Batman isn’t the best comic book character. He might be in the top ten, if you’re only counting superheroes — particularly ones without superpowers. He might make that list.
I feel so strongly about this that I’m writing an official dissent to our list of The 100 Best Comic Book Characters of All Time. I can’t let this injustice stand. Batman’s a solid enough guy — he’ll help out in a pinch — but putting him in that number one spot is a poor choice. Sadly it’s not just wrong: it’s far too predictable.
Batman is the most popular masked man around. That’s obvious. His movies, cartoons and toys are all more successful than most other comic tie-ins. Even his comics still sell somewhat respectably, which is no mean feat in a dying industry. People like their heroes to be dark and tortured. I don’t, but I can understand why people would find Batman exciting and dramatic in a way that Superman isn’t. Despite that popularity, though, making him our top character discounts the power and potential of the entire medium.
The Superman template didn’t really exist until it was introduced in a comic book. Spider-Man is a character that literally could not have been created in any other medium — he doesn’t just pull from key tenets from a variety of different comic genres; he was specifically created to embody the comic audience in a way that former heroes didn’t. Conversely, Batman is just a standard-issue masked vigilante pulled straight from any number of pulps and radio serials. He’s the Shadow and the Spider and the Green Hornet with pictures.
Batman doesn’t have super strength, and he can’t fly or shoot lasers from his eyes, but he’s less relatable than almost any other superhero. His only powers are endless inherited wealth and an unhealthy obsession with revenge. As comic book writer Matt Fraction said in an interview with Paste, “Batman is a rich white billionaire who beats up poor brown people and the mentally ill.” He’s the one percent of the one percent, crippling people who couldn’t even dream of his privilege on big city streets with his family’s name on them. It’s not easy to root for or care about a character like that.
I don’t hate Batman. I like a lot of Batman comics. Scott Snyder’s work on Batman is one of the New 52’s few highlights. I’m a big fan of Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson’s creepy Golden Age stories, and even the campy ‘60s comics collected in the DC Showcase books. Grant Morrison somehow combined all these different versions of Batman into a comic that, although inconsistent, was one of the better series of the last decade. As with any character, Batman can work well when written well.
But there’s one more thing that makes me uncomfortable with Batman, though, and it’s what his popularity says about America. His rise from one of the most popular superheroes to (outside of maybe Spider-Man) to the prohibitively most popular superhero, dovetails with a growing fervor for violence in American culture. I know violent crime has largely flattened across the board over the last few decades, but violence is more celebrated within our media and culture than it used to be. The grim rise of Batman coincides with an exaltation of the vigilante. All superheroes are vigilantes, of course, and Batman is almost singular in his absolute refusal to kill, but his vengeance-based origin and lack of abilities beyond physical violence fit too snugly alongside the “tough on crime,” “punish instead of rehabilitate,” Death Wish mentality that’s grown entrenched in America since the 1970s.
So yeah, Batman’s bad for America. Let’s read Ms. Marvel instead.