Richard A. Warshak, in the Atlantic, associates the origin of the dark crimefighter with a boyhood beating experienced by his creator.
Years ago I became aware that a particular superhero, who has entertained millions of people, had special appeal to the traumatized children who visited my office. I had a hunch that a trauma had inspired the creation of this superhero. See if you think my hunch was correct.
His pals nicknamed him â€œDoodlerâ€ because he was constantly drawing pictures. His pals had nicknames, tooâ€”they were fellow members of a neighborhood club know as â€œThe Zorros,â€ an appellation that a young Robert Kahn had chosen, inspired by the cinematic crusader for justice played by Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. The Zorrosâ€™ clubhouse was built with wood stolen from the neighborhood lumber yardâ€”a place whose many nooks and crannies made it the location of choice for their games of hide-and-seek.
One night, when he was 15 years old, Kahnâ€”who went by â€œRobbieâ€ at the timeâ€”had a terrifying encounter. Walking home through rough neighborhoods of the Bronx after a music lesson, carrying a violin case, he was followed by â€œa group of seedy-looking roughnecks from the tough Hunts Point district,â€ as he wrote in his autobiography 57 years later:
They wore the sweatshirts of the Vultures, and they were known to be a treacherous gang. They were whistling at me and making snide remarks that only â€œgoilsâ€ played with violins. I stepped up my pace and so did they. Finally, I started running and they did likewise, until I reached my neighborhood. Unfortunately, my buddies were not hanging around the block at the time.
Kahnâ€™s memoir goes on to give a very lengthy, melodramatic blow-by-blow account of his dash to the familiar lumberyard, the Vulturesâ€™s pursuit (â€œwith terrifying menace in their eyesâ€), and his attempts at self-defense, complete with â€œZorroâ€ leaps, grappling hook, and mid-air kicks while swinging on a rope. He fought bravely, he writes, but for naught:
My worst fears came true. Two Vultures pinned both my arms behind my back and held me firm while another beat a staccato rhythm on my belly, knocking the wind out of me. Another bully stepped in and used my face for a punching bagâ€”while he cracked a couple of my front teeth.
I was in a fog, when I felt my right arm crack at the elbow after a gang member deliberately twisted it behind me in order to break it. The pain was excruciating and I screamed in agony.
Before I blacked out and fell to the ground like a limp rag doll, I heard him laugh sardonically, â€œJust to make sure dat da Fiddler ainâ€™t gonna play his fiddle no more!â€ Little did he know that it wasnâ€™t playing the violin again that concerned me, but the fact that he had broken my drawing arm.
Then he stepped on the hand of my broken arm! I donâ€™t remember how long I remained in a blanket of darkness before I regained consciousness, but when I came to, I was a beaten, bloody wreck. Somehow I managed to pull myself up and it was then that I noticed my violin on the ground, smashed to pieces. This was the coup de grace!
This whole episode, to this day, remains in my subconscious like a nightmare. I had played Zorro and lost! Had it really been a dream or a movie, I would have emerged victorious. But this real-life drama had almost cost the life of a reckless fifteen-year-old.
Here we have a boy who was attacked by a gang of Vultures in the night. He defended himself by playing Zorro, using a grappling hook to fend off his attackers. He was unsuccessful and was hospitalized, severely injured, with the possibility that he would be unable to pursue his chosen career. In spite of permanent injuriesâ€”scars, chipped teeth, and limited mobility in one armâ€”he went on to become a cartoonist.
Seven years after being brutalized, he created a comic-book superhero that would become a pop-culture legendâ€”and whose appeal may be deeply, subtly connected to what happened that night in the lumber yard.
The Hon. Mark Dwyer, Judge of the Court of Claims (Supreme Court of the State of New York, Yale Law 1975) clearly still collects and reads comic books, since he discovered and informed the Yale Law Library that on page 16 of Detective Comics No. 439 (March 1974), there is a framed “Diploma of Law” from Yale University in Gotham City on the wall of Bruce Wayne’s study.
Judge Dwyer’s discovery was featured recently in an exhibition in the Yale Law Library‘s Rare Book Gallery.
Novelist Andrew Klavan dispels the rumors long swirling about eccentric billionaire Bruce Wayne, and explains that Batman is really none other than George W. Bush.
There seems to me no question that the Batman film “The Dark Knight,” currently breaking every box office record in history ($311+ million in 10 days), is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.
And like W, Batman understands that there is no moral equivalence between a free society — in which people sometimes make the wrong choices — and a criminal sect bent on destruction. The former must be cherished even in its moments of folly; the latter must be hounded to the gates of Hell.
“The Dark Knight,” then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror. And like another such film, last year’s “300,” “The Dark Knight” is making a fortune depicting the values and necessities that the Bush administration cannot seem to articulate for beans.
Conversely, time after time, left-wing films about the war on terror — films like “In The Valley of Elah,” “Rendition” and “Redacted” — which preach moral equivalence and advocate surrender, that disrespect the military and their mission, that seem unable to distinguish the difference between America and Islamo-fascism, have bombed more spectacularly than Operation Shock and Awe.
Why is it then that left-wingers feel free to make their films direct and realistic, whereas Hollywood conservatives have to put on a mask in order to speak what they know to be the truth? Why is it, indeed, that the conservative values that power our defense — values like morality, faith, self-sacrifice and the nobility of fighting for the right — only appear in fantasy or comic-inspired films like “300,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Narnia,” “Spiderman 3” and now “The Dark Knight”?
The moment filmmakers take on the problem of Islamic terrorism in realistic films, suddenly those values vanish. The good guys become indistinguishable from the bad guys, and we end up denigrating the very heroes who defend us. Why should this be?
The answers to these questions seem to me to be embedded in the story of “The Dark Knight” itself: Doing what’s right is hard, and speaking the truth is dangerous. Many have been abhorred for it, some killed, one crucified.
Leftists frequently complain that right-wing morality is simplistic. Morality is relative, they say; nuanced, complex. They’re wrong, of course, even on their own terms.
Left and right, all Americans know that freedom is better than slavery, that love is better than hate, kindness better than cruelty, tolerance better than bigotry. We don’t always know how we know these things, and yet mysteriously we know them nonetheless.
The true complexity arises when we must defend these values in a world that does not universally embrace them — when we reach the place where we must be intolerant in order to defend tolerance, or unkind in order to defend kindness, or hateful in order to defend what we love.
When heroes arise who take those difficult duties on themselves, it is tempting for the rest of us to turn our backs on them, to vilify them in order to protect our own appearance of righteousness. We prosecute and execrate the violent soldier or the cruel interrogator in order to parade ourselves as paragons of the peaceful values they preserve. As Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon says of the hated and hunted Batman, “He has to run away — because we have to chase him.”
Alfred the Butler (Michael Caine) explains that it’s impossible to deal rationally with some villains like a Burmese war lord he encountered in his British army days, who simply threw away his loot, and returned to his hideout in a vast and impenetrable forest after a sanguinary raid.
“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. Some just want to watch the world burn.”
“What did you do?” asks Batman. “We burned down the entire forest.” Alfred replies.