs 'The Boot' Gordon." Just because it's unconstitutional for someone of her age to be elected to that job -- oh, never mind.
5. Let your children dream, but teach them the difference between fantasy and reality.
Comic Book Barbara's lifelong friend Marcy disapproved of Batgirl, believing that a healthy adult should have outgrown such behavior. Of course a little girl would slip downstairs late at night to peek through the bannisters at that mysterious masked man in Daddy's office. (Actually it's kind of sweet.) It's also normal and fun for Barbara and Marcy to play dress-up as giggling tweenagers. But in the end the Batman is no role model nor someone to copy. He's a disturbed man, albeit stable for the moment. So when Marcy hears that "Batgirl" has been seen in town, it doesn't take too many guesses to figure out which of Gotham's starry-eyed females has crossed the line. That's probably why the B:TAS Barbara was a version I could respect : Marcy wasn't in this story because this mature Barbara didn't need her anymore.
6. Good intentions can't compensate for bad judgment.
Unfortunately the animated Batgirl regressed. Dick Grayson becomes the new Marcy : questioning Barbara's maturity, challenging her motives, fearing for her safety. And in the end (TNBA "Old Wounds") Dick decides he can't give his love to someone he doesn't trust, or to someone who might be murdered tomorrow. Barbara was the one thing in his life that remained untouched by crime. He had seriously considered retiring/quitting to keep her. When she became Batgirl, she took both things away from him.
It's tempting to dismiss all of Dick's perceptions merely because his demands are unreasonable. ("Just because I hate Bruce, you have to hate him too." What a rotten thing to say.) It doesn't help that Dick's screaming hissy fit is dismissed as the supposed reason that he lost everything, instead of being recognized as his understandable response to losing everything. Less than twenty-hour hours after Dick graduates college, he has hit his "father," quit his job, left the only home he's ever known, and lost the love of his life to a man who professes "I don't even want your girl." As the loudest combatant Dick "looks" the most wrong. And it undermines his credibility in Barbara's eyes (and viewers). But Dick is not wrong about Barbara's inadequate training or emotional blind spots. How normal would it be for one of us to discard an existing relationship because we were "really meant" to marry Tom Welling or Kristen Kreuk, if only we could meet him/her. Also, if we set aside Barbara's hero worship and examine which man is actually good for her, that would be a tie between Dick Grayson and Sam Young. The Batman tends to bring out the schoolgirl in Barbara, whereas Dick and Sam insist on the adult in her. Finally, Batman lives out the Linda Hamilton quote, "In an insane world it was the sanest choice." Is that true of Barbara?
The BATMAN BEYOND series creates a future for this dreamy Barbara. The episode "A Touch of Curare" provides three potential hooks to advance and develop Barbara Beyond's character. But all three hooks show how Barbara, even as a police chief, paints her own picture of reality.
First, it's revealed that the last time she wore the Batgirl costume, someone repeatedly shot her. Bruce sewed up the bullet holes in her costume. However, Barbara herself never retrieved the costume and expressed surprise that it had been salvaged, suggesting a break so severe that she hadn't even visited the Batcave for 40 years. Barbara tells Terry she left because she was unhappy, not because she was too injured to continue. Whether she's sincere or sincerely wrong, Barbara believes Bruce/Batman wounded her more deeply than did the last villain who almost killed Batgirl. And she wants Terry to believe it too.
Secondly, Barbara does unto others what she does not want done unto her. Bruce and Barbara use Terry McGinnis as a weapon against each other, reviving the original family feud. Exactly as before, Bruce has an edge (possession being nine-tenths of the law), and adds to his lead by ostensibly taking the high road. That is, he refuses to badmouth his rival. Meanwhile, Barbara tries gossip (it's gossip because it's one-sided and of dubious authenticity), repetition, and threats. Isn't that the way Dick treated her in "Old Wounds"? Why is it wrong for Dick to do it but permissible for Barbara?
In each episode there are two quarrels, but one quarrel is shouted down in the confusion. Does Dick have the right to tell Barbara to quit? Does Barbara have the right to tell Terry to quit? These quarrels are (or ought to be) separate from the "I hate Bruce so you have to hate him too" battle. It would have added much to the characters if the newcomers had stood up to the combatants and said, "See a therapist. It's not my war." Then they could address the membership problem.
The third "ATOC" hook is the coversation in the cafe. It's crucial to note that Barbara never confirmed she was Bruce's girlfriend. Terry assumed. She merely didn't correct him. And indeed there's nothing inherently out of character for either Bruce or Barbara in such miscommunications. She's always had a crush on the man -- her "erotic rescue fantasy" in "Batgirl Returns" is charming, funny, and unrealistic as heck. (Two-Face alone used to lift weights, and has pounded the Batman into the floor on several occasions. If Barbara thinks she can fight Two-Face, she's dreaming.) It's a B:TAS variation on little Barbara doodling in her notebook in arithmetic class. ("Mr. and Mrs. Batman. Batman and Barbara Batman. Barbara and Batman Gordon.") The episode "Batgirl Returns" is sheer fantasy. It does no harm provided it stays in her private thoughts where it belongs. So it was plausible at that time that the Barbara of "ATOC" reminisces about a relationship that existed in her mind alone. It's what she has always done. Unfortunately the series made this the core of future Barbara's character. So much for her credibility.
The Bruce/Barbara affair was never presented as a good thing. It was never presented as a bad thing. It simply bellyflopped into an empty pool and lay there, drying in the sun.
