Everyone knows that Ma and Pa Kent raised Ka-El after he lost his parents in the destruction of Krypton. But who raised Bruce Wayne after his parents were killed? It took decades for DC to decide on the canon. Beyond comics, the general public has seen multiple Batman movies, TV shows, cartoons, video games, but the subject almost never comes up. It’s not essential to his origin story. Or perhaps, the absence of a secondary parent is what’s essential.
There are apparently no relatives or godparents who loved the Waynes, or a chance at inheriting their money, enough to adopt little Bruce. Would he become a ward of the state? It seems weird to avoid that conversation, especially because it quickly becomes a thematic issue when Bruce adopts Dick Grayson. There’s Aunt Harriet from Adam West’s Batman TV show, but she seems clueless and with no authority. She’s just a visitor to the mansion. Alfred is the one who gains guardianship of Bruce. A butler dad. Now there’s a power fantasy for you: a parent who loves you, looks after you, but doesn’t discipline you. Master Bruce gets to stay up all night fighting crime and no one tells him otherwise.
So Bruce runs around dark alleyways, punching purse snatchers. If he had an adult guiding him, he might have spent his fortune on challenging the root causes of crime, lobbying to have laws changed, rooting out corruption, building a social safety net to keep people from becoming so desperate that they murder someone for quick cash. It would be stories of Bruce Wayne vs Lex Luthor, not Batman vs the Joker. While those stories could be fascinating for adults to read, it would be super boring to kids. So it’s a good thing no one was there to point out that his plan of building a bat-themed super computer, car, and costume was completely ridiculous. It’s also good no one was there to tell him what a bat looks like. You know, how they aren’t blue with spikes on their head. That would be way less fun and less visually interesting for kids. So, this absence of secondary parents is essential to a character who is the embodiment of a child’s view on justice.
Allowing Bruce to be alone in those years also helps make him dark and brooding. Compare him to Peter Parker. Peter lost his parents. Then he got another set, like Ma and Pa Kent. But then, Peter’s own irresponsible actions lead directly to the murder of his new father-figure, Uncle Ben. Brutal! Yet Spidey has a reputation for being one of the funniest super heroes of all time, and Batman one of the grimmest. Peter Parker still has his Aunt May, who helps ground him to a normal life. The web-head has something to be thankful for. Meanwhile, Bruce has to make his own family from other orphans and misfits. He hasn’t been given the same help to move past his dark past. It’s no coincidence that the most resonant opposite character for Batman is a guy who likes jokes and bright colors.
As an aside: It’s ironic that when Bob Kane was asked to make a character that was a kind of a copy of Superman, he actually created one that kind of copied Superman’s creator just as much. Jerry Siegel created a caped hero who bullets bounce off if, because his father was killed by unknown gunmen. Batman is Superman by way of Siegel’s real life.
When comparing Batman and Superman, a lot of people point out that Batman has no special powers, and that Superman has all the special powers. But there’s also a recognition that Batman is super smart, super rich, and super driven. All of these are important, but I believe they need one more angle to coalesce into something that can challenge the Man of Tomorrow.
I think Batman’s greatest super power is time. It’s that several-year period where we don’t know what happened to Bruce. Because the origin story jumps over Bruce’s teen years and early twenties, the author is always free to fill it with whatever they want. Is he fighting against ninjas? Well, then he spent a lot of that period training in martial arts in the East. Is he chained up in a tank of water? Well, then he spent that time learning how to escape death traps from a master magician. Does he need to figure out what chemicals Scarecrow used to produce that gas? Well, he spent years training in chemistry. You know, when he wasn’t learning how to dust for prints, sew his own costume, hack into high-security computers, or throw boomerangs like a boss.
Malcolm Gladwell’s has a famous assertion that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert on something. With Bruce, no one can count those hours, because his life in the period is nebulous. The only thing that says he couldn’t have spent a summer working on a farm in Iowa, is that it doesn’t seem true to the character. The audience will let the writer know if they miss the mark. Otherwise, back stories can be dropped in with a sentence or two, and most readers are on board with Batman having a new particular set of skills. Sure, he knows how to break out of a safe, why wouldn’t he? The wheels of exposition are greased so make the explanations go by lightning fast.
It’s essential for Batman to function as a jack-of-all-trades genius that he doesn’t have a second set of parents insisting he take some other courses. You know, something to fall back on if vigilantism doesn’t work out. He’s not pushed to be well-rounded, or to have a broader understanding of the world beyond the best ways to beat up and catch bad guys.
So who else has this super power, that allows the hero to pull out any skill that might be relevant to the situation? This super power is the quintessential one given to immortal characters. We see in with characters like Doctor Who, Vandal Savage, Wolverine, and the protagonists from Highlander: The Series, New Amsterdam, Forever, and Forever Knight. They all have wisdom and experience that outstrips their opponents even when they seem the underdog. Like how Doctor Who doesn’t have a weapon but can out-think his enemies, regardless. Think of the greatest/most famous immortal, Jesus Christ, who we see in the manger, and as a grown up, but a lot of the middle years are not discussed in the New Testament. In that space, he learned all the parables to tell as an adult, that would be a perfect fit for each of his listeners.
No wonder Ra’s Al Ghoul thinks Batman would be a worthy immortal successor. Bruce has already proved he has the essential trait of an immortal. This is why Batman is a match for Superman. It’s like the almost-immortal versus the practically-invincible. Close enough.
Sure, Superman is perfect, but so is Batman, because all of his mistakes (where he learned how to fight crime) all happened off camera. That makes him a troubling role model. He’s been given the powers of an immortal, but without saying he’s magical, or super natural. It’s the kind of logic that creates problems, like when people who want to start a new colony on Mars instead of fixing Earth. It’s like how people want to depose a dictator and install democracy over night. As if it could be that easy. The political concept of Year Zero reminds me of the seminal Batman story, Year One. Except instead of being a disaster with an unimaginable death toll, Batman Year One is him kicking ass. Batman gives life to the fantasy where you have human + X = perfection. Superman solves X with “being born on another planet” (ridiculous!) and Batman solves X with “10,000 hours multiplied by Y # of skills” (credulous!). Where Superman assures the child reader that the character is perfect in bold words, Batman assures us by hiding the truth in fun layers of mystery.
This time period before Bruce was Batman is a rich place for writers to explore. It doesn’t matter what else has been canon, they can add in another semester abroad. They get to empower their favourite super hero with new skills and allies. On the flip side, when writers explore Superman’s early years, like with Smallville, they are trying to de-power him. Having so many super powers is a responsibility that can be a burden to Superman, and even more so to his writers. Using kryptonite every month gets stale, but a monthly series pre-Superman can stay fresh. Flashbacks are important to level the playing fields between too human Batman and too-inhuman Superman.
Ma and Pa Kent are rays of sunshine that illuminate the world of Clark Kent, showing him the loving humanity that was all around him. They showed him how to use his powers. The absence of parents shroud Batman in an opaque sense of mystery. It hides how he gains his powers. His history has no rays of sunshine, just isolated pin pricks of light in a night sky that the reader can attempt to join the dots on. New stars are born, other fade out, as we try to chart what exactly happened to Bruce Wayne during that time. It’s not the lights that define Batman, but the darkness in his timeline that gives him the room to be who he needs to be to keep Gotham’s colourful crooks punched right in the alley.