Everyone is pretty whipped up about the release of The Dark Knight Rises over the weekend. Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise is darker, more serious, and, consequently more frightening. It also captures the psychological complexity of the titular character in a way that the more stylized vision of Tim Burton - not to mention the dreck produced by Joel Schumacher - never could.
Nolan's vision is inspired by the Golden Age Batman, who was a different breed altogether. Batman of the early 1940s, for example, shot people, tossed them off rooftops, and had few reservations about killing criminals. He menaced murderers, gangsters, and thugs, not overgrown graffiti artists. Early Gotham was a dark and scary place, the sort of place that might inspire people to, you know, dress up like a giant bat. So what happened? Why did the dark and menacing Batman of 1940s become the lame and tame Batman of the 1960s?
Much of it has to do with changing national mores and an evolving economic and social landscape. In this sense, Batman's story is a microcosm for what happened throughout the entire comic book industry during that period and, to a lesser extent, some of the changes that swept across the nation.
One of the most important episodes in Batman's metamorphosis centered around the startling accusation that Batman and Robin were gay and might seed impressionable youths with homosexual fantasies. Silver Age Batman was indelibly shaped by the gendered expectations of the era and his failure to adhere to those expectations incited criticism, predictably, that called into question his sexual identity.
I always preferred Batman to Superman, largely because Batman, the central implausibility of his character aside, was psychologically interesting in a way that the bland Superman never was. Of course, my introduction to Batman was Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, a crucial revision of the Batman myth which imagined Batman as a psychologically scarred character inhabiting an increasingly savage world.
In contrast, most baby-boomers may be more likely to associate Batman with the campy, absurdist version of the late-1950s and 1960s best captured in the long-running television series. In the pages of Detective in that era, Batman traveled through time, verbally sparred with "Batmite", and foiled countless plots to deface many of Gotham City's iconic landmarks. In other words, Silver Age Batman was a glorified boyscout, patrolling against vandalism - just like Superman without the awesome powers.
Outing the Caped Crusader
The accusation that Batman was a homo, as strange as it might sound to our own ears, was taken quite seriously by government and public alike. It wasn't leveled by a marginal nut or crank, but by a world-renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Frederic Wertham.
Wertham was the Chief Psychiatrist for the New York Department of Hospitals and an important figure among the New York City liberal intelligentsia. His writings were respected enough to help form part of the legal strategy for Brown v. Board. In 1954, Wertham published a scathing indictment of comic books, The Seduction of the Innocent, which argued that comic books were an invidious influence on American youth, responsible for warped gender attitudes and all manner of delinquency. Wertham's accusations garnered the attention of Senator Estes Kefauver and his Senate Sub-committee on Juvenile Delinquency, where Wertham repeated many of his central claims.
Batman and Robin, Wertham charged, inhabited "a wish dream of two homosexuals living together." They lived in "sumptuous quarters," unencumbered by wives and girlfriends, with only an aged butler for company. They cared for each other's injuries, frequently shared quarters, and lounged together in dressing gowns. Worse still, both exhibited damning psychological characteristics: proclivities for costumes, dressing up, and fantasy play; secretive behavior and double-lives; little interest in women; and, most damning of all, neurotic compulsions resulting in their violent vigilantism. Indeed, Wertham argued, depictions of Batman and Robin were frequently homoerotic, visually emphasizing Batman's rippling physique and Robins splayed, bare thighs.
"Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize the subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures," wrote Wertham. "The Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies."
Batman's creators and writers were aghast. Batman, they noted, had a series of dalliances with several Gothamite ladies, even if he'd never settled down. Nor, they argued, had there ever been any explicit homosexual affection between Batman and Robin, much less a portrayal of anything beneath their tights. And, in any case, what sense did it make to interrogate the sexual practices of a character who lived only in the frames of a comic book? Any "sex life" Batman might possess was purely the imagination of his critics and had nothing to do with Batman himself. Right? Right?! Imagination, as they say, is a powerful thing.
As literary critic Mark Best notes, "Wertham did correctly identify the possibility of a queer reading of the superhero, albeit as an example of what was wrong with the comics."
If Bruce Wayne was a paragon of upper-middle class white masculinity - wealthy, cultivated, and amiable - his secret identity represented the dark liberation found in the lurid city, cruising strange corners. Even if Batman's genitals were never portrayed coming into contact with Robin, Batman's crime-fighting lifestyle still embodied a fantasy of freedom from male familial responsibilities and, in a very real sense, from women altogether. Batman's world of the 1940s was almost exclusively male.
The few females who appeared in the pages of Detective were usually for show or comic relief (Bruce Wayne's earliest fiance, Julie Madison, was frequently duped by his double-identity and played for laughs). Like many closeted men, Bruce Wayne dated women to keep up appearances, so that no one would suspect that beneath his placid veneer lurked the sort of fellow who wrestled with criminals in dark alleys.
Batman vs the Nuclear Family
At a time when social norms dictated that men and women alike should form nuclear families and settle into comfortable domesticity, Batman's homosocial world presented no small challenge to the "normal" family. Of course, only a decade before the publication of The Seduction of the Innocents the idea of men living only with other men for the purposes of fighting other men was not only uncontroversial, but, in the midst of World War II, it was the norm. Under war conditions, soldiers lived and slept together. They depended upon one another for comfort and support, emotional and physical.
As John Ibson argues in Picturing Men, male-male physical affection in the wartime context was normal and captured frequently in photography of the era. As Allan Berube has documented, soldiers frequently also found sexual companionship with other soldiers, often with the knowledge of and without causing much consternation from their peers and superiors. In fact, the military did little to aggressively police male-male sexuality until the end of the war, when the military dishonorably discharged tens-of-thousands of service people on "morals" charges.