7. Look at all sides of a situation.
I joined the WORLD'S FINEST message boards a few weeks before "ATOC" first aired. I remember being struck by the intelligence of the posters I found there. When this episode aired, fan reaction was polarized and intense. There were three camps. First of these was the camp of "Yuck." Next came the camp of "Huh?" These viewers pointed to Barbara's questionable word and urged fans to calm down and wait for better proof. The third camp was the camp of "Cool." For the most part these were new fans. Some were young, average age about thirteen. Other, older fans were newbies in the sense that BEYOND was their first exposure to anything Batman. According to camp three, why shouldn't Barbara date Bruce? Clearly she wanted him ; she got him ; she dumped him. They interpreted it as the path of an admirable and fearless woman. Whatever she set her mind to do, she did, and fans cheered her for it. But not all of them.
Funny how Barbara Gordon, a reality-challenged and rather flat tagalong character, became harder to quantify than the multidimensional male characters in her life. Funny too, how her character shows what happens when boys and girls are punished differently, or not at all, for committing the same offense.
Maybe fans find Barbara harder to evaluate because her continuities seem crossed. The B:TAS Batgirl has more in common with Comic Book Oracle (both are figures of righteous wrath who got into the vigilante business protecting her father Jim), whereas the TNBA/BB Batgirl flows more naturally from Comic Book Barbara. Certainly it's hard to go back to a situational-ethics character after we've gotten used to better. Simultaneously we've gotten used to a better Bruce, a more moral man. The kind of man who wouldn't go looking for mates among the children (male OR female) who grew up under his protection. For me it was never about any difference in age, but about roles, responsibilities, and the abuse of trust. (So will the Gentle Browsers who say I have a problem with ages please stand corrected.)
Many new fans never saw Batman's bond with Jim Gordon. Therefore they never saw Jim as a father figure or Barbara as a putative relative. They never saw Dick Grayson's Robin grow up in Batman's home. Therefore they never saw Dick as a son. (I won't get into how painful it is for an adopted kid to hear people say that adoption doesn't create a real family, that only blood is family.) They never saw Bruce's desperate attempt to keep his family from tearing apart in TNBA's "Old Wounds." (Batman did not reveal his identity to destroy his relationship with Dick, or Dick's relationship with Barbara, but to save them.) These fans never saw Dick and Barbara's relationship, how good these two were for each other back in the day. In other words, these fans never saw the relationships that made Batman the man he is today. (Same for the other characters.) Therefore they knew no reason why these relationships would be worthy of protecting.
8. The definition of insanity is "doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result."
But this is not anti-newbie. Never. If Batman is quality then he ought to attract new fans. It's just as unfair to expect newbies to know the whole canon as it is to accuse old-guard fans of refusing to allow characters to grow and change. "Change into what," now that is the question. The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense. We wouldn't put Talia Head in Harley Quinn's job or Harley in Talia's ; they're not suited to those positions. Shouldn't the heroines, like the other good guys, have that distinctiveness?
Klaus Janson wrote that one of the best ways to capture an audience's attention is to show them something they've never seen before. Well, the Bruce/Barbara affair certainly caught the public eye, not for being novel, but for being stale. "Batman dates sidekick" has been done for five decades and never worked. So why keep doing it? When the powers-that-be were trying to extrapolate the future Barbara's character, her purpose, and her place in the world, why was that the first and only thing they thought of? Isn't she good for anything else? Feels like the Batwoman, Bat-Girl and Comic Book Batgirl all "died" for nothing. Which brings us to the next point --
9. People who tell you how to raise your kids probably don't have any.
I know I'm not the only fan who'd hoped to see Dick and Sam compete for Barbara's hand : the outlaw versus the man who represents the law. This would have added A LOT to Barbara's character, and also would have given the animated series a chance to explore why she, or anyone, would become a vigilante instead of a lawman in the first place. Oh well.
So. What did people discuss on the WF boards back when yours truly was a newbie? They gushed about Inque. They wrote pages about Blight. They drooled over the Royal Flush Gang. (Not coincidentally, all three villains ended up telling Family-oriented stories -- sort of evil dynasties to play off Bruce's "good" one.) They speculated how long Terry McGinnis could keep his girlfriend without either telling her or losing her. They also asked how Barbara's Batgirl got shot. Some said it happened the night Dick and/or Tim died, and that that was why no character talked about the boys. (It hurt too much.) Some thought Batman had to choose between saving them or saving her. He chose his boys and she never forgave him for it. But my favorite was someone's theory that Batgirl was shot the night Jim Gordon died. Did Batman and Batgirl blame each other? Themselves? Did they compete for the role of First Mourner? Did it destabilize Batman, since Gordon was one of the few restraining influences in his life, a link to his sanity? And did Jim's death compel Barbara to set aside her own career and dreams to take his place? It was discussions like this that decided me to stay here. (Now if only we'd had EPISODES like this ...)
10. People treat you the way you treat them.
Actions have consequences ; fans have debates. That's as it should be. But when factions arise because "I'm right and you're wrong," there's a problem. The solution is twofold. One, we should all try to be more courteous. Two, we need not take the bait. Well-drawn characters usually don't have troll qualities. We could learn to recognize them, but better still to prevent them.
Batman's family exists partly to serve as an example for us. Sometimes it's a good example, and sometimes it's a very bad one. I hope the WF/TZ "family" can learn from their example and avoid such problems in real life. No putting words in your neighbor's mouth. No dissing the other person or dismissing his opinion as stupid. Unless they stole your car, don't say mean things about the actors, illustrators, and writers who work on our terrific DC properties. Finally, remember that family is a choice. So "be excellent to each other" ... because you've seen what happens to character who aren't.