Gaying up Gotham
I was always sure I loved Batman. In fact, I was so sure that I never took the time to actually get to know him. It was a celebrity crush that dissolved as quickly as when I read Bieber’s autobio: First Step 2 Forever: My Story. It’s not pretty, friends, this broken heart of mine.
I’ve spent the past few days slugging my way through the first half of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. I tend to read a novel and something graphic in tandem because I am hard to please. Unfortunately, the novel I’ve been reading is The Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s. . . clever, but once I set it down I really don’t miss it. So I guess what I’ve really been doing these past few days is nursing yet another in a series of death colds and geeking out on Modern Family.
The graphic novels I like best are a nice blend of drawings and literature. Artsy. I enjoy two-color comics. Black/white or the Bechdel blue/white. They feel modern, clean. They leave the outfits and hair colors open to interpretation. TDKR’s pinkish reds and sunshine yellows were a weak assault. Like the glaucoma test at the eye doctor. I realize there’s much to be said for being true to the origins of the Batman, but I struggled with how dated it all felt: the sunglasses, the belt choices. I found myself scanning the text and art, the words and sentiments as heavy-handed as fan fiction, not being struck by either. And those mutants read like a filler villain akin to the putty men in Power Rangers. You may commence your stone throwing.
But then, things got interesting. Late in the first book a concerned Gotham citizen is caught on panel saying, “Batman? Yeah, I think he’s a-okay. He’s kicking just the right butts—butts the cops ain’t kicking, that’s for sure. Hope he goes after the homos next” (pg. 45). This panel might have been written to induce a bit of eye-rolling, but what it really does is open a door for a kind of tension to step in. I make it a habit to withdraw support from anything I see as ’mophobic. This includes, but is not limited to, movies, books, bars, bakeries, and heels.
But what if Miller’s not hating? Out of the big three (Spider/Super/Bat), Batman is arguably the most homoerotic of them all. Hear me out here, friends. I understand that we see things not as they are, but as we are, and that beauty is in the queer eye of the beholder and all of that, but I can’t be the only one seeing this. I couldn’t believe it took me the entire first book to realize that I was the problem. I had been reading Batman as straight. Listen, random Gotham citizen, you best give up that wish, baby. The Batman will never go after his own team.
I had unrealistic expectations for the comic. Like a bride on her wedding day I was expecting to live a dream, to realize suddenly the truth I’d always known. Instead I was just alone at the altar in a terrible dress and impossible heels. And Batman was totally my maid of honor. And just like RuPaul, the Dark Knight won me over. I want to be the best contestant his crime-fighting drag race has ever seen.
Suddenly I couldn’t not see the Batman as a homohero. It’s everywhere: all of the Dark Knight panels in which Bruce has a mustache, the panel in which he and Harvey “tumble like lovers,” his elbow-high gloves. And tumble they do, their bodies entwined, embracing as they crash through a window It’s hard to deny the homoeroticism of men wrestling in tight costumes. I mean, you remember high school. For a supplemental example check out Kate Beaton’s revealing portrait of the hero in his off-hours. The Batman I love is also featured as the fabulous spandex-clad rich guy asking Robin for fashion advice in this revealing documentary.
I find I’m still attracted to the idea of classic, masculine, straight Batman, the franchise of power and skintight darkness. Would I buy the t-shirt? Doubtful. Would I marry Robin in a heartbeat? I’ve already bought the ring.
Is it really so outrageous that a tale about a totally ripped dude clothed entirely in a skin tight spandex/armor situation might not love the ladies? This isn’t a threat. My reading Batman as gay is just that. Our heroes can’t always be straight/white/macho/republican. In fact, I prefer mine to deviate. To some extent, I think we all prefer a dark streak in our heroes. The secrets, the hidden identity, the desire for vengeance, all of these things add the shadow of mystery. Take the hero beyond boy scout.
The Joker’s awakening from his catatonic state when the Dark Knight returns, like a villainous sleeping beauty, only hints at the depth of their connection. There’s no denying the blinding sparks when the Joker, biting his lip, addresses Batman as “darling” when first lays eyes on the Bat’s silhouette at the carnival. Or Batman’s suggestive panels on the page next: “Can you see it, Joker? Feels to me. . . like it’s written all over my face. I’ve lain awake nights. . . picturing it. . . From the beginning I knew that there’s nothing wrong with you that I can’t fix. . .” (pg.142). And what’s the nature of the Batman’s psychosis, you ask? “Why, sexual repression, of course.” The exact opposite of the Joker’s lack of restraint. That their battle royale takes place in the Tunnel of Love is no coincidence. Because they could never complete each other and stay who they are, because Batman will never step forth from the cave and strip off his restraint, each attempts to destroy his counterpart. The Joker is left heartbroken and deceased.
Frank Miller is quoted as saying Batman “would be healthier if he were gay.” Maybe he’d just be healthier if he were out. It’s not always shame or denial or fear that keeps a person from coming out. Often it’s ease and a belief that secrecy buys safety.
When I think about hidden identities I think about closets. I think about Clark ducking in to change and emerging in his unitard, freer and braver and ready for life. I think about Bruce entering the cave and Batman emerging.
The entire superhero genre hinges on the concealing of identity in pursuit of truth, freedom, power, really great boots. By day, Batman lives the life men are supposed to emulate. He has power, money, success. At night, he’s the ultimate badass, transferring all passion and aggression into fighting crime, driving fast, cracking skulls. Women throw themselves at him, but he never truly engages. He chooses instead to pursue his criminals, his villains. He becomes deeply involved with his nemeses, plays psychological games, creates obsessive, lasting relationships. Miller famously described the Batman-Joker dynamic as a “homophobic nightmare.” These interactions are what truly fulfill Batman. They complete him.
My advice: shed the mask, but definitely keep the boots.