Indeed, the sort of intimacy between men enjoyed by millions of men in the early 1940s was increasingly suspect by the end of the decade. Society moved quickly to restabilize heterosexuality and stigmatize many of the types of same-sex intimacy - sexual and nonsexual alike - that had been common during the war. Margot Canaday notes in Building a Straight State that the architects of the 1944 GI Bill designed it intentionally to make ineligible for benefits those tens of thousands of service people discharged on morals charges.
The Lavender Scare
In addition, as tensions with the Soviet Union increased, psychologists, politicians, and demagogues linked communism to homosexuality, arguing that communists and homosexuals alike were secretive and opposed to the "democratic" heterosexual family unit. Even if homosexuals were not communist themselves, they could be blackmailed and strong armed into complicity with communist schemes. Thus, the "lavender scare" - as historian Robert Johnson has called it - preceded the "red scare."
In 1950, a subcommittee chaired by Maryland Senator Millard Tydings convened to investigate Joseph McCarthy's notorious list of "205 known communists." Tydings worked to discredit McCarthy's claim, but, in the process, the subcommittee at least partially validated concerns that the State Department was overrun with "sexual perverts." During the hearings, Nebraska Senator Kenneth Wherry memorably claimed that as many as 3,000 homosexuals were employed at State. By the end of 1950, 600 people had been dismissed from positions at the State Department on morals charges.
How deeply this context specifically informed the creative forces at DC is difficult to tell. Regardless, the charges levied by Wertham against Batman were bad for sales. Parents might steer their children away from the title toward more "wholesome" comics and some communities might attempt censor the comic book altogether. In an effort, to combat the perception that their product was morally suspect, DC made a number of changes.
Butching up Batman
To address the general concern that Batman comics were too violent and encouraged socially reckless behavior, writers for Batman increasingly penned stories with surreal, fantastical, or absurd story lines. Plots portrayed Batman traveling through time to ancient Babylon, venturing to alien planets, and being the victim of magic spells. Rather than depicting Gotham as a den of vice and crime, the writers portrayed the city as relatively safe and prosperous. Batman's foes became less violent, plotting capers that often centered exclusively on symbolic crimes or "unmasking" Batman. Batman himself became less anti-social - frequently cooperating with Gotham police and public safety committees - and DC began including public service advertisements in the comic.
Other changes were designed to specifically undercut the accusation that Batman and Robin were gay. Alfred's role in the comic was diminished (Alfred was even killed off for a while in the early 1960s, only to be, literally, resurrected for a while as a villain). To supplement Alfred, Aunts Agatha and Harriet were introduced to provide care, nurturing and a woman's touch in Wayne manor. At the same time, DC began to introduce a series of other female characters to provide romances for Batman and Robin - Bat-girl in 1956 and Batwoman in 1961.
As Best notes, Bat-girl and Batwoman's complementary crime-fighting acted as a replacement for regular heterosexual courtship: rather than dinner and a movie, a romantic Batman took his girl out on rooftops. In this sense, Batman's crime-fighting became a sight for potential heterosexual productivity, a time when Batman could WOO! and COURT! The cast of female characters provided Batman with something of a full family, or at least the groundwork for one. Even if the bat-family never achieved full "normalcy," it at least blunted the edges of a lifestyle that was irreconcilable with the gendered expectations of the decade.
It's something of a cliché today to point out that the rigid expectations of domesticity in 1950s were, to say the least, unrealistic and stifling for many people, straight and gay alike. Whether Batman experienced something of a Bat-Mystique is tough to discern, though he seems, at times, to have chaffed under the care of Aunts Harriet and Agatha. But Batman's hypothetical feelings on the matter were irrelevant to the suits at DC. The world had changed.
A Batman who continued to live in 1945 was an economic liability in 1955. He was a threat to the family and to the bottom-line. Batman's "gayness," then, was a flash point for a larger set of social anxieties. Just as elites worked aggressively to purge society and government of homosexuality, so too did DC purge Batman of any social deficiency which could be interpreted or construed as "gay."
Was it enough? To satisfy the most vocal critics, yes. But, ironically, the move to surrealism and fantasy also pushed Batman into the territory of high camp, in which Batman's ostensibly heterosexual romances were suspiciously unbelievable. Indeed, in the camp world of the Batman television series, Batman's exaggerated and largely asexual romances seemed almost like a parody of actual heterosexual romances - a tension best explored by Robert Smigel's Ace and Gary.
In this sense, Silver Age Batman's partisans miss the central reason why Batman is a compelling and fascinating figure in the first place. Batman's most important relationships have always been with criminals. What drives him to pursue them? How does he distinguish himself from his queries? How is vigilantism anything but criminal? Indeed, Batman's most provocative implications have centered around the distinction between law and justice - Batman's dedication to the latter, often at the expense of the former.
Attempts to contrive a heterosexual "history" for Batman have always rang false, precisely because what rang true about Batman had nothing to do with "normal" heterosexual romance. That hardly necessitates Batman occupy an all-male world and the next Nolan film would benefit from a compelling female villain. Nevertheless, this much is certain: a character locked in any banal romance, either with Dick Grayson or Rachel Dawes, hardly seems believable as someone willing to endure the deprivations and burdens required of the Batman.
(Tyrion Lannister is a former Bilerico-Indiana contributor. This post has been updated from the original piece he wrote for the site in 2008 after the release of The Dark Knight.)